Snowflakes dusted my nose as I stood in Place-Royale, the birthplace of French civilization in North America and, more recently, site of the arrest of Leonardo DiCaprio's con-man character in the 2002 film "Catch Me If You Can."
In the movie, the ancient square with its rebuilt 17th century church, Église Notre-Dame-des-Victoires, passes for France. No surprise here. Old Quebec, its narrow, cobbled streets and 17th and 18th century stone houses, seems as French as Napoleon.
FOR THE RECORD: Quebec City —An article about Quebec City in Sunday's Travel section reversed the exchange rate for U.S. and Canadian dollars. The article said the U.S. dollar hovers around $1.23 to the Canadian dollar. In fact, one U.S. dollar is equal to about 1.23 Canadian. Also, a map located Montreal on the St. Lawrence River at the New York state border. Montreal is on the river about 75 miles to the northeast. This city of 508,000 on the St. Lawrence River 155 miles northeast of Montreal was founded as a French fur trading post in 1608, conquered by England in 1759 and in 1775 attacked by an army led by American Revolutionary Gen. Benedict Arnold in an ill-fated attempt to capture it. Today, Quebecers may be part of the British commonwealth, but they cling to their founding fathers' heritage; 95% of them are French-speaking.
So here it's Père Noël, not Father Christmas, who will shimmy down chimneys five days hence. And the city's Christmas celebration, which began Dec. 2 and continues through Jan. 2, is called Québec Fête Noël.
It was the fete, now in its sixth year, that drew me here for four days early this month. If ever there were the ideal setting for such an event, Quebec City is it.
The heart of the celebration is Old Quebec, the area within the 19th century walls, whose crowning glory is the turreted, copper-roofed 1893 Fairmont le Château Frontenac. It sits atop Cap Diamant, the cliff that divides the Upper Town and the Lower Town, which includes the Place-Royale and Vieux-Port (Old Port) areas.
Because I had stayed at the grand Château Frontenac on an earlier visit, I had chosen boutique hotels in the quaint Vieux-Port. As if on cue, snow began to fall the night I arrived, and when I awoke the colorful gable roofs were blanketed in white. It was magical. It was also about 30 degrees — and when I ventured out, the wind pierced my multitude of clothing layers, down to my thermal underwear.
'A true Christmas village'
My first stop was the fete office, where I met with the event's general manager, Sylvain Parent-Bédard, a man on a mission to make Quebec City the "Christmas capital of North America with European style."
He expects this year's celebration to attract 450,000 visitors, 10% of them from the United States. "Visitors come here for the atmosphere," he said. "Quebec City is a true Christmas village," with real snow and truly old buildings.
Later, I soaked in that atmosphere, strolling narrow, pedestrian-friendly Rue du Petit-Champlain, with its gaily decorated shops and inviting cafes, rows of evergreens ablaze with white lights. Just as Mayor Jean-Paul L'Allier suggests in his greeting on the fete program, even those who long ago stopped believing in Santa Claus may succumb to the magic of Christmas in this setting.
The first fete, in 1999, was less about magic than about merchandising, acknowledged Daniel Gross, fete board vice president. Gross, an expatriate Ohioan, owns five Old Quebec souvenir shops and is president of the local merchants' association. The fete started, he said, when eight merchants and museum representatives, sitting around a table, began lamenting the paucity of tourists from November to February when the city's popular Winter Carnival takes place.
"We had an image problem," Gross said. "Skeptics thought it was just a promotion to sell more T-shirts. But we raised it another level" with street performances and themed museum programs. The fete now has a budget of about $830,000 and generates about $5.8 million in revenue annually.
With this year's fete in full swing, there will be caroling in the streets, costumed dancers, a Nativity pageant, church concerts, street theater, a torch procession, violinists, bagpipers and percussionists. Cadence, an a cappella group from Toronto, will perform, as will Parum, Pum, Pumpum, a trio of percussionists, and Brassy!, a brass quintet. All outdoor performances are free.
I asked fete producer David Normandin how the street artists cope with the cold. Short gigs, he said, and lots of layers. "And with the magic," he said, "you kind of forget that it's cold."
One way for visitors to stay warm is ice skating in the big public rink at Place d'Youville, just across from the festively lighted Capitole theater, where Edith Piaf, Sarah Bernhardt and Maurice Chevalier once performed. Another is with a coffee or alcohol-infused hot chocolate from one of the street kiosks.
While I was here, the Christmas market, Noël au Marché, opened in the huge covered marketplace in the Vieux-Port. Under a canopy of twinkling lights, 100 vendors had set up shop, selling pottery and pastries, goat-milk soap, wooden pirate-ship models, maple sugar, birdhouses. Many are mom-and-pop enterprises.
"We don't want middlemen," said market manager André Filteau, handing me a sliver of cranberry pie made by the woman selling it. Everything — hatpins, cheese, puppets, alpaca shawls, preserves — is made in Quebec province. No mass marketing here — and no Santa Claus.
"Père Noël is for the big malls," Filteau said.
As with much of the fete, a charming, homey quality prevails.
But even if there were no Québec Fête Noël, there would be reasons aplenty to visit Quebec City — for its antiquity, its fine restaurants and accommodations, its foreign flavor.
I first checked into the family-owned Hotel Dominion 1912 in the Vieux-Port. It occupies the former Dominion Fish and Fruit building and the adjacent onetime 1901 stock exchange. It is cozy, comfortable and chic. You'll find a small lobby bar with fireplace, lots of dark wood and big, plump easy chairs slipcovered in white. The rooms are generous, with plentiful amenities.
Later, I relocated to the nearby Auberge Saint-Antoine, which I also loved. It's less intimate, with a sophisticated, whimsical contemporary décor in neutral colors dashed with crimson. The two-level lobby has three fireplaces and two reading nooks. During the expansion of the auberge in 2001, numerous centuries-old household artifacts were uncovered and are now exhibited throughout the hotel.
