Nomad in North America: Quebec and Montreal

Quebec province was the second stop of my great Canadian cross-country adventure. To get there, I decided to take an overnight VIARail train from Moncton to Saint-Foy. It was not a sleeper, though I think that is available, so I ended up sitting and struggling to sleep for 15 hours. That hurt my back, and the views were mostly the vast, uncharted Canadian wilderness. I also booked the wrong stop. Saint-Foy is a 20-min Uber ride to Quebec City, whereas Gare du Palais, which is the next VIARail stop, is right smack in the middle of the city center. Oops.

But travel plans do tend to self-correct, and I knew this the moment I step foot on Le Monastere des Augustines. It was right in the middle of everything too. I arrived before 8 AM, and check-in was at 2 PM, but the hotel allowed me to use my room already. I could not be more grateful because I desperately needed a shower.

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I hit the pavement stat. This was the only leg of my Canadian adventure where I would be traveling alone, and could finally practice my French! Well, not exactly. Canadian French sounds quite different and it was rather confusing, so I stuck to English.

Quebec City is lovely, and lilliputian, by major Canadian city standards. In my excitement, I managed to explore the Old Town’s major tourist attractions in just under 3 hours on my first day. These include the towering symbol of Quebec, the Fairmont Le Chateau Frontenac, La Citadelle, the Dufferin Terrace, and the breathtaking view of the river and its surrounding areas, all of which provided a historic backdrop to the First Quebec Conference. It was then a top-secret conference held during World War II that discussed, among other things, the invasion of France. In my desire to recreate that monumental meeting of the Allied forces, I nursed a drink at 1608, while imagining Mackenzie King, FDR and Winston Churchill signing off on Operation Overlord upstairs.

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I did not eat as Canadians do and skipped the ketchup fries in “France.” I opted for a great roast beef sandwich at La Bote Pain which came highly recommended for its croissants. Both were excellent. I took a chance on La Buche and was very satisfied with Quebec’s breakfast of champions — a potato casserole dish with spinach, ham, bacon, and cheese. I still wonder what that is called. Le Hobbit gave me the best seat in the house, and I had no reservation. It is home to what I think is the best tiramisu ever. It had a pistachio swirl and it paired so well with the mousse. Apart from their stellar service, Little Feat also wafted through the kitchen speakers — a wonderful surprise. I have nothing but admiration for people who know good food AND good music. Salut, Chef Michael!

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Montmorency Falls, which is a mere 12km away from the Old Town, is worth the quick trek. It was Mother Earth in all its raging splendor. There is a footbridge that crosses the width of the falls, and it was no mean feat to walk on it, but you must do it if you wish to vibrate to the awesome power of nature.

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A good friend recommended that since I am already in “France,” to make the trip down to Montreal. So I did. I booked a 3-hour train ride that left Gare du Palais at around 5 AM with a return trip back from Montreal at 6 PM. It worked!

I headed first to Mount Royal, the extinct volcano/470-acre park after which the city is named. It is a decent hike from the station, enough to get the blood flowing in the morning. The views at the top are breathtaking, best enjoyed in a relaxing Adirondack chair at the pavilion. I think I stayed there for an hour, doing nothing.

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Along the way, I paid a visit to the Mary Queen of the World Cathedral. It was an imposing structure impossible to ignore, especially since it looked a lot like St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, from the outside to the inside. Identical images, I swear. It even had the same baldachin by Bernini, but which I would discover later, is a reproduction by Joseph-Arthur Vincent.

Another church landmark in Montreal is the more famous Notre Dame Basilica. It is as awe-inspiring as it looks in the photos, might even be prettier than its World Heritage counterpart in Paris.

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Stunning grand mosques were also abundant in the city, in Little Maghreb in the borough of Villeray-Saint-Michel-Parc-Extension. Another architectural marvel is the Le Plateau-Mont-Royal neighborhood where houses flaunted artistic facades. The Gay Village was exploding with energy during pride month.

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I only had a day to spend, so I made sure to enjoy some of the local fare. I tried the poutine at La Banquise — it was good, but I cannot say I am a huge fan of this dish. I walked a while to Rue Saint Viateur for its famous bagels. They were amazing that I had to order some of those to go. To cap my wonderful Montreal day, I had a hearty smoked meat panini with a glass of pinot noir at Olive and Gourmando.

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French Canada is an endearing hybrid of cultures that has created for itself a unique character that stands out from the rest of the country. No wonder many Quebec residents support the breakaway movement. I am not sure I like the prospect of breaking away from anything. A little bit of Canada here, and a little bit of French there, together, works very well. North Americans are lucky to have their Europa in Quebec — no need to cross the pond for a tiny taste of French elan.

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Former presidential speechwriter, still a musician; writes about urban gridlocks. Will work full time for the planet. Harvard Kennedy School ‘14 🇵🇭

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