Last week I went to Québec for a brief holiday; to be more precise, Montréal and la Ville de Québec. Other than a few difficulties in Minneapolis and at Minneapolis-St Paul International Airport the flight to Canada went well. Not wishing to fly with a domestic carrier, US carriers make flying British Airways seem like a journey on a luxury spa, I spent a few extra quid to fly Air Canada. It was not an unpleasant experience. The first flight, from Minneapolis to Toronto, was 2/3 full. The air hostess was a comely young Québécoise with an odd accent. A native speaker of French to be sure, but her trilling of “r” was a bit unusual. Service was polite and efficient. Nothing spectacular, but drinks were provided.
While one would be forgiven for not thinking me overly fond of the United States there experience at passport control in Canada was remarkably different from that south of the Canadian border. The queue moved quickly. Within 5 minutes I was called for passport check. The questions were very reasonably – for how long would my stay in Canada be, where would I go, and what the purpose of my visit was. Five days, Québec, and to go sight-seeing and perhaps visit an old colleague if it could be arranged were my answers. Looking at my passport he asked what my legal status in the US was. After clarifying my dual nationality he shrugged, stamped my passport, and welcomed me to the country. Compared to the invasive questions and abuse hurled at visitors in the US it was almost shockingly pleasant. Security screening, the change in terminals from US arrivals to connecting flights within Canada taking me outside a secured zone, was also quick, pleasant, and uneventful. No shoes had to be taken off, no unnecessary aggression on the part of staff.
Arriving in Montréal was similarly uneventful. A bus to the city centre left every 5 minutes and cost C$9.00 which included unlimited transfers for the rest of the day. Not unreasonable, really. The hotel was easily found – two blocks north of the bus station. The hotel itself was clean and recently renovated, but in an unfortunate neighbourhood. And above a sex shop. Not having looked much past ease of access to/from the airport and general customer satisfaction (as well as the assurance that I would not have to be subjected to any barbarous deeds including sharing relief and bathing facilities with any other person who happened to have the fortune to be in my vicinity that day) it came as a bit of a surprise to find myself in the red light district with vagrants and petty drug dealers roaming about. It all left me somewhat unwilling to explore the immediate area around the hotel, although Vieux Montréal was under 2 kilometres away and after two blocks the neighbourhood improved remarkably.
The old town of Montréal is beautiful. Much of it reconstructed in the late 18th, early 19th centuries the buildings were quite beautiful in an understated way and the cobble-stone streets reminded me a bit of Trier. After a bit of walking and finding a bank where I could withdraw cash I explored one of the nicer streets in the district, Rue Saint-Paul. After 15 minutes I found an Alsatian restaurant that was still open and not too busy. The food was for Canada moderately priced as well. The service and food were excellent. For dinner I had a well-prepared plate of schnitzel with a caramelised onion and apple sauce, fried young potatoes, and a croquette of zucchini over a bed of savoury red cabbage. The portion wasn’t large but it was adequate. The bread was decent and the Riesling passable. The dessert, a spiced apple baked in orange juice, was also delicious.
The next morning I set out again to see some of the sites that had already closed the evening before. After a breakfast of yoghurt and granola with a large cappuccino at a pleasant café on Boulevard Saint-Laurent owned by a Greek immigrant and his wife who both had sharp senses of humour. It was refreshing and willing without being too heavy. The cappuccino was also properly prepared – something one rarely finds in North America. After looking through a few stores and walking around Place Jacques-Cartier I visited the Château Ramezay, the former house of the French colonial governor of Montréal. After having been abandoned for a century the historical value of the building was finally fully realised it was fairly recently renovated and re-opened to the public. Some of the exhibits, including the fully rebuilt original early 18th century salon which had been imported from Nantes by the governor, were incredibly interesting.
After rushing back to the hotel, I returned my key and took a taxi to la Gare Centrale for a train to la Ville de Québec – a trip of just over three hours. Train travel by Canada is remarkably pleasant. The trains are older, but they’re well-maintained and reasonably clean. Every 90 minutes or so there was a coffee service. The views of rural Québec were also beautiful in a bleak, late winter/early spring sort of way. There were few leaves and a lot of snow.
La Ville de Québec is in many ways a more interesting than Montréal. That’s not to slight Montréal, but major cities have in many ways grown more homogenised and frankly less interesting because of it. My hotel in Québec-ville was surprisingly good for the price. Two blocks in front of the hotel was the Saint-Laurent River, one block in front and one block to the side was the Château de Frontenac. Four blocks to the other side was the beginning of the Plains of Abraham, the site of the battle that marked one of France’s most glorious military achievements. The district was in the old quarter with its architecture dating from the 17th to 19th centuries, most of it from the 18th century. It was a bit touristy in some respects but not too horrid. A lot of hotels, shops, and restaurants but done in a way that was not too tacky. Further to the north, away from the old quarter, things became more interesting in their own way. For as much as I appreciate the old district and its architectural gems the newer parts of the city were in some ways livelier. The restaurants were cheaper and better (my first dinner in Québec-ville was an uninspiring pseudo-Norman veal dish that was priced far above its merit). I found a pleasant Breton restaurant in a late 18th-early 19th century building that had most of its original decoration. The service was good; the food was good, and the price moderate. La Musée de l’Amerique Française was in its own way inspirational. The French chapel attached to the 17th century French colonial structure next to it was remarkably beautiful. The chapel itself was a 19th century romanticised version of French Gothic.
On my last night in Québec-ville I went to a Québécois restaurant that has been open since 1675 and has been in the same building since 1677. The food was simple but honest and the servers were pleasant. It was busy, but they found seating for me at the bar. A Québécois bison pie with blueberry wine cream sauce, escargot, a glass of local red wine, fresh vegetables, and a cranberry vodka aperitif. Dessert was a maple syrup pie.
My last day in Québec was spent in Montréal again. My last dinner was at the same Alsatian restaurant, save that I had the duck compote. Perhaps the greatest difference was that no one asked me if I wanted to buy drugs. (The answer was no, I don’t want to buy drugs)
It was all surprisingly pleasant there. Despite the many horror stories I found the Québécois to actually be very pleasant and helpful. They were reserved but not unfriendly. Other than the inevitable ruffians the most unpleasant people there were Anglophone Canadian tourists who seemed to almost bark orders at their Francophone counterparts, often with an undisguised contempt. There were very few who even attempted to speak French, the most notable exception being a very pleasant man of a certain age with his wife who spoke with a strong accent but were still understandable. I cannot say that Canada was my favourite country. It’s a nice country, much nicer – albeit somewhat less interesting – than the United States, but it’s missing something that Europe has.