Saturday, May 07, 2005

A trip to Quebec

If you're going to Quebec City - fly.
Driving up to Canada from Southern New Hampshire is a delight - through darling towns and across the wild and glorious White Mountains, then over into beautiful Vermont with more proudly-groomed villages and lush landscape - until one comes upon the French Canadian border post. It is a crude and ugly structure, manned by particularly unwelcoming officials. And suddenly, in the matter of a few hundred metres, the landscape changes dramatically. The countryside looks poor. Run-down farms are here and there, fields of stubble, abandoned properties. And the further one goes, the worse it gets until, as one strikes the main highways, it is a passage of tragedy through devasted, ravaged land where mining waste runs into creeks and lakes, where fields are dug with crude channels and grow nothing, where there are more ruins than living domiciles, where trees are dead and dying in sad, stunted woods. It is a world of weeping environmental degradation. If one looks at the map of this part of Quebec state, one finds an explanatioon. There it is, the town called Asbestos. It's great attraction is a huge open-cut asbestos mine. Tourist attraction, no less. Gaze into the abyss and breathe deeply, dear tourists. We toyed with the idea of visiting such a perverse attraction. Or maybe Thetford Mines, another town which mined asbestos. Southern Quebec is asbestos country. What a miserable claim to fame. No wonder there is no pride in the landscape.
The long main road between Montreal and Quebec City is the Jean LeSage Autoroute, a poorly-maintained epic of a straight four-lane highway crowded with huge transport vehicles, especially semi-trailers with loads of logs. We had 180km of it to traverse - and it seemed as if four every four kilometres we had driven, we had progressed only one. There was a sense that we had found purgatory. The road had no ending. What from a distance looked as if it may be a village turned out to be a huge rubbish dump. Why was one not surprised. It was just an ongoing horror through profoundly depressed landscape. And, as we finally neared Quebec, the sky opened and torrents cascaded violently down with blinding car spray rendering visibility dangerously low. So we did not get much of a view of Quebec as we entered the city. Until we came through the gates of Vieux Quebec itself, where it was glistening cobblestones and bright awnings in colourful, narrow streets. And out of hell, we were in fairyland.

The Hotel Clarendon on Rue St Anne is known as an Art Deco delight in a city of 18th and 19th century history. It's handsome wrought-iron doors led into a sleek wood-panelled foyer and efficient reception. Our reservation was in order. Seventh floor, take that lift over there. It is the only one which goes to the 7th floor. We did. A funny, slow little lift. Very French.There were only three rooms on this little top floor. Ours, with king bed and jacuzzi, had small casement windows which looked down into a courtyard of hotel windows and windowboxes with plastic vegetation and out over the roof to a view of spires and turrets, vivid green in their verdigris antiquity. Aaah. This is what it is all about. An ancient walled city with a gothic aesthetic.

Since we were tired from the long drive and it was streaming rain outside, we chose to dine in the hotel's restaurant - The Charles Baillairge. The large, wood-columned dining room was almost empty, something on which Bruce chose to comment when the waiter hesitated in choosing where to seat us. Oops. "People arrive at seven," snarled the waiter. It was five to seven. Nonetheless he gave us a nice table for two opposite a long, over-curtained window looking out onto the quaint old shopfronts and passing umbrellas. On the table was a vase of plastic wildflowers in a vase partly filled with plastic water. This fascinated me. Plastic water? Classical music playing when we arrived gave way to bland muzac - so, mentally adding it to plastic water, I removed a star or two from the restaurant's rating. The waiters didn't earn it any more with their excess of French arrogance and their expertise in evading catching the eye. It took for ever to extract the wine menu after initially turning it down. The 1995 Cote du Rhone house wine, however, was exquisite, when finally I got it. $16 for a glass. But it beat paying $40 for a Jacob's Creek. The food was altogether heavenly. New discovery of the experience was corn sprouts - long petal-like sprouts which at first tasted like flowers and finally, in aftertaste, just like young, raw sweetcorn.
My salmon's light dressing of balsamic with maple syrup also was rather special. The general presentation, however, was very much the old nouvelle cuisine style. Tiny half-cooked veggies etc. An orchid as garnish.
It seemed like a light meal, but I was left with that bloated feeling of one unaccustomed to rich fare. A long walk in the night rain was a splendid solution. We donned coats and took brollies and set out over those glistening cobblestones and explore the old walled city with its fortifications and history of conflicts with the English.
The shops were all shut although restaurants looked busy and cosy. We strolled towards the port where we discovered a massive boardwalk from which one could look down to the noisy activities of the Vieux Port - cars and buses in the bright, rain-glinted streets, tourist leisure craft and tugs in the water. Lights of the buildings across the river. It was all rather lovely. We meandered on up along the pavements of the old town where girls, hugging themselves against the cold rain, stood in restaurant doorways to welcome potential diners. It was good window shopping with few people in the streets. The shops were not outstanding - fairly ordinary boutiques, Inuit craft shops and souvenir stores, lots of fur shops and a zillion art galleries all packed with the most luridly colourful and talent-free art I think I have ever seen. Take the worst of the Victor Harbor Art Show and pack it into twee galleries and you have the Quebec art scene. I was appalled, bewildered, incredulous - caught somewhere between hilarity and outrage at the awfulness of it all. Much to Bruce's amusement, I became obsessed, zeroing in on each gallery, looking, looking, looking for just one good artwork. I never did find it.
Beauty, however, was all around us in the old architecture, the narrow sloping streets, the quaint courtyards and grand formal buildings.
Back in our 7th floor hotel room, the view from our window was now illuminated - and yet more splendiferous. The old Frontenac Hotel's gothic grandeur, the underlit church spire, flags waving...
We slept like babes, weary and contented in our vast bed.

