Parlez vous? Oh, never mind

Two days each in Montreal and Quebec is really not enough.

But then we tend to say that wherever we visit, as there is always something else you want to do or see or a place that you have to skip because of a travel schedule.

Notre Dame in Montreal's old city

Notre Dame in Montreal’s old city

I had been eager to see these cities in Eastern Canada because of their roles in the history of the U.S. Of course, here, they think of them as important to the history of Canada and Quebec, but how much can you say about a culture with poutine as its signature culinary item.

Sure, they do have universal health care, reasonable banking laws, responsible gun ownership and the ability to go to college if you want to, but we tend to view historic events as they affect us and the U.S. dominance. Most recently, we grabbed the Quebec hockey team, the Nordiques, who are now the Colorado Avalanche. Of course, if Canada becomes our largest oil and gas supplier, they might start buying stuff back.

Montreal is a big modern city with a population of 1.6 million (3.6 in the metro area,) and is a major industrial hub, port on the St. Lawrence, home to Bombardier, etc. At one point it was the third largest city in North America. The final battle in the French and Indian War was the Siege of Montreal, although the more decisive battle was fought earlier on the Plains of Abraham in Quebec City. Part of our own ethnocentrism is to call it that – the French and Indian war –as in that’s who we and the British were fighting.

In Europe, it was the Seven Years War, and the combatants included England, Prussia, Portugal, France, Spain, Russia, Sweden, a number of German states and parts of India. There were plenty of plots: Spain, France and England were competing over trade and colonies; Austria and Prussia over influence in Central Europe. For us, it meant British dominance over France in North America, or we’d all be eating poutine today.

This Quebec church is now a library.

This Quebec church is now a library.

(Just a side note about the local food. I have always tried the local delicacy. I have eaten country ham in Virginia, scrapple in Pennsylvania (it’s awful,) devil crab in Tampa, soft-shell crab in Baltimore, lobster in Maine and beans in Boston. Just this trip, in Buffalo, I had Buffalo wings and Beef on “Wick.” In Montreal, we ate the famous smoked-meat sandwiches, which are similar to corned beef. But I couldn’t bring myself to indulge in poutine in Quebec. Bring a note from your cardiologist.)

It is pretty easy to walk around the old city in Montreal and the downtown area. We took a city tour that included the Olympic stadium area and parts of Mount Royal Park (an Olmsted park.) We took a cab to the Plateau area for dinner but did not get to the emerging Mile End neighborhood, which I had been told is the hipster capital of Canada, or to St. Joseph’s Oratorio.

We took the VIA Rail train from here to Quebec, a trip of a little over three hours. It is not super-fast, although we were passing cars on the freeway, and the porter said it can travel about 100 mph. This part of Eastern Canada looked to me like a cross between the Midwest and a little bit of New England. We were seeing cornfields as far north as two hours out of Montreal. The countryside is quite flat, and the towns were clean and neat but didn’t look prosperous. This time of year – mid-September – only a few of the leaves were turning. One of the guides said they can predict quite closely when the leaves will turn. It looked to me like we were a few weeks early.

We stayed in the historic old part of Quebec City, which is what I would recommend. It’s plenty hilly, and while it is easy to walk around the historic area, I think it would be inconvenient to be outside the walls.

Interior of the church/library.

Interior of the church/library.

I had expected to struggle more with the language. While most conversations here and in Montreal were in French, people switched to English immediately upon hearing my bad accent. Of course we were in tourist areas, but I did not find anyone who could not switch back and forth on the spot. Pat was told that people are required to be fluent in both languages to get a job. And kids who go to either French- or English-language school are taught the other language all through school as well.

The English-language papers were following closely the vote in Scotland over separation from England. They did not appear to be taking sides, but then I can’t tell you for sure what the French-language papers were saying.

Quebec City verges on cuteness. They have done a great job of preserving old colonial buildings – we ate dinner one night in restaurant that is in the oldest house in Quebec. But it is pretty touristy. Manageable in September, but I imagine it is pretty crowded in the summer. We took a walking tour offered by our hotel, and that was worthwhile.

Quebec is a modern city outside the walls and has industrial areas, some high tech and optics and universities. Total population is about half a million, but the old downtown area is quite compact. If we had a car, I would have explored outside the walls a bit more. But two days is two days.


Low bridge, everybody down.

Pat and I are on just a short trip, but since we are going to a couple of places that have been on my list for a long time, I thought it would be worth reviving the blog just briefly.

The focus of the trip was Pat’s high school reunion in Niagara Falls, N.Y. Her old high school has been torn down and replaced by a Wal-Mart, but that apparently did not deter the school spirit. I did not attend the events, but I tagged along on the trip in order to visit the Erie Canal and Eastern Canada.

A view east down the locks from Lockport toward Rochester and eventually Albany

A view east down the locks from Lockport toward Rochester and eventually Albany

I had wanted to see the Erie Canal for some time, and my interest went up when I read a great history of the canal, “The Wedding of the Waters: The Erie Canal and the Making of a Great Nation,” by Peter Bernstein. While that title may be a little grandiose, I don’t think many people are aware of the canal’s importance. By connecting the Great Lakes to the Hudson River, via a canal that connected Buffalo and Lake Erie to the Hudson at Albany, it opened up the Midwest to international trade, made industrial port cities out of Buffalo and Rochester, and turned New York City into the premier American port and center of commerce, leaving Philadelphia and Baltimore in its wake.

The canal travels more than 300 miles through a series of locks and has twice been widened since it opened in 1825. While it was an amazing engineering marvel at the time – and the first big, government-financed, public-works project in the U.S. – it was overtaken by the railroads in only a couple of decades.

The name “wedding of the waters” refers to the ceremony in which New York Gov. DeWitt Clinton took a bucket of water from Lake Erie, traveled the length of the canal and the Hudson, and dumped it in the Atlantic Ocean. In addition to that bit of early political theater, Clinton deserves significant credit for pushing the canal project and its state financing.

I had been particularly interested in a section of the canal in Lockport, N.Y., the county seat of Niagara County and, fortunately, only about 40 minutes from where Pat’s sister and brother-in-law live in Lewiston, N.Y. Pete Broderick, her brother-in-law, made the drive to Lewiston daily for 30-40 years when he served first as District Attorney then Supreme Court judge in Niagara County.

So while Pat was at her reunion, Pete and Pat’s sister Gretchen, her brother Marv and sister-in-law Janie took a two-hour cruise from the locks in Lockport. Originally, Lockport was famous because it had required five locks – the “flight of five” – to get the level of the canal up over the Niagara Escarpment to the level of Lake Erie at Buffalo. Now, just two locks are required, but the state of New York is in the process of restoring the original five locks. It is a very good tour, through the locks and a short ride on the canal. Other cities along the way have similar short cruises, and you can take a private boat the length of the canal if you are really interested. One of the guides told us the cost of taking a boat through Locks 34 and 35 in Lockport is about $8. He said a kayak would be free, although no one had done that yet.

We are leaving here for Montreal and Quebec – also well to the top of my list.

Headed west, toward Buffalo.

Headed west, toward Buffalo.