THE ENIGMÉ OF QUÉBEC & MONTRÉAL, CANADA
Updated: Aug 16
Napoleon never showed any interest in Canada; he thought it was a waste of space. But today Old Bonaparte would be strutting around Quebec, head held high, soaking up the adulation of the very Gallic inhabitants. For his myth defines the empiric supremacy the people here wish to protect and portray. Somehow, against all odds, these Francophiles, many of whom can trace their lineage back to the early settlers, have managed to retain a quasi-French colonial control over the city through persistent and ruthless rejection of assimilation to the greater, English-speaking democratic Canada. Ironically, Royalist French Canadians of the late 18th century detested the odious little Emperor (who actually was 5'7", tall for the time) for lopping off the heads of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette in 1793, destined by the guillotine to be the last King and Queen of France. However, over the years, the mystique of Napoleon has had some convenient image laundry and now he personifies, in this harmonious ‘One World’ we live in, the fiercely independent spirit of this unique community of ex-pats. It is truly a wonder that the frenchness of this area is so absolute. Especially in the light of its violent history. For Quebec has been the scene of arguably two of THE most important battles in the evolution of this exciting 'new' continent. A brief, very brief summary of its story is necessary to grasp this phenomenon. Bear with us. The whole modern tale began when four hundred insanely brave French pioneers, led by explorer Jacques Cartier, (who incredibly had traversed the Atlantic twice before on exploratory 'cruises'), attempted to set up the very first European settlement in North America in 1541. But it was never properly or permanently established owing to bad weather, disease and some very unfriendly Native American Indians (the first European settlers proper, we are told, were in fact the Spanish in St Augustine, Florida).
Quebec City was founded by diplomat Samuel de Champlain, dubbed 'The Father of New France’. In 1629, David Kirke, a Blackbeard-style English privateer, seized the land from the French in the name of King Charles of England. The British monarch, fresh from the Seven Years War, then proceeded to use his new acquisition to extort a massive dowry from King Louis of France. "Tell you what" he told the French King. "Give me your beautiful 16-year-old Princess Henrietta Maria as my consort (he was 25) - and I'll give you Quebec back. All I ask is that you also throw in so much money and so many gifts that you'll need a fleet of ships to get them across the Channel". Louis went for it like a hook down a goose’s throat.The marriage took place at Notre Dame but romantic old Charles, being terribly British and reserved, was a bit busy to be there himself so he appointed a stand-in to say "I do". The newlywed Queen soon arrived in England accompanied, as agreed, by cases of diamonds, pearls, satin, velvet, 10,000 pounds of plate, chandeliers, pictures and a shipful of other goodies.
St. Lawrence River
The Fairmont Château Frontenac Hotel
So Quebec was French again and the Quebecois were happy, as was the weak King Charlie Boy (until he too lost his head, this time at the hands of Oliver Cromwell and the English Civil War in 1649). All went along quite nicely for 100 years until, in 1759, the legendary General Wolfe, a British bulldog hero, with just a few hundred men in tow, had one of the most brilliant military victories in history. He and his few men sailed in small boats up the St Lawrence, with famously muffled oars, to the base of the cliff on which the French fort stood, climbing the sheer rock face carrying guns, ammunition and two cannons and then 'persuading' French General Montcalm's troops to surrender. The story goes that a French soldier challenged them as they reached the top in the dark and said "Qui va la?” (Who goes there?) and an English trooper shouted a spontaneous "Français!” and the gullible Gaul went away happy. Apparently one of Montcalm's officers burst into his room later and said "Sir, there are hundreds of armed British soldiers lined up a mile down the road" and Montcalm just calmly replied "Have you been drinking?" and dismissed the messenger. Soon after, the general ordered his men out of the city for a showdown against the invaders on the field of Farmer Abraham, a few hundred yards away. The French opened fire first from 100 yards - and missed. They kept moving closer until just 40 yards away from the line of Redcoats. It was then that the Brits opened fire. It was over in a trice. Both generals perished in the ensuing fracas but Quebec was British again. This battle was so significant as it marked the beginning of the end of the French colonial presence in North America. In 1763, France lost all claims to Canada and even gave up Louisiana in the Deep South, giving Britain colonial supremacy over virtually the whole of North America. If Montcalm had been more on the ball, all our American friends may now be parleying en Français and the red, white & blue tricoleur might be flying over the White House. It was that important.
By the way, there is an obelisk to General James Wolfe at the spot where he died on the Plains of Abraham. It used to carry these four simple words “Here Died Wolfe Victorious”. Today it has been made still simpler. It now carries just three words “Here Died Wolfe” - the “Victorious” was removed to appease the sensitivities of the locals.