Room service breakfast was a magical surprise. Not just the ordered scrambled eggs, but also sliced fruit and generous toast complete with jams and the most decadently wicked caramel spread. I don't know when I've had a better room service breakfast, let alone for the grand price of $7.
Thus fortified, we took our brollies and headed off to explore the city in daylight. Joy of joys. The threatened rain backed off.
We descended the many stairs to the old port rather than using the funicular - since we had no Canadian money and already we had found two Bureau de Change not yet open, even though it was after 9 am. When we made it down to the charming narrow alley known as Petit Champlain, it was clear that Quebec wakes late on Saturday mornings. A few shopkeepers were standing outside their stores with coffee in hand. Some were arriving to open up. Most shops were closed. It mattered not, since there were no shops calling to me. It was pretty predictable tourism and fashion tat - nothing I had not seen a zillion other places. But the architecture, the nature of the little street, this was exquisite. We walked around many of the character-laden Old Port streets, past yet more and more galleries of terrible art, eventually wending our way up a steep curving road to the Haut Ville. Finally the town was awake and we were able to change $US20 and go for coffee. We sat outside at a popular little patisserie and had fairly average coffees, watching the world go by and listening to the elegant lilts of French being spoken all around us. There was a man prattling in French to a woman at the next table. A sharp American accent raked right through the French and I wondered how he sounded to the Quebecois. It became apparent that he was in practice mode - and he was saying much the same thing over and over again with small variations and I noticed that his female companion was politely trying to mask her ennui. I listened carerfully: "Je parrrll avec beaucoup perrrrsonnes et lui parrrlay avec moi. Je parrrll Fronnncais a l'hotel et puis je parrrll Fronnncais quand j'achette les cadeaux. Je suis heurrreusse quand je parrrrlll Fronnncais....." He droned on and on. It was painful. Yet he seemed so effusively smug to be talking French to a French-speaker, role-playing the urbane travelling linguist. Suddenly the woman waved to someone, leapt up rather too fast and bade the bore a swift and grateful goodbye. It would seem that she did not know him at all. He had simply found her waiting for her friends and decided to practice his dire French on her. Oh, that poor, polite woman. I resolved to keep my atrophied old French to myself.
And on we walked, exploring every nook and cranny of that lovely old town, popping in to an occasional interesting shop, reading restaurant menus and thinking about lunch. We decided that we craved crepes on this cool day. After three hours walking - up and down more narrow steep roads, across the ramparts, along touristy pavements - we had earned them. And thus we sat in a light and warm crepe house, waited upon by efficient and friendly matrons, and had escargots followed by rich crepes filled with chicken and asparagus and baked in bechamel sauce.
Bruce was not in the mood for museums or galleries or even the local waxworks - so we refreshed back at the Hotel Clarendon and then retrieved the car from the adjacent underground carpark and set out for Montmorency Falls which are taller even than Niagara, altho much, much smaller. Bruce did some inspired backstreet navigation which took us directly to the falls admissions gate. At first it was not clear how we should find the falls themselves and we wondered if we were supposed to take the cable car which seemed to be the only prominent landmark. Oh shudder. But then we heard that unmistakable sound, that roar that belongs only to waterfalls. We followed the noise and found ourselves walking a boardwalk around the steep cliff. We joined a handful of people standing on a viewing pavilion watching the mighty volume of water cascading and spraying to the river below. Then we climbed up and walked the suspension bridge over the falls, watching the sleek roll over the rocks, the clarity of the water which showed every detail of the rock, the way one ripple could turn into a major tumbling disturbance as it curved over the rocks - and then, from the other side, looking directly down into the roaring, raging froth of fall. In winter the falls create a mountain of ice - and still there were residual shelves of ice at the base.
We returned to Quebec city and this time parked on the other side of town - away from the tourist area and strolled the shops - wonderful, interesting gourmet and kitchen shops. We browsed a few wherein, to his immeasurable delight in waves of joyful incredulity, Bruce learned the French word for grapefruit - "pamplemousse".
Local people were out with their dogs, sitting in the streets outside shops on benches provided all over the place. Lots of civilized benches for people just to sit and watch the world go by. Buskers here and there. All very pleasant. We decided on afternoon coffee and chanced upon L'Oeuferie which not only had stunning bottomless coffee, but a cake display of particular note - extraordinary apple cakes and blitz tortes. We settled on a framboise and vanilla mousse cake. Neither of us ever had sampled a more exquisite delicacy. We swooned over every mouthful - and then sat back and had a ciggie, for such are the amenities in Quebec.
Thus restored, we returned to our Hotel Clarendon and spreadeagled on our large bed. Bruce fell asleep. I downloaded email, thanks to the hotel's flawless wireless Internet service.
By six the predicted rain began to dot the windows. We donned our coats, grabbed our brollies and set out in search of dinner. I craved the cleanth of Asian food but the only nearby Chineser was still closed for the season, so we accepted the proffered menu of a cold-looking door girl at a neighbouring Italian restaurant and went into the warmth to sit at red and white check tablecloths and order hearty food. More escargots for me. I must gorge when opportunity presents. I love them so. Bruce had salad and pizza. I had spaghetti and viande sauce - spag bol a la Francaise, light and rich with herbs. The provision of a chili sprinkler made it just perfection. And so, warm bellied, we repaired to our room to watch telly, read, write and have a vodka nightcap before sleep. Since our room did not have a fridge, I had been keeping my red grapefruit juice vodka mixer cool on the windowsill, an old trick I learned living in Edinburgh.

