Je me souviens vieux Quebec
I’m zig-zagging between the grassy knolls on the Plains of Abraham with a heavy heart. Now a swath of tranquil parkland, this historic Quebec City locale is where hundreds lost their lives in the 1759 battle between French and British forces, a milestone in the birth of the nation. It’s also the place where one of my biggest relationships finally disintegrated in an afternoon of juddering sobs, but there’s not a single plaque, information panel or historic re-creation to mark it. Avoiding the laughing, camera-wielding coach parties milling around the crenulated fortifications, I trudge over to the clifftop waterfront and stare moodily across the expansive St. Lawrence River. This is where the heart-plucking piano music should kick in. Instead, I get bored with trying to be miserable and pull out a map. It’s time to challenge the notion that this is my ground zero of breakups. First stop: anywhere but here. Unlike Montreal, its party-loving brother to the south, Quebec City has a tendency toward theme-park aesthetics. The old town, a tangle of 17th-century slums until a few decades ago, is now scrubbed clean. Its stone cottages are topped with technicolour tin roofs, old-world souvenir shops hawk maple syrup and some of its cavernous, tourist-grabbing restaurants mock the region’s dedication to fine dining. Thankfully, there’s much more to Quebec City than this Disneyfied tourist ghetto. Heading in the opposite direction to any obvious out-of-towners, I veer away from the old town’s faux medieval gateways and arrive on Rue Saint-Jean, a promenade of modern-day French Canadian living. Lined with lively patisseries and intriguing charcuteries, accented conversations percolate the air here as locals hook up for intimate coffee trysts or duck into family-run stores for their supplies of breakfast pâté and dinner-table wine. Inspired by this culinary joie de vivre, I step into the SAQ liquor store. It’s dripping with regional sweet liqueurs and imported tipples that rarely make it out west. I forget that it’s mid-afternoon and weave along the aisles sucking up freebie ice cider and gasoline-strong beer. When I stumble, blinking back onto Saint-Jean, I’ve forgotten which direction I came from. Since getting lost is one of the best ways to experience the city, I shrug and blithely head downhill – the path of least resistance – toward the Saint-Roch district. One of Quebec’s recent regeneration projects, there’s a city-sanctioned graffiti park under the highway arches here that feels like an outdoor art gallery. Along with some towering abstracts, there are several giant ecclesiastical scenes: religion is never far away in a province that has an inordinate proportion of churches. With the sun beginning a languorous, glowing decent, it seems like a good time to find an outdoor bar. Ambitiously claimed by locals as their own Champs Élysées, Grande Allée is one Canada’s most convivial al fresco drink-and-dine strips. Settling for the Voodoo Lounge’s buzzing outdoor patio, I settle on a citrusy local beer and sit back to people-watch. Quebecers have always known how to have a good time, a lesson the stuffy Brits should have adopted when they won here in 1759. But they also know how to catch the eye. Despite my negative relationship memories of the city, there are plenty of extremely attractive, martini-sipping women in summer dresses sitting nearby. Stretching my legs under the table, I decide to stick around for another beer. ESSENTIALS Weather Make friends with your hotel air conditioner: August in Quebec City can top a steamy 35 degrees Celsius. Can’t miss: Canyon Sainte-Anne Locals in the know have been cooling down at this rustic wilderness spot for decades. A 30-minute drive from the city, it combines cacophonous waterfalls, three suspension bridges and activities like abseiling, zip-trekking and via ferrata – an Italian-invented pathway of steel rungs snaking improbably across the rocks. Entry: $9.50. canyonste-anne.qc.ca Cool eats: Le Saint-Amour Fine French dining is de rigueur at this convivial upscale brasserie. Make for the candlelit conservatory and tuck into a starter of mini pyramids of rabbit confit and foie gras before hitting the carnivore-friendly main menu. Entrees from $9. saint-amour.com Best bed: Hôtel 71 This swanky new boutique property has transformed a former bank building into a temple of minimalist design. Despite the über-cool appearances – flat screen TVs, loungey decor and raindrop showers – the staff is warm and accommodating, with front deskers happy to chef-up cappuccinos for caffeine-craving guests. Rooms from $180. hotel71.ca One thing we need Four-hour mealtimes. Fast food has no place in Quebec, where dinners are savoured, stretched out and enjoyed at a pace that encourages sociable relaxation. One thing we don’t need Tourist hordes. Permanently ringed with tour buses, the old town is overrun with travelling packs of visitors who wouldn’t know French culture if it slapped them in the face. Which is exactly what it should do.