Quebec City is the cradle of French Canada, but its links to France are not the whole story...
Most travel articles about Quebec City focus on its French heritage. It is, after all, the cradle of French Canada: the spot on the mighty St Lawrence River where 400 years ago the French navigator Samuel de Champlain succeeded in his dream of establishing a French colony in North America.
Yet to my mind what makes the city such an exciting place to visit (and also a political headache), is not so much its Frenchness, as its determination to forge its own unique identity.
Sure, everybody speaks French. But it’s a far cry from anything you might hear on the banks of the river Seine. I loved the thick twang and peppering of colourful English phrases that have been Frenchified, such as c’est f***kée for something that’s broken and domper for to throw, or dump, something out.
I also appreciated the fact that everyone is tu rather than vous and no one treats you like a fool if, as is quite likely, you don’t understand what they are saying. In fact, rather than treating you with disdain when you struggle to catch their drift, friendly Quebeckers will apologise for not speaking better English.
Then there’s the architecture. The turrets of the 19th-century landmark hotel Fairmont Le Château Frontenac certainly reminded me of France, along with the folksy Petit Champlain shopping area and cobblestones and coloured roofs of the old town. But the recently regenerated old port area was more exciting by far. Here, rather than tourist tat, I found art galleries, antique shops, bistros and boutique hotels. My favourite - Auberge St-Antoine by Relais & Chateaux - started out as a collection of rundown warehouses and it was fascinating to see many of the original features still intact - including a 17th-century cannon battery running through the lobby.
And the food. Eating here is every bit as important as in France - I enjoyed an excellent meal cooked à la française at Aux Anciens Canadiens, one of the city’s most traditional restaurants, and even tried poutine, a local favourite consisting of chips, curd cheese and thick brown gravy.
I was also lucky enough to eat at the upmarket restaurants Le Saint-Amour and Panache at Auberge St-Antoine by Relais & Chateaux. Here, the chefs are part of a movement that uses local ingredients in a fresh way. So you are more likely to find snow crabs and salmon tartare on the menu than onion soup or bourguignon de caribou. The mixed greens may well have come from the garden, the salmon, duck and lamb from named local producers.
For me, the cuisine neatly summed up how I felt about Quebec City: that it is a city moving to a multicultural rhythm while whistling a French tune. That feeling intensified when I stumbled across the Musée de la Civilisation. Here exquisite Native American artefacts such as a pair of finely beaded moccasins, a painted canoe and dog sleds really brought home to me that the city’s inhabitants have not always spoken French. I was also stunned to discover Grosse Ile. An island in the middle of the St Lawrence River, it was a quarantine station for immigrants entering Canada until the First World War. Tragically, in the mid-1800s, typhoid struck, killing more than 5,000 mainly Irish newcomers.
It was at these two sites that I realized that while it is easy to get fixated on Quebec City’s apparent links to France, the city has several other stories to tell – and the language is not French.