Confession: I've been a francophone nut since Mr. Cohen's third-period music class at Jefferson Elementary School. Mr. Cohen opened me up when he started teaching us French folk songs. They sounded ill: jumpy-jivey verses, giddy choruses ("Valderee, valdarah, valderee, val-da-rah-ah-ah-ah!"). Caught hook, line and sinker. Post-university, I became a French cinema freak, bought a Gitane road bicycle, Satie/Serge Chalof albums, lived a month in Paris.
Paris changed my life. Montmatre, Barbes, Champs d'Elysées, Neuilly, cafés, L' Elephant, red wine at McDonalds, the Louvre, the Métro. No parlez-vous français, yet it felt righter than back home. Didn't feel like that again until I covered Festival d'été in Québec for this magazine back in Y2K. During the weeklong sojourn, my moods/emotions ran the gamut: alienation to indifference to anger to elation to love. Let me explain.
Before Québec, I covered Montréal's jazz festival. Montréal's got that wiggy Gallic cosmopolitan/provincial frisson going on. Tall buildings, rowhouses, cafés-boutiques-bistros-parks-churches-pubs. Bicycles, bilingual signage, smokers. French spoken everywhere. A multi-culti/racial-friendly, wide-open-to-tourists town. Nine days later, I was walking the cobblestone sidestreets of Québec City. I was not feelin' this place at all at first.
Founded by the French in 1608, Québec is the oldest and sole remaining walled city in North America. Located in the fertile St. Lawrence River Valley, perched on the shores of the river, the settlement flourished in peaceful co-existence with the native people. (Picture this: medieval city carved out of a mountain that straddles the bay. All along the upper deck are batteries of 50-lb. cannon. From here, a beautiful harbor becomes a killing field. A hundred of feet below is a bustling seaport. Fur traders, fishermen, merchants, and bankers.)
In 1759, the British bumrushed the city. The French split, leaving the Québecois to fend for themselves. Though they were guaranteed the right to religion, language and French civil law; assimilation was a no-go. In 1867, the Canadian Confederation ratified Québec City as the provincial capital. The historical legacy: three centuries of bad blood between the two Canadas, an enduring feeling of betrayal and animosity vis-à-vis France and a culture/language/mindset resolutely isolated.
Like I said, Montréal and Québec are in different time/space zones. In Québec, the tallest buildings are the hotels. The old city is still pretty much original factory issue: crumbly stonebridges, cobblestones every-which-a-way, quarry-stone town squares, narrow, uphill-winding streets and alleyways, centuries-weathered brick 'n' mortar architecture. Strictly Québecois signage up in here. Chic boutiques, boîtes, haute cuisine restaurants, grande concert halls? Naw, rustic pubs and bistros, McDonald's, Gap, Roots; too many tourist shops, Bar Spectacle d'Auteuil (500 cap.). And the people here have a decidedly different "look" and "vibe" than their homies in Montréal. Not too many Euro-chic clotheshorses or lounge lizards strolling up 'n' down the boulevard; just simple country folk flossing baseball caps, L.L. Bean-Eddie Bauer gear (young folks floss FUBU and Stussy).
Don't let the quaint horse-drawn cal
| Travel notes|
HOW TO GET THERE:
All the major airlines will get you to Montréal, but since ya'll haveta switch to a Canadian Airlines turboprop to reach Québec City, best stick with Air Canada (290 non-stop flights per day from the U.S.). 1-800-254-1000; www.aircanada.ca.
Tourisme Québec: 1-800-463-500977; www.bonjourQuébec.com
Summer Festival d'été de Québec (July 4-14 in 2002): 1-888-992-5200; www.infofestival.com.
WHERE TO STAY:
Hilton Québec, 1100 René Levesque, Boulevard East, Vieux-Québec; phone 1-800-447-2411/fax 418-647-6488. Restaurant/bar, shops/food court/cinema complex, 571 rooms/suites from $149-$300/night.
Le Chateau Frontenac (Fairmont), 1 rue des Carrières, Vieux-Québec; phone: 1-800-441-1414/fax: 418-692-3861, www.fairmont.com. 607 luxurious guestrooms, $165/night (winter), $300/night (summer), four-star restaurant Café de la Terrasse.
Auberge Saint-Pierre, 79 rue Saint-Pierre, Vieux-Québec; phone: 1-888-268-1017/fax: 418-694-7981, www.auberge.qc.ca. 43 stone/brick-walled rooms with whirlpool bath, $169-$219/night.
WHERE TO DINE:
Paris Brest, 590 Grande-Allée Est, Vieux-Québec; 418-529-2243, www.atlas-ed.com/paris-brest.html. Contemporary French cuisine on the California nouvelle-tip. Ask for prix fixe.
Voodoo Grill, 575 Grande-Allée Est, Vieux-Québec; 418-647-2000.
African-exotica motif, cuisine francophone multi-culti, entrees $15-$20.
Downstairs: World-class cigar bar (serious selection of Cuban cigars, Irish/Scottish whiskeys and fine ports); upstairs: the Maurice Nightclub (disco-blues-Latin) and Charlotte Lounge.
Manoir Montmorency, 2490 avénue Royale, Beauport; 418-663-3330, www.chutemontmorency.qc.ca. Colonial-elegant ambiance, spectacular view of Montmorency Falls. Sumptuous Québec cuisine, great wine; expensive but worth it.
WHERE TO SHOP:
Best Bargains: The Gap, 1034 rue Saint-Jean, Vieux-Québec; phone, 418-694-9066. Stocks all<