Picturesque Vieux-Quebec

Le Chateau Frontenac with its turrets and gable windows is the archetypal fairy-tale castle in...
Le Chateau Frontenac with its turrets and gable windows is the archetypal fairy-tale castle in the sky. PHOTOS: MIKE YARDLEY
Charles Dickens probably summed up Quebec City’s appeal best: ‘‘Splendid views which burst upon the eye at every turn.’’ Mike Yardley took a look.

From the Dickensian atmosphere of falling snow and glowing lamps to the peeling of church bells from elaborate cathedrals, row upon row of quaint stone gabled houses, ancient convents, leafy pocket parks, sidewalk cafes, cobblestoned lanes and horse-drawn caleches, Vieux-Quebec (Old City) is unstoppably picturesque.

This is a city that clings to her French-speaking heritage and Gallic traditions. It is like a grand, evocative set spanning 400 years, bestowed with World Heritage protection in 1985.

It is the only North American walled city beyond Mexico, underpinning its proud sense of historical continuity.

Home to the largest Francophone population outside of France, Vieux-Quebec is the cradle of French North America, where the dream of New France was born and died.

The Old City comprises the Upper Town, surrounded by fortifications and strutting the craggy heights of Diamond Cape, while the Lower Town is nestled around its base, fanning out from Place Royale.

I started my explorations at this compact and photogenic plaza that the locals consider to be the birthplace of French America.

It is where famed French explorer Samuel de Champlain made his home away from home in 1608, after declaring it French territory.

There is still a bust of Louis XIV, the Sun King, in the centre of the plaza, which was the town's bustling marketplace in the 17th and 18th centuries.

Quebec street scene.
Quebec street scene.
Commercial activity stagnated in 1860 and the district became rundown and all but abandoned. But 50 years ago, the harbourside district was reborn and rehabilitated, with antique shops, bistros and chic boutique hotels breathing renewed atmosphere into the plaza.

Dominating the square is Notre-Dame-des-Victoires, Quebec's oldest stone church, built in 1688 after an inferno razed many Lower Town homes.

British cannons smashed it during the 1759 siege but it was lustily restored four years later.

Rue du Petit-Champlain is arguably the prettiest street in the city, flanked by impeccably restored merchant houses and fur trading posts and now brimming with bistros, art galleries and handicraft boutiques.

Natural-fibre weaving, Inuit carvings, hand-painted silks, local fashion design and enamelled copper crafts are among the trademark specialties for sale here.

After founding the settlement in the Lower Town, Champlain relocated its heart to the more easily defendable Upper Town, atop Diamond Cape.

Originally, the two districts were connected by the vividly named Breakneck Staircase, a gut-busting stairway first built in 1635 and replaced in steel in 1968.

It's a hell of a thigh-burner, so save your energy and opt for the funicular when ascending. I'm a funicular fanatic from way back and Quebec's cliff-climbing contraption is a classic.

It coughs you out on to Dufferin Tce, which occupies the site of the fort and chateau St Louis, which Champlain founded in 1620.

In the heart of the town.
In the heart of the town.
For two centuries, the chateau served as the official residence for the governors of New France, including the British rulers, until it was destroyed by fire in 1834. The governor at the time, Lord Durham, decided to build a sprawling cliff-side wooden promenade on top of the chateau ruins, which has been progressively enlarged ever since. It now extends for a kilometre along the cliffs of Diamond Cape, delivering sweeping views across the Lower Town and the St Lawrence River.

I loved strolling along the terrace at night, or grabbing a seat on a bench, backdropped by the soaring turrets of the Fairmont Le Chateau Frontenac. Conjuring history and fantasy, this hotel is a flamboyant neo-French Gothic confection, crowning Cap Diamant, teeming with spiky turrets scratching the sky.

No matter where you find yourself in Old Quebec, it looms large from every angle. From the Lower Town, it resembles a story-book castle in the sky.

I'm a walkover for a good historic hotel and this stirring masterpiece of hospitality is a marquee specimen, spilling forth proud footnotes from history.

In 1939, King George VI and Queen Elizabeth graced Le Chateau with their presence. At the height of World War 2, the secret military talks called the Quebec conferences were headquartered at the hotel, where US president Roosevelt and British prime minister Winston Churchill, thrashed out their Allied battle plans.

Today, 17 of the hotel's most prestigious suites have officially been named in honour of famous guests who have stayed at the hotel since its opening in 1893.

In 1953, the hotel was used as the location for Alfred Hitchcock's film I Confess, featuring Montgomery Clift and Anne Baxter.

Visiting glitterati to have bedded down in its lavish quarters include Princess Grace of Monaco, Chiang-Kai-Shek, Charles de Gaulle, Ronald Reagan and Charles Lindberg.

Place Royale.
Place Royale.
Coinciding with the dawn of rail's golden age, the fairy-tale hotel was commissioned by the general manager of the Canadian Pacific Railway in the late 19th century. Its copper roof, multiple turrets and sloped peaks define the hotel's architectural splendour, which has been steadily expanded over the decades.

This hallowed property beckons like a true-life castle. One of the first ``staff'' I encountered was Daphne, a docile St-Pierre doggie. Resident hotel dogs are a Fairmont trademark. Known as Canine Ambassadors, they are impeccably well behaved, professionally trained, and always happy to be taken for walkies.

Inspired by the year of Quebec City's founding, and situated on the very site of the fledgling settlement, the new 1608 Wine & Cheese Bar showcases one of the largest varieties of top Quebec cheeses, paired with wine.

Champlain Restaurant is the hotel's classic formal dining affair, recently refreshed by one of Quebec's hottest restaurant chefs, Stephane Modat.

A more informal experience awaits at Bistro Le Sam, inspired by French explorer Samuel de Champlain. Showcasing some of Quebec's hottest culinary trends, it's a buzzy and relaxed affair with an open kitchen.

The hotel celebrates its 125th anniversary next year. If you're planning a trip to Quebec, soak up its sparkling grandeur.

Lurking beneath Dufferin Tce, the chateau's crypt remains. In recent years, a major excavation project has revitalised the ruins and the relics, which you can now walk through, underneath the terrace. Highly recommended.

The terrace eventually leads you all the way down to the Plains of Abraham, where

Britain's General James Wolfe and the French General de Montcalm crossed swords. Both died, but the British army conquered Quebec, spelling the death of New France.

It's a peaceful city park now, full of winding walking paths and bicycle trails, and a favourite spot for cross-country skiers come winter. Next to the park, the British reinforced the city's defences and built a colossal star-shaped fortress, the Citadelle - the largest fortified base in North America still occupied by troops. The regiment turns out daily in scarlet tunics and bearskin caps for the changing of the guard.

In a city with such dramatic military history, the Fort Museum brings it all to life with a riveting sound and light show, re-enacting the area's important battles. It's all staged across a 37sq m replica of the city, complete with ships, cannons and hundreds of miniature soldiers.

This eye-popping diorama was first created 50 years ago but has been progressively enhanced with technological lighting effects, delivering an easy-to grasp-insight into the battle-scarred story of Quebec.


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