Eating appears to be a Quebec pastime. There are more than 100 restaurants in Old Quebec alone, some offering regional fare such as crepes and meat pies. The most sophisticated palate will be satisfied at one of the newer upscale restaurants, where dinner invariably begins with an amuse bouche, a taste-teaser. Top restaurants are expensive, as the U.S. dollar has slipped and now hovers around $1.23 to $1 Canadian.
One day, fete executive Daniel Gross introduced me to Buffets de l'Antiquaire on antiques row, Rue Saint-Paul. Nothing fancy, just Formica-topped tables and a counter, but locals flock there for inexpensive, filling fare — burgers and hot dogs, cheese fondue and onion soup.
My dinner splurges were at Toast!, an intimate room in the Vieux-Port, and at L'Utopie, which opened in April in the newly chic Saint-Roch district. Both were terrific. L'Utopie is a work of art, with aspen tree trunks reaching toward its black ceiling. The food also is art but not at the expense of taste.
My sightseeing took me to Musée de la Civilisation, in a stunning contemporary building that blends in beautifully with its Vieux-Port neighbors. I was fascinated by its permanent exhibit, "People of Québec Then and Now," with a range of objects, including a 17th century French bishop's miter and the late, great Maurice Richard's hockey stick.
One snowy afternoon I took a city tour with Nicole Bergeron from the tourism office. She explained such things as why some trees were wrapped in white fabric (to protect them from cold until their roots grow strong). She told me the story of the Louis XIV bust in Place-Royale: It seems early merchants thought the original, erected in 1686, took up too much space. "It disappeared one night, so France had to give another one," she said. It's a copy of a Bernini at Versailles.
We went off the tourist track to Saint-Roch, a traditionally blue-collar residential area undergoing gentrification, and to Faubourg Saint-Jean-Baptiste, stopping in at Maison Jean-Alfred Moisan, one of North America's oldest grocery stores, founded in 1871. It's part-market, part-museum, with many original fixtures, and it's a treat.
Bergeron showed me Avenue Cartier in the chic Montcalm district, a good shopping and dining destination, and then we drove down the Grand Allée, hub of nightlife. "We call it our Champs-Elysées," she said.
One day I went to the Musée d'Art Inuit Brousseau, a splendid museum of Canadian Eskimo art, where visitors can trace the evolution of these self-taught artists, who sculpt in media such as walrus tusk, stone and caribou antlers. It's not just bears anymore; some of it has become playful and abstract. The art sold in the adjoining shop is the real thing — not always the case elsewhere in the city.
The good old days?
An 18th century building, Maison Chevalier, offers visitors a glimpse of life in Quebec 300 years ago. In one of its re-created rooms, I chatted with costumed members of the Societe d'Histoire, local history buffs. And I learned from an exhibit a bit about the 18th century diet: "People consumed bread in enormous quantities accompanied by cabbage, turnip or onion soup flavored with a lump of lard or of eel." Gulp. Our guide, Geneviève, spoke as though she'd been around in those days, which was charming. "We were afraid of water. Doctors prescribed less than five baths a year."
Railroad buffs might want to peek at the restored Gare du Palais, a 1915 château-style station with stained-glass ceiling. It houses the popular Aviatic Club, where I lunched one day to the music of Frank Sinatra and Ella Fitzgerald. The theme, vintage aviation, seemed odd given the locale, but the ambience was good, with rattan ceiling fans and potted palms.
Quebec is a great city for walking, and a safe one. If you get lost, you're sure to find someone who speaks English. It's a heart-pumping hike from the Lower Town to the Upper Town on the escalier de casse-cou (breakneck stairway), but the funicular that leaves from Place-Royale is an option.
Locals repeatedly told me to beware of snow and icicles falling from the steeply slanted rooftops; street signs warn: "Danger: Chute de glace" (falling ice).
I've been twice to Quebec City, both times in winter. Someday I'd like to visit in summer, when flowers bloom in window boxes and people gather at outdoor cafes. They say it actually gets hot.
As I was shivering in a snowfall one gray afternoon, Noël au Marché's André Filteau insisted that the gently falling flakes weren't worthy of the name "snow."
"When it snows," he said, "you can't see the other side of the street."
From LAX, Air Canada, Continental and Delta have connecting service (change of plane) to Quebec City. Restricted round-trip fares begin at $370.
WHERE TO STAY:
Auberge Saint-Antoine, 8 Rue Saint-Antoine; (888) 692-2211, http://www.saint-antoine.com . Stylish 95-room hotel with archeological finds incorporated into décor. Doubles begin at $122.
Hôtel Dominion 1912, 126 Rue Saint-Pierre, Vieux-Port; (888) 833-5253, http://www.hotelboutique.com . Chic, comfortable family-owned hotel with 60 nicely sized rooms. Doubles begin at $138, including continental-plus breakfast.
WHERE TO EAT:
L'Utopie, 226 1/2 Rue Saint-Joseph East; (418) 523-7878, fax (418) 523-2349. A newcomer and hot ticket in contemporary space in Saint-Roch district. Imaginative cuisine artfully presented. Main courses $15-$24.
Toast! 17 Rue du Sault-au-Matelot, Vieux-Port, in Le Priori hotel; (418) 692-1334, http://www.restauranttoast.com . Another new spot that has Quebecers talking. International cuisine served in stone-walled room with fireplace. Main courses $22-$33.
Le Café du Monde, 84 Rue Dalhousie; (418) 692-4455, http://www.lecafedumonde.com . The big, noisy bistro serving steak frites and the like is a local favorite. Go for the riverfront setting and lively scene; the food's just OK. Main courses $12-$21.