Wednesday, 19 February 2014


Québec was founded by the French explorer Champlain in the early 17th century. It is the only North American city to have preserved its ramparts, together with the numerous bastions, gates and defensive works which still surround Old Québec. The Upper Town, built on the cliff, has remained the religious and administrative centre, with its churches, convents and other monuments like the Dauphine Redoubt, the Citadel and Château Frontenac. Together with the Lower Town and its ancient districts, it forms an urban ensemble which is one of the best examples of a fortified colonial city
UNESCO sites are few and far between in North America, especially within driving distance of Boston. However, there was one place we knew we couldn't miss - Quebec City. It was even the right time of year for their famous annual winter carinval! Plus it was President's Day on Monday, creating a long weekend - perfect for letting us fit in the six to seven hour drive each way. On Friday afternoon, we set off from Boston for the first leg to Magog, a town about 30 minutes north of the border, planning to get up bright and early to arrive in Quebec City the next morning.

After a long drive through the snowy darkness to arrive at our Magog motel, with less than an hour to spare before it was too late to check in, we dumped our bags and made our way to McDonald's for a late Valentine's dinner. Sure, not the most romantic setting, but it was almost like dining at a French restaurant, in that the whole menu was in French, and everyone greeted us in French. Fortunately they could speak English too, otherwise ordering would have been a rather awkward ordeal.

If you're not familiar with poutine, besides bacon and maple syrup, it seems to be Canada's national dish - french fries smothered with meaty gravy and dotted with cheese curds, half whole, half gooey and melted, It's a gloriously delicious mess, and I'd been introduced to it in a new Canadian style deli back home in Auckland. So I was delighted to find that you could swap out regular fries with poutine in McD's Canada. Here it is. 
Apart from the fact that poutine usually uses thicker fries, not shoestring, it was actually delicious - the perfect winter comfort food.

We were a bit lazy with the getting out of bed the next day, so by the time we got to Quebec City it was already lunchtime. Again, we ditched the car and luggage at our hotel in the old part of town, then tottered down the hill toward Le Petit Champlain, a historic pedestrian street full of shops and restaurants.
Being the last weekend of the winter carnival, the place was thick with tourists, all snapping photos and marvelling at the picture perfect wintry scene. The light snowflakes drifting from the sky were the icing (sugar) on the cake - it was almost too charming, as if even the weather had been manipulated for visitors. I can't complain though, it was wonderful to sit huddled in the warmth of the delightful French bistro we were in for lunch, while snowflakes and marching bands drifted past just outside the window.
After lunch, we found the funicular. I love funiculars, possibly because it has the word 'fun' in it - also, you usually get to avoid a strenuous climb uphill by taking them. This one was a bargain at only $2.25 a pop, so we duly took a trip up to the top.
Disappointing, this is not a real ancient castle, but was built as a hotel to attract luxury tourism
For some reason, slowly moving ice makes the river seem colder than if it were completely frozen
It was while trying to take photos of the famous Chateau Frontenac and St Lawrence river that we started to realise just how freezing it was. After a mere minute of having any fingers exposed to the air, and not safely ensconced in gloves and/or pockets, they would become somehow painfully numb.

We shuffled through the snow on the Governer's Promenade and eventually made it to the main Winter Carnival grounds on the 'Plains of Abraham', a big park along the river's edge. It quickly became clear that there were just as many visitors here as in Le Petit Champlain, with long, stretching queues for each activity. By now, we were really starting to feel the cold, so we decided to retreat back to our hotel, change into our thermals, and venture back out later to see the night parade.

As the temperature dived over the evening and the following day, we did our best to layer up before going outside. In fact, we were pretty much wearing snowboarding or skiing clothes the whole time. Of course, once you step into any building you immediately have to peel off your big coats because everything is well insulated and centrally heated - unlike New Zealand houses! Also, most places thoughtfully have a double door system, kind of like an airlock, which prevents drafts and gives you a chance to disrobe and shake off the excess snow from your shoes.

So, the night parade. To be honest, it was a bit of a disaster, and I'm not even sure if it's one of the ones which make a funny travel story. Long story short, due to a lack of knowledge about the parade schedule (which I helpfully found after the fact right here) we spent three hours standing in the freezing snow, wondering if we were suffering from the early stages of frostbite.

The parade itself was alright, kind of similar to the Farmer's Santa Parade, but with Bonhomme, the carnival's official mascot, as the climax instead of Father Christmas. Boy, did the crowd go wild when they saw him. He's such an integral part of the event that the entry 'ticket' is even a little 'effigy' (hey, that's the word they use) of him.
We also got to visit Bonhomme's 'house', which was an interesting experience...
Being a snowman, it makes sense his house is made of ice
I'd like to see how he boils water without melting the stove itself...
This is the part where it got weird - heaps of photos of Bonhomme around the world, I especially liked this one
Is it just me or does this look like some sort of sadistic ritual?
Bonhomme 'effigies' from previous carnivals
By the time we stumbled into the welcome warmth of another bistro for a dinner at close to 10pm, the pain I experienced from the blood trying to get back into my thawing extremities was excruciating. Fortunately, the meal was delicious, our waiter was the very embodiment of French charm, and by the time we left, we had managed to feel less like ice blocks and more like warm blooded humans again.
An icy seat outside the restaurant
A super impressive mural in the old town
We were even brave enough to venture toward the waterfront to snap some night shots of the Chateau from below, which is just as well as I finally managed to find a UNESCO logo, which had been eluding us so far the entire time.
Could barely contain my excitement when I spotted this!
Blue skies greeted us the next day, and we returned to the carnival grounds with renewed zeal. First up, admiring the snow sculptures, some of which were decidedly... nightmarish.
Strange, but okay, impressive...
Wow, very lifelike, pretty awesome
This elephant is pretty cool, one of my faves
Okay, this thing is a bit... weird, but fine
What nightmare did this creature claw its way out of??
There were still hordes of visitors, mostly families, enjoying the festivities, but the queue for the ferris wheel seemed to be moving quickly enough to be worth joining. We got a great view of the grounds from the top, and that's when I spotted the dog sled track.
When else would I ever get a chance to get a ride on a dog sled? I simply couldn't pass up the opportunity. My only complaint was that the ride was too short, and judging by the reaction of the dogs whenever they had to stand and wait for passengers to be changed, they thought so too.
On our way back to the main part of town for lunch, we decided to climb up the massive snow bank piled against the old city wall, with some great views over the city. Obviously many other people had had the same idea, and there was even a 'track' from people sliding down the steep slope, which turned out to be both slightly terrifying and extremely fun.
As cold as we were the entire time we were outside in Quebec, it was hard not to also really enjoy playing around in the soft, powdery snow like little kids. No wonder the locals like to celebrate it with a two week party! Plus it would get pretty depressing otherwise.
One last thing we did before we left the next morning was to drive over to the ferry terminal on the other side of the river, in lieu of actually taking a ferry ride. We managed to get a couple of great shots of the city but gave up quickly before our fingers froze too much.
Next time we return to Quebec City, I'll be trying to get a booking at their ice hotel, and we'll definitely check the parade schedule more carefully!

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