Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

October 23, 2017
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Quebec City

Enjoy a taste of Europe without the jet lag -- or the exchange rate

I've just returned from a weekend in Europe; well, not quite Europe, although it certainly felt that way.

Quebec City, with its narrow twisty streets, gable-roofed buildings and cozy little bistros, has a sleepy old-world charm that evokes Salzburg rather than Pittsburgh. Best of all, the city's European-style ambiance comes without Europe's sky-high prices. A buttery croissant and steaming bowl of café au lait costs a third of what it would in Paris and an antique-filled room in one of the city's boutique hotels will set you back as much as a garret room (sans private bath!) would overseas.

And with no reprieve in sight for the beleaguered Canadian dollar, any urban getaway south of the border is likely to remain prohibitively expensive for the next few months. Better to stick a little closer to home.

There's no better way to explore Quebec City than on foot. Not only is a car impractical, it's unnecessary. The city's historic landmarks, restaurants and shops are all within easy reach and should you get tired of walking, you can always hail a horse-drawn calèche.

During my weekend in Quebec City, I travelled back in time (without having to travel through time zones) and discovered that the city's colourful past is very much part of its spirited present. Around every corner, I found myself tripping over history and running up against the legendary Quebecois joie de vivre.

I began my tour at the Plains of Abraham, which lies at the southwest corner of Old Quebec and forms part of Battlefields Park. This is the site of the famous battle between English and French forces and the home of a famous Quebec City landmark: the Citadelle. The massive star-shaped fort -- dubbed the "Gibraltar of the North" -- stands on the site of earlier fortifications, but has never been attacked. In fact, the only forces to have stormed its walls are the hordes of tourists who come to visit the Citadelle's military museum and watch the oh-so-British Changing of the Guard.

Not far from the entrance to Battlefields Park is a building where contemporary history continues to be played out: Quebec's National Assembly. Built in the 1860s and modelled after the Louvre in Paris, the seat of the provincial government has an imposing, even regal air, with its lofty central tower and opulent, baroque National Assembly Chamber. On the manicured lawns surrounding the Assembly stand several monumental statues, including one that was carved by Paul Chevré, a survivor of the Titanic.

BLOODY BATTLE
Despite its biblical connotations, the Plains of Abraham actually takes its name from Abraham Martin, a farmer who grazed his cattle on the land that sits atop the Cap Diamant escarpment. On September 13, 1759, under the cover of night, English troops commanded by General James Wolfe scrambled up the steep embankment and surprised the slumbering French, led by the Marquis de Montcalm. Within 20 minutes, the bloody battle was over, leaving the British forces victorious and Abraham Martin's field littered with hundreds of bodies, including those of Wolfe and Montcalm.

 

At the far end of Battlefields Park, not far from the Musée du Quebec, is a statue marking the spot where James Wolfe fell and steps away, a monument commemorating the well from which a soldier drew a cup of water for the dying general. Montcalm is also remembered -- both in stone and in the flesh. His statue stands alongside nearby Grande Allée, and his mortal remains reside in the Ursulines Monastery, which displays his skull in its adjoining museum.

Each September, a colourful re-enactment of the famous battle is staged on the Plains of Abraham, complete with horses, soldiers in period costume and booming cannon. For the rest of the year, the 100-hectare expanse of parkland is given over to more peaceful pursuits. Throughout the warm summer months, it's a favourite spot for cyclists, joggers, in-line skaters and picnickers. And when the snow falls, it becomes a mecca for cross-country skiers. Out-of-town visitors who want to get in on the action can rent equipment at several nearby shops.

At lunchtime, I headed over to Grande Allée -- Quebec City's Champs Elysées where I enjoyed a salade Nicoise and verre de vin in an outdoor bistro, surrounded by the lively chatter of the city's French-speaking residents and imagining myself in a sunny Parisian café. Lining the boulevard are elegant homes -- a reminder of Grande Allée's days as a hangout of the city's elite -- which have been converted into ritzy restaurants, casual bistros, upscale bars and racy nightclubs. The activity often spills out onto the sidewalks, which are transformed into lively terrasses, where tourists and residents congregate to see and be seen.

I strolled down Grande Allée and soon reached the St. Louis Gate, one of three main gateways in the rugged stone fortifications that still encircle Old Quebec. Inside the walls, I found myself in the middle of a 17th-century town, whose maze of narrow streets are filled with mementos of the city's history. Among the more intriguing discoveries I made during my explorations was the Musée des Augustines de l'Hôtel Dieu, site of the first hospital in Canada, with a fascinating collection of medical instruments used at the hospital as early as the 17th century.

I eventually found myself at the grande dame of Quebec City's hotels -- the Château Frontenac -- whose towers, turrets and distinctive copper roof evoke a château in the Loire Valley. Out in front of the hotel stretches Dufferin Terrace, a broad boardwalk perched on the edge of Cap Diamant. When Jacques Cartier first sighted this towering escarpment in 1535, he mistook the sparkling stones embedded in its rocks to be diamonds (they were in fact quartz) and named it Cap Diamant.

LOVELY LOWER TOWN
Nestled at the base of the cliff and easily accessible by a funicular ($1.25 one-way) is the oldest part of Quebec City -- the Basse Ville or Lower Town -- where Samuel De Champlain established a trading post in 1608. As I explored its lively little thoroughfares, filled with boutiques, galleries, cafés and quaint hotels, I tried to imagine how it once looked as a rough and tumble neighbourhood of dock workers and fur traders. There is still one reminder of the Old Town's wild past: the Escalier Casse-cou -- or Break-neck stairs -- which got their name after a number of residents, returning tipsy from a night of drinking in one of the Upper Town's brasseries, tumbled down the steep stairs as they made their way home.

After a day of exploring Quebec City's nooks and crannies, I went looking for history in a more pastoral setting. And I didn't have to go far to find it. Île d'Orleans, floating serenely in the St. Lawrence River downstream from Quebec City, is a mere 20 minutes from downtown, but it's truly a world apart.

With its slow pace and peaceful ambiance, Île d'Orleans is a place to linger and experience Quebec as it was in the days of New France. And thanks to a law protecting the island as a historic district -- there's hope that this bucolic oasis will remain in its lovely laid-back time warp.

As I bumped along the Chemin Royal (Route 368) encircling the 67-kilometre island, I felt as though I had travelled back in time. On either side stretched rolling farmland, planted with strawberries and grape vines (little wonder that Jacques Cartier named it le Bacchus) and tucked away here and there were old farmhouses built by the island's first settlers from Normandy and Brittany, whose descendants still till the soil and tend the gardens. Turning a corner, I found myself in one of the island's diminutive villages, whose steep-roofed, dormer-windowed homes cluster around the towering silver-spired parish church.

On my way back to Quebec City, I visited Montmorency Falls, which the guidebooks proudly claim are 84 metres tall -- 30 metres higher than Niagara Falls. A cable car whisked me up to the Manoir Montmorency, a graceful white manor house overlooking the falls. In the 1790s this was the residence of King George III's son, the Duke of Kent, who returned to England in 1816 to marry a German princess, who bore him a daughter -- the future Queen Victoria.

Relaxing on the Manoir's sun-dappled porch, I had a magnificent view of the falls and the surrounding countryside. I'm told that the scene is even more spectacular during the winter, when ice climbers inch their way up the frozen torrents and tobogganers gather at the crest of a huge cone of frozen spray (which locals call the pain au sucre, or sugarloaf).

Now that I've discovered that there's a little piece of Europe so temptingly close at hand, I'll be taking more weekend trips to Quebec City. Besides, I'm already dreaming about those flaky croissants on rue Saint-Louis.

 

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