We meet outside the hotel at 7.15am to be picked up for our day trip to Québec. By the time we are shuttled to the coach depot, have paid our fare and are shoe-horned on to a full coach, an hour has gone by and we are still in Montréal, waiting to leave. Irritating, flashing and headache inducing TV screens on the coach are conveying no information beyond saying ‘Bonjour’ and that is the English language version.
We cross the St. Lawrence on the Montréal Bridge. Many of the nineteenth century emigrants I am researching would have travelled down the river as far as Montréal. The driver attempts a commentary in French and English. The English version, at least, can only be described as wooden in its delivery. The TV begins to show us a series of photographs, accompanied by what purports to be ‘soothing’ music and patronising commentary (what is it with Canadian voice-overs?).
We stop at the services where the toilets appear to still be under construction. The doors of the ladies have interesting gaps round them and there is a clear view of the ‘business’ end of the gents as we pass by. Now the onboard TVs are showing an episode of Mr Bean. Which bizarre sociological survey suggested that this might go down well with tourists to Canada? Maybe the lack of dialogue is meant to be suitable for a multi-lingual audience. Never a fan of slapstick, I am wondering if I can get away with subtly vandalising the screen above my head. Some of my fellow passengers are rolling in the aisles, those that are awake that is. Others are devouring large Tim Horton’s (a bit like Macdonald’s). I opt for admiring the scenery. Momentary relief as Mr Bean comes to and end but it transpires that this video contains several episodes – deep joy. No, I am wrong, it is the same episode on a loop. Even the people who thought it was funny the first time have stopped laughing. I estimate we have time for three more showings before we reach Québec and I lose the will to live.
A local regulation means that Anne-Marie is not allowed to guide in Québec so we have a Québecois guide whose ability to switch from French to English has to be heard to be appreciated – very impressive. The temperature is now what I expected of Canada and it is raining. This is the day when my fleecy gloves would have been useful. It is also a day when my fleecy gloves are reposing safely in my hotel room. We admire Québec through the mist, beginning with a short walk through the old part of the city. We see the iconic Hotel Chateau Frontenac, patronised by royalty and celebrities and allegedly the most photographed hotel in the world. Roosevelt and Churchill planned D-day here. We are directed to the Funicular railway and are advised that this is a better route to the upper town than ‘break-neck’ staircase.
Back on the coach, we are taken to Montmorency Falls, which are 100 feet higher than Niagara but less impressive. I am glad to see them though as I had originally planned that we should detour via here at the beginning of our trip but woosed out when I saw how busy the road was and we went for the shortest possible route instead. It is just a shame that the visibility is less than brilliant. In winter, the sides of the falls freeze but not the centre. The Duke of Kent, father of Queen Victoria, had a holiday home by the falls.
Québec means the place where the river narrows and it is the largest Canadian province. The city itself is unique and beautiful, what a pity we didn’t have better weather. Québec is the only walled city in North America and deservedly, an urban World Heritage site. 96% of the city’s population are French speaking. Québec was founded in 1608 by French explorer Samuel Champlain and fortifications were established. It was strategically important as it controlled the entrance to the Great Lakes. Louis XIV sent out 770 women to redress the gender imbalance in the city. The Notre Dame des Victories was built in 1688 and is the oldest stone church in North America. We are taken past the citadel to the Plains of Abraham where a twenty minute battle in September 1759 replaced the French administration with British. This is the battle in which General James Wolfe perished. His body was shipped back to England for burial in a barrel of rum. The citadel is grassed over as camouflage.
The St Lawrence is so named because explorer Jacques Cartier discovered it on 10 August, which is St. Lawrence’s day. They used to float timber down the river but it is now taken by truck for ‘environmental’ reasons. It is the second longest river in Canada at 3200km. It has the highest unsalted tides in the world; as much as seven metres in the spring. This, together with the currents, ice and wind, makes it very difficult to navigate. Qualified pilots are obligatory for river traffic now. Most of the harbour is on reclaimed land. The huge silos can hold 225,000 tonnes of grain, on its way from the prairies.
Québec is a beautifully clean, tree lined city; apparently the streets are washed every morning. There are street musicians playing a variety of instruments including a harp. 17% of the world’s fresh water is found in this province. Water, with its potential for HEP is a valuable resource and cables carry 735,000 volts to provide much of the electricity for New England and New York. Wood, copper and petroleum are also important. The temperature ranges from -40 degrees C in winter to 34 degrees C in summer and there is an annual snowfall of 540cm. As Québec is built on the Canadian Shield it is not possible to create underground city like Montréal or Toronto. This makes it less popular than the cities further west and therefore it is cheaper to live here, with apartments being available for $500-$700 a month and two bedroom condos selling for as little as $150,000.
At one time Kingston and Québec took it in turns to be the capital on a sixteen year rotation but this led to arguments between British and French administrations so Queen Victoria nominated what is now Ottawa as the new capital because it was the mid-point between the two. Québec is still a centre of provincial government so the main employers are the civil service and tourism. It is now the number one destination for cruise ships, with more than a hundred a year calling in.
Our guide leaves us to our own devices and we reject the sensible idea of using the funicular railway and climb ‘break neck’ stairs instead. We want to explore the Plains of Abraham and the presidential building for ourselves. We also see the Joan of Arc gardens. There are some seriously over the top Halloween decorations at city hall. We visit the Quartier Petit Champlain, which is the craft quarter and is now run as a co-operative. We eat here and begin to thaw out. Chris has opted for bison burger. This street was voted the best street in Canada last year.
It has been a very long day but we are glad we made the trip. Yet more episodes of Mr Bean enliven our return trip and accompany the snoring of the person in the seat behind us.