Québec City is a mix‘n’match of cutting edge and traditional, English and French, New World and Old. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, it is also the only walled city in North America
On a spring day, children play on the grass and families share picnics; cyclists pedal along paths and kites soar up into the blue sky. It is a peaceful scene. But 250 years ago, these rolling fields witnessed a battle that changed the course of North American history. I am in Québec City, in Battlefields Park, better known as the Plains of Abraham. It was here, in 1759, that General Wolfe defeated General Montcalm and won the territories of New France for England.
During the summer (2009), a series of exhibitions pays tribute to the combatants and explains the background to the clash. At the Discovery Pavilion, alongside Odyssey, the must-see permanent exhibit, is a new exhibition called 'The Seven Years’ War', explaining how the struggle between European nations was resolved on North American soil between 1756 and 1763. The display shows how the war escalated, then climaxed with the Battle of the Plains of Abraham. All summer long, both winners and losers will be honoured; and that is as it should be. After all, the French stayed on – speaking French, keeping French customs, eating traditional French dishes and even shrugging their shoulders à la française.
High and low
Founded in 1608, Québec is one of the oldest cities in the New World. Wherever I walk, I am reminded of the past. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, it is the only walled city in North America, its massive fortifications built on a bluff to defend the cobbled lanes and steep-roofed houses that recall the architecture of Brittany. Down close to the St Lawrence River, the Basse-Ville (Lower Town) centres on the Place-Royale, with its bust of King Louis XIV, church and solid stone merchants' houses. Down here, streets are narrow, leading to old warehouses now converted to hotels, shops and restaurants. The Quartier Petit Champlain, arguably North America’s oldest shopping district, offers gifts and crafts, pubs and cafés. Stop for café au lait, or the plat du jour, perhaps pot-au-feu or coq au vin.
To get from the Basse-Ville to the Haute-Ville (Upper Town), I take the funicular, with its views over the rooftops. At the top of the 200ft cliff, what looks like a castle is actually a posh 600-room hotel: the Fairmont Le Château Frontenac
. This is the city’s most familiar landmark, with a guest list that's a who’s who of the rich and famous over the past 100 years. Nearby, the Citadel glowers above the river. Still the garrison for the ‘Van Doos’, the Royal 22nd Regiment, this 150-year-old star-shaped fortress hosts military must-sees in summer, such as changing the guard and beating retreat.
Culture and cuisine
As for museums, there are several ready and waiting to explain the story of Québec and the Québécois. The Musée de la Civilisation covers everything from canoes, snowshoes and First Nations tribes to an environmental message that is bang up to date. Both the Musée du Fort and, on the Plains of Abraham, the Discovery Pavilion explain the hows and whys of the Seven Years’ War and the battle for Québec. Then, there is the Musée National des Beaux-Arts du Québec, with its fine collection of Inuit art. From way up in the Canadian Arctic come sculptures that are beautiful and intriguing, from a stylised falcon and a tired seal hunter to a bear cheerfully balancing on one leg.
But for me, Québec City is also about having fun - and lots of it. Over the years, I have eaten well in small restaurants down in the Vieux-Port (Old Port). For modern Québec cooking, join the throng at Toast! (17 Rue Sault-au-Matelot). Or splash out at Panache, in the Auberge Saint-Antoine
(8 Rue Saint-Antoine), where François Blais, one of Canada’s best chefs, features the province’s own scallops, crab, venison and cheese. Up and coming is the Saint-Roch (pronounced San-Rock) area, with its rather bohemian feel. Away from the tourists, what was the run-down market area is now hopping with hip bars, fusion restaurants and cool hotels. Order Mediterranean dishes and listen to jazz at the Largo Resto-Club (643 Rue Saint-Joseph Es). Chomp on a fusion burger at Versa (432 Rue du Parvis) or down an unusual oyster shooter at Yuzu Sushi Bar (438 Rue du Parvis).
Mix and match
For me what makes Québec special is the mix‘n’match of cutting edge and traditional, of English and French, of New World and Old. And what other city remembers both victor and vanquished? Behind the Terrasse Dufferin, with views over the St Lawrence River, is the Jardin des Gouverneurs. Here, the tall obelisk pays tribute to General Wolfe and to General Montcalm, who both died on the Plains of Abraham in the battle for the city back in 1759.
Tour operator Canadian Affair has packages including flights, transfers and hotels, and direct low-cost flights to Montréal from London Gatwick. Air Canada and British Airways both fly direct from London Heathrow.
From Montréal to Québec City takes two hours by train with VIA rail, or three hours by car.
Where to stay
: some of the 95 rooms are traditional, others contemporary, all have plenty of comforts. In the Vieux-Port.
: in the Saint-Roch district. Modern, swimming pool, 240 rooms.
Auberge Place d’Armes: 12 rooms in the heart of the Old City, with exposed brick, antique furniture and a small restaurant.
The Seven Years' War exhibition at the Discovery Pavilion runs from 4 July 2009 to 31 December 2010.
Québec City Museum Card covers transport and museums.