It was no surprise then that in the American Revolutionary War (the War of Independence) the French were on the side of the Patriots against the Redcoats. In 1775, the Americans decided to get the British out of Montreal and Quebec to extend their control further north. American Generals Montgomery and Arnold led their troops crazily through freezing cold winter weather to the frozen St Lawrence River only to suffer their first major defeat of the war. This importantly ended all aspirations that America had of controlling the whole continent and the setback secured the future of Canada as a separate country. Today, Old Quebec is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and probably the most fascinating town to visit in Canada. In spite of everything, it is gloriously, unashamedly French and encapsulates the very best of France - the busy pavement cafés adorned with red geraniums and hanging baskets, narrow cobbled streets twisting past time-beaten, gray-stone town houses and ancient churches with huge doors at the top of well-worn steps. But most of all, it is, and always will be, about the people. We used to have a waterfront home in the South of France, in Port Grimaud, and some of our fondest memories are of warm, summer evening trips to nearby villages, sitting in the square, sipping our Pernod, watching elderly men, with etched faces as gnarled as the surrounding walls themselves, play boules while young couples chatted endlessly, tête-à-tête, on shaded benches or at small tables outside charming bars. Here, in Quebec, this enviably slow and romantic lifestyle still exists. Young people don't rush around with a Starbucks in their hand as they do in the US and UK. They find time to sit and chat. The port area itself is built on a hill, with an upper and lower part of town, and made more photogenic by the stone staircases rising up into the next square, each more fascinating than the last. It is not a big area but it is a delight just to walk the same old streets again and again. Especially at night.
Quebec's Notre Dame
The vast Fresque des Québécois near Place Royale, painted in 1999. Can you spot the little woman?
Meanwhile Montreal's main tourist attraction has similar seductive charms. It is pure France, down to every detail. Whereas Old Quebec has a fishing village feel, with resonance to the beautiful coastal town of Honfleur, Montreal's Le Vieux Port has retained the grandeur of a larger, more commercial port . The main thoroughfare Rue Saint-Paul stretches out with tall buildings on either side blocking out the sun. But that is not to say it lacks elegance. Far from it. The restaurants reek Parisian quality and richness. The shops ooze upmarket chic. And the French locals are second only to the Italians of Verona or Florence in style and fashionability as they promenade up and down the cobbled streets. The locals certainly show us Americans and English up for our permanent casual, grungy dress-down attire.
The Place Jacques-Cartier is at its center, remarkably with a statue of Admiral Nelson looking down from a Trafalgar Square style column. Is it significant that they have him facing away from the water? This is all a film set of early France, with modern-day affluence instead of the Les Miserables poverty.
Montreal is named after the park-on-a-hill Mont-Royal which overlooks the gleaming commercial city to one side and the Olympic Stadium to the other.
If you go there by car, don't miss a spin around Redpath Crescent, a scene from the most affluent Cotswold villages in England, with houses the like of which you'd see only in a TV period drama (below).
The Rue Saint-Denis, named after one of Paris' oldest roads, (built by the Romans in the 1st century), is worth a visit as you drive back down towards the port. It has a more affordable collection of restaurants set in a tree-lined Bohemian village atmosphere (below). If it is shopping you want, a stroll down Rue Sainte Catherine is the equivalent of a shuffle down London's Oxford Street.
The old parts of Quebec and Montreal are, without doubt, the most European places in the whole of North America. The local inhabitants have built a language wall around them but that won't keep out the travelers nor spoil the experience. Both cities are in a warm freeze of time and should be thoroughly enjoyed at face value.They may be different from the rest of Canada, and you feel that is by design, but as the French themselves say - "Vive La Difference".
We left Quebec to the sounds of a merry jig from some local strolling players. An appropriate send off from some very special, albeit occasionally irritating, people.
AND FINALLY... No visit to Quebec or Montreal is complete without sampling the bizarre gastronomic thrills of their local speciality, a dish that totally belies, and perhaps betrays, their love of fine French bonne cuisine. Poutine is a delectible plate of French fries smothered in gravy and cheese curds. It is best when pulled beef is added, giving it a soggy, sloppy chips and stew texture. As the Memsahib said - "it really is boys' cold-weather food". Loved it.
AND LAST.... BUT NOT LEAST
Congratulations to New York-born Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson, the new Prime Minister of the United (or currently 'dis-united') Kingdom.
He will be brilliant - fiercely and eccentrically British, an energetic fire in his belly, quick and funny, very funny. Just the man for the job. Five years ago, we both said how incredible and entertaining it would be for the world if Trump and Boris became President and Prime Minister. Boris can now ignore the wets in Parliament, threaten the Euro-cabal and their mandarins with No Deal (the worst option for them) and sort the whole mess out. Then he can call an election and get the majority he needs. As my old employer of 25 years says today:
'Now, with Boris at the helm, for the first time the obstinate European Union leaders must be terrified'. The tousled-haired British loon is off the leash.
Watch this space...