PAST AND PRESENT MINGLE IN QUÉBEC CITY

by Pam Hobbs

Québec City: On this continent, where state and provincial capitals tend to resemble each other, Québec City is unique. Arrive by river and you will see this from the start, for there it is before you: a two-storied city. The Lower Town, with steep tapered roads, has recently regained prestige as a fashionable residential quarter. Two hundred feet above it, the Upper Town, where military, official and religious establishments originally took hold, is dominated now by the imposing Château Frontenac hotel.

As an old warrior wears his medals, Québec displays its uniqueness with pride. And so it should because the distinctions are many. For one, this is the continent's only walled city north of Mexico. For another, it boasts North America's largest concentration of seventeenth and eighteenth-century buildings. French culture and language have survived the centuries here against all odds. History spanning more than 400 years is as colourful as a peacock's tail. It is New France and Old Québec spiked with the joie de vivre of Paris. And, to nobody's surprise, Canada's No. 1 tourist city.

Explorer Samuel de Champlain started the first settlement in the basse ville. His 1608 habitation included two dwellings, a store, stockade, ditches and gardens. The square around it eventually became a marketplace bordered with fine homes of wealthy merchants. As was inevitable, much of the Lower Town was destroyed by fire over the years, and what was left fell into decay after the middle of the nineteenth century when the business community moved to the top of the cliff.

Now the Lower Town has undergone extensive restoration. Using plans from archives in France, exterior elevations are carefully followed. Inside these buildings are as functional as any in modern Québec.

Core of the Lower Town, Place Royale, presents a pleasant scene with its cobblestoned square surrounded by small restaurants, apartments and shops. In the centre stands a twentieth-century bust of Louis X1V of France, replacing another erected here 300 years ago. Behind it is the rebuilt Church of Notre Dame des Victoires on the exact site of Champlain's trading post.

A wickedly steep Côté de la Montagne and Champlain Stairs (more aptly known as Breakneck Stairs) lead you from Upper to Lower Town. For your reverse journey I suggest you locate the funicular in Jolliet House, and save your legs for more walking up at the top. This elevator will speed you to Dufferin Terrace, across from Place d'Armes, which is the heart of the Upper Town. Champlain will be there, larger than life and hat in hand, to greet you at the site of his fort.

When the boardwalk was installed here at the cliff's edge in 1838 it was a mere 1860 feet long. Forty years later, extended to 1,400 feet, it became Dufferin Terrace - the joy of strollers, summer entertainers and people-watchers. Where the terrace ends, the Promenade des Gouverneurs begins. If you have the stamina to follow this one, steps and all, you will be rewarded with more marvellous river views. Continue past the Citadel's outer walls, to reach the historic Plains of Abraham in Battlefield Park.

Children fly kites and whirl Frisbees here now where Montcalm and Wolfe gave their all in 1759. Louis Joseph Marquis de Montcalm had commanded the French military in Quebec for three years before the fateful battle. England's General James Wolfe, in poor health at only 32, scaled the sheer cliff with his scarlet-coated soldiers at 4 o'clock that September morning. At the top they waited. The French battalions drew closer. Volleys were fired, both commanders fell mortally wounded and in minutes the battle that decided this country's fate was over. Stone plaques in the park permit you to follow events of that day. A Wolfe-Montcalm monument pays tribute to the valor of both leaders.

Had Montcalm had a half-decent fortress atop this Cap Diamond in 1759, the battle's outcome might have been different. But construction of the mighty Citadel didn't get started until 1820. Towering 300 feet above the river, it is North America's largest fortification still garrisoned by regular troops. Because it is a military post, you are not allowed to wander at will. Instead, there are conducted tours and in summer the ceremonial changing of the guard each morning, and the beating the retreat at 7 p.m., weather permitting.

In 1967 the then Marquis de Montcalm came here to retrace his great-great-great-grandfather's steps in Battlefield Park. His first stop was at the Ursuline Convent's Mary of the Incarnation Centre to see the general's wizened, yellowing skull preserved beneath glass.

The convent was founded in 1639 when the courageous nun named Mary came to instruct French and native girls. In an adjoining museum you can see relics saved from those early years. Natives dropping by the convent for a meal back then must have had stomachs of iron. According to a stew recipe "one dozen tallow candles melted down, and two or three pounds lard so it will be nice and greasy according to the Indians' taste" were included.

Luckily we don't have to sample the convent stew to capture the flavor of early Quebéc cuisine. Our pleasing alternative was Aux Anciens Canadiens, a cosy restaurant in a seventeenth-century stone cottage on Rue St. Louis, serving traditional baked beans and potted pork, tourtieres, braised hare and duck in maple syrup along with distressingly sweet desserts.

After their victory on the Plains of Abraham, the English had little influence on the old city's culture. For this we can be grateful because it is the French element that appeals. Ninety-five per cent of the residents speak French as their first language. In summer the illusion of being in France is enhanced when restaurants move tables outdoors, and artists set up shop on narrow sidewalks. On Rue du Trésor, walls are crammed with paintings and sketches for sale by artists.

I don't know of another North American city where so much pleasure is derived from simply wandering the streets. The trick is to enjoy it at your leisure. Allow a full day for exploring military sites, and two more for the Upper and Lower towns. Brush up on your high school French before leaving home, then make a point of using it while here. Relax often at a sidewalk café, or on a bench above the river. And think about this city, so unique it doesn't turn seventeenth-century dwellings into museums with roped-off rooms and paid admission. It puts them to work as restaurants and shops and even something as unglamorous as a terminal for the funicular.

IF YOU GO: By road Québec City is 385 miles from New York, 760 miles from Detroit. It is served by rail through Montréal, and by air connections to major North American cities. In addition to representatives of most international hotel chains, there are a number of locally-owned boutique hotels and charming b & b's. For more information on Québec City, contact Tourisme Québec, 12 rue Ste-Anne, Québec City, QC, Canada, G1R 4C4. Tel: toll free 1-877-266-5687 or visit www.quebecregion.com