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
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