From the falls, we drove onto a strange little road out of town which was so narrow that some of the roofs of the roadside houses had huge chunks out of them where passing lorries and coaches had struck them - I had to wonder why they didn't simply ban large vehicles from that particular route and tell them to go another way. I don't suppose the residents of the homes along the road can feel particularly secure living in a house that may come crumbling down at any moment because it's been hit by a coach driving past, and I have to wonder why they haven't blockaded all the streets of the city with their lorries in protest yet as the French like to do - but then, for all I know, there may be no other road out of town for large vehicles to use instead. A little further on, we pulled into a roadside shop and bakery known as Chez Marie, where we were given a demonstration of just how far the Canadians will go to display their love of Maple Syrup. Now, I have always realised that Canada and Maple Syrup go hand in hand, but at Chez Marie they clearly wanted us to know everything there is to know about how it is produced and just how many kazillion food products it gets used in. This place is a fully functional bakery and beckons visitors in with the smell of freshly baked bread, but after being given the maple tour we were squeezed into a small room and made to huddle around a table while we were handed slices of bread smothered in something called Maple Butter. Now, I don't know about you but I've never personally thought about putting Maple Syrup on bread - I do fully appreciate the fact that the word "syrup" appears in the name and that plenty of people like a nice slice of toast and syrup in the morning, but you have to understand that real honest-to-goodness Canadian Maple Syrup doesn't come in a jar full of gooey stuff like Honey or Jam. No, this stuff is similar in consistency to peanut butter and as sweet as twelve thousand jars of honey all condensed into one - so spreading it onto a slice of bread and putting it into your mouth is an experience to say the least. There are certainly a lot of great applications for Maple Syrup, such as putting it on Ice Cream or Pancakes, but I honestly don't think I'll be using it as a spread any time soon - and judging from the faces of those around me, I think many of them agreed.
Maple Syrup is actually made from the sap of the Maple tree, and as such can only be produced at certain times of the year - usually during the three months from February to April. Quebec produces by far the largest proportion of syrup used around the world - something like seventy-five percent - with the rest being sourced from neighbouring provinces such as Vermont in the USA. These days, Maple Syrup is usually collected by large companies using special equipment, of course, but the small companies which still collect it in the traditional way insist that this is the only way to do it. A bore is made into the bark of the tree and a tap inserted through to the phloem, the tree equivalent of the blood vessels which carry its nutrients and keep it alive - it is then just a case of placing a bucket underneath the bore hole and going away for a while while the sap literally pours out of the tree. It takes around forty litres of sap to produce a single litre of Maple Syrup after it has been taken to a production plant and boiled down, and each tree is only capable of producing forty litres of sap during its season - so you can see why, if each tree can only produce a litre of Maple Syrup in a litre of Maple Syrup per year and the season only lasts for three months, authentic Maple Syrup is both hard to come by and extremely expensive. That's the main reason why the stuff you buy from the shelves in the local supermarket will, most of the time, be Maple flavour rather than the real thing - so many of you who think you like Maple Syrup have probably never even tried it. In fact, I would go so far as to say that the flavour of real Maple from the tree is totally different from the fake stuff you usually get from British shops - real Maple Syrup really is an acquired taste as it is ridiculously sweet, and many people actually express surprise upon first tasting it that it's not at all what they expected. Real Maple Syrup tends to be liquid, almost like water, rather than an actual syrup in the traditional sense, so that's a pretty good test for whether you are getting the real thing to start with. The real hardcore Maple fans will actually tap the sap of the Maple tree themselves or find a tree which is being tapped and actually drink the sap straight from the bore hole.
