Quebec – clinging to Gallic traditions

HISTORIC: Get dropped off at Dufferin Tce by the funicular railway. It is the site of the fort and chateau which served as the official residence for the governors of New France.

It is like a grand evocative set, a landscape spanning 400 years, bestowed with World Heritage protection in 1985.

Old Quebec is the only North American walled city beyond Mexico, underpinning its proud sense of historical continuity.

A city that clings to her French-speaking heritage and Gallic traditions, the cradle of French North America, where the dream of New France was born and died.

The Old City comprises the Upper Town, surrounded by fortifications and strutting the craggy heights of Diamond Cape, while the Lower Town is nestled around its base, fanning out from Place Royale.

I started my exploratory at this compact and photogenic plaza which the locals consider as the birthplace of French America.

It is where the famed French explorer Samuel de Champlain made his home away from home in 1608, declaring it French territory. There’s still a bust of Louis XIV, the Sun King, in the centre of the plaza, installed in 1686, which was the town’s bustling marketplace in the 17th and 18th centuries.

Fifty years ago, the harbourside district was reborn and rehabilitated, with antique shops, bistros, and chic boutique hotels breathing renewed atmosphere into the plaza.

Dominating the square is Notre-Dame-des-Victoires, Québec’s oldest stone church, built in 1688 after an inferno razed many Lower Town homes. Built atop the ruins of Champlain’s first outpost, British cannons smashed the church during the 1759 siege, which was lustily restored four years later.

Its paintings, altar, and large model boat suspended from the ceiling, were brought by early settlers to ensure safe voyages. Unsurprisingly, the church is one of the most coveted locations for weddings in Canada. It’s fully booked for the next two years.

Rue du Petit-Champlain is arguably the prettiest street in the city, flanked by impeccably restored merchant houses and fur trading posts, now brimming with bistros, art galleries and handicraft boutiques.

Natural-fibre weaving, Inuit carvings, hand-painted silks, local fashion design, and enamelled copper crafts are among the trademark specialties for sale here. After founding the settlement in the Lower Town, Champlain relocated its heart to the more easily defendable Upper Town, atop Diamond Cape.

Originally the two districts were connected by the vividly-named Breakneck Staircase, a gut-busting stairway first built in 1635. Originally built in wood, the current steel staircase replaced it in 1968. It’s no problem tottering down, but a hell of a thigh-burner clambering back up. Save your energy and opt for the funicular when ascending.

I’m a funicular fanatic from way back and Quebec’s cliff-climbing contraption is a classic. It’s actually one of the region’s oldest businesses, hauling humanity since 1879.

The funicular coughs you out onto Dufferin Tce, which occupies the site of the fort and chateau which served as the official residence for the governors of New France, including the British rulers, until it was destroyed by fire in 1834.

The governor at the time, Lord Durham, decided to build a sprawling cliff-side wooden promenade on top of the chateau ruins, which has been progressively enlarged now extending for a kilometre along the cliffs of Cape Diamond. Lurking beneath the terrace, the archaeological crypt of the chateau’s remains and the seat of power for French and British governors.

A major excavation project has revitalised the ruins and the relics, which you can now walk through, underneath the terrace.

The terrace eventually leads you all the way down to the Plains of Abraham, where a 20min battle changed the course of history and a continent’s destiny. It was on this field that Britain’s General James Wolfe and the French General de Montcalm crossed swords and both died, climaxing in the British army conquering Quebec, spelling the death on New France.

It’s a peaceful city park now, full of winding walking paths and bicycle trails, and a favourite spot for cross-country skiers, come winter. Adjoining the park, the British reinforced the city’s defences and built a colossal star-shaped fortress, the Citadel.

It is the largest fortified base in North America still occupied by troops. The regiment turns out in scarlet tunics and bearskin caps for the changing of the guard, daily. In a city that has borne witness to such dramatic military history, the Fort Museum brings it all to life with a riveting sound and light show cast across a giant diorama, re-enacting the area’s important battles.

It’s all staged across a 37 sq m replica of the city – complete with ships, cannons, and hundreds of miniature soldiers lined up for battle. www.quebecregion.com

FAST FACTS:

•Wherever you choose to stay in Quebec, lock in your accommodation through Hotels.com, which was fast, efficient and packed with great deals. Hotels.com Rewards gives you one free night after 10 nights booked – which you can bank for future holidays. Rewards members and mobile app users also enjoy exclusive access to Secret Prices. I found the Hotels.com mobile app to be a simple, fast and secure way to book your perfect hotel, on the go.

•Travelling by train is a pleasure in Canada, particularly when shuttling between Ottawa, Montreal and Quebec City. VIA Rail Canada trains are efficient, comfy with complimentary on-board Wi-Fi and in-seat, on-demand entertainment. Pre-purchase a great value pass to suit. Phone Rail Plus, the experts in rail for your ticket to ride, 09 377 5415 or visit www.railplus.co.nz

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