Photo - Christinne Muschi for The New York Times
By MARIALISA CALTA - WHEN the makers of the 2002 movie “Catch Me If You Can” were looking for a stand-in for France for a pivotal scene, they looked to Quebec City. With its fortified stone walls, narrow streets, venerable churches, beckoning cafes, and French-speaking populace, Quebec oozes Old World Gallic charm.
But despite the sense of history palpable in the old stone buildings and narrow streets, Quebec — set to celebrate its 400th anniversary in 2008 — is also a vital, modern city, and a new crop of artists and entrepreneurs are enlivening old neighborhoods and imbuing them with a youthful energy and spirit. The energy is especially noticeable now, as the city prepares to celebrate the anniversary with an $83 million party.
A full calendar of events highlighting the city's history, culture, food, theater, music, art and outdoor recreation opportunities are on offer (information: 418-648-2008; www.myquebec2008.com). In anticipation of the yearlong celebration the federal, provincial and city governments have invested $151 million in infrastructure projects, including improved access to the St. Lawrence River with a new 1.5-mile riverside park, and Espace 400, a gathering place and performance site that will be at the heart of many commemorative activities, said Roxanne St-Pierre, a spokeswoman for the anniversary committee. In addition, she said, the Jean Lesage International Airport is undergoing a major face lift.
This is all to celebrate the founding of the city in 1608 by the French explorer Samuel de Champlain, who established the early settlement on the banks of the St. Lawrence. In doing so, Champlain began an era when, according to the University of Laval anthropologist Bernard Arcand, who has been working on the celebration, “Quebec City became the center of the new universe, from the Arctic to the Mississippi Delta.”
The buildup to the French Revolution, the geopolitical struggles of the native peoples, the Counter-Reformation in England — all influenced the formation of the provincial capital. Although rich in history — the Old Town has been designated a Unesco World Heritage site as “one of the best examples of a fortified colonial city” — visitors should also understand that Quebec is a modern city, with a growing technology industry.
Quebec is divided into the Lower Town and the Upper Town, connected by steep streets, funiculars and staircases (one near the turreted Château Frontenac hotel is called the Breakneck Staircase). Old Quebec, home to many restaurants and shops, is in the part of the city within the walls of the old fortifications, in Upper Town, as is the Quartier Petit Champlain. Narrow streets and limited parking make these areas ideal for walking.
Just outside the gates are the Plains of Abraham, where a battle in 1759 resulted in the French ceding Quebec to the British. The plains are now a public park offering walking trails and river views and, in winter, cross-country skiing, snowshoeing and sledding.
Nearby is the Lower Town neighborhood of St. Roch, once a gritty industrial area, recently revived by young artists and entrepreneurs. It offers some of the city's most cutting-edge cuisine, theater, art installations and clothiers.
The official 400th anniversary inauguration will be on Dec. 31, 2007, with an outdoor multimedia show at the Place d'Youville, just inside the walls that separate the Old Town from the new. Ms. St-Pierre said that images will be projected onto a “screen” made of falling snow ejected from snow cannons.
On June 5, 2008, the Musée National des Beaux-Arts (866-220-2150; www.mnba.qc.ca) on the Plains of Abraham will show 277 pieces from the Louvre in an exhibit entitled “The Louvre in Quebec City: Arts and Life.” Katherine Noreau, a spokeswoman for the Quebec museum, called the loan unprecedented and noted that pieces will be shown from all departments of the Louvre collections, including Egyptian Antiquity, Greek, Etruscan and Roman Antiquity, Oriental Antiquity and Islamic Art, and will include art objects, paintings, sculptures and graphic art. From June 20 to July 29 of next year, the celebration continues with an event called “The Image Mill” at Espace 400. The sound and light show will use huge grain silos (nearly 2,000 feet long and 130 feet high) as projection screens. Ms. St-Pierre said that the slides would include images of both old and new Quebec and will be visible from all over.
July 3, the day commemorating Champlain's arrival, begins a four-day event featuring an “urban opera.” Ms. St-Pierre says it will feature at least 1,000 artists and use the city's buildings as a backdrop as it moves from one area to another. The opera will incorporate music, dance, fireworks and art and focus on combining Quebec history with an appreciation of the seasons.
The closing extravaganza, a special performance by the Cirque du Soleil written specially for the event, will be held on Oct. 19. Ms. St- Pierre said free tickets for the event, to be held at the Colisée, will be awarded by lottery, and that the performance will be projected onto a giant outdoor screen.
Even without the anniversary celebrations, there will be plenty to occupy the visitor (city tourism office: 877-783-1608; www.quebecregion.com). There are several notable museums: the Musée de la Civilisation and its sister museums, the Musée de l'Amérique Francaise, the Maison Chevalier, the Place-Royale Interpretation Center (866-710-8031; www.mcq.org), as well as the Fine Arts museum and shopping and dining year round. Summer offers outdoor cafes, galleries, a two-week music festival (www.infofestival.com), sailing, kayaking and canoeing on the St. Lawrence, and cycling tours of the nearby Île d'Orléans, home to many small farmers and artisanal food producers (866-941-9411; www.iledorleans.com).
In winter, outdoor skating rinks beckon in the Old Town, the 270-foot-high wooden toboggan run outside of the Frontenac offers a thrilling ride, and there are winter sports on the Plains of Abraham. A ferry ride across the St. Lawrence offers a breathtaking view of the city and, in winter, a chance to watch ice canoeists navigate the icy waters up close.
Ms. St-Pierre said Quebec is expecting that 2008 will bring a 5 percent increase in the five million visitors who pass through each year.
Most tourists will want to stay in or near the Old Town. The luxury-minded might check out the Auberge St.-Antoine, a Relais & Chateaux property (888-692-2211; www.saint-antoine.com, doubles from 289 Canadian dollars, or $240 at 1.08 Canadian dollars to $1 U.S.; in summer, and from 159 Canadian dollars in winter) or the castlelike Fairmont Le Château Frontenac (418-692-3861; www.fairmont.com; doubles from 299 Canadian dollars in summer, 199 dollars in winter).
For the budget-conscious, rooms at the small Manoir sur-le-Cap start at 105 Canadian dollars in summer and 75 dollars in winter (866-694-1987; www.manoir-sur-le-cap.com). Families may want to look at more affordable properties like Hotel Palace Royal (800-567-5276; www.hotelsjaro.com; standard rooms for a family of four start at 140 Canadian dollars in summer and 119 dollars in winter).
Source: The New York Times
400 Candles, and a Yearlong Blowout
Next year, Quebec City will celebrate the 400th anniversary of its founding by Samuel de Champlain.