Another popular destination for tourists visiting Quebec is the museum of Atelier Pare just outside Sainte-Anne-de-Beaupre. This is a showcase of local craftsmanship, centring on a giant wooden mural by Pare depicting stories and legends from French Canadian folklore, mostly involving witches, goblins, ghouls and ghosts. Local craftsman come to the museum to show off their trade and sell their wares, and visitors can wander though watching elaborate pieces being carved out of pine and be able to buy them and take them home if they like what they see - and most of the works for sale at the museum are functional pieces, which came as something of a surprise to me. As I've travelled around the world, I've always been a big fan of finding functional works of art to take home - by which I mean things that you can actually do something with rather than just place them on the windowsill. Of course, if you've purchased a beautifully carved ashtray depicting scenes from the legends of the country you've just visited, you're probably not going to plonk it straight down on your coffee table at home and let your visitors stub out their cigarettes on it - but when I see an elaborate sculpture which really speaks of it's country of origin, a discrete little door at the back for hanging my keys is an added incentive for me to buy - it means that the art has been created with a purpose in mind rather than simply to look pretty. Often, local storytellers go along to Atelier Pare's studio to regale visitors with the legends shown on the works around them, but we generally had to make do with looking around and trying to decipher the surreal images for ourselves. Nevertheless, I had a great time scrutinising every inch of the mural, which was Atelier Pare's last work before he retired, constantly spotting things I hadn't seen a moment before. A local guide stood in front of the huge carving as we looked at it and explained everything in detail, but I can honestly say that I didn't understand a single word he said. His English was so bad that I wasn't altogether sure he was speaking English at all, and he had such a strong French Canadian accent that he might as well have not bothered turning up. He also had probably the worst sense of humour I think I've ever encountered in my life, and whenever we did manage to make out what he was saying for a moment it was usually just as he pointed to a carving of a bear hidden away on the mural somewhere creeping up on an unsuspecting carved boy and said something about the boy needing to know that he had a bear behind. I wasn't sure whether to shoot him or buy him a new joke book.
In the middle of the village of Sainte-Anne-de-Beaupré is the not so originally named Basilica of Sainte-Anne-de-Beaupré. This nineteenth century Basilica, or, to be more precise, early twentieth century Basilia built on the site of the original church, is recognised by the Roman Catholics as being a place of miracles, being credited with numerous cases of the sick and disabled being cured there. I really can't stress enough how important Sainte-Anne-de-Beaupré has become to the Roman Catholic religion - every year, hundreds of thousands of pilgrims converge on the small town to see if it can work its miracles for them.
We were told that, during the celebration of the birthday of Sainte Anne in November, over three hundred thousand people turn up at once - something which must surely piss the locals off just a little bit, since their village is probably only large enough to suitably entertain a few hundred at any one time. Mind you, it clearly isn't that difficult to annoy the people around here - and not just because they're French - we managed to get them pretty upset just by daring to enter the Basilica during mass. I mean, back home you can just walk into any church at any time whether there is a service going on or not, and you are welcomed with open arms - assuming, of course, that you're not carrying a sound system and accompanied by naked dancers. The church, after all, wouldn't get far if it turned away people who took an interest in it. Our guide was quite taken aback by the reaction we got, and said that she has been conducting the same tour for over ten years and has never before had any problem at all - as long as the party stays quietly at the back and observes politely, nobody has ever made any comment. This time, however, a big chap in a white ministerial gown - a heavenly bouncer, no less - decided to take it upon himself to chuck us back out as soon as we had got through the door. Clearly, our names weren't down so we weren't getting in. For a man of the cloth, he seemed rather rude and uncompromising - first giving our guide a stern lecture on the ways of the Catholic church before rounding on a member of our party seemingly at random inorder to take his anger out on him. He told the poor guy, who had until that moment been standing quietly at the back wondering what was going on, that he really should've known better. Put simply, Mr Bouncer wasn't doing himself or his church any favours. To their eternal merit, we were immediately approached by several members of the congregation who had seen what had happened and taken it upon themselves to apologise on behalf of the Catholic church and say that they couldn't understand what the problem was as we certainly hadn't been making a nuisance of ourselves, so at least we came away with the impression that the locals were decent people even if the church officials weren't.
Perhaps the most interesting thing about the Basilica of Sainte-Anne-de-Beaupré, apart from the sheer magnificence of its architecture and number of miracles with which it has been credited, is the way in which people choose to show how grateful they are after being cured of whatever disease or affliction they came here with. You may remember, if you've read my previous books, that I stopped at a small pub in outback Australia called Daly Waters - if you recall, the walls of the pub were covered in things left behind as souvenirs by visitors, and there wasn't a space on the walls that wasn't covered with items of clothing, banknotes from around the world, letters of praise for the service, etc. Well, the Basilica of Sainte-Anne-de-Beaupré seems to have pretty much the same thing going on with items of medical equipment. An entire wall just inside the entrance to the church, and both pillars on either side of the entrance are covered from floor to ceiling with crutches which have been left there by people who have come here unable to walk and gone away cured. It really is quite strange to see an entire wall of crutches and other assorted medical paraphernalia stuck all over the wall like some sort of giant freaky mural, and I do have to wonder what keeps it all up there. Devine intervention, I expect. I reckon, just outside town, there must be an ever increasing pile of people who have managed to walk a few hundred yards and then collapsed in a heap after realising that they're not cured after all and they've left their crutches stuck ten feet up a wall.
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.