We woke to find we could barely see the spires out the window. A pea soup fog had descended on the city. We had another brilliant breakfast, packed our bags and headed south through the fog - not SW on the ghastly Jean Lesage Autoroute but directly south into Maine. We were soon out of the fog finding ourselves on a very different drive - the John Kennedy Highway meandering through a broad river valley with a much healither look and economy than the Vermont route with all the mining. The towns were not pretty as they are in rural America, but they were at least interesting, albeit industrial. One was just a lumber town - nothing but mountains of logs and more mountains of planks.
The border crossing back in the USA was also different. The American Immigration officer was as pleasant as he was efficient and businesslike. And we felt welcomed as we hummed through the mountains of northern Maine where snow still lay in clumps through the woodlands. This was moose territory, Bruce insisted. But we had said this throughout NH and Vermont and all one ever saw were endless moose crossing signs. I had decided that they were "moothical" creatures and only existed as a population of ubiquitous signage. On this road, however, I did finally see a real live moose. She was just standing in a little clearing near the road. She was about the size of a pony, but with leaner longer legs and a more highly-contoured, high-waisted shape. We decided she was a she because she had no antlers and was not as big as a horse - just as big as a pony. We did not stop to photograph her - because someone else had stopped and I did not want to scare the creature. It was enough to have spotted one - finally.

Looking for lunch was harder than one may have imagined. The little rural towns were a bit thin-on for cafes and restaurants. We eliminated one after another, waiting for better possibilities in the larger towns, settling on a busy tea, coffee and gourmet shop in Waterville where we had chili soup - definitely a clever brew of leftovers, very sustaining and spicy. It seemed odd to be served in paper and plastic containers for a sit-down meal, though.
Continuing on the backroads of Maine we reached our favourite coastal towns, having paused to have a look at Augusta, the capital, but only stopping when we reached Portland which is the biggest Maine town, I think, and a strikingly beautiful one. We visited our favourite kite shop for a new windsock for WrightlySo and then had coffee in Breaking New Grounds, a fabulous little coffee shop which has become a ritual watering hole for us.
We then popped into Kennebunkport on a mission for toothpick holders. Successful mission, thank heavens. We had been talking about the culture of the clam in New England - the many clam house my disappointment at my first and only fried clam encounter six years ago. I found them tough and could not understand why people loved them to such a high degree. Bruce pulled over outside a Kennebunk clam restaurant and sent me in to get a takeaway. Culture shock!!!! Now we all know that George Bush's family has its summer holiday home in Kennebunkport - but I was not prepared to find myself in the heart of Bush campaign country. Bruce pride central! The restaurant's walls were covered, and I mean covered, with signed Bush photos, family, campaign, formal, you name it. Bush pearly whites gleaming relentlessly from every direction, high and low. Pictures also of Rumsfelt and Cheney wreathed in their glows of self-satisfaction. Chummy thankyou letters all over the place from the Bushes and the Republican party for the restaurant family's support. Pictures of family members visiting the Whitehouse. Even a thankyou letter from Fox's Brit Hume who, apparently, had been sent a t-shirt from the restaurant. On sale were mugs inscribed "Two Presidents - one town". So I had plenty to assault the sensibilities while waiting for my fried clams. I clammed up good and proper while doing so. An old leftie like me could get into trouble opening her mouth in such a place.
The clams, as it happened, were terrific. We munched down as we drove on.
It was still a fairly long way home so we hopped onto the big highway and "schussed" back to New Hampshire where our little apartment was waiting all warm, neat and fragrant.


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