As Easter weekend lay ahead, I sat down thinking where I would like to visit, for a phototrip. Budget-wise, could not afford a flight, hadn't taken a long drive in quite some time (something I was doing quite frequently a few years back) and with spring delayed and trees still without leaves, a trip to a National/Provincial Park didn't quite seem attractive.
Québec city (or simply Québec, as the Québecois call it) and Montréal made the cut, in my mind. I had never seen these two French Canadian cities, from up close and both would involve a long drive from Toronto. Finally settled on Québec, because of its reviews as being one of the most beautiful cities in North America.
This would be my longest drive yet on a 800km plus route, that would take me on the 401/Hwy 20/40, via Montréal. On a good weekend day, 8-8.5 hrs would be good enough. Had packed in three lenses for the trip (the sharp 50mm fixed focal, standard workhorse 18-200mm and my fav wide-angle 10-24mm).
In the end, it took me ~12 hrs to reach Québec, after getting stuck twice on Hwy 401, heavy traffic at end of workday leading up to the long weekend on Thursday (bad decision on my part to skip the 407) and then stuck near Cornwall, due to a burning truck on the highway. My original plan was to stop by Mont Royal and take some night shots of Montréal before continuing on to Québec...but had to abandon plans. As I crossed Montréal and past midnight, fatigue set in...still about 3-4 hrs of drive left. I had been in an accident on the 401 before because of extreme fatigue, which luckily was a minor one, didn't want to take chances this time, so gulped down half a can of an energy drink (I'm otherwise strictly against energy drinks) and pushed on, reaching the hotel in the wee hours of dawn (~3am).
The only walled city north of Mexico, Québec's 400 year historical Basse-Ville (lower town) & Haute-Ville (upper town) make up Vieux-Québec (Old Québec), a UNESCO world heritage site.
Situated on the intersection of St Lawrence and St Charles rivers, it's not hard to realize why Ville de Québec, was so strategically important for both the French and English who fought through most of its 400 years history, to gain control.
Jack Cartier (1535) & Samuel de Champlain (1608) are often credited as its early founders, with the latter creating a permanent settlement to control the lucrative fur & mineral trade that was to be had by having access to the critical St Lawrence waterway, leading down to the great lakes and beyond.
The city changed hands multiple times until finally the English took control of it in 1763. But as locals like to say, nobody realizes today that in reality, the final control went back to the French and not English, as today it is a pure French city, inhabited by people whose culture and language is old french. The city lost most of its economic importance as trade centre shifted further downstream on the St Lawrence, to Montreal & Toronto, but to its credit, the city's inhabitants kept their culture intact and the look and feel still transports you to a locale and time, more reminiscent of a typical European city.
Québec is a photographer's paradise, especially if you are into street & cityscape photography.
Street photography is certainly not my forte. It requires a very different artistic eye and an inherent interest in people, society & culture. Not that I have no interest in such things, but over the years, I have felt more comfortable, alone in a rocky desert or a forest, than among people. But still this trip made me come out of my inhibitions and take a few people shots. We do have to remember, street/people photography can be legally challenging too...as by law, you are theoretically required to get signed "model release" forms from any person whose face/identity is clearly visible in your photo. I do carry an app on my Ipad to get the form signed on site immediately, but have never used it. Judges in such cases usually give decisions in favour of photographers, if the photo was taken in a public place and it is to be used for personal rather than for commercial purpose.
As I wandered around Vieux-Québec (this is a part of Québec that is better explored on foot, though it can be a bit tiring if you end of going up and down the lower and upper towns frequently, but again there's the "Finuculare" - the mechanized compartments that take you up and down a small rail system for a few $'s, to solve that problem), couldn't help but notice the beautiful & spritely painted windows of beautiful old buildings throughout the city.
Being a World Heritage site, I wonder if the Provincial Govt will ever consider banning cars and buses from the walled city. They, first of all, look garish in this otherwise pristine old world urbanscape and second, must be causing slow and gradual degradation of the delicate buildings via pollution. An idea would be to have just 3-4 small electric buses run inside the walled part of the city, transporting people from outside the city gates into destinations inside the city, even guests staying in hotels inside the walled portion.
With 95% of the population of Québec being francophones, language can sometimes be a problem for outsiders, but with 1/3rd of them fluently bilingual, tourists like me probably don't run into serious trouble, communicating. A typical quebecor would start out in french when conversing with you but will switch to english very quickly if you don't understand. With a vibrant winterfest (Winter Carnival), the city, I assume, rarely goes through a lean tourist season. The Provincial government and tourism are invariably its biggest employers/sectors.
rue-du-Petit-Champlain or Champlain street is the prettiest commercial street in town and you can get lost (figuratively) for hours, just exploring its quaint little shops and eateries. This is the oldest street in the city and at one time housed the residences of wealthy merchants and traders. On all three days I walked along this little street, it was choc-a-block with people, attesting to its popularity. You can arrive on this street via two ways, from upper town. The easy way, take a ride on the Finuculare from near the Château Frontenac. The difficult but more exciting way, take the steps down from the Château, unto Montagne St and then take the city's 1st iron stairway (built in 1893), the 59 steps L'Escalier Casse-Cou (sounds cute doesn't it!) or more commonly called the "Breakneck" steps, in english.
The city is supposed to be really safe, no matter at what time of the day or night you are wandering about, and as the local guide on my 1st day's tour (1st time took a tour of a city, just to get myself oriented) joked, you and your belongings will most probably be safe at all times, unless you have a jealous and vengeful ex-spouse, out to get you :-)
Another unique aspect of the city is its two leveled cityscape, which is clearly visible from the town of Lévis, opposite St Lawrence river (image at top of this blog). The upper walled town, with its Château Frontenac, the seminary and big churches and the lower town, close to Vieux-Port (Old Port), running along the coast.
Alphonse Desjardins, in the late 19th century, founded the first Caisse Populaire or Credit Union, in North America, in Lévis, which later spread throughout the country and became the present day Desjardins Group.
After a couple of days walking around the city, the urge for some nature shots took over and I headed out to Montmorency Falls, a few minutes drive from Ville de Québec. It is a majestic fall and walking on the bridge right over it, is fun.
Continued further east, along Côte-de-Beaupré, to the popular Basilique Ste-Anne-de-Beaupré, dedicated to mother of the Virgin Mary, patron saint of Québec. Over a million people visit this church every year which has reportedly brought miracles to many peoples' lives, through prayer. I felt blessed to be visiting it during Easter and could feel the strong spiritual atmosphere inside the church.
Pushed a bit further east, to the famed Charlevoix region and a couple of small towns, Baie-St-Paul & La Malbaie. Known for its natural beauty, I could clearly imagine how gorgeous it would look in summer and fall. Right now, old man winter had a firm grip over the region
Cities reflect people's aspirations & cultural sensitivities and follow the path of progression as its inhabitants deem fit. While Toronto, Chicago or New York have grown bigger to accommodate the rapid industrialization through the ages, their cityscapes and character have a completely different feel to what Québec is. Québec's inhabitants have firmly decided to conserve the beautiful cultural, linguistic and architectural heritage of their city. And in doing so have managed to preserve for the world, a unique and memorable city environment. An urban landscape that I would rank as the most beautiful in North America...
Click link to see the full set of Québec pictures