Weekend: Quebec City
SLIDE SHOW: Quebec City
Crossing international borders still gives me a tiny mysterious knot in the pit of my stomach. I’m about to go somewhere else, somewhere foreign, and it’s defined–there’s a literal line around it. Like right now, for instance, driving into the twilight toward the border, moon turned up like a chalice. Low blue-gray clouds hang on the horizon, imitating mountains. What awaits on the other side?
Any chance to pull out the passport opens the doorway to a world of possibilities. Luckily for New Englanders, we can immerse ourselves in the real deal (centigrade and kilometers) simply by pointing our headlights north and crossing into Canada. Passport in hand, you can experience the full thrill of wondering whether you’ll be allowed in, as you wait at a stop sign that holds you in place with an emphatic Arret. Once admitted, you’re on foreign turf. Beret optional, it’s Europe without the jet lag.
A handful of hours after crossing the border, we arrive in beautiful Quebec City. French signs everywhere, French language all around (95 percent of the population), and French cuisine as far as les yeux can see. Bonjour, mes amis, and mon dieu, it’s cold, but cold as les Québécois do it–elegantly, passionately, casually.
Icebergs glide by in the distance, and fashionable folk dart from cafe to cafe. Wind curls off the frozen St. Lawrence, and the city hugs its river close like a devilishly decadent fur.
It’s a city made for ducking into warm places and emerging triumphant. For lingering over a bowl of cafe au lait and then whizzing around the city’s skating rink on Rue St-Jean at all times of the day or night. For studying a rack of newly arrived spring accessories at Simons, a venerable shopping institution, and then sliding down the funicular from Upper Town (Haute-Ville) to Lower Town (Basse-Ville). Or climbing, mountain-goat-style, back up through winding, stone-bedecked streets.
How do les Québécois do winter so beautifully? It’s a heady, head-clearing, steely-blue cold they summon here, but suffused with a supreme sense of warmth. Everyone absorbs a piece of the cold, so you don’t have to do it alone.
The palpable joie de vivre seems to spring from a certain quality of imagination, the kind that results in artwork everywhere–museums, of course, but also window decorations; huge trompe l’oeil paintings that transform blank walls into unfolding stories; intricate pastry displays; and the literal clothes on people’s backs, exquisitely designed to beat the cold. (Women walk by with small fortunes on their heads–$400 silver-fox helmets that seem to defy gravity and guilt.)
In the depths of winter, it’s a marvelously lit city. Supremely walkable, Upper and Lower towns are a rich mix of 17th- and 18th-century French and British influences. You’ll absorb the full benefits on foot, so check your car at the hotel. The two levels are quite handily connected via a funicular stationed at the edge of the imposing Château Frontenac, the dominant city edifice and a fantasy concoction that, despite what you may think, was never built as anything but a really swell hotel (with a delectable lounge and warming wines).