Impulsive Traveler: Quebec, French and English and uniquely itself

Washington Post | Friday, September 10, 2010; 2:36 PM

Having recently moved back to the United States from France, I was sorely craving a hit of Old Europe when I received the notice from my son's French immersion school: It was seeking volunteers to accompany the fifth-grade class on an end-of-the-year field trip to Quebec City. A 14-hour bus trip with 40 unruly tweens probably isn't anyone's idea of a good time, but I bit. I'd long been curious about la Nouvelle France, finding it hard to imagine what had resulted when French explorers set down roots in the New World. In just a few whirlwind days, I found out.

Quebec really is its own unique culture, neither French nor Anglo Canadian, and certainly not American. No place I visited in the city so perfectly encapsulated the melange of cultures as the Cochon Dingue in the Lower Town portion of Old Quebec. Inside the atmospheric cafe (the name translates as "Crazy Pig") you could almost think you're in Paris. Coffee: strong and aromatic. Croissants: properly light and flaky. Newspaper-reading patrons: appropriate air of studied nonchalance. But one bite of the delicious, buttery toasted pain aux canneberges (cranberry bread), and you know you're not anywhere near the Eiffel Tower. Cranberries just aren't a French thing; they're a North American crop.

The Cochon Dingue is a perfect place to begin a wander through the 400-year-old walled city. Vieux Quebec is a UNESCO World Heritage site, full of cobblestone streets, narrow brick row houses, little shops and cafes. Many of the shops are chock-full of touristy moose-adorned T-shirts, but most of the cafes are inviting and very European in feel. When a guide explained that the houses with bricks arranged in a neat, orderly way are called "English style" and those designed in a more higgledy-piggledy manner are dubbed "French style," we got a quick - and humorous - first glimpse of the divided nature of the place.

French culture took firm hold early in Quebec's history, and during the first day of our trip, we made a stop at the Musee de l'Amerique Francaise (Museum of French America). The exhibition "Partir sur la Route des Francophones" ("Following the French Speakers' Route") was a great introduction to a narrative of exploration and settlement that in many ways mirrors the U.S. story, but with profound differences.

Samuel Champlain founded the city on the banks of the St. Lawrence River in 1608, and the town quickly became a bustling port populated by fur traders and other hardy pioneers. Families were large: An eye-popping 18 children was the average, according to the exhibit. Catholicism predominated in a way that was difficult for many of the kids in my group to understand, accustomed as they are to the multidenominational United States. They were struck by the number of churches in the city and the ubiquitous references to saints.

Ironically, one of the most impressive churches is the Anglican cathedral, Holy Trinity. Its shady courtyard is home to a creative group of artisans whose stalls offer beautifully handmade sweaters, jewelry, carved wooden boxes and more.

Our meanderings took us past a vast open field not far from the St. Lawrence. Called the Plains of Abraham, it was the scene of a decisive battle in 1759, during the French and Indian War (known as the Seven Years' War in Canada). The British defeated the French, and Quebec became an English colony. But George III, eager to avoid his experience with the already restive American colonies, made a fateful decision not to try to forcibly impose British culture on his new subjects. He gave the Quebecois the right to continue to speak French and to practice Catholicism. And thus began what the Quebecois call the "Age of Cohabitation" between the French and the British, which extended from 1760 to 1840.

Another museum, the Musee de la Civilisation, has a three-dimensional model of the pivotal Plains of Abraham battle, which held the three 11-year-old boys in my company completely captive for at least an hour. Over miniature figures arrayed for battle, the kids intently discussed the positions of the French and English forces, and why the Native Americans were there, and on whose side they must have been fighting. (Overall, the Musee de la Civilisation is a much livelier, more contemporary place than the Musee de l'Amerique Francaise, with a great basement science exhibition full of interactive activities. A fabulous music exhibition called "Riffs," on view through March 13, 2011, traces the influence of African music on North American pop. You're given free headphones as you enter, and there's lots of toe-tapping music to listen to and great video to watch.)

Quebec is a province, not just a city, so we devoted one of our days to a venture outside the city walls. The surrounding countryside is beautiful, and in autumn the foliage display rivals New England's (so much so that the Old City is inundated with cruise passengers on fall foliage forays).

In the residential Beauport area east of the city, the 275-foot-high Montmorency Falls are a bit vertigo-inducing - but absolutely worth a visit. You take a cable car to the top and hold your breath as you look down. If you're really brave-hearted, you can walk across the falls via a swaying suspension bridge. I tottered feebly out about a third of the way before beating a wimpy retreat. Much more my line would be a glass of wine or cup of tea on the inviting terrace of the elegant Manoir Montmorency restaurant at the top of the falls. (And if it hadn't been for my son and his classmates, that's exactly where you would have found me.)

A highlight of our trip was an only-in-Canada visit to what the Quebecois call a "sugar shack," where visitors learn how maple syrup is made and something about the life of the early settlers. Some of the sugar shacks (erablieres in French) serve a frontier-era meal, and our dinner at the Erabliere du Lac-Beauport, high up in thickly forested hills, gave us not only a glimpse of Quebec's maple syrup industry but also a scrumptious feast, complete with a sort of fluffy egg omelet served with maple syrup (scoff all you want, but it's actually quite good) and tourtiere, a very hearty meat pie. The dish that really lets you know you've menu-traveled to a distant time are les oreilles de Chris (literally, "the ears of Christ," which for some reason lost the "t" over the years). These crunchy bits are nothing but fried lard, something no sane 21st-century dietitian would ever recommend. But they're more than a little addictive.

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