Experiencing For a While the History of Quebec
by Habeeb Salloum
I had visited Quebec City, the cradle of French civilization in North America, a number of times but this was the first time I had come to take part in the SAQ New France Festival – for 13 years an annual extravaganza held by the Société des alcools du Québec (Quebec Alcohol Corporation).
A celebration of the first Europeans to arrive in North America, it is an exciting event that is worth attending. It takes a visitor back to the time when Quebec had its beginnings – that is if one forgets the indigenous inhabitants of that French Canadian province.
Quebec City was where the French Empire began in North America. The city became the center of New France but had only 5,000 inhabitants when the British occupied it, in 1759. Today, the French heritage in this city is the heart of where the Francophone culture in North America has been preserved.
Quebec City’s European atmosphere and friendly people have made the city and, in fact, the whole of the province of Quebec, a tourist destination for both Canadian and international travelers.
The New France Festival is a fine occasion for the locals and visitors to discover and at the same time, relive the epoch of Quebec City’s beginnings in 1608. As well, they can experience the local cuisine and visit some of the many historical sites.
To celebrate this era, there are activities galore in the first part of August of every year. Costumed actors dressed like the early colonial French settlers fill the streets, entertaining people with historic anecdotes, concerts, spectacular shows and parades held at the 13th sites set out for entertainment; during the five-day festival more than 1,000 artistic events are featured.
But best of all, visitors can rent costumes and participate in the festival, along with some 30,000 other festival lovers. It is a world of color as well as excitement and historical romance taking one back to the first French presence in North America.
Donning our 17th century costumes, we left our hotel to join in the festivities and experience a little of how life was during the 17th and 18th centuries.
We walked the narrow streets of Basse-Ville or Lower Town, next to the river, whose streets were crammed with humanity – many appearing from the storybooks of the Middle Ages.
This, the oldest quarter in the city, is filled with coffee shops, boutiques, souvenir shops, cobblestone streets and impressive renovated old medieval buildings from the 17th and 18th centuries. Because of its unique architecture and historic sites, it has been named a World Heritage Treasure.
Upon entering the festivities, we were joined by thousands of other costumed men and women, stick-men and women, pirates and moving giants parading up and down the streets and alleyways while the remainder were window-shopping or marching in the streets.
Others were standing around craftsmen who were practicing their trades on sidewalks, or in recesses in the walls of buildings, working on authentic crafts practiced in New France some 400 years ago.
As I gazed upon a skilled artisan producing wooden figures, my colleague remarked, “It seems like medieval history is coming alive in a colorful way during the 21st century!”
Tired, we entered a food market, abounding with local produce, to rest our weary feet and enjoy a taste of some French Canadian cuisine. Lamb sausage, French-Canadian-style eggs, fish and meat sandwiches,
home-baked breads and all types of French Canadian cheeses and drinks sated the revellers hunger.
The munching crowds, many in the New France costumes, were rowdy but very friendly, giving the festival a colourful air.
We partied around the clock, or rather, some of our group did. We sampled the local foods and wines, listened to bands and saw two fantastic shows: ‘The Image Mill,’ a 40-minute visual and audio production projected on the world’s largest film projection screen and ‘Les Chemins Invisibles,’ created by the famous Cirque du Soleil exclusively for Quebec City for the New France Festival.
About 100 volunteers and 100 paid actors perform during the festival, ensuring that the 450,000 attendees are being entertained.
Also, another 300 volunteers give a helping hand in the various events, making the celebrations a somewhat community affair.
All in all, it is a fun-loving festival and in the words of an American visitor, “These people know how to enjoy their history.”
Want To Go?
Facts about Quebec City and the New France Parade:
In 2010 the SAQ New France Festival will be held August 4th -August 8th.
A good way to reach Basse-Ville from the walled city is to take the Funiculaire du Vieux Québec from the edge of the Le Château Frontenac to Basse-Ville. When going down one gets a bird’s eye view of the surrounding countryside.
If you like newly baked breads and cakes make sure to visit Café Boulangerie Paillard, in the heart of historic Quebec City. A bakery, pastry shop and a sandwich station, it is worth a stop for coffee and a pastry.
Two fulfilling tours to take are offered by Viator Tours from Quebec City for; Montmorency Falls and the shrine of Ste-Anne-de-Beaupré – Cost $45.56; City Sightseeing Tour – Cost $32.40. (Prices quoted in CDN dollars.)
Where to Eat:
Old Québec City and the surrounding area have more restaurants per capita than any other city in North America –some 100 bistros, cafes and gourmet restaurants. Dinners run from about $15.CDN in chain restaurants to some $125.CDN in gourmet dining places. For traditional food like the meat pie, tourtiPre, Québec style pork and beans and maple syrup pie, Aux Anciens Canadiens is the place – meal of the day $19.00 CDN.
Where to Stay:
Hotels offer some 12,000 rooms in and around the old city – 2000 of these, international class. Two top hotels are the Hilton Quebec and the Fairmont Le Château Frontenac – the towering symbol of Quebec City.
The best place to buy souvenirs in Quebec City is rue Petit Champlain in Basse-Ville, and the trendiest part is the area around the railway station. Four ski areas with 120 slopes and 30 golf courses are all within a 40-minute drive from Quebec City.
The Board of Directors of the International Association of Congress Centres, in 2006 nominated Quebec City as having the ‘World’s Best Congress Centre’.
For Further Information About Quebec City, Contact:
Tourisme Québec: for complete tourist information Québec, call: (514) 873-2015 or toll free: 1-877-363-7777, or visit the web site: www.bonjourquebec.com
Habeeb Salloum is a travel and food writer, as well as the author of five books, who lives in Toronto, Canada.