Winter in Quebec

Winter in Quebec photo

You're sitting with a friend in a small café sipping delicious French roasted coffee as you share a flaky croissant. The window is frosted and the wind outside blows in crisp gusts. Inside, you're cozy and warm and feeling oh so romantic.

Does this sound like a wintry day in Paris? It could be, but it's not. You're in Old Quebec, a charming collection of 17th century houses and shops nestled along the banks of the frozen St. Lawrence River.

Why go to Quebec in the winter? For one reason, because few other people do and the town is easily seen without the summer crowds. Also, you'll find it easier to converse with the Quebecois, as the local people call themselves. The pace of life slows down here in the wintertime and though there's almost always snow on the ground, the people are warm and most of the sites are open.

Samuel de Champlain founded Quebec as a fur-trading post in 1608. It remained French until 1759, when General James Wolfe's British forces vanquished the troops commanded by the Marquis de Montcalm on the Plains of Abraham — now a military museum and public park where just about everyone in the city goes cross-country skiing.

Under the terms of the treaty that ended the French and Indian War, all of New France, as Canada was then called, came under British rule. But the French culture wasn't so easily overcome and Quebec, especially the Old Town, retained the look and smell of a French provincial city, like Chartres or Bourges.

The Place Royale, called the cradle of French civilization in North America, is probably the best known tourist site in the city. It was here that Samuel de Champlain built his first "habitation" in new France — lodgings, a stockade and a store — in 1608. It soon became the marketplace of Quebec City, and prosperous merchants built their houses there. But the British bombardments and widespread fires during the siege of 1759 all but destroyed the lower town, and by 1832, most businesses had reestablished themselves in the upper city, leaving the area largely abandoned.

Today, the Place Royale is a national historic site, with intriguing shops, cafés, and restaurants lining the narrow streets and alleyways along the waterfront. In fact, you'll find the greatest concentration of 17th and 18th century buildings in North America in the Place Royale and surrounding area.

The Church of Notre Dame de Victoire, which stands on the site of Champlain's original settlement. Built in 1688, it burned in 1759 during British bombardments but was restored shortly thereafter. Its most unusual feature is its high altar, which is carved in the shape of a fort, with pierced windows and turrets. A replica of Champlain's ship hangs in its center.

But this isn't all there is to Old Quebec. A quick ride up a steep funicular railway takes you to the upper city and the Place d'Armes, once the parade grounds of the old garrison, when the French called it the Rond de Chaine because of the huge chain that encircled it. This area, located within the walls, houses many hotels in Quebec.

The best way to see Quebec, to truly get a feeling for its French ambiance, is on foot. Begin by strolling along Dufferin Terrace, the long boardwalk that originates at the Place d'Armes. Lord Durham built the terrace in 1838. Forty years later, the city government extended it to its present length and named it after Lord Dufferin, the British governor at that time. You'll find the walled city especially alluring as you walk briskly high above the river, the air filled with the fragrant smell of wood smoke and the clatter of horse's hooves on the cobblestone streets.

After lunch, walk along the walls past the gates of St. Louis, Kent, and Saint-Jean to the Citadel. Unfortunately, this fortress is closed in winter, but even a view of its exterior, its parapets dusted in snow, is worth the trip. The view from the 360-foot promontory of the upper city is magnificent even in the cold of winter.