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.


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