Thursday was a very exciting day here for us year abroaders in Ottawa.
It was our first snowfall! On the 27th October, 4 solid days before Halloween, fluffy white flakes fell from an ominously grey sky and covered the autumn leaves still scattered everywhere you go.
(You heard that right. October 27th.)
Although I was a bit shocked (I’d been hedging my bets for the first snow being in mid-November – I realise now this was a bit naive) it was also super cool. Heading to Walmart hoover-shopping in the ‘freezing rain’ (decidedly not snow according to Natalie) and then walking out of the store half an hour later to a genuine blizzard was an awesome experience. Selfies were taken. I had a frolic in the park opposite our apartment and Natalie took photos. The excitement at the start of my first proper Canadian Winter was real. The snow was just enough to settle on the ground and trees and was still there on Friday morning, but quickly melted after that.
A brief first encounter with the proper white stuff, but it certainly won’t be the last. Still, it was more snow than I’ve seen in about 4 years (a fact that left the basketball team aghast), and Emily and I have amped up the urgency to go winter coat shopping.
Winter coats we definitely would have made use of in Québec City last weekend because oh my GOODNESS was it cold.
I’m currently coming to the end of my Reading Week (boooo) and though the latter half has been relatively mundane and mainly occupied with said-snow excitement, 3 hour basketball training sessions and movie nights in with Emily and Natalie (Clueless!! Sleepless in Seattle!! I love chick flicks), for the the first half Emily and I braved the 5 and a half hour train journey up north to Québec’s provincial capital.
Québec City was always on the Initial List of places I wanted to visit in and around Ottawa, alongside Toronto, Montreal and a provincial park. With those three ticked off, it was only Québec that remained, and acutely aware of the fact that #winterwascoming Emily and I decided to go sooner rather than later to hopefully avoid the worst of the chill.
And we did! Mostly. It still hovered at a ‘Feels Like’ temperature of around zero (we are fast learning this is the only temperature reading that matters) and did involve me having to donate my hat and gloves to Emily at one point on our slow-moving outside walking tour as the cold was pushing her to almost-tears, but we made it. We made it, and we’re just a little bit scared of how much colder it’s going to get.
But hey, here I am rambling on about the weather like the stereotype Brit I am when we spent 3 lovely days in a very lovely city.
Québec City, officially named just Québec, is one of the oldest European settlements in North America, dating back to the founding of New France by Samuel de Champlain in 1608. ‘Québec’ comes from the original Aboriginal word meaning ‘narrowing of the river’, and just as is the case for Montreal, the city’s history, prosperity and population is indebted to the St. Lawrence river. Just over half a million people live in the city today, and the main income for many of those people are provincial government jobs and tourism. A lot of tourism.
And on arrival you can understand why that’s the case. Emily and I were both a little underwhelmed by Montreal when it had so adamantly been sold to us as ‘Europe in North America’ because it just… well, wasn’t Europe. We’ve been spoilt for ‘European’ destinations in North America by having been able to travel around actual Europe. We’ve both been lucky enough to go interrailing; we’ve seen castles and cobbles and original medieval markets. All churches pale a little bit when you’ve been inside St. Peter’s I’m afraid. One cobbled street isn’t really going to cut it, apologies Montreal – you’re a lovely city in your own right but ‘European’ you are really not.
Québec is a different story. Despite the clear dominance of French, it felt oddly like home. Something between a cross between Winchester and York with a smattering of French inspired architecture and a Bavarian-esque hotel thrown in. Emily and I despite our numbed chins and blue fingers cooed and awwed over the old city streets; the industrial revolution-style views across the dockside factories; the frankly stunning Château Frontenac. The city feels very old, a weird combination of all the influences that have combined to create it; silver plated French style roofs on English-designed houses are lined with Canadian necessitated snow barriers, to prevent people walking on the streets below being killed by falling ice in the winter.
After a very comfortable train trip up (the train was amazing – I have never had so much legroom on public transport) and a quick dinner, Emily and I headed to our accommodation. Having decided the hostels left a little to be desired, we’d opted for a slightly pricier Air BnB with a Quebec native called Marie-Eve. Though her apartment was a slight walk out of the city centre, it was truly lovely, cosy and quirky and with a bed that you sank about a foot into on climbing in. It was my first experience of Air BnB and I after more offers of homemade smoothies than I have ever received in my life (the red cabbage one was a bit too healthy for me though, sorry Marie) and a decidedly home-from-home feel that was definitely nice to head back to after a busy day, it won’t be my last.
