A year to celebrate

A melange of music, art, and merrymaking marks a 400th anniversary

Email|Print| Text size + By Tom Haines
Globe Staff / January 6, 2008

If the journals of the French explorer Samuel de Champlain are accurate, here is one example of how people partied in eastern Canada circa 1603:

A group of men, in this case native Montagnais, gathered in a cabin near the confluence of the St. Lawrence and Saguenay rivers. In the company of their grand sagamore, a leader named Anadabijou, they feasted and danced around boiling tubs of water holding choice cuts of elk, bear, seal, beaver, and more. Anadabijou's tribe had won a battle against the Iroquois, and some dancers hung enemy heads over their shoulders.

As fun as it was, the "tabagie," as the banquet was known, ended before the next sunrise brought more work.

What a difference four centuries make.

Quebec City, the huddle of history built upon the settlement Champlain founded in 1608, just upriver from the site of the tabagie five years before, is throwing a party that will last all year and cost more than $90 million.

The city's 400th anniversary kicked off Monday with an estimated 50,000 spectators watching a New Year's Eve multimedia extravaganza - outdoors. It was 16 degrees.

Yet to come: The world's largest floating dance floor bobbing to techno and world beat rhythms (Aug. 15, on the St. Lawrence); the largest outdoor "architectural projection" (nightly June 22-July 30, on the outside walls of a row of grain warehouses); a picnic on the heights overlooking the St. Lawrence (July 6, sponsored by the IGA supermarket chain); and an outdoor concert with 1,500 performers (July 5, near Parliament). Not to mention lectures, exhibits, more than 100 children's workshops, 2,000 street performances, 11 ephemeral gardens (more fleeting than the anniversary itself), and a concert by Celine Dion. She was born near Montreal, but in a nation dominated by anglophones, les Quebecois rally around la francophonie. Even the annual winter Carnaval de Quebec will embrace the anniversary theme, Meetings and Encounters.

Why such sustained merrymaking in a city of 717,691 residents? No other place in North America does as good a job as Quebec City preserving its history and profiting from it.

Depending on how you look at it, the city is either a fascinating crossroads that tells the story of much of North America since the arrival of European settlers; or it is "Europe for Beginners," an Epcot Center of winding stone streets and unusual accents where the exhibits are, conveniently, in French and English.

Only a six-hour drive north of Boston, it is a transporting escape any year. There are carriage rides and St. Lawrence views; winter skating contests and summer street jugglers; bistros that serve soupe à l'oignon gratinée and pommes frites; retired cannons kids can climb on; and artists who for a reasonable sum will speedily draw a caricature of your face.

All of this exists, though, because more important things once happened here.

In the centuries since Champlain made camp (or, more specifically, built a warehouse, lodging, and small fort under one roof), Quebec City became a strategic military outpost, a trading hub, a shipping port, and a battlefield, several times. (Google, for example, "Benedict Arnold Quebec City.") After a slow stretch that carried into the 20th century, the city found new purpose and prosperity as provincial capital, service-industry center, and tidy tourism destination.

Settle in for even a weekend, and cool connections await amid the strolling, snacking, and sipping. Last May, I stayed with my family in a hotel two blocks from the rue du Parloir, a curved lane that is home to the concrete grounds of the Ecole des Ursulines. The first buildings opened in the 1630s as a convent and school for women, which is the oldest on the continent and still in operation. Passing the placid rue du Parloir at 1, 5, and 10 p.m., 7 a.m., and again at 1:30 the next afternoon, it was clear that little changes with time. Inside a small chapel late one afternoon, a nun sitting in the corner rose and approached me as I held my daughter, then 2, who had been clamoring to get through a closed door. The nun beamed a whisper:

"Ils sont les cadeaux du ciel." ("They are gifts from heaven.")

It takes a lot to preserve such moments, and several years ago, as the 400th anniversary approached (the actual day is July 3), Quebec City planners thought big. There is history to that, too: One show commissioned for a 350th anniversary celebration for the province of Quebec in 1984 (the province was founded after the city) gave birth to Cirque du Soleil.

It is hard to imagine any civic celebration, anywhere, of such scale as the 400th in Quebec. The city does fit into a rare niche: large enough to harness the resources a big party takes, and to pull a crowd, yet not so big - like Paris, or Cairo, or Mexico City, say - that its leaders see an anniversary as something to celebrate for a night. It helps that Quebec City serves as the seat of French presence in North America, thus invoking a global importance. And Quebec City has a lot of history, but not too much.

