Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Wandering Mystic Meditation From Quebec City

Sitting atop a promontory that dominates the St. Lawrence River, it has been called the key to the continent. The ramparts surrounding the Old City (Vieux-Quebec) make it the only truly fortified city on the continent North of Mexico. It’s a UNESCO world heritage site. Plus, from my point of view, it’s the most beautiful city in North America.

Quebec City is one of those places you have to see at least once in your life and preferably more. I’ve been lucky to go there twice, and there will be other visits in the future. It’s the capital of the province, home to museums, galleries, shops, boutiques and Chateau Frontenac, which dominates the city.

The place was founded in 1608 by the French explorer Samuel de Champlain, though it had already been in some use by Europeans for nearly a century since the days of Cartier, plus by the First Peoples of the region long before that. It became the key to the continent for the way it dominated all approaches to the interior by the St. Lawrence River. The French and English fought here during the French and Indian War, and the political fate of the continent was sealed on the Plains of Abraham outside the Old City. Just a few years later, Americans under Richard Montgomery and Benedict Arnold (yes, that Benedict Arnold) tried and failed to take the city during the American Revolution.

Today, the city is more of a peaceful place, where the only ardent fighting is of the political variety in the provincial legislature. The architecture of the Old City is carefully preserved, and travelling there feels like stepping back in time, almost as if it’s a European city transplanted to the Americas. Vieux-Quebec is not an area of the city ideal for cars. (Trust me on this one!) Yet, that’s part of what makes it so appealing. The cobblestone streets, nooks and crannies, quiet courtyards, the churches and convents... indeed, the hundreds of years of history seem to soak into the visitor while you’re there. It’s a city with rich character, friendly residents, and even the odd ghost around the corner. It’s one of my favourite places, and one visit will probably make it one of yours too.

One word of warning: if you happen to see the retired separatist premier Lucien Bouchard around, don't ask him about the limp. I swear, one bout of flesh eating disease followed by a prosthetic leg, and he’s still mad at everyone and everything. Go figure.

In addition to deciding the political fate of the continent, Quebec City has left its mark on the psychology of the Americas as well. From the beginning, Canadian society has been forged with diplomacy and negotiations between French and English elements, despite their ancient rivalries. To the South, American values have often reflected the experience of liberty obtained through military conflict. Even today, an American leader can sell "going to war for freedom" while a Canadian leader would be more likely to champion "a peacekeeping mission abroad."

Despite the efforts that Canadians and Americans make to understand vastly different cultures when travelling the world, they often cross the border to visit their closest neighbor with little grasp of the history and framework that shapes local worldview. Though people on the other side of the planet sometimes have trouble telling Americans and Canadians apart, there are important cultural differences that the sensitive traveler should come to understand and hopefully respect. We may not always agree with other cultures, but when placed in context, they usually make more sense than otherwise.

William Kendall is a writer, photographer and rock climber from the Ottawa Valley. When he's not working on his world domination scheme (no golfers allowed), he can be found writing the forthcoming Heaven & Hell, plus his personal blog Speak Of The Devil.

Publisher Lyn Fuchs adds this note: I worked with William on this article, because I think there's a profound point here. After years of living in the U.S. and Canada, I'm convinced that it's relatively easy to claim tolerance or even affection for a person who looks cute in his foreign clothes speaking words we can't understand. It's that jerk right over the fence speaking our language but not our perspective who really tests our ability to love our neighbor. Travel writers should reveal the subtle differences between similar cultures (as well as uncovering the exotic and other), in the hope of encouraging a more-understanding world.


  1. This is a place I have to see! Thank you, William and Lyn.

  2. It's a city that's really without compare in Canada. Everyone should see it once.

    Thanks for posting, Lyn!

  3. Beautiful post that drew me into your world. Thanks for the culturally engaging tour.

  4. is a nice place :D

  5. I keep thinking that the blog I put up today would have been ideal here, Lyn!

    Eve, Mariana, Norma, it's a city to be experienced!

  6. Just read your Donner party blog, William. That's where I'm coming from. I was born in Sutter Memorial Hospital then took school field trips to Sutter's Mill, where gold was discovered in the riverbed. My first girlfriend was Mexican. I feel at home in California or British Columbia, but I'm absolutely a Westerner. I'd rather starve or eat my comrades in the Donner party than go back East and wear a tux to a dinner party. Thanks for the memories.

  7. I must remember what not to ask Mr Bouchard if I do bump into him on my travails to this fine and beautiful and historic city! It's got cobblestones! Yay!

    Take care

  8. Ah, Sutter. I once wrote a paper suggesting he should have killed Sam Brannen for costing him a bloody fortune by blurting out the fact that gold had been found.