Quebec offers tourists a Parisian experience without a trans-Atlantic expedition

November 22, 1992|By Leslie Cauley | Leslie Cauley,Contributing Writer

If you want to absorb the sights, sounds and gastronomic delights of Europe without leaving North America, Quebec City is the place for you. It's as close to Paris as you're going to get on this side of the Atlantic.

The city, steeped in four centuries of history and French tradition, is the oldest municipality in Canada's Quebec (pronounced "Ke-bec" by the locals) province. Quebec City is the only fortified city in North America, its stone walls perched strategically atop a cliff at a narrow point of the St. Lawrence River.

French explorers discovered the area and set up a fort there in 1608. New France, as it was called, was conquered by the British in 1759 after the renowned battle on the Plains of Abraham.

Quebec City wears its history well: Narrow cobblestone streets are lined with boutiques, art galleries and cafes. Regal stone churches, some centuries old, command center stage in town squares.

Don't be put off by the ride into Quebec from the airport. Except for occasional glimpses of the St. Lawrence River, Quebec City's outskirts look much like any suburb. The scenery can be off-putting, to say the least, if you're expecting to be immediately mesmerized by Quebec City.

But once you start climbing into the historic district, the scenery changes dramatically. Streets narrow, turning from pavement to cobblestone, and modern buildings give way to lovely stone creations built in the 17th and 18th centuries.

My traveling companion and I stayed at Le Chateau Frontenac, Quebec's crown jewel, located in the heart of Quebec's Vieille Ville (Old City). The century-old Frontenac looks as though it came right out of a fairy tale: The imposing green-turreted castle can be seen from nearly any vantage point in the city, making it one of the most recognizable landmarks in Quebec. It's no wonder that nearly any travel brochure touting Quebec City features at least one picture of the majestic Frontenac.

Try a river view

If you stay at the Frontenac, try to get a room with a river view (there are 544 rooms on 18 floors). You'll have the added bonus of waking up to a panoramic view of the St. Lawrence River.

The Frontenac isn't for those on a budget. The bargain-basement rate at the time we booked was $160 a night, which included a Continental breakfast. We were staying only a few days, so we opted to splurge. We were glad we did, but those staying longer may want to consider accommodations at one of the many quaint hotels located in the Old City.

As the name implies, Vieille Ville is Quebec's historic district -- four centuries old, in most cases. The Old City, which covers just one square mile, is divided into an "Upper Town" and "Lower Town." Each is accessible by stairs or by the funiculaire, a cable car that climbs and descends the steep cliffs between the two.

We tried the stairs -- once -- but opted for the funiculaire thereafter. The ride, which takes only a minute, costs a quarter (one way) and offers a commanding view of the St. Lawrence River and Lower Town. It also saves your calves, which will get an excruciating workout if you use the steep stairs.

The Frontenac, by the way, is located near the funiculaire entrance in Upper Town.

The Old City's narrow, winding streets are ideal for wandering by foot. It's easy to get lost -- and we did, several times -- exploring the quaint boutiques and cafes that line the streets.

Part of the fun of exploring Old Quebec is wondering what's around the next bend or stairwell. We were in constant amazement -- and amusement -- over the seemingly endless stream of finds.

A good way to start your trip is with a stroll along the Terrasse Dufferin, a wide boardwalk in Upper Town. At its western end the boardwalk turns into a daunting stairway called Promenade des Gouverneurs, which leads to Quebec's highest point, Cap Diamant (Cape Diamond). The view from the top is spectacular.

Upper Town is charming, but not quite as bohemian as the lower part of the city. Upper Town is dotted with parks, monuments, modern stores and lovely restaurants.

Feel of Paris

Parts of Lower Town, which we preferred, had a look and feel of Paris. Cobblestone streets are dotted with tony bistros, art galleries and century-old churches. Stone stairways lead modern-day explorers to myriad avenues laid out in no particular order, most of which intersect within blocks of each other.

A casual stroll down rue du Petit-Champlain in Lower Town, the city's oldest street, began with window-shopping in the numerous boutiques and dessert cafes that line the street. It wasn't long before we happened on Place Royale, a cobblestone square presided over by Eglise Notre-Dame-des-Victoires (Our Lady of Victory Church), Quebec's oldest church, a Gothic structure dating to 1688.

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