Of all the places to go in Canada in the winter, there are certain places I would rather not go. Going away somewhere else in Canada in the winter is like someone massaging your back and pressing on that spot that really hurts. It feels good sometimes, but it can also be unnecessary pain. I don't need to go somewhere that is colder, darker and busier than my current city. Shouldn't I "getaway" to somewhere much warmer and tropical? As far as "winter getaways" go, Quebec City is not a bad place to choose. The photo above looks like a painting or something out of a Christmas movie. I swear it is a photo I took walking down the street--with a slight touch of Instagram filter.
To me, it's almost like one of Canada's forgotten cities. You know it exists, but it doesn't automatically spring to mind, which is a shame; it is the capital of Quebec, after all. When you think Quebec, you usually think Montreal. Montreal has the trendy and hip French vibe while Quebec City has more of a lovely, classic charm. Quebec City also has incredible historical significance, so you better brush up on your Canadian history before you visit. Many parts of the city still represent battles grounds between the French and British and it is one of the only walled cities in North America. There are also many 17th and 18th century buildings in tact that make up the the Old Town. So much so that is has officially been declared a Unesco heritage site since 1985.
In this case, it wasn't really a destination I chose. My husband was attending a conference for four days there and I decided to go along with him partly to take advantage of the chance to travel, stay in a nice hotel and wander around the city "Lost in Translation" style minus the rendezvous with Bill Murray in a hotel bar. We stayed at Hotel Le Concorde downtown about a 15 minute walk into Old Town. I get so excited to stay in hotels, watch cable television, sleep in a comfy bed and lounge around. This was a nice, modern hotel that unfortunately didn't have room service or an indoor pool, as I was hoping to relax in a hot tub or take a quick dip while I was there. The views of the city from the room, however, were great.
The hotel has a revolving restaurant on the top floor where you can have dinner while looking out over a 360 degree view of the city. It is so neat knowing and seeing the amazing history of battles, exploration and military accomplishment that happened here. For me, the city is familiar because I visited with my Grandparents on one of my summer trips with them. I was trying to remember when I had gone with them and looked through some old photos to find out. It was a fascinating trip through Quebec, New Brunswick and Maine. I found many similar photos that I took--it was back in 2000--and had a memory of the revolving restaurant in Quebec City for some reason. Then I realized after looking through my old album that we had stayed at the exact hotel 14 years before! The photo below of the large tower with a spaceship-like orb on the top is the hotel.
While Mike attended conference lectures in the morning, I slept in and had breakfast in the hotel. Then we spent the days strolling through the streets, warming up in cafes and planning where to go for dinner. Quebec City is 95 per cent French, so I was glad Mike and his bilingualism could help me out with that aspect of getting around. My French is pretty basic and rusty from the few French classes I took through elementary and high school. Most of the service staff and people we encountered were very pleasant about speaking English and didn't scoff at all when someone didn't know any French. I suspect that the less tourist-based parts of Quebec wouldn't be as accommodating.
Brunch on the first day was at Chez Temporel in Old Town. It is the kind of place where you would picture young bohemians, writers and artists sipping on coffee and listening to music. The cafe is a little bit off the beaten path of the main shopping strip. On the day we went, this was nice because it was quiet and tucked away from the crowds of tourists. I had to have the French classic, Croque Monsieur: a grilled ham and cheese sandwich topped with bechamel sauce. My cafe mocha to drink was the perfect balance of sweet hot chocolate and dark coffee. I saved half of the sandwich and ate it cold for breakfast the next day. I regret nothing. The French know how to make those classic dishes with butter, cream and cheese sing, including a plain ham and cheese sandwich.
Down the street, and arguably the main landmark of the city, is the Chateau Frontenac. The historic hotel is in almost every picture of Quebec City. Unfortunately, it was all booked up for the conference we were affiliated with so we couldn't stay there (yes, that was the reason, not the price at all...). It is a magnificent landmark and it is neat to walk around it and explore the path along the river and La Citadelle that goes for miles. A lot of people say you HAVE to go to the city in the winter for the Winter Carnival and the winter activities, such as cross country skiing, sledding and ice sculpture making. We went in November so it wasn't quite in the snowy, carnival spirit yet. I have always wanted to go and explore the Winter Carnival, as it sounds magical--and very Canadian.
Then there's the food. Like most of our trips, food is an important amenity while traveling and you might as well have good food. Mike asked me to look online for a few restaurants before we left. Within 10 minutes I had a list of breakfast, lunch and dinner options planned out for four days. Apparently I have a knack for finding restaurants everywhere we go--or I'm also good at "googling" and asking Twitter friends for recommendations. Quebec City is full of classic French restaurants, bistros and cafes; however, the food is not all boring and stuffy Escargot and frogs legs. There are many trendy and hip restaurants serving up neat twists on French Canadian classics, such as meat pies, crepes, foie gras and maple sugar pie.
