I was beginning to think that old Quebec smells a bit, er how should I say, agricultural. Then I realised, we’re riding in a carriage that’s behind the horse.
Quebec is our last cruise stop before we part ways with the MS Maasdam at Montreal. There’s always a slight feeling of anti-climax at this stage of a cruise, especially with all the not-so-subtle reminders from the ship’s controllers that we must disembark early tomorrow morning. The “all luggage must be packed and placed in the corridor before midnight tonight” notice is one of my particular favourites. I have visions of passengers being dragged from their beds at 12:05 am – “We know you have another case stashed under your bed. Bring it out or you’ll walk the plank!” Anyways, that’s tonight’s problem, so let’s return to good old Quebec.
For some reason, the Australian high school history syllabus doesn’t cover early North American French history, so our total knowledge of the place is sort of summed up by – it’s old, it’s pretty and they speak French. Add to that a quick scan of the tours brochures that magically materialise outside our door each night, and I convince our little group that we’re fully equipped for a self-directed tour. The breakfast conversation goes something like this.
“We gotta try to find that chateau they all talk about.” “Um, I think it just might be that huge building over there on the hill. You know, the one with all the turrets.” “And the basilica.” “I reckon it’s the one with the big spire and the round dome near the chateau.” “Maybe we should try to get a last-minute spot on a tour.” “Nah, I got this.”
We disembark and start to walk. Our first challenge is to find the funicular that will take us up the cliff to the chateau. For some reason, the ladies feel it’s best to seek directions from that most reliable source of information – another lady who has already been out and is obviously returning to the ship. “Oh”, she says, “I’m so glad you asked. This place is so hard to get around. There’s no signs anywhere! Well, there’s French signs of course, but no proper ones.” To my surprise, her vague suggestions seem to give the ladies confidence that we are in fact heading in the right direction, so we continue on our way.
We wander around the quaint streets of the lower part of old town, and eventually find the funicular. I’m tempted to start singing “Funiculee Funicular”, but know better. A short ride and we’re at the chateau. Wow, what a building. If we only had someone to tell us what we’re looking at. Enter – Pierre (not his real name). Pierre is one of the guys you see taking tourists around swanky towns in his horse-drawn carriage. “Wouldn’t it be wonderful to ride in one of those. And we’d learn so much from someone local!” So, here we are, in our carriage, looking at old Quebec and listening to the clip-clop of Fritz the horse’s hooves. Clip clop, clip clop. We pass a building that looks like an old fort. Clip clop, clip clop. “Er, Pierre. What’s that building over there?” “Old fort.” Clip clop, clip clop.
The ride is actually really nice and we pass what we guess are some of the major sights of old Quebec. At one point, we come to a stop. Fritz gets a drink from the special horse fountain, and Pierre climbs down. Ah, here’s where he’ll tell us all about that ancient city wall over there. “Stay in the carriage. I’m just going to change the oil.” Oil? What oil? Oh, he’s emptying that special tray right behind the horse’s …..
Our ride finishes, we say goodbye to Pierre and Fritz, and go back to our self-directed wanderings. It’s not really that hard, because the old city is quite compact (as most old cities are). We find the basilica and bump into a young priest who tells us it has one of only seven Holy Doors in the whole world. “We only open this door once every twenty-five years. The next time will be in 2025.” We find a local girl in period costume who tells us she is one of the King’s women. “There were seven-hundred of us sent by the King to the new colony to be wives for the colonists and have babies. I have eleven children myself.” We meet the lady at the café who won’t let us stop for a coffee if we “is not eating?” And we overhear another lady telling her little tour group that Quebec was the first city in North America and the French controlled everything from here to Louisiana once.
Bit by bit, we assemble our version of the local history. We’re not sure whether it’s all correct, but that doesn’t really matter. If we want correct, we’ll go to Google. What we’re getting is the feel you get for a place through the soles of your shoes while you walk.