The first day Québec greeted us with freezing rain, so in our soggy shoes and umbrellas in hand we had a short wander into the old town along the beautiful Petit Champlain, and then we museumed for the rest of the day. The Museum of Civilization was a particular highlight (I find it odd I’ve still failed to get out to the one in Ottawa), with contemporary exhibitions on Public Protest since the fall of the Berlin Wall, and one on Indigenous communities in the 21st century. Evening swung round and after warming up in Marie’s apartment, Emily, who for some reason had been craving pizza for about 3 weeks, suggested a place for dinner a 10 minute walk away. Nina Pizza Napolitaine is only a little restaurant and I think the waiters were generally quite bemused by us, especially when after someone had the audacity to request an open window, Emily responded in the most British way possible by passively-agressively putting on her layers (scarf and all.) But the pizza was great and after realising that that day was actually our 2 months anniversary of being in Canada, I splurged and had a glass of wine that was pretty great too.
Monday the weather had cleared a little, and so it was out to Montmorency Falls – an impressive waterfall 30m higher than Niagara – on the 800 bus from the city centre. After an ill-advised (ahem, my bad Emily) attempt to make a path down to the base of the falls for a circular route, we settled for crossing the bridge and wandering up on the cliff top. It was still a bit drizzly, but the autumn leaves were in full swing still and the falls themselves were really quite gorgeous. I can’t imagine how it must have felt to pootle round the corner in your little boat or canoe in times of old to be greeted with the sight of them.
Afternoon we had crêpes for a bargain deal lunchtime menu deal at Le Casse-Crêpe Bretonon on our favourite street, Rue Saint-Jean, before heading along Chateau Frontenac’s promenade. With the green and white awnings and wide boardwalk it felt very much reminiscent of a Victorian seaside set up from home, and we took a ridiculous number of photos with some truly cringe-worthy poses. From there, we hiked up (or rather, tried to) to the Plains of Abraham, a must-see for history nerds and tourists alike. The Citadel was a tad confusing to navigate, not least because of our old friend construction, but also because it’s an active military base, and apparently that means little to no sineage. But still. We navigated up through the business district (the 360 Observatory of Quebec was closed 😦 ) and across to the Plains. Emily had already been through on her morning run, and warned me to not expect too much. I did anyway; but really the Plains are just a big field with a museum and some public loos. I was a little underwhelmed so rolled down a hill of leaves to make up for it.
By this point we were verging on painfully cold so took refuge in a little coffee shop called Baguette et Chocolat which had served us so well on the first day in the form of soup and avocado and brie sandwiches. Now we sat down to thaw our fingers around mugs of coffee and a truly DIVINE Nutella hot chocolate, trading thoughts on potential instagram possibilities and entering into a huge discussion on family and future careers, as is Emily and my wont whenever we get our hands on a hot beverage apparently.
Our final day rolled round and after a thwarted attempt at joining a free walking tour we went to Tourist Information and joined several couples in their 50s on a paid one. We’d gained our bearings at this point, but it was cool to go again through the city, past the Chateau and into the beautiful gold Notre-Dame Cathedrale with the added benefit of a guide. I always love the history and myths and snippets of entertaining local gossip that you gain on walking tours. A former docker and country-raised Quebecker, our guide was hilarious and made a whole lot of verging-on-inapproriate ‘hot nun’ jokes when we stopped in to a blissfully central heated nunnery chapel. It was interesting to learn about the routes of national French pride and separatism in the city, and behind the tourist glow of the old town that most of the ‘original’ buildings in Place Royal were actually built in the 1970s.
In conclusion, Québec is a confluence of a lot of things. It’s fuelled both by government practicality and a major tourism industry that can verge on selling a ‘heritage’ that isn’t quite what we see today. It’s a living example of merging of British influence in a city where most of the remaining original buildings were built by the English, and a fierce Francophone pride and nationalist sentiment. A place where promenade boardwalks that feel like they should be floated down in summer dresses are home to toboggan slides set up in preparation for winter.
Fully aware this does make me sound like a complete history dork, the mix of Québec is possibly best evidenced by the Wolfe-Montcalm Monument, which is the oldest monument in Quebec City dating from 1828. The monument is unusual as it it is dedicated to both the British victors, General James Wolfe, and the defeated French, General Louis Montcalm, of the battle of the Plains of Abraham. The inscription on the obelisk reads, “their courage gave them a common death, history a common fame, posterity a common memorial.”
I guess as a Brit coming from a national character of ‘hating the French’, Quéec city feels like a challenge to that. Though based in conflict, it’s a city now where the two identities, British-heritage Canadian and French, have to and continue to co-exist.
Either way, Emily and I were definitely charmed. Québec City is small but by no means dull, and although I’m glad we got to properly explore it in the dying days of autumn, we’ve agreed we’d like to return in the winter to see it it’s festive best. Though perhaps with a better coat this time.