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Vive la difference!

Flashy Montreal, sedate Quebec City both stir memories

Email|Print| Text size + By Leigh Belanger and Galen Moore
Globe Correspondents / May 12, 2004

If Montreal and Quebec City were sisters, Montreal would be the one who ran off with the circus. Quebec City would be the more sedate one, who stayed close to home. Montreal’s wacky hybrid energy crackles through its neighborhoods. The style is rebuilt, swapped, and borrowed. Street fashion, restaurant menus, and architecture all share a cross-pollinated funk.

In the Plateau neighborhood, fusion restaurants are wedged into Victorian storefronts, wrought-iron curlicue abounds, and goth girls stomp past the windows of tidy vintage dress shops.

A one-night stand in Montreal is likely to be memorable. The city is chic, bawdy, and just exotic enough to feel like a real getaway. But a long weekend touring the rest of Quebec reveals a different character entirely.

Modern Quebecers are in love with the French-Canadian heritage that connects them to their forefathers, the French who began settling here in the 17th century and who were known as habitants Qu´ebecois. Their traditions are generally more rural than cosmopolitan.

Producers of typically French farmhouse foods such as cheeses, ciders, and wines benefit from state-run scenic routes, which meander by their farms, orchards, and creameries. Quebec tourists cruise these roads in cars with license plates displaying the province’s motto, ‘‘Je me souviens’’ (‘‘I remember’’).

The ‘‘Route des Vins’’ is one such drive. It traverses Quebec’s wine country, which centers around the town of Dunham in the Eastern Townships (Cantons de l’Est) region to the southeast of Montreal. Here, French-Canadian winemakers have worked hard to establish a winemaking region. Every spring, they dig their vines out of the ground, where they lie buried through subfreezing winter temperatures. Vignoble de l’Orpailleur, the largest winery in the region, translates to ‘‘vineyard of the gold prospector.’’

‘‘In order to survive, we have to be tough, like the vines,’’ saysNad`ege Marion, owner of the small Les Trois Clochers winery. She produces a crisp, dry wine from the hybrid Seyval blanc grape, which ripens quickly.

Like most farmers and winemakers in the region, Marion collaborates with neighbors. Sediment from fermenting vats goes to a farmer across the road, who uses it to scent soap she makes by hand, using milk from her goats. Marion sells the soap in her winery’s shop.

At Au Temps desMˆ ures, a local bed and breakfast, owner Marie-Jos´ee Potvin serves a pˆ at´e of duck and pistachio. It’s a tasty, if unconventional, breakfast. Light and meaty, the pˆ at´e comes from a local producer, who provides terrines in exchange for maple syrup. Potvin and her husband, Pierre Cormier, also operate a sugarbush of about 20,000 taps across the road from their bed-and-breakfast.

To the north is the picturesque Richelieu River Valley. Here, hard cider is made in the tradition of the French regions of Brittany and Normandy. The road winds along the river through gorgeous terrain dotted with apple orchards. While there’s not much going on at the orchards in the off-season, some, like the Cidrerie Michel Jodoin in Rougemont, remain open and make an ideal setting for a picnic.

Heading on toward Quebec City, the ‘‘Route des Pionniers’’ (‘‘Route of the Pioneers’’) commemorates Quebec’s French- Canadian settlers. It winds along the southern bank of the St. Lawrence.

The spring scenery is splendid. Cliffside vistas embrace the broad river, dotted with ships and the white backs of waterfowl. The silvery old French spires of Roman Catholic churches appear in the distance on both banks, one for each town.

Up close, the towns are less interesting. Here, the most prevalent preservation effort seems to have been the application of plastic siding. Most towns feature the usual trinity of church, general store, and roadside purveyor of poutine, a local standard prepared by soaking french fries in cheese curds and gravy.

Within the walls of Quebec City, travelers are less likely to find poutine than rustic European fare such as country pates and dishes of wild game, seeming to recall those habitants Qu´ebecois whose livelihood came mostly from hunting, fishing, and farming. The everyday workings of a modern city are clustered around wellpreserved battlements dating to the 18th century, which divide ‘‘upper town’’ from ‘‘lower town’’ in ‘‘vieille-ville,’’ or ‘‘oldtown’’ Quebec. Cannons are poised along the ramparts, old stone foundations are marked with plaques tracing their lineage, churches and museums abound.

The Musee de la Civilisation is one such spot. A permanent exhibit called Les M´emoires (Memories) guides guests through a history of Quebec with object installations. It begins with antique sporting equipment, like snowshoes, sleighs, and toboggans, and a model of an old farmhouse kitchen, with ornate woodburning stove and handmade quilts. The exhibit winds through Quebec’s proud agricultural and maritime past, into its more complex present, placing the province in context with the rest of Canada.

Many of the millions of visitors to Quebec each year encounter its modern side. Heavy industry crowds up against the high, ancient walls along the water, and strip malls and residential neighborhoods line the route into the city. Close to the high walls of the Old Town, however, the ordinary landscape gives way to grand buildings of state, including the ornate 19th-centuryNational Assembly building, where Quebec’s legislature sits. The expansive Parc des Champs-de-Bataille, commemorating the site of the final 1759 battle between British and French colonial troops, runs up to the Old Town walls.

Inside the walls, the city feels ancient. Row houses with stone facades line the narrow cobblestone streets. Carved wooden signs swing over doorways. Alleys are barely wide enough for an open umbrella. Walking and gawking are appropriate activities, and a good place to start is at Fairmont Le Chateau Frontenac, a 19th-century luxury hotel that looms gloriously over the Old Town and the port. From there, follow the winding streets past 17th-century houses and monuments to French settlers. There’s a statue here, a chapel there, and tourists everywhere.

While the lower rue St-Jean, the most commercial strip in the Old Town, might have exchanged its blacksmiths for T-shirt shops long ago, the history and graceful beauty of Quebec City make up for the commercialism that crops up in spots.

Visitors who follow rue St-Jean away from the fortifications will discover its low-key delights. Bakeries, bars, and caf´es dot the street, as do markets selling local cheeses, charcuterie like rabbit terrine with hazelnuts, and a number of ciders made nearby.

In Quebec City, the past is well-preserved. By contrast, amid the neon lights of Montreal, all history seems irrelevant. A drive past Montreal, through the provincial countryside on the way to Quebec City, reveals that here, the heritage of less habitants Qu´ebecois is very much alive.

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