Yes, just about everybody speaks English in Quebec City, but (pro tip:) if you want to make your arrival a tad easier, book a hotel with a name you can pronounce.
Frontenac rolls off the tongue, as do lots of others. Manoir d’Auteuil, not so much. After a few laughable attempts and gentle corrections from those long immersed in the hospitality industry, I went with something like “man whah(r) dough toi(l).” Though I’m pretty sure hearing me say it sounded like I’d just licked an electrified fence.
Of course, using pronunciation as the sole criterion for lodging would’ve meant missing out on a really nice hotel. Quiet, too, and near the top of town—meaning it was a downhill walk just about anywhere.
Old Town Quebec is a completely walkable city, compact, with North America’s oldest church and first retail shopping district. Slogging along amid the throngs of tourists, it seems like some of those first shoppers are still here, desperate to find a way out of the crowd.
And this is one of my bœufs with Quebec. Tourists are more than 10 deep. Everywhere. It makes for a bovine experience: shuffle, shop, moo, shovel down food, etc. Authenticity was elusive. I wanted a sense of why this place matters. But you don’t really get that from Ye Olde T-Shirt Shoppe or Le Fudgerie.
And this is why first-timers (like me) should just suck it up and play tourist. My wife and I thought exploring the fortified military installation, le Citadelle, would give us a good sense of Quebec’s history. It did.
Samuel de Champlain decided (in 1608) this would be the perfect spot for France to establish a foothold in North America. And standing atop Cap Diamant (where the Citadelle stands), it’s easy to see why. This is where the St Lawrence River narrows to the point where it becomes quite easy to lob a cannon ball from one side to the other.
After the British laid siege to the city for much of the summer of 1759, the English General James Wolfe quickly defeated the Marquis de Montcalm and his French forces. Je me souviens.
Not even two decades later (but before becoming a turncoat), Benedict Arnold wanted control of Quebec. He even made the trip north with a group of armed revolutionaries. But, again, a quick and decisive British victory confirmed the futility of such thinking. After that, the fortress’s defenses were never tested again. But just to be on the safe side, Britain began construction in 1820 on the damn-near-impregnable redoubt now overlooking the St Lawrence and Quebec. Charles Dickens toured the place in 1842 and (fittingly) called it “America’s Gibraltar.”
But Quebec offers much more than military history. And one of its best features didn’t reveal itself until hours after the Citadelle tour ended.
Next: joie de vivre!