Chilled in Que­bec

Que­bec City and its sur­round­ing ex­panses is a win­ter won­der­land full of wild ad­ven­ture and a more com­fort­ing way of life, writes Jamie Ball

The Irish Times Magazine - - TRAVEL -

It took the Car­naval de Que­bec for the penny to drop: con­fus­ing the fes­tiv­i­ties of win­ter for Christ­mas is as daft as mis­tak­ing au­tumn for Hal­loween. While Ir­ish win­ters may not be “graced” with tem­per­a­tures in the - 20sand me­tres of snow – de­spite our best ef­forts ear­lier this year – a few win­ter days in Que­bec shows up just how much more we could en­gage, en­joy and cel­e­brate the sea­son on this sup­posed “is­land of eter­nal win­ter”, as the Ro­mans dubbed us.

Couldn’t we make the multi- month stint a lit­tle kindlier, rather than our Jekyll and Hyde/ crash- and- burn combo of Christ­mas cheer land­ing face down in the mud of Jan­uary blues? Would it kill us to leave lit can­dles in our front win­dows, our fairy lights over the front door, a lit­tle longer?

The largest win­ter car­ni­val in the world, the Car­naval de Québec trails across 17 days and 200- plus ac­tiv­i­ties each year in Old Que­bec’s 17th- cen­tury charis­matic core. While it was on- again, off- again from the 1890s, the Car­naval only re­ally got it on in the 1950s, and has since spawned a vast panoply of French- Cana­dian fun.

Yes, it may be pol­ished and com­mer­cial, but it’s the sideshow of kinks and com­mo­tion that leaves the deep­est im­print. The back­drop is that of foot- tap­ping Québé­cois in­stru­men­tals over the speak­ers, the paci­fy­ing wood smoke of fire bar­rels coun­tered by the sweet kick of Cari­bou shots ( a mix of whisky, maple syrup and red wine – orig­i­nally Cari­bou blood). It’s a fes­ti­val en­joyed fore­most not by selfie- snap­ping trail­blaz­ers but by real Québé­cois, wrapped up to blazes and donned in their tra­di­tional red tuque ( knit­ted, tight stock­ing cap) and long, colour­ful wrap- around ar­row sash.

There is the ice ca­noe race across the brisk flow­ing, kilo­me­tre- wide Saint Lawrence river. Each team of four has to go over and back twice, bat­tling the cur­rent while pulling their boats out over each ice float – those they can’t kick away from their course – and back into the Lawrence, while get­ting soaked in - 18 de­grees. Sim­ple, when you take away san­ity. A snow­drift cur­tains across the river and the ca­noes dis­ap­pear in the spin­drift dis­tance; the per­fect cue for us to dis­ap­pear for an­other shot of Cari­bou.

Up­town there’s the Ice Palace, the im­mer­sive Odyss Land of Ice, the night pa­rades and to­bog­gan­ing and log- chop­ping. And ev­ery­where Bon­homme, the of­fi­cial smil­ing snow­man mas­cot of the car­ni­val, wav­ing worse than Queen Eliz­a­beth, like some Miche­lin Man snow­balling in mer­ri­ment, who hasn’t yet heard those ru­mours of global warm­ing.

A three- night, two- day week­end ( when the Car­naval peaks) is prob­a­bly enough, but en­sure you give at least a fur­ther full day ex­plor­ing the city.

Québec City – the name de­rives from the Al­go­nquin word “kébec” – is where the Saint Lawrence nar­rows to a cliff- lined, eas­ily de­fended open­ing on this nav­i­ga­ble river. The most his­toric part of Que­bec City, cen­tred on the Place Royale, is a Un­esco World Her­itage site, as well as the only re­main­ing par­tially walled city north of Mex­ico. The cra­dle of French civil­i­sa­tion in North Amer­ica, the 400- plus- year- old Place Royale is rich with lo­cally stocked craft shops, gal­leries, restau­rants and cafes lit­tered across the small en­clave of tight, multi- storey streets and squares. The neigh­bour­hood is gor­geous, but can also be pricey and twee. Check out the Musée du Fort, as well as the Mont­morency Falls just out­side town, be­fore spend­ing a cosy cou­ple of hours in the must- see Musée de la Civil­i­sa­tion, home to Que­bec’s largest ethno­graphic col­lec­tion.

Brows­ing through the col­lec­tions, the apho­rism came to mind of how the great­est weapon the English gave the Ir­ish was the English lan­guage. If so, I couldn’t help feel­ing the con­verse had been un­rav­el­ling in par­al­lel across the At­lantic. From the 1600s on­wards, Eu­ro­pean set­tlers could only sur­vive the stu­pen­dous Cana­dian cli­mate, to­pog­ra­phy and scale through the use of na­tive peo­ple’s in­ven­tions – the ca­noe, sledge, skis and snow­shoes. In do­ing so, that reap­plied sur­vival kit fed the de­struc­tion of the cul­tures that cre­ated it.

Out­side the city, think Fargo but with­out the psy­chopaths. Wide, white, low ter­rain. Roughly a three- hour drive north­east of Que­bec City, Sague­nay- Lac- Saint- Jean is where you be­gin to wres­tle the daunt­ing scale of this prov­ince, which is three times the area of France and 18 times that of Ire- land. Que­bec is Canada’s largest prov­ince by area and, with eight mil­lion souls, its sec­ond largest by pop­u­la­tion.

Sague­nay- Lac- Saint- Jean has fewer than 300,000 of those. They’re scat­tered within a moose’s roar of the 45km- long Lac Saint Jean lake, which feeds the Sague­nay river, which feeds the 105km- long Sague­nay Fjord, which even­tu­ally pow­ers into the St Lawrence fur­ther south.

Prob­a­bly the most thrilling, re­ward­ing way to sam­ple it is to snow­mo­bile some of its 3,300km of marked trails. Con­trol­ling a snow­mo­bile isn’t dif­fi­cult. Though a valid driver’s li­cence is re­quired, no ex­pe­ri­ence or fit­ness is needed to glide up to 60km per hour over the un­du­lat­ing glacial white. The guide, snow­mo­biles, kit and safety equip-

■ Top: snow­shoe­ing in the Parc Na­tional des Monts- Valin. Above: Quartier Pe­tit Cham­plain in Que­bec City. Top right: snow­mo­bil­ing in Sague­nay- Lac- Saint- Jean

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