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La Belle Ville

Québec is a city born out of struggles between countries. Samuel de Champlain claimed the area for the French over four hundred years ago. In 1759, the English arrived with a plan of attack, and the French soon surrendered. The city became an official part of the Canadian province with the same name in 1867 and has remained that way despite pleas for the region to become an independent country. Despite all of this controversy, the land is peaceful. I am thankful for the opportunity to explore Québec and eager to discover the diversity, history, and beauty the city offers.
I sit in a small crêperie and gaze out onto the cobblestone street to watch the daily activity. There is little traffic this time of day. A group of teenage girls walks by giggling and speaking rapidly in French. Across the street, an older man helps his wife shuffle along the sidewalk as they window-shop. A man in a tattered flannel jacket cradles a brown paper bag in his arm and ambles aimlessly down the street, stopping occasionally to ask for money from random pedestrians. Two young sisters make their way home from school in matching pleated skirts and knee-high socks, their curly brown locks bouncing all the way. I notice the older girl glance warily at the homeless man and lean down to warn her sister not to talk to strangers. The tantalizing scent of crepes brings me back into the restaurant, as the waitress delivers my plate to the table. “Bon appétit!” she says with a smile. I pick up my fork, anticipating the first delicious bite of maple ham and creamy cheese wrapped artfully in batter. After enjoying my meal, I leave the restaurant, anxious to discover more of the city’s hidden treasures.

Walking down the street that evening, I notice a crowd gathered around a man on stilts, juggling bowling pins. I join the circle to watch the street performer. He is an older man with obvious years of experience. He wears black pants, a white dress shirt, suspenders, and a top hat, along with his clown nose. He shouts out his next feat in both French and English…juggling fire sticks! At the end of his performance, he passes around his hat to the sound of applause. Judging by the jingle of the coins, he will be pleased by the fruits of his labors. The next performers to take the “stage” are teenage boys with trick bikes. They ride backwards on their bicycles around the perimeter of the area to the “oohs” and “ahhs” of the crowd. The momentum and energy of the audience prompts one boy to fling himself into a series of back flips and another to tell jokes. The combination of acrobatics and humor makes the crowd go wild. Another hat is passed around as the people reluctantly disperse. I notice the older clown standing off by himself, realizing, sadly, that the second performers were more popular than he. Suddenly, a determined look crosses his face. As he packs up his props and continues on his way, I know he will work hard to make his act more appealing to tomorrow night’s audience. I return to the hotel to dream about the adventures tomorrow will bring.
I wake early the next morning and head across the Pont d’Île bridge to Île d’Orléans. The rural island sits stubbornly in the middle of the St. Lawrence River, seeming to deny the existence of bustling cities on either bank. The island itself is calm and serene, and I feel as if I have been transported back in time. There is one main road that loops around the outskirts of the land. Along this so-called highway are family farms, rustic cottages, boutiques, and several small cafés. To the right is an apple orchard that extends over several rolling slopes. The trees are so close together they seem to hold hands as their leaves dance in the slight breeze. Further along the road is a chocolatérie. As I open the door, my nose is filled with the rich scent of cocoa. At the counter are glass cases filled with miniature gourmet chocolates. The variety of fillings is astonishing: mousse, Irish crème, cherries, almonds, and caramel. Dark, milk, and white chocolate are all available and each piece of candy is molded into a different shape. I choose a small box and carefully select chocolates to fill it. My mouth is watering by the time I leave the store. Finally outside, I place a milk chocolate heart, filled with butterscotch, into my mouth. The sweet creaminess leaves me content. I continue along my way, enjoying the breathtaking views of the countryside. The wheat fields glow as they bask in the gentle sunlight. Next to a cemetery, an old stone church waits patiently for Sunday morning, when its small sanctuary will be filled with faithful farmers and their families. The rest of the island passes by in a blur of farmland and views of the river. Eventually, I make my way back around to the bridge and must return to the city.
The rest of the day is spent strolling through the cobblestone streets. The French language surrounds me, from the street signs to the friendly greetings of the local shopkeepers. On a nearby restaurant patio, a man plays violin while a woman sings a traditional Québecois song. Her soft, low voice urges wanderers to come enjoy a meal. I walk several more blocks before coming to the boardwalk, which trails along the shore of the river for as far as one can see. I lean on the railing and breathe the fresh, misty sea air. Looking out across the water, the maritime history of the city is obvious. There are couples on sailboats enjoying a romantic evening. Several large cargo liners make their way through the current, on their way to Great Lakes ports. Men work to secure a fishing boat to one of the nearby docks. Turning around, I find myself in the shadow of the great Chateau Frontenac. The spires of the magnificent edifice seem to stab the stars in the evening sky. The luxurious hotel is one of the largest and most easily recognizable buildings in the entire skyline. For generations, it has served as a symbol of Québec. Even when the people, languages, and events throughout the city are constantly changing, the mighty fortress is always there.
After exploring Québec, I have a new appreciation for diversity. The people are so different from each other, young and old, natives and tourists, traditionalists and modernists. There are strict Québecois who speak only French and others who speak three languages. Every person comes from a different walk of life. And yet, everyone co-exists peacefully. The buildings, reflective of the inhabitants, are also an eclectic mixture. Inside the walls of Québec City are beautiful stone hotels and restaurants, some up to 500 years old. Several blocks outside the wall is a contrastingly modern Subway restaurant advertising a five-dollar foot-long. The result of this seemingly strange atmosphere? A unique and beautiful blend of old and new that adds to the sense of belonging everyone possesses when they are here. The harmonious atmosphere is breathtaking.
Quebec City is a beautiful, ancient, city, resting along the bank of the St. Lawrence River, nestled among the Laurentian Mountains. European architecture creates the feeling of being in a village in France. Flowerbeds line the sidewalks with rainbows of color. There are so many opportunities to embrace everything Quebec has to offer. Climbing over a thousand steps to the top of nearby Montmorency Falls is worth the spectacular view of the river and nearby scenery. Less adventurous folks can ride an elevator to the 31st floor of “l’Observatoire” to see all the important historic buildings within the city itself. For me, hearing the harmonious flow of the French language every day is enough beauty to last a lifetime.
The language is one of many appealing aspects of life in Québec. One is able to walk down the streets of a foreign city and feel as if he or she has lived there his or her entire life. It is possible to experience new events, try new food, and meet new people every day. Québec is a place for those who love to learn about history and take time out of a busy schedule to enjoy the simple things in life. Sadly, my time to explore the wonders of city has ended. As I leave Québec, I feel beckoned to return to the land of enchantment. I am made fully aware of the city’s magical powers and know it will be impossible to stay away for long.





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