Friday 11 July 2014

Quebec City Outside the Walls (Part 1)

In 2012 I visited Quebec City, Canada, for the first time. Looking for a story beyond its well-known historic heart, I ventured into the area to the west of the Old Town. 

The resulting article languished in limbo after the magazine I wrote it for suddenly stopped publishing freelance submissions. But now the story can be told...

“Café allongé, s’il vous plait.”

A-lon-zhay. I like it, I like the way it rolls around my tongue. It’s my favourite new French word.

A café allongé is what’s simply known as a long black in Australia – but as we all know, everything sounds better in French. Even here in Quebec, Canada’s French-speaking province.

I’m sitting inside Paillard (1097 Rue St Jean), a cross between a boulangerie and a café on Quebec City’s fashionable Rue St Jean.

It has a grand, lofty interior which looks as if it might have once belonged to a bank. It’s lined with cabinets of pastries and long communal tables occupied by people browsing newspapers and sipping coffee, conditioning themselves for the day ahead.

It’s a pleasant airy space, and I’m tempted to linger. But today I’ve set myself the task of exploring outside the walls.

In Quebec City, most tourist activity takes place “Inside the Walls”; that is, within the 18th century fortifications erected against invaders. The old district within this area is beautiful, a collection of historic buildings and narrow winding streets with a distinctly European feel.

Unfortunately, that also means tourist crowds, including meandering tour groups, are concentrated in this part of the city; and I’m interested in seeing what else Quebec City has to offer beyond its trademark Old Town icons such as the towering Chateau Frontenac hotel.

So I finish my coffee and wander up the street until I reach the St Jean Gate. It’s an imposing structure of neat grey stone blocks and a conical green spire, looking in surprisingly good condition for its apparent age.

Then I notice the “1897” carved into its surface. I later discover that 19th century British Governor-General Lord Dufferin intervened to stop the destruction of the walls, but allowed the gates to be rebuilt in order to facilitate traffic and provide a pedestrian walkway above the streets.

I stroll through the gate, and I’m now outside the walls in Place d’Youville. After the Disney-like visual perfection of Old Quebec, this irregularly-shaped plaza is a refreshing dose of the real world.

It’s lined by a jumble of buildings from different eras, including the grand Capitole (972 Rue St Jean), a theatre and hotel whose Italian restaurant dominates the sidewalk with pot plants and red umbrellas.

The Capitole abuts the grim facade of an 1870s YMCA building, with a soaring brown modernist office building nearby and the Palais Montcalm music venue opposite.

Montcalm was the French general who lost Quebec City to the British in 1759, and died at the scene of the battle.

I don’t know whether he’d be consoled by his name being used by a venue presenting “classique, jazz, musique contemporaine, chanson et rythmes du monde”, but I like to think he would.

A steep walk alongside the walls and a dog-leg through an undistinguished park with concrete paths, and I suddenly pop out in front of the splendid Fontaine de Tourny.

The fountain so beautifully complements the Quebec Parliament Building (1045 Rue des Parliamentaires) across the road beyond it, that it seems it’s been here for centuries.

In fact it’s only been in this location since 2008, when it was presented to Quebec City on the occasion of the city’s 400th anniversary. Before that, it lived in Bordeaux, France, one of a pair which won a prize at the 1855 World Fair in Paris.

It’s an extravagant cast iron fountain, a confection of scantily clad figures resting beneath a basin bedecked with cherubs and fish, and large metal frogs spouting water like there’s no tomorrow...

Next post: Surprising statues, a momentous battlefield, a chocolate museum, and an unexpected hobbit.

Disclosure time... On this trip I travelled courtesy of the Canadian Tourism Commission.

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