I took a spur-of-the-moment trip to Québec last summer with my mother. As we drove north on US 91 through Vermont, we weren't sure exactly where we were headed. Should we just go to Montréal, the closer of our choices, or head further north to Québec City, a place neither of us had been? Well, what the heck, let's see Québec City as long as we're here. What a great decision that would turn out to be.

As we crossed the border at Rock Island, you know right away you're not in Kansas, er, the U.S. anymore. It's very subtle and hard to describe, but Québec has a different look and feel than its neighbor.

We continued north on 55 through Sherbrooke, then decided to take 116 up to Québec City. A great drive. Honestly, I think there must be a provincial law governing yard care in Québec. So many looked like spreads in Better Home and Gardens — pristine lawns, beautifully landscaped with flowers, bushes and trees.

We drove through quaint old towns, with fascinating, charming architecture. The road had sharp turns and many buildings sat right at the edge of the pavement. Though I've never been to Europe, I imagine these towns were much like those in rural France. So much character and history.

We crossed one of the two large bridges over the St. Lawrence and were in Québec City. We were lucky to find a hotel room quickly, then headed downtown. How pretty everything was — nice city neighborhoods and tree-lined boulevards. We took Grande Allée into Vieux Québec, which sits atop a promontory (Cape Diamond) at the confluence of the St. Lawrence and St Charles Rivers. You can understand why the founders chose this place for their original fortress — it's a prime military location. Oh, this is great. We were in the Upper Town section. The area reminded me of Old San Juan, with its narrow streets and historic walled exterior. Inside the ancient fortification walls are winding cobblestone streets and alleys with French restaurants, shops and galleries.

It was a rainy night, so we ducked into the first restaurant we found for dinner. Afterward, we walked the streets and came to an alley lined with artists selling their work. This is a picturesque, inspirational place, this province of Québec, so naturally many artists attempt to capture its beauty and spirit in their work. Some are more successful than others — I found some beautiful watercolor-like lithographs.

The next morning we were off again to Vieux Québec, taking a different route this time along the St. Lawrence on Boulevard Champlain. The day was warm and sunny, the river a deep dark shade of blue, it was a beautiful drive. I loved all the colorful one and two-story homes and shops along the drive — it was all so cheerful, inviting and European.

 

We parked at Vieux Port, right on the river, in Lower Town. From here there are terrific views up to Upper Town, especially of the grand Chateau Frontenac which towers over the peninsula. This area had an abundance of galleries and shops. In the center was Place Royal, an open, cobblestoned square surrounded by shops and the eglise Notre-Dame-des-Victoires. Some street performers — their skin covered in white and gray paint — were frozen, statue-like for several minutes.

We did some shopping and enjoyed the ambiance of the area. Then we spotted the funicular, a glass-enclosed elevator that climbs the 300 feet to Upper Town. It travels along the cliff at a 45-degree (very steep!) angle. Well, that looked interesting. We were shoe-horned into the small cubicle with several other people. I was wedged against the back glass wall of the funicular — and up we went. Whoa as the ground disappeared beneath me, it was a bit scary as this little box quickly levitated with no visible means of support. What was holding us up? There were great views of the river and Lower Town as we rose.

We got off in Upper Town on the Terrasse Dufferin, a broad boardwalk that travels along the cliff edge above Lower Town and the river. What a beautiful area; what a wonderful atmosphere. Now why was it that I hadn't been here before?

Now we could see the impressive, imposing Chateau Frontenac up close. Copper and turrets and parapets, oh my. A national icon in Canada, it was built in 1893 for the Canadian Pacific Railways. We went inside the lobby and into the gift shop where I picked up books and postcards about the chain of grand hotels built by the railroad in Canada — an interesting history.


 

Back outside we strolled on the Terrasse Dufferin, enjoying the perfect mix of spectacular natural scenery, old-world architecture and the warmth of the sun.

We eventually went back to Lower Town on the escalier cass-cou, or breakneck stairs. A steep, pretty descent through different levels of gardens and buildings. We walked through more narrow cobblestoned streets, had lunch then went back to Vieux Port and our car.

Out in the river we could see the tip of Île d'Orléans. It was like a magnet, I could feel it pulling us

To Île d'Orléans


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