Quebec for Beginners

Just got back from a family vacation to Quebec on Sunday–we’d been there since Wednesday. I’ve been to Canada once before, but when I was young enough that I don’t really remember any of it that clearly at all. Just the fact that I’d been. Since we live so close to the country now, it didn’t make any sense that we hadn’t actually visited it. Especially since Quebec City was only four hours away. That’s about as close as Boston.

So we made the trek, and I’m back now to talk about it. Picture-free, alas. My camera is with Denisa, so I can’t post the pics here. They’ll be up on Facebook soon enough, though. Anyway.

There were a lot of unknowns on this trip. It didn’t help that neither of us had had the time to really do some proper research about what we wanted to do and see. We thankfully had some friends who’ve been to Quebec many times, and they had great tips for what we shouldn’t miss, but as for what to expect . . . we’d heard the city was “very European.” However, we’d only really heard this from people who haven’t been to Europe. So we weren’t quite sure what to expect.

The border crossing was something Denisa was expecting to be simple. When we crossed the border between Czech Republic and Slovakia back in pre-EU days, it involved the guards staring at our passports for a bit (staring at mine–the American’s–for quite a bit) and then waving us through. How much different could it be here?

Quite a bit.

They asked a slew of questions (Do you have any weapons? Do you own any weapons? Have you ever owned any weapons? Do you own mace? Do you own a taser? I’m not making this up). Then we had to park the car and go inside and wait while they did who knew what for about 15 minutes. Maybe some of this had to do with the fact that hardly anyone else was driving across the border. So . . . bored boarder patrol guards? In any case, it was quite extensive (and it was almost as extensive on the way back, although the American guards were friendlier.)

Gas was much more expensive. Somewhere around $4.90/gallon–thankfully, we were able to tank up right before we entered the country, and then made it back home on that one tank of gas.

We stopped for some food before we got to the city, and I had my first taste of poutine. Basically a French Canadian meal consisting of french fries covered in brown gravy and cheese curds. It was interesting. I think I liked it. 🙂

I was surprised when we got there at how little English the woman at the restaurant spoke, but I figured there’d be more English when we got to the city.

Not so much.

I’ve been to a fair number of foreign countries. I’d have to say that Quebec City wins the award for “least amount of English spoken” if you don’t count Eastern Europe. (Which I don’t. Eastern Europe was all Russian until fairly recently, and it’s becoming much more English-friendly lately.) Quebec was defiantly French-only. Some English spoken, but much less than in other countries–though it’s certainly possible I just had a less-ordinary experience.

The city is very European. It didn’t feel like I was just a few hours away from home, that’s for sure. It sits right on the St. Lawrence River, with the Chateau Frontenac towering above the lower city, filling much the same role as a castle. It reminded me of Salzburg in many ways. The Old City is walled (the only walled city in North America north of Mexico City). The architecture is very Old World. I tried to compare it to Boston or Philadelphia, and the feel is just . . . different. Philly old city is colonial. This wasn’t.

The food was great, although bakeries are definitely not the city’s strong suit. We made several trips to bakeries, and we had to hunt to find them. Not much in the way of good bread–at least not in the touristy Old Town. Maybe it’s better outside that area. We had crepes, which were highly tasty. And–ironically–some good Italian food. Did manage to get some goodies at a bakery we found, and they get two thumbs up from me for their chocolate cake. Chocolicious.

At the same time, it was all tremendously expensive, I thought. Crepes were $13 each. Dinners ran around $25, everywhere you went. (Note: I didn’t visit the 2 McDonald’s we passed. It might have been cheaper there.) Riding the little funicular up to the Old City was $2/a person for a thirty second ride. Brunch at the Chateau would have been $50 each. (We passed this time around.) Don’t expect to go and do too much for cheap. (Though we did have a condo right downtown, which was very reasonably priced for a group, and we managed to get some tickets for a river cruise at almost 50% off, which was nice. Thanks, AAA!)

We saw much of the Old City: walked the walls surrounding it, avoided the throngs of Pink Floyd fans in town for a concert, checked out the battlefields, walked 398 steps up to said battlefields, saw Montmorency Falls from the cruise ship, visited the Museum of Civilization to see a really cool Samurai exhibit, shopped in the artsy areas, walked (and walked, and walked) (note: the toy store Benjos, while a great toy store, is a very long walk for a hot day with an 8 year old and a 4 year old).

All told, I highly recommend it. We’ll be going back for sure. The kids had a great time, and there was still plenty of things we’d wanted to see but didn’t get around to actually doing.

That said, it was nice to come home and get back into the swing of things here. Busy busy busy . . .

How about you all? How many of you have been to Quebec? Thoughts?

3 thoughts on “Quebec for Beginners”

  1. I’m another one of those who thought Quebec City was European, but hadn’t actually been to Europe, so I’m glad to hear you concur.

    I’ve been told that you’ll hear a lot more English in Montreal, although whether that’s due to more tourism or the presence of McGill or some other factor, I couldn’t say. I suppose there’s also the issue that not speaking English may be a point of pride in much of Quebec, in ways that it wouldn’t be in western Europe.

    When I went to Quebec a few years ago, we spent just one day in Quebec City and the rest of the week in the Saguenay region, which is another 3 hours father north. Up there they *really* don’t speak English. I could understand most of the professors OK (I was doing a 1-week mini immersion program at a university up there), but I had a horrible time trying to do things like order fast food, mainly because their accent was stronger and they spoke more quickly.

  2. I always think it’s interesting how–to non-speakers of a language–all dialects sound identical. It’s only once you speak the language fluently that they start to distinguish themselves from each other.

  3. Yeah. It was also weird because I guess Parisian French (the dialect I learned) sounds very formal to people who speak other dialects, so my accent was a little unintentionally intimidating. (I guess the equivalent in English might be talking to people in rural Maine with a BBC accent.)

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