Spread over the promontory Cap Diamant and the banks of the St Lawrence River, QUÉBEC CITY (sometimes referred to just as “Québec”) is one of Canada’s most beautifully located cities, and certainly its most historic one. Vieux-Québec, surrounded by solid fortifications, is the only walled city in North America, and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Throughout the old city winding cobbled streets are flanked by seventeenth- and eighteenth-century stone houses and churches, graceful parks and squares, and countless monuments. Although some districts have been painstakingly restored to give tourists as seductive an introduction to Québec as possible, this is nevertheless an authentically and profoundly French-Canadian city. Over ninety percent of its 750,000 population are francophone, and it is often difficult to remember which continent you are in as you tuck in to a croissant and a steaming bowl of café au lait in a Parisian-style café. Moreover, despite the fact that the city’s symbol is a hotel, the Château Frontenac, the government remains the main employer.
None of Québec City’s highlights are far from the St Lawrence River, with the main attractions being evenly distributed between the upper and lower portions of what is known as Vieux-Québec (Old Québec). Within the quarter’s walls reminders of the days when the city was the bastion of the Catholic Church in Canada are discernible at almost every corner. The Church can claim much of the credit for the creation and preservation of its finest buildings, from the quaint Église Notre-Dame-des-Victoires to the Basilique-Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Québec and the vast Séminaire.
On the Cap Diamant, Haute-Ville (Upper Town) continues along the river from the old city walls and from here you should wander at least to the Musée National des Beaux-Arts du Québec, home to the finest art collection in the province. The museum is set in the expansive battlefield of the Plaines d’Abraham, a national historic park that unfurls west of the massive and magnificent Citadelle, an austere defensive structure that reveals the military pedigree of a city dubbed by Churchill the “Gibraltar of North America”. At the foot of the Château Frontenac, Terrasse Dufferin is also worth a stroll to watch street entertainers and for the arresting views over the river, but it gets crowded in the evening. It also overlooks the second part of the Vieux-Québec, Basse-Ville (Lower Town), connected to Haute-Ville by funicular and several winding streets and stairs; if you’re only in Québec City for a short while, head here straight from the Place d’Armes and then return to the Upper Town for the remainder of the sights. One of the main pleasures of the area, besides the wonderful old houses and small museums, is the Musée de la Civilisation, which expertly presents all aspects of French-Canadian society.
For centuries the clifftop site of what is now Québec City was occupied by the Iroquois village of Stadacona, and although Jacques Cartier visited in the sixteenth century, permanent European settlement did not begin until 1608, when Samuel de Champlain established a fur-trading post here. To protect what was rapidly developing into a major inland trade gateway, the settlement shifted to the clifftop in 1620 when Fort St-Louis was built on the present-day site of the Château Frontenac. Québec’s steady expansion was noted in London, and in 1629 Champlain was starved out of the fort by the British, an occupation that lasted three years.
Catholicism and commercial might
Missionaries began arriving in 1615, and by the time Bishop Laval arrived in 1659 Québec City and the surrounding province were in the grip of Catholicism. Yet in the city’s earliest days the merchants of the fur trade wielded the most power and frequently came into conflict with the priests, who wanted a share in the profits in order to spread their message among the aboriginal peoples. Louis XIV resolved the wrangles, after being advised to take more interest in his kingdom’s mercantile projects. By 1663 the entire French colony, which stretched from Newfoundland to the Gulf of Mexico, was known as New France and had become a royal province, administered by a council appointed directly by the Crown and answerable to the king’s council in France. Before the century ended, the long-brewing European struggles between Britain and France spilled over into the colony. It was at this time that the Comte de Frontenac, known as the “fighting governor”, replaced Champlain’s Fort St-Louis with the sturdier Château St-Louis, and began work on the now-famous fortifications that ring Vieux-Québec.
In 1759, during the Seven Years’ War (also known as the French and Indian War), the most significant battle in Canada’s history took place here, between the British under General James Wolfe and the French commander general Louis Joseph, Marquis de Montcalm. The city had already been under siege from the opposite shore for three months when Wolfe and his four thousand troops scaled the cliff of Cap Diamant and engaged the hastily organized and ill-prepared French. The twenty-minute battle on the Plains of Abraham left both leaders mortally wounded and the city of Québec in the hands of the British, a state of affairs ultimately confirmed by the Treaty of Paris in 1763.
In 1775 – the year after the Québec Act, which allowed French-Canadians to retain their Catholic religion, language and culture – the town was attacked again, this time by the Americans, who had already captured Montréal. The British won the battle, and for the next century the city quietly earned its livelihood as the centre of a timber-trade and shipbuilding industry. Yet by the time it was declared the provincial capital of Lower Canada in 1840 the accessible supplies of timber had run out. The final blow came with the appearance of steamships that could travel as far as Montréal (earlier sailing ships had found it difficult to proceed beyond Québec City). Ceasing to be a busy seaport, the city declined into a centre of small industry and local government, its way of life still largely determined by the Catholic Church.
The rise of Québécois nationalism
With the Quiet Revolution in the 1960s and the rise of Québec nationalism, Québec City became a symbol of the glory of the French heritage: the motto Je me souviens (“I remember”), for instance, placed above the doors of its parliament buildings, was transferred to the licence plates of Québec cars, to sweep the message across Canada. Though the city played little active part in the changes, it has grown with the upsurge in the francophone economy, developing a suburbia of shopping malls and convention centres as slick as any in the country.