If you think it's cold in England, you should pay a visit to Quebec during the winter. From what the guide on our tour of the city this morning was telling us, the first snow usually falls here in late November and it doesn't stop snowing until sometime around June - this means that, a lot of the time, parts of the province are covered in snow to a depth of up to fifteen feet. I'll just say that again - fifteen feet. This means,of course, that the snowdrifts outside some people's houses are so deep that they can only enter and exit the house through the upstairs windows.
This is not a place to be if you don't like the cold. Snowploughs roam the streets every night from midnight until six in the morning trying to clear as many drifts as possible, although this is sometimes an impossible job - according to our guide, who I felt sure was making much of it up as she went along just to see how much these silly British people would believe, it is actually illegal to have your car on the road during the night when the snowploughs are out and any cars not in their garages after midnight will be towed away at a cost to the owner of two hundred dollars. They take things seriously over here - so there's no point thinking you can just drive to your favourite nightclub. I suppose you either have to walk, or stay at home. Quite often, on my travels, I find somewhere that I really want to live - Quebec is not one of them, although certainly not because of the old world feel of the city itself, which is amazing.
We were given a fantastic tour of both the old and new town, and I made sure there was time to go into a store downtown and buy a huge bottle of maple syrup - it simply wouldn't be acceptable to come all the way to Canada and not go home with some maple syrup. The best we can get back home is maple flavour syrup, which isn't the same thing at all - the real stuff is runny and sweet and probably rots your teeth just from looking at the bottle, but they love it over here and have it on everything from pancakes to their sausages at breakfast. I think I draw the line at pouring sweet syrup over meat, but then I'm not Canadian. One thing that shopping in Quebec certainly forces you to do is pull every French word you can remember from school out of that dark vault of things you'll never need at the back of your mind, because people here just stare at you blankly if you don't speak the lingo. They say that the best way to learn a foreign language is to immerse yourself in the culture and live in a foreign language speaking city, and I can certainly understand this - I've only been here a day and I've picked up a few new words of French just from listening to people around me and reading signs outside shops, although I can honestly say that I probably won't be needing much of it ever again. Currently, the most impressive thing I can manage is to order lunch in McDonalds - I don't know why tour guides always want to take us into McDonalds rather than any of the numerous delightful looking French cafes that line the streets, but by the end of the day I was able to string together the sentence "Six morceaux de poulet, Une the au lait et Cafe Noir, et la Chocolat chaud sil vout plait" which I very much hope is something to do with six portions of chicken, a white tea, a black coffee and a hot chocolate. I'll probably find out later that I've been telling the cashier at McDonalds that I've run over her grandfather with my snow plough.
We took the elevator, because they wouldn't know what a lift was over here even if they did speak English, to the 31st floor of the tallest building in Quebec - a building whose name I couldn't pronounce if I tried. From the observation platform, I couldsee the whole of the city spread out before me looking remarkably European and beckoning me to come back down to ground level and explore its side street cafes and have my dodgy French accent laughed at by waiters. It's amazing how different a city can look from high up, and Quebec actually looked quite inviting with its covering of snow and narrow streets - naturally, we didn't have nearly enough time to explore properly as is always the case on organised tours, but I comforted myself with the thought that I had several more days in Canada in front of me and plenty more to see.
Probably the most imposing - and truly European - building in Quebec City is the Chateau Frontenac. One thing you can always say about Europeans, or people who like to pretend they're Europeans, is that they certainly know how to build a castle. Since my trip to Quebec, I've had the pleasure of exploring quite a lot of Europe (I'll save that for another book) and have seen what they have to offer - and they really do like to go in for a mixture of the fairytale princess castle such as Schloss Neuchwanstein in Bavaria to the more hardened prison-like fortresses - but one thing you can always say it that these places dominate the landscape wherever they are and can be seen for miles around. Le Chateau Frontenac is no different, even if it is on a totally different continent which is only pretending to be European. The thing is, the Chateau Frontenac isn't even a real castle - it's a hotel. Built at the end of the nineteenth century for the Canadian-Pacific Railway, the idea was to encourage more people to come to town on the train and stay in high class accommodation while they were here. Obviously, since the hotel looks every bit like an authentic European castle, and no doubt has interior decor to match, Chateau Frontenac soon became something of a tourist attraction for Quebec and has remained so till this day - it literally towers over the city and creates the illusion that Quebec city is a large medieval town built around a castle. More cities should do things like this.
When I returned to the hotel this afternoon, I found the coach parked outside with everybody on board waiting to depart for an afternoon tour of the area outside Quebec city. I hadn't previously booked myself onto this tour, but since I had arrived back sooner than expected from my explorations I decided on the spur of the moment to jump on board. And I do mean quite literally - racing across the road, I actually had to beat on the door of the coach as it was pulling away from the kerb in order to get a seat, although I knew perfectly well that nobody would be about to deny me the opportunity of going on the tour as it meant extra cash in the pockets of the tour operator.
Our first stop was at the Montmorency Falls. At 275 foot high, the falls are nearly 100 foot higher than Niagara, but certainly nowhere near as wide. Tour reps like to do this sort of thing - find out where you've been and where you're going later in the week and take you to something which goes one better in some way so that they can boast about it. I am not, in any way, suggesting that Montmorency comes even close to Niagara - but it is certainly spectacular, and one huge advantage it has over Niagara is that somebody has chosen to build a wide wooden boardwalk right the way up to one side of the falls so that visitors can stroll casually up to the base of the rock and get pelted with spray as they try to keep their eyes open against the power of the water hurling itself into their faces. You certainly can't do that at Niagara without getting on board the Maid of the Mist. To be honest, I don't suppose for one moment that our guide really expected us to take everything she said totally seriously - I mean, most of the group had seen Niagara, either live or on television, so none of us were going to be convinced that Montmorency was anything close. Mind you, the guide was struggling a bit at times with her explanations in broken English and probably got some of her facts mixed up anyway - for a start, she told us that the falls were 200 foot higher than Niagara, which certainly isn't true. Much of what she said went in one ear and straight out the other anyway, since we could see the falls right in front of us and were perfectly capable of being impressed on our own without having to be lectured to. Nobody lectures you at the Horseshoe Falls. Apparently, a number of people have reported seeing the ghost of a white lady in the falls, but by the time I got close enough to be able to make out anything underneath the spray my eyes had been forced shut by the water being hurled at them - so I'll just have to take their word for it.
About Simon and Burfords Travels:
Simon Burford is a UK based travel writer. He will be re-publishing his travel blogs, chapters from his books and other miscellaneous rantings on these pages over the coming weeks and months, and the entry on this page may not necessarily reflect todays date.