Where are we going, and why are we in this handbasket?

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Quebec, August 7-8 - Quebec City

We took a scenic drive to Quebec City on the 7th, through the Cantons de l'Est. It was pleasant, but not the pastoral paradise we imagined, and the guy at the tourist office was clueless. Lunch at Tim Horton's, the quintessential Canadian chain restaurant, was also a Denny's-like letdown. But Quebec City itself was fabulous - many beautiful old buildings on cobblestone streets, dramatic city walls, pork burgers with brie, and the Chateau Frontenac looming above it all. We walked up the hill to the famous hotel, then took the Governor's Walk across along and up the Upper Town wall and into Battlefields Park before calling it a night.

Under rainy skies Wednesday, we chose another gastrotourist option and had a chef's menu lunch at Ralph et Laurie featuring rabbit and foie gras terrine, guinea hen salad, and carrot cake. The cake was ordinary except for the mandarin orange and grapefruit and pepper on top of the frosting - delicious!

From there, we walked to Quartier Petit Champlain and Old Lower Town, where we went on an interpretive tour and watched a glass blower in action. Place Royale was as touristy as Old Montreal, but somehow more atmospheric. Our tour guide delighted in telling us about details like the 27 vaulted cellars still preserved, Samuel de Champlain's 23 crossings of the Atlantic, the difference between voyageurs and coureurs des bois, the two miracles of the Notre-Dame-des-Victoires, and buildings with rounded corners so carriages could turn tightly around them.

The highlight of the day was the finale of Les Grands Feux Loto-Quebec international fireworks competition. With some trepidation, we avoided the expensive tourist tickets, booked General Admission tickets and resolved to take public transportation to the competition site. Rain clouds gathered as we picked up some takeout KFC (actually, PFK: Poulet Frit Kentucky) and got on the bus, but the clouds parted just in time for the show.

The show was held in a unique natural amphitheatre at Montmorency Falls Park, just east of Quebec. We found a perfect vantage point on a footbridge opposite the central waterfall and all of the launch points. (Well, almost perfect -- those who kayaked or waded to the tiny island in the river got a better view. But it was clear that the whole show was designed to be viewed from our direction.) Portugal, China, Canada, and Spain all gave brilliant performances set to music. The natural setting, the carefully designed color palettes, and the contrast in national styles made it stunning. We both agreed that it's the best fireworks show we've ever seen. Thanks to my bad French, we still don't know who won, though.