By Dean and Nancy Hoch
Yes! It’s true. You can forget all the problems that so many travelers experience when visiting Paris. Instead, discover as we did the magic of Quebec City (population 750,000) and Montreal (over 1.8 million), located, of course, in Canada’s gigantic province of Quebec at a fraction of the cost.
Having visited both of these parts of the world, we can honestly say that a trip to Quebec rises to the top with just about any comparisons you might care to make.
We are combining these two Canadian cities because of their relatively close proximity to each other – just 150 miles — and the fact that once you’re in this part of Canada, you might as well experience what both have to offer. Collectively, they exude a real and rich French flavor. Small wonder since there’s so much French history, and French, of course, is the predominant language – in fact, 93 percent of the people speak it. This fact may put some travelers off. However, this should not be the case, because most of the people of the region also speak excellent English, so there is virtually no language barrier, except perhaps for a few street signs and restaurant menus.
And, if a problem does arise, all it takes is asking any of the helpful people on the streets. Quebecers (yes, that’s what they call themselves) are very helpful and very welcoming to Americans and people of all nationalities. We were surprised to note that when we obviously looked a little puzzled at a street crossing, or while peering at a map, someone was sure to pop up and ask if we needed help
In our six-day trip there we visited both cities, joining them with a delightful three-hour, scenic train ride on the country’s outstanding Via Canada Rail System – in our case traveling from Quebec City to Montreal. This was an exhilarating trip that we thoroughly enjoyed; we loved seeing much of the countryside of Quebec, including the rich farmland and the small villages along the way – a real treat and akin to meandering by rail through the European countryside.
To defend our claim about forgetting Paris, we’ve chosen several personal and pointed comparisons showing Montreal and Quebec City as the contest winners – such as:
- DISTANCE. No need to take that much longer flight to Paris when Quebec is closer and almost certainly less expensive for us Yanks, i.e. Chicago to Paris is 4,200 miles, Chicago to Quebec City is only 900 miles.
- FRIENDLINESS OF THE PEOPLE. Sad to say, in all our overseas travels, Paris was overall the least friendly; conversely Quebec City and Montreal are at the top of the list as most friendly. In fact, 99 percent of the visitors to Quebec City say they are happy or very happy with their warm welcome. We assume the same is true for Montreal; it was for us!
- COURTESY & GOOD MANNERS. Unlike our stay in Paris, we found Quebecers, as noted, to be kind, helpful and courteous at every turn. We were often addressed as “Sir” and “Madame.” Only once in some of the many narrow streets we crossed, and the long city walks we enjoyed, did we hear a small toot from the horn of a passenger car to let us know we had wandered into a driver’s path. We also found young people to be especially helpful – even giving us their seats on the subway, if you can imagine– not so in Paris. In fact, as first-time users of the huge subway system there, we asked directions of a subway official and were sent opposite of where we wanted to go. So, after a couple of hours, we had to find our way back ourselves to the original station and then head off to our original destination. Not fun! And not a good experience for newcomers to the city.
- SUBWAYS, by the way in Montreal, are much cleaner and fresher smelling than those in their ancient European counterpart.
- CUISINE. Ah, it’s doubtful you’ll find finer anywhere in the world — including Paris. One of the local restaurants has the clever slogan: “It’s to dine for.” We are happy to recommend some that we can unequivocally say provide outstanding dining delights you will not soon forget. Three are very French and one very Italian — L’Echaude, St. Hubert’s and Savini’s in Quebec City are superb — and in Montreal you just can’t find any finer than Restaurant Apollo and also Jardin Nelson’s. Mmmm! Mmmm! Fabulous taste and outstanding service in each. Also, the many sidewalk cafes are just like you would hope to enjoy in “Gay Paree.” So, Bon appetite — right here in North America!
- SMOKING. We saw few people smoking in the cities we visited in Quebec versus the prevalence in Paris, at least at the time we visited. Maybe Parisians have improved by now.
- SAFETY & CRIME. We don’t have statistics, but from all we’ve heard, you’re a heck of a lot better off in Quebec than you are in Paris, where we were warned of pickpockets galore and also sometimes families of gypsies going about robbing people. Whereas, in Quebec we found we could walk the streets nearly anywhere after dark and not feel the least concern – a big plus in any trip and a special treat when keeping late hours.
- RIVER CRUISES. Again, you can forget the Seine. Instead, try cruising the mighty St. Lawrence River – a whole different experience. We enjoyed both a ferry boat ride in Montreal – this from colorful, Old Montreal to the Jean-Drapeau Park — and also a much longer, larger boat ride we boarded in Quebec City. These rides were on The Croisieres AML Lines — website: crosieresaml.com. This is an excellent cruise excursion company with 18 boats that serve a half million people annually. We thoroughly enjoyed both rides and the ever-changing views of the shoreline.
- CITIES OF ROMANCE. Perhaps Quebec City and Montreal could be called “the twin cities of lovers.” We noticed so many couples of all ages holding hands as they strolled the streets and byways, looking very much in love. Maybe we’ve forgotten, but we don’t remember that being the case in Paris.
- TO SUM UP: We could go on and on, but, let it be said that the European flair of Quebec City (old-world in architecture and spirit) and Montreal (more modern and cosmopolitan) provide a great combination that eliminates going to Paris for the same kind of travel adventure.
