Paris and Québec City: Comparison and Contrast by Cynthia Hurst

I first met Cynthia Hurst in 2002.  She came to Speak Abroad, the language school I had founded and was running in Vero Beach, Florida to learn French for her travels.  I had the honor of being her first French teacher ever.  She and her husband Richard have become some of my dearest friends.  When Cynthia and Richard went on a cruise to Québec this September I asked Cynthia to write a comparison of Paris and Québec for my blog.  Cynthia is a fantastic writer with a wonderful eye for detail.  I knew her article would be good, but what she came up with surpassed my expectations.  Merci Cynthia!

“Age cannot wither her, nor custom stale her infinite variety.” —Shakespeare

“…wherever you go for the rest of your life it stays with you, for Paris is a moveable feast.” —Ernest Hemingway

“I love living in Quebec City!” —Young woman from France

“In Paris they simply stared when I spoke to them in French; I never did succeed in making those idiots understand their own language.” —Mark Twain

“All we want is an independent Quebec within a strong and united Canada.” —Yvon Deschamps

It is a mild day in May complete with azure skies, blossoming trees, flowering crocus and daffodils, and everywhere the bright spring green of a Paris coming to life once again. I am walking (myth buster for the hotel clerk who gave me directions: Yes, Americans do walk) east on Quai Saint-Bernard, heading for le Jardin des Plantes and the Museum of Natural History with La Grande Galerie de l’Evolution. But today nature beckons and it’s the botanical gardens that draw me. Set on 28 hectares (about 69 acres), the park includes tropical hothouses, rose gardens, rows of traditional flowers, an Alpine garden entered via a damp, cool cave, and an Art Deco-style winter garden where the black stick-like trees form a perfect backdrop en hiver. All this, and a little zoo, too!

I am staying at the Agora St. Germain, perfectly situated in the heart of the Latin Quarter, so named for the students who studied Latin at the nearby Sorbonne. A couple of blocks north and I am at the Seine. Crossing the bridge, I reach Notre Dame. Street artists perform, crowds mingle, gargoyles glare, and ancient, solemn beauty waits within. If I walk west I hit Boulevard Saint-Michel, which leads to the Cluny Museum of the Middle Ages—one of the best and worth seeing. Further down is found the University of Paris, and then the Luxembourg Gardens.

On Saturdays, Blvd. St.-Michel is closed off for a couple of blocks and the market stalls take over the street. Not only fresh, locally grown produce, but chickens and meats, seafood and rabbits, cheeses and breads are on fragrant display. In addition, there are clothing items, leather goods, tablecloths, jewelry, trinkets and more. Buy a perfect pint of raspberries from a farmer, a mini-quiche from the patisserie; indulge in some lacy antique linen or a hand-painted box. There are treasures to be found here!

To the south, up a long hill, is a square surrounded by bistros and cafes. Once, traveling with my husband, Richard, and son Sean, we were sent in the opposite direction by the hotel concierge to a restaurant featuring nouvelle cuisine (translation: small bites of food with interesting sauces drizzled or squiggled on to look artsy). We finished our meal and as we headed back I said, “That was perfect!” My husband and son said simultaneously, “I’m still starving!” Around the next corner we found a place to suit all of us. I had a cup of tea and split an order of profiteroles while the guys feasted on roast chicken and pommes frites!

Paris is divided into arrondissements, making the city more manageable and succinct. But it is more than defined areas and famous sights; to experience Paris you must fill your senses and feel the spirit that surrounds you. Whether it is the purple/pink sunset at Notre Dame, the magic of the I.M. Pei pyramid at the Louvre, the awe of standing beneath the Eiffel Tower (or atop one of the observation landings!), the joy of a tour boat on the Seine, the skill of a street artist, a night at the Moulin Rouge, or the simple pleasure of a café and pastry, the City of Light awaits you.

One more myth buster about Paris: the people are not all rude. Sean’s spirit was crushed in the smaller city of Nancy when the cabbie heard his American accent and refused to speak with him. In Paris, he tried again. The taxi driver wanted to understand, and they chatted non-stop all the way to our destination. With 2.2 million people in Paris and just over 10 million in the surrounding area, some are bound to be nice, n’est-ce pas?

