QUEBEC CITY — The most European city in North America also radiates a New World energy and spirit of adventure.
Maybe that’s why I felt at home, even though English is very much a (distant) second language in Quebec City.
A youthfulness also seems to reverberate among the walls of Vieux-Quebec, the old city, founded in 1608 by Samuel de Champlain.
OK, so I identify less with youthfulness. But I still enjoyed recalling my high-school French to decipher signs and offer brief greetings, even though it made my brain feel a bit fuzzy, like when I misplace my reading glasses.
Throughout its history, New France was mostly a series of rude, sparsely populated trading posts. But Quebec City, the capital of French North America, developed a degree of elegance that has wavered at times but never departed.
Today, the historic old city district is a UNESCO World Heritage site and has undergone something of a renaissance. Bustling cafes, upscale boutiques and a few quirky, kitschy souvenir shops fill the historic storefronts.
Although Quebec City fell to the British in 1759, the town and province never rested easy under British rule. Even as a part of Canada, Quebec has chafed, politically, against perceived slights by English speakers and has jealously guarded its French-speaking heritage.
Fortunately for monolingual American travelers, English is very much a lingua franca in the restaurants, shops and museums of old Quebec, whose narrow, winding streets are teeming with locals and with tourists from around the world.
I quickly learned the standard polite greeting of “bonjour, hello,” marking me as an English speaker. On one or two occasions I forgot the “hello” and was greeted by a stream of French that blew past like a speeding champagne cork — leaving me, I assume, with the same startled looked.
Pleasant surprises are around most corners — or twists or doglegs. (The old city is definitely not laid out on a smooth grid.)
My first surprise was at my inn, which I somehow hadn’t realized was also a religious cloister.
The name of the lodging should have given the game away: Le Monastere des Augustines. Although the historic building has been lavishly updated and restored, a small community of Augustinian Sisters still resides in one wing.
The inn now features 33 “authentic” rooms “restored in the spirit of monasticism.” My smallish room, with a shared bathroom just down the hall, was quite comfortable and reasonably priced, the reason I’d booked it to begin with. The room had windows with antique shutters, a small sink, a firm-ish twin bed, air conditioning and no television.
Guests seeking a bit more modernity can opt for one of 32 “contemporary” rooms that include in-suite bathrooms. This being the 21st century, when even nuns need Internet access, Wi-Fi is available throughout.
The nonprofit inn is dedicated to holistic health and sustainable development, and it offers daily health and wellness programs and a restaurant offering healthy cuisine. In keeping with the monastic heritage, breakfasts at the inn are silent. (Since I usually dine alone when traveling, this was not a big selling point for me. But I can see how other travelers might welcome a conversational break.)
The hotel is in the heart of the old city, where strolling, aimlessly, was a delight.
My steps eventually led me to Fairmont Le Chateau Frontenac, the hotel that looks like a castle perched on the Cap Diamant, the high cliff above the St. Lawrence River where the “upper town” of old Quebec is situated.
A street acrobat was performing a high-wire act on the plaza between the hotel and the city’s huge statue of Champlain — the very spot, I was told, where the founder of Cirque du Soleil got his start as a stilt-walker.
Behind the massive hotel is the Terrasse Dufferin promenade, with gorgeous, expansive views of the river and the ferries and ore boats plying that ancient waterway.
I’m a big fan of unplanned exploration, especially in a place such as Quebec City. But visitors will also find dozens of guided tours catering to a variety of interests in a variety of languages. To make sure I got a real taste the city, I booked an English-language food-and-history walking tour offered by HQ Services Touristique.
Although I was expecting a tasting tour, what I got was more of a progressive dinner, with stops at some of the most interesting and tony restaurants in the old city. It was delightful — and very filling.
I met tour guide Carole Bellefeuille at the old Porte Saint-Jean, Saint John’s Gate, on St. Jean Street, the hub of Quebec City’s tourist scene. From there we visited five different eateries, interspersed with some of the most prominent historical sites.
I would never have had time to sample the variety of restaurants on my own. But we were given the full, sit-down, white-tablecloth treatment at each establishment, as if we had been full-dinner customers who had reserved days in advance.
The tour was like a five-course meal, with three of the “courses” including wine, an Old World-ish tradition I heartily endorse.
Examples of our stops included the very traditional and venerable Le Continental, which predates the city’s strict sign ordinance and so flaunts the only smear of neon I saw in the old city. More important, the shrimp flambe was delicious and elegant. Other stops were just as tasty.
We meandered through the “upper town” and then down to the even older “lower town” along the river. We finished up, as the sun was setting, at Cafe La Maison Smith with a latte, a slice of cheesecake and a macaroon.
We ate our dessert al fresco in the Place-Royale, the oldest part of the city, while chatting in Quebecois- and Ohio-accented English about food and history — Old World and New — and about life.
I preferred it, very much, to my breakfast conversation.