The Brancatelli File



November 1, 1985 -- A family from Maine was sitting around a tiny table in a small outdoor cafe on the Grande Allee doing what most American tourists do when they dine al fresco on Quebec City's main drag: butchering the bistro's French menu.

Daddy and Mommy, attired in matching running suits emblazoned with red-white-and-blue USA emblems, were completely at sea. Even the soupe a l'oignon gratinee was a deep, dark Gallic mystery. The young sons, sporting Boston Red Sox T-shirts, looked bored. The high-school-aged daughter's language-lab French was clearly failing her. She thought she'd been taught what pommes frites were, but she just wasn't sure.

The waitress came by, examined the hopelessly flummoxed group of Anglos, and smiled politely. "I can help you," she said in an accent thick with Quebecois. "I speak English, too."

The meal went swell. Daddy was thrilled because the waitress reassured him he didn't have to drink wine instead of beer. Mommy loved the onion soup. The daughter got her fries and a Coke, plus a rudimentary French lesson. The boys wolfed hamburgers and looked bored. "Thank you for all your help, mam'zelle. You were so nice," Mommy told the beaming waitress as the family strolled off into a cool Quebec evening.

As the little scene in the bistro suggests, Quebec has rejoined the North American continent. After a decade of strident separatist sentiment fueled by a now-dormant political independence movement, Quebec has cooled the rhetoric, the language-inspired arrogance and the cultural superciliousness. The province of Quebec remains Canada's--and North America's--cradle of French culture, language, arts and society, but the anti-Anglo sentiment seems passed. Or at least submerged.

The "language police" that once harassed shopkeepers who posted signs in English is gone. So's the virulent strain of Gallic jingoism that drove many English-speaking residents and businesses out of the province. Quebec province is still swaggeringly, ebulliently, unquestionably French. It's just that "les Quebecois" no longer feel that being French and being North American are somehow emotionally incompatible.

"The national question has disappeared in Quebec," says Kenneth McRoberts of Toronto's York University. "Separatism isn't dead, but it certainly is going through a pause. I think the cycle that dominated the 1960s and 1970s is over."

No place in Quebec province is benefiting more from this new attitude than Quebec City, the incurably quaint provincial capital founded on the banks of the St. Lawrence River more than 375 years ago. Montreal, the province's largest city, was always too big, too cosmopolitan, and too international to toe the separatist line with much fervor. But Quebec City, whose population base of about 500,000 is 95 percent French-speaking, was seized by the nationalist movement.

English-speaking tourists (especially if they were Canadian) were ignored or verbally abused with alarming regularity. But now that the separatist movement has subsided, Quebec City is once again a spectacular tourist attraction for Americans and English-speaking Canadians.

It's impossible to list all the historic and cultural sites Quebec City offers. There are natural wonders and man-made delights that are unmatched on the continent. And it's hard to argue with those who believe the town, perched atop a 350-foot cliff, is the cleanest, most attractive and most beautiful metropolis in the Americas. An all-too-brief overview of Quebec City follows.

Quebec City has one of the world's finest and most picturesque "Old Town" developments. Besides the advantages of being French-inspired and the only walled community outside Mexico in the Americas, Quebec's Old Town isn't one of those stuffy, pretentious, museum-mummified restorations, but a living, breathing part of the city. Many of Quebec's best-known tourist attractions--including the Place Royale and the Chateau Frontenac--lie within the walls of the Old Town.

Battlefields Park is the pedestrian official name for the "Plains of Abraham," the site of the monumental French and Indian War battle between Generals Wolfe and Montcalm. The 235-acre park is home to the Citadel, a huge, star-shaped fortress built on Quebec's highest point in 1832, and the Quebec Museum. The park itself is beautiful green space stretching back from the cliff of the St. Lawrence.

The city's Parliament buildings are must-see items even for architecturally blasť tourists. The 100-year-old, Renaissance-style government center is festooned with remarkable statues in every nook and cranny. Also on the list of major tourist attractions: Quebec Seminary, parts of which date back more than 200 years; Cartier Park, named after Jacques Cartier, the French explorer; Montmorency Falls, a 274-foot natural wonder just outside the city limits; Sainte-Anne De Beaupre, a three-centuries-old Catholic cathedral about 20 miles from center city, and Ile D'Orleans, a tiny island in the St. Lawrence that is as rural as Quebec City is urban.

