Quebec City: World Music, Fine Art, Fois Gras and Frog Legs
Story and Photos by Sonja Stark
A popular travel magazine once said “Quebec is like going to France without the jet lag.” I’ll add to that and say Quebec is like going to France without the jet lag or the attitude. Quebecers or Québécois are the most accommodating foreigners I ever met.
Not once did I feel awkward or disliked asking for directions or translation of a menu. The residents were happy to help and willing to speak Anglais instead of my dubious Français.
I’m here for the Festival d’été de Québec or the 38th Annual International Music Extravaganza. The universal appeal of world music, choreographed on three stages for eleven straight days, attracts faces from as far away as Spain, UK, France, Niger and Argentina.
The variety of music transcends language barriers and cultural differences and it all sounds so wonderful that I quickly add another 200 songs to my I-pod. My short visit also had me feeling safe enough to fall asleep on a park bench, bike the St. Lawrence without a trail map, and use my ATM card at midnight. Try being that comfortable on your first day in Manhattan – without knowing the language.
75,000 pack the Grand Amphitheater at the Plains of Abraham, or Plaines d’Abraham Park, for a band that normally plays county fairs and small venues. ZZ Top or “that little ‘ol band from Texas” perform for an overwhelmingly grateful Canadian crowd for little under an hour.
To my left is a young kid dressed in leather and studs waving a Labatt’s Blue. On my right is a gentile graying grandma listening intently with a smile on her face. Just as in Europe, there’s a natural tolerance for age and cultural differences at this and the next 15 out of 450 shows I observe.
Respect, civility, and even etiquette (beer bottles in trash bins as opposed to the ground) are three social advantages over American concerts.
Following ZZ Top’s short set of 80’s favorites (Legs, Sharp Dressed Man, Cheap Sunglasses), Québec’s own neo-traditional Mes Aïeux rock the Francophonie Stage in the park next to Parliament. Six musicians share several instruments – a violin, ukulele, mandolin, trumpet, sax, conga drum, flute, keyboards, even a glissentar – an eleven-string, fretless guitar.
Bouncing, bumping, bobbing, Mes Aïeux’s animated energy is just the cure after seeing long-bearded colorless fossils perform. Despite the foreign lyrics, artists create an indisputably powerful political vibe in the air that everyone understands – conflict resolution in Iraq.
Certain words like “la non-violence, l’unité, la paix, la solidarité, l’harmonie and l’équilibre” are easy to recognize. Political overtones and a hopeful message inspire and unite a disparate crowd.
An event more daring and outrageous than all others is Legendary Pop Singer Diane Dufresne singing late Kurt Weill tunes. Kurt Weill was a veritable genius composer back in early 20th-century Germany and maestros like the ever-handsome Yannick Nézet-Séguin regularly use his prolific work for its versatility and popularity.
“Oh, she’s such a diva!” someone whispers during the show at the Grand Theater concert hall. Dufresne is dressed in a black gothic gypsy dress – she’s dressed rather conservative for a enchantress who’s been known to bare her breasts, play Joan of Arc, and ask audiences to dress in pink when they attend her shows.
Her popularity began in the late 60s and she has risen to superstar status in Europe and Canada but surprisingly, not here in the US. I wonder why while watching. Her vocals are spellbinding and the audience adores her.
Cradle of Civilization
The eccentricities of Quebec City don’t end after the music stops. The imposing Fairmont Le Château Frontenac sits on a high bluff overlooking the St. Lawrence River behind a commanding wall.
The castle reminds me immediately of the elusive Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry but instead of a Quidditch match, guests here enjoy strolls along the sentry path, past the Citadel and down the hill to the oldest market street in the North America, the Rue Petit-Champlain.
The castle is the most photographed hotel in the world but because I miss the guided tour, I snake past the guard and venture through its maze of corridors alone. Cleaning crews dismiss me as I check out the comforts of distinctive Gallic-style dining and posh sleeping quarters. On my budget, though, I’m better suited for that park bench.
Quebecois are as polite and peace-minded as they are creative. Up and down the streets of Saint-Jean (World Heritage Site) are dozens of major modern and contemporary beaux artists. The prices seem affordable for original work and there’s always a little negotiating room among budding Bottecellis.
Even artist parking signs illustrate the importance of imagination for an area flanked with cafés, museums, and boutiques. My favorite: an immense mural on the corner of rue Notre-Dame that illustrates 400 years of Quebec history. Talented street musicians and performers work the crowds here for a few loonies ($1 coins) or toonies ($2 coins) and coinage gets heavy in the pants pocket if not unloaded on an enervated mime or human statue.
Au Revoir Atkins
Putin French fries, frog legs, and fois gras, I thought I tried everything Parisian in bistros on Madison Avenue, but Quebec City offers one specialty sin I haven’t tried – Creton!
At Le Diable O Anges (The Devil and Angels) a restored 1770 stone restaurant with wonderful al fresco dining, my garçon offers me creton with crepes. Creton is a pork spread that comes in small on-the-side-dishes and is lathered on toast or pancakes.
It’s a local favorite and the restaurant’s little devil sitting on my shoulder tells me to forget about the fat. But the summer sun melts my spread into a washed out runny goo and I opt instead for sweet maple syrup. My afternoon feast ends with advice from a same-sex married couple – “To purge ourselves of unwanted calories, we Canucks go biking!”
Curious by Nature
At Vélo Passe-Sport Plein Air, 22 Côte du Palais (tel. 418/692-36430) I rent a 21- speed for four hours at C$18 (US$14.75). It’s open daily from 9am to 6pm.
The topography of Quebec is marginally hilly so I opt for a flatter loop around the Recreational Park and Arboretum or Domaine de Maizerets et l’Arboretum.
The cycling terrain is well-paved and wide enough to share with pedestrians and I break only once to cool off in a wading pool. Full of families, the free public utility at the Old Man Port or Marché du Vieux-Port isn’t big enough to swim in but I’m sans suit anyway.
My bike trail is referred to as the Navigators Route and it continues on a short 10-minute ferryboat ride across the St. Lawrence (1-877-787-7483; traversiers.gouv.qc.ca) for $2.50C (US$2). After chasing a few elite cyclists to the highest point on the southern side, I catch my breath for more breathtaking aerial views of the cityscape in the distance.
Rental time ends but there’s still rich gelato calories left to burn so I hike it on foot through Battlefield Park. This 108-acre historical landscape saw some of the bloodiest fighting between the French and British in 1759. There are fortifications like the Martello towers, cannons, and monuments dotting the hillside.
For horticultural enthusiasts, the Joan of Arc sunken garden uses a method called mosaic carpet bedding. This beautifies a property once used to shelter the wounded. Along the perimeter of the park is a lengthy garden path lined with descriptions of untamed flora and 80 tree species.
Dollars and Sense
With so many historical churches, chapels and cathedrals to pick from, there’s time for only one more sight before I retire to my park bench – the Musee de la Civilisation. It’s recommended that visitors come here first for a history lesson but I suggest studying up before you leave home and taking in the rotating exhibits instead.
The museum has exhibits on the First Nations of Quebec, crime-scene investigations, Russia under the tsars, and costumes of the Middle Ages, as well as innovative explorations of familiar topics like light, salt, and money.
The “Sacred Money, Cursed Money” Exhibit explores humankind’s fascination and quest with monetary wealth. There are 200 objects and art installations on display that trace money’s roots back to trading and sacrificing humans and animals.
There’s tremendous shock value in some of the work, particularly an entry entitled “Grinder”. It’s a 12-inch display that’s illegally destroying and reshaping hundreds of $1 bills into sliced up and shredded confetti.