Im sitting in a small cafe just off the Place Royale in Old Quebec sipping
delicious cafe au lait and munching on a flaky croissant as snowflakes settle
gently on the gathered snow mounds outside the door. The sub-freezing air outside frosts
the cafe window and the wind blows in crisp gusts. Giant icicles hang from the eaves of
centuries-old buildings along the narrow street. Its February--Carnaval time in
Carnaval is to Quebec as Mardi Gras is to New Orleans. But thats where the
comparison ends. Here among the collection of charming 17th century houses and shops
nestled along the banks of the frozen St. Lawrence River over half a million people gather
to eat, drink, and participate in all manner of athletic competitions--most of them on
ice. None of that frilly Mardi Gras stuff for the hearty Québécois.
Quebec, founded as a fur-trading post by Samuel de Champlain in 1608, remained French
until 1759, when General James Wolfe's British forces vanquished the troops commanded by
the Marquis de Montcalm on the Plains of Abraham. Carnaval transforms this public park
into a wintry wonderland of crystalline snow sculptures as the site of the International
Snow Sculpture Competition. The Competition is actually what drew me here.
But Carnaval de Quebec is so much more. People also flock to see the annual canoe race
across the frozen St. Lawrence River, as well as car races, road rallies, a dogsled race,
even a soapbox derby. But for now, Quebecs Old Town begs to be explored. I have lots
of time until the canoe race preliminaries get underway, so I set out to discover the
charm of this city.
Quebecs Old Town retains the look and smell of a French provincial city, like
Chartres or Caen. I begin my stroll in the Place Royale, the cradle of French civilization
in North America. It was here that Samuel de Champlain built his first
"habitation" in new France. It soon became the marketplace of Quebec City, and
prosperous merchants built their houses here. But the British bombardments and widespread
fires during the siege of 1759 all but destroyed the lower town, and by 1832, most
businesses had reestablished themselves in the upper city, leaving the area largely
Today, Old Town, a national historic site, contains the greatest concentration of 17th
and 18th century buildings in North America. Intriguing shops, cafes, and restaurants line
its narrow streets and alleyways along the waterfront.
In the oldest house on the Place Royale, I discover La Maison du Vin (The House of
Wine), where I not only learn all about wines, but view a $15,000 bottle of Rothschild
wine and actually hold one worth $900! Thats as close as Ill get to fine wine.
But what fascinates me are the wines and their correct glasses on display alongside
vintage bottles in old wine vats on the lower level.
Directly across from La Maison du Vin, on the site of Champlain's original settlement,
stands the Church of Notre Dame de Victoire. Built in 1688 and burned in 1759, it was
later restored. I marveled at its high altar, carved in the shape of a fort, with pierced
windows and turrets. A replica of Champlain's ship hangs in the center.
The Upper City
But this isnt all there is to Old Quebec. A quick ride up a steep funicular
railway takes me to the upper city and the Place d'Armes, once the parade grounds of the
old garrison, formerly called the Rond de Chaine because of the huge chain that encircled
it. Unlike the Old Town below, this area contains charming guest houses and restaurants
within its old city walls.
From the Place dArmes, I stroll along Dufferin Terrace, the long boardwalk that
originates at the Place d'Armes and the prime point for viewing the canoe race. I find the
walled city especially alluring as I walk briskly high above the river, the air filled
with the fragrant smell of wood smoke and the clatter of horse's hooves on the cobblestone
But walking in the sub-freezing cold high above the St. Lawrence can take its toll. I
need some warmth and refreshment. The heady aroma of cooking meat draws me into Aux
Anciens Canadiens (The Old Canadians), a provincial restaurant located on Rue St. Louis.
Its French Canadian ragout, a hearty stew, accompanied by crusty French bread and washed
down with several glasses of Merlot wine does the trick.
After lunch, I walk along the walls to the Porte Sainte-Louis to see the world famous
Ice Palace. Standing at the base of this glittering monument to winter, I cant help
think how Louis Jobin let his imagination soar as he first carved ice and snow during the
late 1890s. What he didnt know was that he would set the standard for ice and snow
sculpting. And the tradition continues. Today, the Carnaval competition draws contestants
from around the globe.
Again, the coldness numbs my bones, so I stop at a street vendor to sample a shot of
Caribou, the traditional drink of Carnaval. Not only does it warm my heart but the warmth
trickles all the way down to my toes. One is enough. Two would have knocked my socks off.
Le Bonhomme Caraval
Newly warmed and refreshed, I hurry over to the Dufferin Terrace to watch some of
the canoe race preliminaries. But the biting cold and wind is too much for me, so I stroll
up the Grand Allee as the afternoon light slowly dims. Everywhere people are laughing,
singing, dancing and blowing on noisemakers. One of the traditional Carnaval parades is in
progress. When Le Bonhomme Carnaval, the giant seven-foot snowman mascot of
Carnaval appears, the crowd roars. As he passes, everyone cheers and hollers, vying for
his attention. Reaching for as many outstretched arms and hands as he can, Bonhomme turns
and waves, introducing the red-sashed fiddlers and folkdancers following behind him. Again
theres even more noise, more excitement from the crowd.
As I work my way through the crowd up the Grand Allee after the parade passes,
glittering lights lure me onto the Plains of Abraham. There before me stands a myriad of
shimmering snow sculptures, each one seemingly more magnificent than the next. As I stroll
among the sculptures in awe, strains of Wagners Rode of the Valkyries fill the air,
transforming the scene before me into the set of a classical winter opera.
I came away from Quebec with a new appreciation for winter. At home in Pennsylvania,
winter is often looked upon as a dreary time--a time to stay indoors, a time of
depression. But not here in Quebec. To the Québécois, Carnaval is more than an annual
celebration. Its a state of mind, a place where for ten days every February, they
glorify winter. It's a place where people's imaginations take over, where adults can feel
like kids again. For the Québécois, winter is a time for rejoicing and what better way
to do that than to join them in celebrating Carnaval.