Walk. In Quebec, tourists walk. They walk through the parks. Through the Old Town and the recently restored Vieux-Port development. Through the churches. Through the city's numerous military sites and monuments. Mostly, tourists tramp along the Grande Allee and watch the Quebec City resident at leisure. And what do les Quebecois at leisure do? Walk the Grande Allee and watch the tourists.

Another place to walk to is the Quartier Petit Champlain, a complex of craft stores and artisan workshops. Located in Quebec's Old Town, Quartier Petit Champlain is a delight even for tourists who've browsed through one too many crafts shops. The arts and crafts on display in the tiny shops are not touristy knick-knacks. The woodcarvers, jewelry makers, potters, painters, sculptors, weavers and designers are real. So is their work. The pick of the litter: superlative flights of silky fancy at Soirita (83, Petit Champlain), a scarf and fashion accessories shop operated by Quebecois Rita Morley. Her hand-colored work, priced at about 60 Canadian dollars and higher, is even a better bargain considering the 30 percent premium U.S. dollars currently command.

Quebec City is also a festival-happy town; there always seems to be one under way. The summer festival during a ten-day period in July dominates the Old Town landscape and the whole city's cultural scene. The Winter Carnival is one of Quebec's most attractive tourist lures. Held during ten days in February, the Carnival turns what would otherwise be an unbearably cold, snowy climate into an amazing celebration of winter activities. There are night parades, canoe races in the ice-clogged St. Lawrence, cultural events and a gigantic snowman named "Bonhomme Carnival" to watch over the whole affair.

The local Quebecois cuisine is quite exotic. It mixes haute cuisine French, the cooking of Canada's Gaspe Peninsula--and maple syrup. Honest, maple syrup. Even the simple dishes, such as roast duckling with maple syrup, defy prose description. The best bet for the curious is Aux Anciens Canadiens (34, rue St-Louis), a justly world famous outpost of this unique regional cooking.

Less adventuresome eaters should rest assured: Quebec City is crowded with perfectly wonderful traditional French bistros, brasseries and high-dining halls. One experience not to miss is La Goeliche, a French country restaurant on the Ile d'Orleans (2198, av. Royale, St.-Laurent). A mother-and-son-in-law team works in the kitchen and the results are exquisite. Closer to center city, Le Croquembroche in the Hilton International Hotel is an elegant dining room with excellent cuisine. Truth to tell, however, it is hard to eat poor in even the most humble French restaurant in Quebec City.

Modestly sized though it is, Quebec City teems with restaurants of all descriptions, including such rarely experienced cuisines as Basque and Czech. Since it is French-speaking, however, the city has become a magnet for restaurants featuring the cuisine of former French colonies in Asia and Africa. There are Algerian and Tunisian restaurants, Cambodian and Vietnamese restaurants, and a smattering of Lebanese and Moroccan joints, too.

The Old Town is dotted with cute and interesting small inns. Old Town is also the home of Chateau Frontenac. The Frontenac has a reputation as big as its facade, but the sad truth is that the meandering place isn't what it once was. Have a drink at the bar and wander through the lobby and public rooms instead.

Just outside the walls of Old Town is the Hilton International Quebec (3, Place Quebec), a particularly genteel and friendly outpost of the worldwide chain. It sits atop a splashy shopping mall and Quebec City's major convention center. It's also just a few paces from the Parliament buildings, the Plains of Abraham and the Grande Allee.

Also up to first-class standards are the Auberge des Gouveneurs (690, boulevard St.-Cyrille) and the Loews Le Concorde (1225, Place Montcalm).

Quebecair, the provincial carrier, now offers direct flights from Boston and New York/Newark. Connections from other cities are most easily made on Air Canada, Eastern, American and CP Air.

This column originally appeared in Frequent Flyer magazine.

Copyright © 1983-2011 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.