One of my great joy’s of travel is to reach a destination I pre-conceived to be wholly predictable, only to then have my misjudgements surprisingly shattered as a new tantalising travel reality opens up before me. Canada’s French speaking province of Quebec is one such reality. Travel-loving history buffs, culture vultures, political junkies, people watchers, outdoors types, Celine Dion fans and those of you who simply just adore fine food, great wine and a certain ‘joie de vivre’ among friendly, party-loving people are all in for a huge treat.
La belle province’ or ‘the beautiful province’ – which even those of you without so much as a smattering of French will surely have been able to translate – is quite simply an essential stop on any avid travellers North American itinerary; or indeed on its own as a week- long getaway destination. Quebec’s 7 million francophone population boasts up to 40% with Irish and British Ancestry, though Montreal is a true diverse metropolis with many lanuages and cultures evident on its wide boulevards.
Less than 6 hours drive north of New York City and east of Toronto is the equally cosmopolitan Montreal, the largest city of Quebec, host to the ‘76 Olympics and the first to almost go bankrupt as a result!
Montreal has massive Irish connections including the Shamrock on the city’s flag and the city’s first ice hockey team, the Montreal Shamrocks, who won the Stanley Cup in 1899 & 1900!
This bustling metropolis of over 3 million with a smart underground metro system, looks North American, it feels North American but it certainly doesn’t sound North American, because an electrifying, heavily accented form of French is the mother tongue of over 70% of its proud ‘habitants’. In fact it’s the perfect place to practice your Leaving-cert French and not be afraid of sounding daft, as the local accent is far from Parisian, though you can dispel any language barrier concerns immediately, remarkably almost everyone has a refreshing and inspiring grasp of both French and English, a lesson in bilingualism that surely many travellers could learn from?
Montreal is truly one the world’s great cities, although still pouting from recently losing its status on the Formula 1 Grand prix circuit, one can’t help but be seduced by the sheer charm of this rough diamond and its motley mix of architecture which can include everything standing side-by-side from avant-garde skyscrapers, to neo-classical French Basilicas, to rough and ready diners, neon-lit strip joints, pool halls and artsy coffee houses; the latter being the type of places I can visualise the young Leonard Cohen writing classics like Hallelujah’ here in his home-town!
Needless to say Leonard Cohen isn’t the only example of this city’s thriving arts scene, Montreal is also home to rising names such as Arcade Fire and the Wainwright siblings, Rufus and Martha; not to mention the world famous Cirque de Soleil and U2’s producer extraordinaire, Daniel Lanois.
Unlike most North-American cities, the mid-week social-scene in Montreal does not resemble City-Morgue and you’ll find a plethora of lively places to hang out with the locals, go clubbing or find great music. Like most places on earth the weekends rock! Check-out ultra-chic spots like former F1 driver Jacques Villeneuve’s ‘Newton’ bar and also enjoy a familiar pub scene with Quebecois Taverns like ‘Aux Deux Pierrot’ – particularly in the historic ‘Old Montreal Quarter’, which are as brimming with live folk/rock music and dancing throngs as any I’ve ever witnessed in Europe.
As one might expect, the cuisine in the restaurants is simply fantastic; and long, relaxed meals of many courses in good company with copious amounts of imported French red wine and the sweet local ice-wine, are the norm here; that being said this is still North America and the most popular local dish is ‘poutine’, a generous helping of greasy fries, lavished with thick gravy and topped off with a sprinkling of yummy cheese curds.
And for those of you with a sweet tooth, many Quebecers live for their sugar shacks and maple syrup, one of their biggest exports, which they tap from the Maple trees every spring just as the First Nation People taught their French-colonist ancestors five centuries before. This may well have been the last time everything was rosy between the two however, as with everywhere else on the continent, the native population in Quebec have been reduced to a shadow of its former self, however there are some very interesting Mohawk and other Iroquois First Nation reserves, cultural centres and archaeological sites within close proximity to Montreal that are well worth the visit for any discerning traveller.