I chose Cafe Du Monde for dinner on the first night. We had a little trouble finding it, as it's located down by the water behind a few large buildings. Once you get inside, the atmosphere is Parisian bistro-like without being too stuffy and formal. I had the Mahi-Mahi with lobster risotto and Mike had the Venison Stew with root vegetables and mashed potatoes. The food was beautifully presented with nice, well-cooked portions of everything and I enjoyed the meal. We also shared a Creme Brulee for dessert. The waitress claimed it was "the best Creme Brulee in town," but I'm sure every French restaurant says that. Either way, you can't pass on dessert when they sell it like that.
Even at night, Quebec City is beautiful to walk around. Some of the buildings and shops had their Christmas lights set up and you walk by many windows of bustling activity in restaurants and cafes even late into the night. The street that our hotel was on, Cours du General de Montcalm, had many booming bars and pubs and seemed to be party central, while the further you get into Old Town, the quieter it seems to get at night. The photo below is of the grand Quebec Parliament building:
The next day we met some friends for brunch at Casse-Crepe Breton. With the Croque Monsieur and a rich French meal the previous day, I was already overloaded with cheese. I couldn't bring myself to order crepes with more ham and cheese even though we were at one of the city's best crepe places. I had a bagel and fruit salad while the others had savoury crepes and then dessert crepes afterwards. Apparently when you go for brunch in Quebec, you also get beer with your meal. The deal of the day on the menu was breakfast with coffee AND beer included. Kudos to them. We had a leisurely meal and then we started on our afternoon walk again although I could sit in cafes, people watch and drink coffee for hours on end.
Walking off the calories of the rich food probably helps to maintain those slim, French figures. The only downside to Quebec City is that there are a lot of hills, windy alleyways and cobblestone streets. When you walk somewhere, you are committing yourself to trekking up and down hills. There are a few old style elevators you can take up the hills for a few dollars. Mike looked at his map and thought he found a route that avoided large hills. Then he realized at the end that there was a huge flight of stairs to go back up to the hotel. He checked the pedometer on his phone and noted that we had climbed the equivalent of 30 flights of stairs. We definitely got more than 10,000 steps in that day.
I definitely got into the Christmas spirit when we were there and after we came back. In winter, the city is the equivalent to one of those Christmas year round stores full of warmth, spirit and a slight hint of potpourii. One of the days we checked out the Old Port Market or Marche du Vieux-Port de Quebec. During the week it was a little quiet. There were a few vendors selling bushels of winter vegetables and artisan foods. A cute place to go if you were looking for foodie gifts or anything made with maple syrup.
Petit Champlain is the centre of Christmas town and like the Chateau Frontenac is prominent in most Quebec City postcards, this neighbourhood is a close second when it comes to representing Old Town; it is the oldest commercial district in North America and includes some of the oldest houses in the area dating back to the 1600s.
For dinner on the second night, I made a reservation at Le Lapin de Saute on Rue du Petit Champlain. I thought the name of restaurant was just something cute then I realized that the menu actually included many rabbit dishes. Poor bunnies. This restaurant is a charming and popular little place and was my favourite restaurant of the trip. This trip also coincided with around the time of our 6 month wedding anniversary, so this was the absolute perfect spot to have a romantic dinner.
I can't say I eat rabbit that often, but when in Rome...have rabbit with each course! We started with the rabbit pate served with cranberry compote, spinach and warm bread. They also had these refreshing homemade sodas in flavours like cherry, lime, apple and passionfruit. Leave it to me to choose homemade soda over wine for our fancy dinner.
I like to think I know most French food-related phrases. This was one of the only times I have repeatedly googled menu items to find out what they were--and figure out all of the different ways they cook the rabbit. Mike had the "lapin confit" with potatoes and vegetables and I had a "lapin" and mushroom pie with puff pastry. For dessert we had 2 chocolate truffles. Sometimes I just want a bite of chocolate for dessert and not a huge slab of cake. This was such a lovely touch. I would recommend this restaurant to anyone looking for a nice meal in Quebec.
On the last day, we ventured a bit outside of the city to explore Montmercy Falls at the Parc de la Cute-Montmorency. As much as I liked strolling through the city streets for a few days, sometimes you want a little change of scenery. The falls are 83 metres high and flow into the St. Lawrence River. In the park, there are trails, a large suspension bridge, a cable car and a restaurant.
I captured a few magnificent views of the St. Lawrence River, the cityscape and Ile D'Orleans, which is a quaint island outside of the city full of farms and villages. The temperatures were dipping to about -3, so I was eager to go back inside to coffee and croissants again. I did like seeing a bit of a contrast from old city streets to relaxing nature and in this instance it helped to have a car to take a little drive out. After all of the food, walking and exploring, we drove the four hours back to Ottawa. I was glad I could re-visit the city after not seeing it for many years and have a little winter getaway.