C’est si bon

Dom Joly heartily rec­om­mends a hol­i­day in Que­bec City Ho­tels are not a prob­lem as the city is full of lovely lit­tle bou­tique es­tab­lish­ments

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Travel -

IWENT to a French lycee in Beirut when I was a kid and I am bilin­gual. At least I thought I was un­til my new year’s trip to Que­bec City, the cap­i­tal of French Que­bec in Canada. Que­be­cois French is an ex­tra­or­di­nary sound, some­thing akin to a cat be­ing dragged down a wall of coarse sand­pa­per. The Que­be­cois would, of course, dis­agree, but then they tend to dis­agree with most things and it is this that has made them and their cap­i­tal city into such a unique des­ti­na­tion.

My Cana­dian fa­ther-in-law, who hails from English­s­peak­ing Toronto, re­mem­bers a time, back in the 1970s, when the Que­bec in­de­pen­dence move­ment was at its height, when he would find it al­most im­pos­si­ble to be served in any of the city’s restau­rants. He would be to­tally ig­nored while French-speak­ing clien­tele would be treated like roy­alty in front of him. Things are far friend­lier now, al­though the lo­cals do still claim that the lan­guage they speak is far more true to real French than the poncy di­alect of Parisian boule­vards.

At times it is a lit­tle like try­ing to de­ci­pher a farmer from deep­est Devon speak­ing in Chauce­rian English, but I loved the chal­lenge and soon got the hang of it. This al­lowed me to plunge right into the heart of what I think is the most beau­ti­ful and over­looked of all North Amer­i­can cities.

I was there for the new year cel­e­bra­tions when the city was en­joy­ing its 400th birth­day. This is no mean feat for any town on this con­ti­nent, es­pe­cially one that has been the site of so many bat­tles be­tween the French and the English and the Amer­i­cans. My his­tory was a lit­tle shaky so I took great plea­sure in ask­ing the young French-Cana­dian who was driv­ing the horse and car­riage that I took to get my bear­ings.

He re­lated the story of the English gen­eral James Wolfe out­fox­ing the French and tak­ing the city for the English by means of a stealthy at­tack up some steep cliffs back in 1759. He was about to con­tinue with more French-pos­i­tive sto­ries but I told him that, as I was foot­ing the bill, I only wanted to hear about English vic­to­ries. He grinned, de­spite him­self: they might be French but they have a very good sense of hu­mour.

The old city sits on a hill over­look­ing the St Lawrence River. It was frozen solid when I was there and made an eerie crack­ing sound all through the night as the huge blocks of com­pacted ice gnashed their freez­ing teeth to­gether. I could hear this from the main cen­tre­piece of the city, the ma­jes­tic Chateau Fron­tenac, an al­most Dis­neyesque French-style chateau, all pointy tur­rets and sharp spires, that looms over its sur­round­ings. It’s a ho­tel but it has seen bet­ter days: the main pub­lic rooms are gor­geous but the bed­rooms are slightly tired and dis­ap­point­ing.

Ho­tels, how­ever, are not a prob­lem as the city is packed full of lovely lit­tle bou­tique es­tab­lish­ments. The whole city was draped in crisp white snow and looked about as Christ­mas-per­fect as any­where I’ve been.

I used to think that Zer­matt (in Switzer­land) was my favourite win­ter des­ti­na­tion, but I think QC has now pipped it to the post. It’s the mix­ture of gor­geous old cob­bled streets and windy al­leys, so dif­fer­ent from the rigid grid sys­tems of most North Amer­i­can cities, along­side won­der­fully taste­ful Christ­mas dec­o­ra­tions and the fab­u­lous smells of food em­a­nat­ing from nearly ev­ery build­ing, that seals it for me.

Food is an­other weird is­sue in Que­bec City. Que­bec is most fa­mous, and laughed at by the rest of Canada, for in­tro­duc­ing pou­tine to the na­tional menu. This is a coro­nary night­mare of chips cov­ered in gravy and a curious white cheese curd. It serves the same pur­pose as the ke­bab in Bri­tain: to fill you with carbs and help you re­cover from a heavy night’s drink­ing.

Pou­tine, how­ever, does a huge dis­ser­vice to Que­bec cui­sine, which is quite sim­ply stag­ger­ing. My favourite restau­rant is called Toast and spe­cialises in foie gras from the Isle d’Or­leans that sits in the mid­dle of the frozen river op­po­site the cap­i­tal. It’s in the lower town and you reach it by fu­nic­u­lar from the Fron­tenac. I first went there three years ago and fell in love with the place. It has very sub­tle, earthy food but lacks the pre­ten­sion that an es­tab­lish­ment like this would suf­fer from in Paris.

On the first page of the menu is a pic­ture of the two chefs along with the head­ing: Les bla-blas des chefs. There then fol­lows a para­graph for each of them that sim­ply reads bla-bla-bla-bla etc. It’s very Que­be­cois and ap­peal­ingly wry. On my last visit I or­dered an un­be­liev­ably well-priced bot­tle of Vol­nay to ac­com­pany me: it was stun­ning and I could have stayed all night.

My tummy sated, I wan­dered the an­cient streets, pop­ping into an un­be­liev­able melange of bou­tiques and shops. Que­bec City, in keep­ing with its in­de­pen­dent spirit, doesn’t make things easy for big chain stores, so there is a pre­pon­der­ance of one-off, quirky stores that are great fun to dip into and out of.

If you get bored of the city (but you won’t), then there

Cob­bled streets: Que­bec City of­fers an al­ter­na­tive to the rigid grid sys­tem of most North Amer­i­can cities

Make an en­trance: Gates to the Old City are plenty of things to do nearby. There’s one of only two ice ho­tels in the world, ex­ten­sive ski­ing fa­cil­i­ties and a fab­u­lous fam­ily des­ti­na­tion called Vil­lages Va­cances Val­cartier, for which some­one’s taken a fairly av­er­age ski sta­tion and con­verted it into a fan­tas­tic sledg­ing world where ev­ery­one goes down ev­ery­thing on huge in­flat­able in­ner tubes.

I can’t rec­om­mend Que­bec City highly enough: it’s a per­fect win­ter des­ti­na­tion (the best time to go is early Fe­bru­ary, when they have the Car­naval, one of the world’s great win­ter fes­ti­vals). If you are go­ing to go, just chuck your French phrase­book away. Up there, ev­ery­thing you know is wrong. The Spec­ta­tor

Check­list

Que­bec is cel­e­brat­ing its 400th an­niver­sary this year, with civic re­fur­bish­ments, ac­com­mo­da­tion deals and spe­cial events. More: www.que­be­cre­gion.com.

Cafe cul­ture: The lo­cals claim their lan­guage is closer to real French than the di­alect of Parisian boule­vards

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