Accommodation-wise there’s a massive selection of fine hostels and hotels to chose from in both of Quebec’s big cities, everything from the homely ‘Hostelling International’ to the sleek ‘Jazz in Montreal’. For those wishing to splurge a little, the ‘Queen Elizabeth’ downtown is worth checking out, you might be lucky enough to get Suite 1738, scene of John Lennon and Yoko’s ‘bed-in for peace’ in 1969 and where ‘Give peace a chance’ was performed for the first time.
Should you wish to break from the urban, Mt. Tremblant resort is 1.5 hours away by car. Tremblant is Eastern Canada’s mirror image of the more famous Whistler resort, way out west; and its fine winter ski slopes become excellent hiking and biking trails come summer.
Personally, the immediate striking feature of Quebec – aside from the refreshing and inspiring high-levels of bilingualism among regular everyday people – was that despite being quintessentially Canadian in some ways, my eyes were opened by just how unlike the rest of Canada it is, in fact literally so, for as recently as 1995, 49.4% of the population voted ‘Yes’ (or rather ‘Oui’) in a referendum, to break-away from Canada altogether and to form their own completely independent country!
This writer – a former political science student – recently enjoyed quite the buzz as I roamed on foot through the lively and hip St. Denis area of downtown Montreal; passing architecturally unique urban town-houses, most of which have their sun-drenched balconies identically adorned with the blue and white Fleur de Lys ‘National’ Flag of Quebec and the wistful banner proclaiming ‘Quebec, un nouveau payee pour le monde’ – Quebec, a new country for the world!
Nationalist politics is never far from the surface; however if truth be told, most street conversations I encountered were focused more on the most prevalent burning issue – Ice Hockey – and the performance, or lack thereof, of their adored Montreal Canadiens!
Another excellent day tour, though fully deserving of an overnight stay, is the historic and smaller capital – Quebec City. Drive North for 2 hours along the awesome St. Lawrence river and you’ll find that this little gem has it all, it’s summer festivals are bettered only by its world famous Winter Carnival which really is evocative of a fairytale.
Quebec City is super romantic, hyper-historic and celebrated its 400th birthday to much patriotic fanfare in 2008. It was here on the Plains of Abraham that the colony of ‘New France’ fell into British hands in 1759, the same year that Arthur Guinness opened his brewery.
Unusually for the perennial conquerors, the British, they allowed their new subjects to keep their language and religion (to prevent them from siding with the 13 other British colonies just down the road who were giving birth to the American Revolution) and thus French-Canadian continues to thrive, particularly in its heartland of Quebec City.
It’s a great base to plan whale-watching trips and its’ historic city fortifications are a UNESCO World Heritage Site and a joy to behold; though the much more recent Chateau Frontenac, a luxury hotel that has gloriously dominated the skyline for just over a century, is the hands down winner of the ‘most photographed by awe-struck tourists’ award .
Spend an afternoon blissfully meandering through the evocative cobble-stoned streets of ‘Old Quebec’ passing by mouth-watering boulangeries, patisseries, creperies and savour the scent of history. A short drive away are the colossal Montmorency Falls, a true ‘must-see’, standing at a whopping 90 metres taller than that other little Canadian pretender – Niagra!
Nearby is the famous Grosse Ille – Canada’s equivalent of Ellis Island, a pleasant ferry ride away in the middle of the St. Lawrence – containing a not-so pleasant mass grave from the Irish Famine with 5000 bodies interred – it is a protected Canadian National Park named ‘Les Memorial Irlandais’ and pays homage to one chapter in the story of this immigrant Nation.
The province of Quebec is a land of big beauty, deep culture and a proud history, it’s people are welcoming and experts when it comes to celebrating, partying and enjoying their unique interpretation of the good life – la belle vie! You should consider experiencing some of it for yourself. It is quite literally, like nowhere else in North America!
DID YOU KNOW?
The Quebecois celebrate their National day annually on June 25th – Le Fete de St. Jean Baptiste – There are colourful parades, street parties and humongous concerts by French-Canadian trad-rock bands. A day of unbridled and joyous cultural nationalism; If you like, a St. Patricks day without the rain and the binge drinking.
Photo credit: caribb on Flickr