And now, we go to Québec. With just over half a million population, Québec City is the oldest walled city in North America. Divided into Old and New (outside the old town walls of the historic section), the Old City (Vieux-Québec) contains Upper Town (Haute-Ville) and Lower Town (Basse-Ville). Samuel Champlain, recognizing the area’s strategic importance for shipping and fortification, established a trading post there in 1608, and thus the city.

On a warm September day, Richard and I disembark the cruise ship Maasdam, of the Holland America Line, for this magnificent and very French port of call. Québec City is on the Fleuve Saint Laurent, offering deep water access from the Atlantic Ocean to the Great Lakes. Port Québec is a large harbor, and sailboats and pleasure craft dot the water.

Like Paris there are cobbled streets, boutique shops and art galleries, musicians in the park, cafés and restaurants in abundance, monuments, and the requisite Notre Dame Cathedral. There was a Tour de Québec the day we were there, and bicyclists rode by in waves separated by touring vans and police motorcyclists, all cheered by tourists and thousands of locals who lined the streets. Two more cyclists struggled up the hill a while later, cheered raucously by the crowd.

What’s different? First and foremost is closer access for Americans, a chance to be in a French city where French and English are easily spoken. You can get there by plane or boat or train (or car!), relatively quickly at a fraction of the cost. In France you will find Germanic, British and Italian influences reflected in architecture, food and dialect. In the province of Québec other influences are Scottish, Native American and Inuit. A perfect souvenir is an inukshuk, a traditional sculpture made of unworked stones and used by the Inuit as communication and survival for fellow travelers. And some Québécoise pottery, too, of course!

The upper town of the Old City is reached via the Funicular, a grand elevator that offers a splendid view of the lower town and the St. Laurence as it rises slowly up the hill. After exploring the lower town, we joined the short line for the ride. Later, we took the steps of the Escalier Frontenac to descend—much easier and interesting in its own way.

Upon exiting the Funicular we are greeted by the massive façade of the Fairmont Le Chateau Frontenac. Frontenac is a castle-like hotel of Scottish bricks, copper roofs and stone turrets. It is full of old-time elegance, with uniformed doormen, antique furnishings and high tea. In the vicinity are several squares and plazas where people gather to relax and catch some sun. A massive statue of Champlain dominates the square in front of the Frontenac. Behind the statue is Dufferin Terrace, a wide boardwalk overlooking the old city and the river. If you wish, you can take the 310 steps along Le Promenade des Gouverneurs. This leads to an observation landing and skirts the cliff wall past the Citadel. Or, heading away from the promenade, you will find tree-lines avenues, ancient stone artifices, cathedrals and churches, and another plaza featuring a Native American statue that is striking. (I photographed the Indian and skipped the Bishop.)

We enjoyed a delicious lunch at La Cache, right off the stairway between the old and new town, a few steps below rue Petit-Champlain where the bike race was being held. I ordered Salade Niçoise, my husband had a yummy autumn soup and we shared a demi-bottle of white Burgundy Bourgogne. Go ahead and get an ice cream or some chocolate afterwards and sit in the park. Parfait!

I found Quebec City to be smaller and more provincial, yet modern and worldly too. They are, after all, struggling with the separatist movement in Quebec while demanding a strong and unified Canada. New Prime Minister Pauline Marois has offered a referendum to determine Quebec’s fate. Political tempers have cooled for the moment and locals I talked with seemed ambivalent about the issue.

Meanwhile, a man plays classical guitar on a cobbled street, shops like Fusion & couleurs and Pot en Ciel are ready for business, and Le Lapin Sauté is open for lunch. Dancing iron figures hang from wires in Old Town, and a maid opens a white sheet like angel wings in a bedroom window of Le Priori Hotel. But there’s more: a quiet archway behind Frontenac with a woolen shop tucked away in a corner, a burly man walking three, large, impeccably trained dogs who stops to give me directions, noon mass being said at the basilica, a group of teens teasing each other in French, and a child carrying a miniature hockey stick.

With a trip to Paris, you naturally have the added bonus of the entire country of France to explore. But Québec is a fantastic place to venture, a fairly close Canadian neighbor with a unique history and charm of its own. And a great opportunity to practice your French!

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