I needed assistance to be “tied” into my corset-style brocade dress with petticoat and layers of skirts. I was even provided with a hairdresser to give me an up-hairdo to go with my new … I mean, old look. I was among a small group of journalists visiting Quebec City for its annual New France Festival (Les Fêtes de la Nouvelle-France) in August, which includes reenactments, parades, and lots of people dressed in 17th and 18th century costumes.
We began our foray into times past with a special Lords and Ladies Ball in the beautiful Camille-Roy Pavilion of the Salle des Promotions of the Séminaire de Québec built in 1854. The banquet room has a second floor balcony that overlooks the dining area below on all four sides and is filled with stark white, ornately carved moldings and columns. We got there by horse and carriage, while people waved and took photos of us in our period finery. For fun, we pretended to be confused by the strange motorized vehicles and the “peasants” dressed in odd, dusky blue pantaloons.
The Lords and Ladies Ball was filled with people dressed like us, including a woman in a tall, white Marie Antoinette wig, and included entertainment and a full dinner.
Old Quebec is the perfect setting for such festivities because the historical buildings make it look like it’s frozen in time. This part of the city consists of Upper Town and Lower Town. To get from one to the other, you have to either climb many stairs or take the short Funiculaire ride. During festivals, the lines for the ride can take a few minutes, but it’s certainly preferable to the climb up during warm weather (especially when wearing heavy brocade skirting.)
While a bit hilly, Old Quebec is wonderful for strolling. The architecture does indeed look just like the villages of France, and there are sidewalk cafes everywhere. If you get tired of walking, take Le Bus Rouge, Quebec’s hop on-hop off bus.
Most of the New France Festival’s activities, including an impressive evening fireworks display, take place close to the St. Lawrence River. Near the boardwalk, actors were set up at booths to show off the way life was like when the French settled in Quebec. There was a gentleman lecturing us about his job as a “physician” on a ship. With a lot of humor, he explained his lack of training and gave us a good idea of just how painful it must have been in the 17th and 18th centuries to receive medical “care.” At another location, ladies in their period dresses created lace using traditional methods, while a couple of swashbucklers battled each other with swords nearby.
Of course, you don’t have to dress in period clothing to participate in the fun. If you want a costume, however, the website for the Festival provides you with information about local costume makers.
While in the city, you can also take a cruise on the St. Lawrence River, walk the old city wall Ramparts of Quebec (the only remaining fortified city walls north of Mexico in North America), or visit several museums. These include the Musée National des Beaux-Arts du Québec and the Musée de la Civilisation, which has a great restaurant on site, 47e Parallèle (47th Parallel), with an inspired chef.
As fun as pretending to be in an earlier time may be, there’s plenty to see and do just outside of the city in your comfortable modern clothes. You can drive yourself or take a guided tour to the Côte-de-Beaupré countryside to visit the famed Montmorency Falls, Canyon Sainte-Anne, and the Basilica Sainte-Anne de Beaupré.
While the Montmorency Falls are well-known, many people don’t know about Canyon Sainte-Anne. It’s a beautiful hiking area with 74-meter waterfalls and observation points, open to the whole family except in winter and with wheelchair accessibility.
If you enjoy church architecture at all, the Basilica is definitely worth a visit, especially since it’s only 19 miles outside of Quebec City. Constructed in 1926 after the previous basilica was destroyed in a fire, this shrine is set in a village with interesting shops and restaurants. Sainte Anne was the mother of the Virgin Mary and the grandmother of Jesus, and the Basilica includes stained glass windows dedicated to other places with shrines devoted to Sainte Anne. It also contains an unusual set of arches depicting the 12 astrological signs of the zodiac.
One of the frequent stops in this region outside of the city is the Albert Gilles Copper Museum. Although Albert Gilles has been dead since 1979, his work has been continued by his wife, daughters, and granddaughters. Both a shop and a museum, you can buy a piece of original copper art made on site using the dying technique of repoussé (metal embossing). Some of the pieces are left with the copper color and treated so that they won’t turn green, while others are painted in bright colors.
The store also includes an exquisite collection of 50 silver panels of repoussé work by Albert Gilles depicting the life of Christ. Called the “Christorama,” it took him 15 years to complete all 50. While at the museum and shop, you can have a hands-on experience of repoussé and take home your small square piece of artwork. You can also have a cup of tea with a famed canelé cake – a custard and rum pastry with caramelized crust that originated in France. It’s made in a small, copper, fluted mold.
For lunch, we had a special experience at Cassis Monna et Filles on the island of Orleans. Their La Monnaguette restaurant has outdoor seating overlooking the family’s black currant orchard. All menu items – both sweet and savory – feature black currants in some way. At the shop, I purchased nougat candies with nuts and currants, currant-flavored marshmallows, and a bottle of black currant vinaigrette, sold among a host of other products and wines.
As for sleeping, I stayed at the Hôtel Château Laurier Québec, a property that may show as 3-star on some websites, but is definitely 4-star quality. While my room didn’t have a minibar, it had everything else you would expect of a luxury property, including a plush bathrobe, plenty of bath amenities, a large flatscreen television, an iPod docking station, and a large buffet breakfast. Located on the Grande Allée with its rows of sidewalk cafés in summer, the hotel is also near the Plains of Abraham, the historic area within The Battlefields Park.
Whether you visit Quebec City for a special occasion like the New France Festival or just to take in the European ambience, it’s steeped in 400 years of history alongside modern art, music, and food. Even as it was a bit crowded during the festival, there was a relaxed and civilized feeling throughout the streets. It was a welcome change from my beloved but chaotic New York City, and only about an hour in the air between the two cities. Now that I’ve seen Quebec in summer, I want to see it covered in snow. I hear the winter is cold but beautiful.