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

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Quebec, August 2007

On this quick trip, we wanted somewhere a) new and interesting; b) with last-minute frequent flyer flight availability; c) not too far; d) with Starwood hotels where we could stay for free. An exhaustive search led us to Quebec, so we booked flights, hotels, and car for Montreal, Quebec City, and Tremblant just 36 hours before we left. Advised by the Lonely Planet book and some hastily browsed blogs, we decided to spend 3 nights in Montreal, 2 in Quebec City, and one in the mountain resort city of Tremblant. Details follow.

Quebec, August 9-10 - Tremblant and Montreal

We were sad to leave Quebec City so soon, but today we drove along the St. Lawrence river to Tremblant, a mountain resort town next to a "national" park. (It is a provincial park, but the Quebecois don't refer to it that way.) This drive was more scenic than our venture through the Cantons-de-l'Est, with a lot of quaint small farms on the riverbanks.

The inaccuracy of the Lonely Planet book was a running joke with us. It neglected to mention overcrowding at popular Montreal sights, got hours of operation wrong, loved the park that we considered boring, had some very outdated information, and shortchanged Quebec City relative to Montreal. So we took it with good humor that their "fairy tale village" of Tremblant was in fact an overcommercialized, overpriced time-share tourist trap without even any history or interesting architecture. David checked the bottom of our expensive pizza to see if it bore any straight-off-the-truck Sysco markings. At least our hotel was pleasant, and our room even had a fireplace.

Friday morning we escaped our favorite "fairy tale village," took the gondola to the summit of Mont Tremblant, and hiked back down through lush forests, alpine meadows, and past a pond and beaver dam. The weather cooperated beautifully, and ripe raspberry and blueberry bushes lined the trail in several places. After swimming, we headed back to Montreal for dinner at Malhi Sweets, a completely unobtrusive Indian restaurant with a menu touting the fact that Catherine Deneuve once celebrated her birthday there. The malai kofta and lamb korma were excellent, and dinner for two cost less than some single sandwiches in Tremblant.

Just like that, our trip was basically over. (Little did we know we'd spend 11 hours waiting in airports for cancelled and delayed flights the next day, but we were home again soon enough.)

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.

Quebec, August 5-6 - Montreal

Montreal greeted us Sunday afternoon with a perfect day. After an infusion of coffee at an outdoor cafe near Rue Ste. Catherine, we set off to explore the city on foot. First we headed east toward the Latin Quarter and the Village. This part of Montreal seems like a Francophone version of any American city, but with more ethnic food businesses, and more murals.

Summer is festival season in Quebec, and it wasn't long before we found ourselves in the middle of the last day of the FrancoFolies Francophone music festival, watching Pierre Lapointe rehearse for his headlining concert. A few blocks later, we found ourselves at the Divers/Cite gay music festival, where we met a unique Toronto Dominion advertisement: a man wearing nothing but glitter, a body paint logo on his chest, and some green short shorts. He was happy to pose for a picture.

We picked Au Pied de Cochon, based on amazing internet reviews, for an early dinner. In our foie gras poutine appetizer, the foie gras blended nicely with the french fries (cooked in duck fat), gravy, and cheese curds. For our main, the "pied de cochon" lacked exoticism (no hoof) but was incredibly tender and swimming in a tasty oniony, garlicky, mustardy sauce.

After dinner we strolled through Little Italy and Mont Royal the Plateau and turned in for the night at the W downtown.

In the thunder and rain of Monday morning, we explored the shops and disorienting walkways of the Underground City looking for a store selling umbrellas. By the time we had breakfast, bought the umbrella, and emerged, the rain had stopped. Fearful of more rain, we took the subway to Olympic Park and the Biodome, a sort of indoor zoo, but found the Biodome too crowded to get into. So we set out on another food expedition, this time to get fresh wood-fired Montreal Bagels, known for their flatness, and to stop by the venerated Schwartz's Charcuterie.

The Fairmount Bagel bakery in Mile End was a longer walk and a smaller business than we had imagined. We waited in line in the tiny room, ordered our bagels from the counter overlooking the kitchen, and ate on park bench outside. The garlic bagels had about ten times the amount of garlic that we expected, and the insides were deliciously warm and fluffy. An analogy: fresh Fairmount Bagels are to ordinary American bagels as fresh Krispy Kremes are to old grocery store doughnuts.

Schwartz's was so crowded that we moved through about 5% of the takeout line in 15 minutes, so we gave up on them. At least we have the souvenir photo. Determined to make the most of our subway passes, we next visited Jean Drapeau Island, a large, empty, and underwhelming park featuring an EPCOT-like sphere from the 1967 World's Fair and a Formula 1 racetrack. We climbed the grandstands to get a good view of the city over the St. Lawrence river and amused ourselves chasing down the dense marmot population.

We saved the biggest tourist attraction for last, visiting Vieux Port and Vieux Montreal in the afternoon and evening. The buildings were attractive, and the antiquated 1900-era financial district interesting, but the throngs of tourists and souvenir shops made for an inauthentic ambiance.

Tonight's dinner was french: duck with orange risotto and buffalo steak with anchovy sauce. Mmmm.

By chance, we walked by a fountain and park behind our hotel at the right time and saw an amazing show of mist and fire. It became our favorite Montreal attraction. (Take a look at the pictures.)