Quebec City, Canada has been one of those places to hold a tremendous amount of mystery for me. I had heard stories, seen pictures and thought “this is a place I definitely have to see someday,” along with the pyramids of Egypt, the fiords of Norway, the beaches of Greece and the ruins of Machu Picchu. Now I am on the other side of the wish, and it was even more magical than I expected.
Driving into Canada without my cell phone was a bit unnerving. I went back to old-fashioned paper maps and pulled out a gps my mom let me borrow that performed rather out-dated maneuvers. The highway signs were all in french, the miles per hour now kilometers and I missed the security of familiar restaurants, gas stations and rest stops. I had bid on a hotel room on priceline.com and got a four star room in a Hilton for 100 bucks a night. But I really knew nothing about it other than the address and that it was near the old part of Quebec that I wanted to see.
Driving into the city the traffic got increasingly worse and worse. There were people everywhere walking the same direction that I was driving and then I found the streets barred and closed and detour routes set up. It was a nightmare puzzle but I finally found the hotel and was treated royally and charmed by the front desk clerk who checked me in and sheepishly told me I had a beautiful smile. He gave me a room on the 22nd floor with a view unlike any I have experienced thus far on this trip. I overlooked the Parliament buildings and felt like the queen of the castle!
Looking over the landscape I saw the place teeming with people all heading to a concert. There was a huge music festival going on and that is why roads were closed and traffic was a nightmare. After gazing appreciatively at the view and inwardly blessing the charming clerk for my lovely room I collapsed on the bed a mess of exhaustion with a pounding headache. I forced myself to clean up, took some Advil, changed clothes and got out the door before I lost all the evening light. I had not eaten since a quick breakfast and so I was off to locate food and see the sights. I found that I was feeling worse and worse though, my head moving into the migraine zone. I landed in a touristy restaurant as a default, and ordered quiche and salad, but ended up having to get it to go, as I was feeling queasy, probably from taking the Advil on an empty stomach. Ugh, it was misery and I trudged back to my hotel in the dark, with my quiche in a box, feeling rotten and hoping that a good night’s sleep would cure what ailed me. I slept with the drapes open to enjoy the twinkling lights of my view as I crashed completely.
And I am happy to report that the next morning found me rested, with only a slight migraine hangover. I was ready to explore Quebec and see as much as possible in my one day. I started toward the Parliament buildings then toward the Citadel grounds and stumbled upon a beautiful boardwalk that ran along the cliffs of the St. Lawrence River and ended at a fairytale castle/hotel built in 1892, Le Chateau Frontenac. I sat on a nearby bench and listened to a man singing like Louis Armstrong and playing trumpet under a large statue, he was awesome and it somehow worked in this extremely french fairytale.
The streets reminded me of Venice without the canals, there were artisans lining the sidewalks, musicians, outdoor cafes, amazing churches. The Notre-Dam Basilica was intoxicating with it’s gold altar, paintings and stained glass. I found the bilingual aspect of the city made me less apt to strike up conversations, not knowing if I would be understood. People were less engaging, even in elevators, I think because one is not sure whether to say bonjour or hello. So even though the french Quebecers were happy to speak english, there was a hesitancy and a wish that I would not have to make them do so.
I had a delightful panini at an outdoor cafe while a little old man played accordion on the sidewalk and artists were painting caricatures of tourists for a fee. If I wasn’t keenly aware that I had spent all day in the car the day before to get here, I would have thought I was in Europe.
I wandered into a shop called Les Trois Columbes, it had an eclectic array of clothing and handmade items by local artisans. I was the only one there and the proprietor offered her services and we started to chat. She had me trying on coats and jackets, “for fun” she said “just to see.” She was about my age, enigmatic, canny and I swear, psychic. She read me like a book and was reading my life by how I dressed and what I liked in clothes. “You like not everything perfect. You’re a free spirit.” She asked about me and my history, if I wanted to date a French man, and any minute I expected her to turn my hand over and read my palm. She called me “lorEEE” with the emphasis on the E, and I really liked her. I left there without buying a thing but feeling like someone had just consulted the tarot cards on my life. She was clairvoyant, a soothsayer and she confirmed my life has unique meaning and significance and is a beautiful thing.
With my new-found friend’s mystical aura emanating off my skin I went up to the Citadel, (the 17th century official residence of the heads of state complete with guards), and wandered around inside the old walls, listening to a beautiful voice singing “Aint No Mountain High Enough” in the outdoor concert down the hill. I came out on the side of a hill overlooking one of the most breathtaking views I have seen. I sat on the lawn as the sun was setting and was entranced for an hour by the colors changing the clouds, river, castle hotel, and old stone cottages before my eyes. It is one of those places and moments in time I will not forget.
I was determined to have Coquille St. Jacques (scallops in a wine cream sauce usually served in a big shell) for dinner since I had seen it on many menus as I was meandering around town. I used to order this as a kid when I went with my parents to their favorite french restaurant, La Petite Auberge in California. My folks knew the owners and chef and we were always serenaded by an accordion player under a retractable ceiling that was covered with huge growing vines. So I was on a mission to find the perfect restaurant for my last night in magical Quebec. I was picky and went in and out of several places before settling on Restaurant Parmesan. A gentleman was outside greeting people and the atmosphere inside was very happy, tables with pink cloths and red walls lined with thousands of bottles.
Dining alone usually brings with it raised eyebrows of disbelief and pity, which I want no part of. People feel sorry for me and that bugs me. Being alone is a choice I have made and watching other traveling couples bickering or barely speaking has confirmed that for now, my life is gayer being alone. The gentleman outside made much of me and escorted me to a central table, lit the candle that was dripping down an empty wine bottle and introduced me to my waiter. At the end of a my lovely dinner he returned like a genie, accordion strapped over his shoulders and sat in front of me and sang me french love songs. He enlisted the neighboring table to translate them into english as he sang. La Vie En Rose will never be the same again. With his sad eyes he expressed his regrets that I was leaving the next day.
My heart was once again touched by passionate humanity in a beautiful dreamy city. I will return someday and give my heart time to linger for longer than this fleeting day. It deserves it, I deserve it, this incredibly beautiful 15th century architecture needs more time to soak into my soul.
“Hold me close and hold me fast
The magic spell you cast
This is la vie en rose”