Danny Pelchat, a co-founder of Cirque du Soleil who is executive producer for this year's original anniversary creations, said artists in Quebec City have an advantage over those in Europe, who answer to the Renaissance, for example, or Grecian urns.

"We build on nothing," Pelchat said. "This is North America. We just take an open field, and we build."

Or they take a floating stage. Or a row of grain elevators.

For a better idea of the cool creations that could emerge from Quebec City's long look backward, here is an overview of key events and installations.

"Passagers/Passengers": An exhibit overseen by theater director Patrice Sauve that attempts to represent - through images, testimony, lyrics, and music - the lives of the millions of people who have passed through Quebec City in the past 400 years. Located in Espace 400e, a new exhibition space at Bassin Louise, from June 3-Oct. 19.

"Image Mill": Theater veteran Robert Lepage uses the riverside Bunge grain elevators in Bassin Louise as a giant screen for a "mosaic of icons, sounds, and ideas." The 40-minute show will cover four eras, from waterways and exploration to air travel and communication. Espace 400e, from June 20-July 29.

Anniversary weekend: The big events include the traditional July 3 high Mass and Freedom of the City ceremony, and a fire sculpture and parade starting at the Plains of Abraham. Two days later comes the "Urban Opera," with 1,500 performers and 100,000 spectators expected near Parliament. The next day, a grand picnic on the Plains of Abraham. An aerial photo is planned to save for those who will prepare the 500th anniversary.

"The Walking Road": Promoters talk about fire meeting water, techno meeting world beat, as an all-night party with a floating dance floor celebrates the role of the St. Lawrence River in the life of the city. Aug. 15. Bassin Louise.

First Nations events: Drawing attention to history that predates 1608, the Huron-Wendat Nation will coordinate native celebrations, including a parade July 17 and a rendezvous expected to draw representatives of more than 40 native tribes at the Huron-Wendat amphitheater.

Cirque du Soleil: An original production aiming to celebrate the future of the French-speaking world. It is the final event of the anniversary calendar, coinciding with the summit of French-speaking countries. Oct. 19. There is no way of knowing, of course, whether a new entity as successful as Cirque du Soleil will emerge from the thousands of creative moments coursing around these main events. For those hoping to find out, the immediate concern is finding a place to stay. Tourism officials expect the anniversary to draw 300,000 people more than a typical year, which brings more than 5 million visitors to the city. They say there are still plenty of rooms in a city already geared toward hospitality. The anniversary weekend of July 3, at least, is expected to be booked. If it all seems too much, there will always be next year, when Quebec City returns to the regular rhythms of a provincial capital. Said Pelchat: "A place like Hong Kong or Shanghai, they could go on celebrating like this for five years in a row."

Tom Haines can be reached at

If You Go

What to do

Special events large and small will take place in Quebec City in honor of the 400th anniversary throughout 2008. One upcoming annual event worth a look:

Carnaval de Quebec
Feb. 1-17 290
rue Joly
For an overview and specific details of all the year's action: or contact:
Societe du 400e anniversaire de Quebec
1135, Grande Allee Ouest
Suite 100
For additional information about tourism and travel in the city and surrounding regions:

Where to stay

Hôtel Sainte-Anne
32, rue Sainte-Anne
Modern style set on a pedestrian street at the heart of the old city. Doubles $129-$189.

Hôtel du Vieux Québec
1190, rue St-Jean
Clean comfort on a bustling street in the upper town. Doubles $94-$264.

Hôtel Cap Diamant
39, Avenue Sainte-Genevieve
A cozy bed-and-breakfast tucked in the heights of the upper town. Doubles $124-$149.

Auberge Saint-Antoine
8, rue Saint-Antoine
Modern luxury riverside in the lower town. Standard doubles $159-$299.

Where to eat

Au Petit Coin Breton
1029, rue St-Jean
A central choice among three locations of this chain featuring hearty crepes and authentic dishes from the western edge of old France. Lunch for two $30.

Le Café du Monde
84, rue Dalhousie
More mainstream French fare, from duck confit to beef tartar served riverside in a classic bistrot setting. Dinner for two $80.

10, rue Saint-Antoine
At the Auberge Saint-Antoine, high-end French Canadian cuisine, from lobster and lentil terrine to Quebec hare and leeks. Tasting menu for two with wine selection $300.

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