Now, for just a few specifics that made our trip to these two Canadian cities so captivating for us:
#1 For a long time, we had hoped to be able to see Quebec City’s fabulous Festival of the Military Bands which is held every August – truly a fabulous, must-see event. These crack outfits come from various parts of the world to showcase their remarkable talents, and the highlight of the week is the stirring Military Tattoo (teh-TOO) which is held indoors at the Colisee Pepsi. The Tattoo is an evening performance of the various bands, including a totally unforgettable Scottish regiment compete with pipes and drums, marching before an enthralled audience of thousands. Standing ovation, after standing ovation occurred as these fantastic groups “strutted their incomparable stuff.”
Both concerts we attended featured bands from Germany and Chili, as well as other groups, and we can’t say enough about how thrilling they were. Be sure to check out the website: http://www.fimmq.com/
A Military Tattoo, by the way, is also held every August in Edinburgh, Scotland. To see that one, we had to plan a year ahead for tickets, and, again, you can have much the same experience without having to cross the Atlantic and the additional costs involved.
#2 The Cirque du Soleil, which originated in the 80’s near Quebec City, and are held around the world, is a circus like none other anywhere. The one we saw was held outdoors at night and was stupendous — truly another of those wonderful, not-to-be-missed events. It’s been described as an eclectic mix of circus arts and street entertainment, as well as being the largest theatrical producer in the world — and the unchallenged world leader in circus arts. It and the military bands make an absolutely phenomenal duo for exciting, non-pareil entertainment. The circus’s website is: circdusoleil.com, and, for those interested — English pronunciation & translation are: sirk-due-soLAY – Circus of the Sun).
#3 if time permits, arrange for a half-day touring Old Quebec and another half-day in the countryside seeing Montmorency Falls, taller than Niagara, and the farming country of the island in the St. Lawrence River – the Ile d’Orleans. We also drove through miles of maple forests where the signature maple syrup of Canada derives. Our friendly, knowledgeable, and accommodating guide was Ms. Michelle Demers who was arranged through the Quebec City Tourism department. Website is: quebecregion.com. We stopped, by the way, for a gastronomical experience that’s apparently to die for by the locals. It’s call poutine and is made by topping French fries — what other kind of fries in Quebec but French — with brown gravy and cheese curds. Now, how’s that for something to write home about – or maybe not to write home about — depending on how discriminating you are about the new kinds of food you eat? We quickly learned to like it, but we had to wonder: How do the French folks of Quebec stay so thin?
#3 Again, you don’t have to go to Paris to see what we all know as the magnificent Notre Dame Cathedral. This is because Montreal’s Notre Dame Basilica is an amazing jewel in and of itself. The imposing church features dynamic organ concerts that seem to rattle the entire structure on the more strident chords, as well as a stunning sound and light show celebrating the founding of Montreal and the building of the immense structure that is well worth seeing. For more information, see the website: Therewaslight.ca. We, by the way, were taken on a tour of Montreal, as well as the basilica, by an outstanding tour guide, Martin Robitaille, arranged for by Tourisme Montreal.
#5 As for hotels, we greatly enjoyed our stay at the Chateau Laurier in Quebec City with its excellent restaurant serving all three meals and a brunch. It’s sometimes reviewed as
“a very nice place to stay at a fair price.” This attractive property is close to the Plains of Abraham and other battlefields, as well as within walking distance of Old Quebec, the Citadel of Quebec, and many outstanding sites.
In Montreal, our stay was at the city’s world famous “Grand Dame Hotel,” the serene and elegant Fairmont–The Queen Elizabeth. Both this property and also the Chateau Laurier in Quebec City offer exceptional service; both are warm and welcoming. The Queen E., interestingly, was constructed over 50 years ago and sits atop the Via Rail Central station, if you can imagine — an engineering feat to say the least. There’s even an organic, rooftop garden where harvested plants of all kinds are used by the hotel’s chefs. Imagine that!
Along with a huge number of stars and celebrities, British monarch, Queen Elizabeth, II, has stayed at this property several times, and it was fun to learn that John Lennon and Yoko Ono chose the Fairmont Q.E. for a week-long “Bed-in for Peace.” Thousands have elected to stay in the popular suite the iconic couple occupied.
All the above considered, if you want an old-world experience on a budget – and right here on the North American continent, you’ll be hard pressed to enjoy anything as much as you are certain to enjoy in the sister cities of Quebec City and Montreal. Voila – (vuala is an incorrect spelling sometimes used but the same meaning) “Here it is!” or we could say, “HERE THEY ARE!”
By the way, wintertime events, we are told, are spectacular, as well, so you might need to make two trips to enjoy both seasons – maybe even four trips and do all four seasons!
It’s interesting to note that Quebecers consider themselves so different from the rest of the population of Canada that in 1995, a vote by the people narrowly failed to make the province a separate country altogether. Though we can understand the French-influenced populations wishing for independence, we rather hope that doesn’t happen. We personally would like to see Quebec Province remain the shining jewel of the nation.
Meanwhile, if you make the trip, our best wishes for a wonderful journey, or, as the French would say, “Au Revoir et Bon Voyage!”