Quebec City for Christmas

 

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Home for Christmas doesn’t hold the same magic as it did when I was younger. Since the deaths of my parents I have searched for ways to create new holiday traditions. This year I was lucky enough to get a block of time off in the week between Christmas and New Year’s Eve. But what to do? I could travel back home to share it with my sisters, my nieces and their families, but they would be busy preparing for their own getaways to someplace sunny and hot, their new Christmas tradition. I was feeling nostalgic and wanted something that would remind me of Christmases past, give me a reminder about the magic of the holidays.I stumbled across an article that focused on the best places in the world to celebrate Christmas and there on the list was Quebec City. I have never been but always wanted to visit. I have seen numerous photos and got the impression that it is North America’s most European city, plus it’s only about an hour away from Toronto by air.
The old city dates back to the 17th century and the photos suggest a picturesque Christmas village, lots of snow, narrow streets lit up with holiday displays, even horse drawn carriages… like something from a Courier and Ives Christmas card.

I decided to book it and luckily I was able to book the flight on points. As I searched for a place to stay I found a former monastery that has been converted into a spa-like hotel. I booked my trip and prepared for my holiday in Quebec City.

My flight arrived on Christmas Day at about 5:30 and I quickly grabbed a taxi to get my holiday started as quickly as possible. The taxi from airport is a fixed rate of $34 to the downtown and old city areas.

old-town-streetsAs we drove through the streets of the old town it’s hard not to be enchanted by the 17th and 18th century buildings and the narrow hilly streets. It’s hard to believe you are not in Europe.
night skating in old townThere were skaters out in the icy cold weather, taking a turn around the rink and as we passed through the iconic portes I was transported back in time.bw-porte
The traffic reminds you of what century you are in but sharing the roads with the cars are horse drawn buggies to transport the tourists. horse and buggy past Monasteres
We arrived at the hotel quickly because of a lack of traffic on Christmas Day. It’s a former monastery for the Augustine nuns and there are still some nuns who live there in a separate wing.

monasteresThe architecture is a combination of old and new,monasteres-bridge combining modern glass elements with the centuries old building. It is very well kept and clean, although it just opened as a hotel in 2015. As I made my way through the halls to my room I passed by 18th century religious based art; oil paintings and statues, all part of the nuns collection, and there were lounges and window seats for people to sit and meditate, pray, read or contemplate.hotel-statue Patrons can stay in one of the original, traditional monastery rooms, with one of the main features, the quilts on the beds that were created for each room by textile students using traditional quilting techniques. You can also choose to stay in a contemporary room that includes your own bathroom with a bed cover, a Hudson Bay Blanket. The rooms are sparse and austere. No phones and no tvs. Guests are also encouraged to “unplug” during their stay although there is free wifi. Breakfast is included in the price and in keeping with its surroundings is held in silence.

The hotel maintains a holistic philosophy- mind body and spirit. It is not intended to be a religious experience and welcomes people of all faiths. There are meditation and yoga sessions offered as well as various types of healing massage, lifestyle and dietary consultations. It’s like a spa retreat, but is in the heart of vieux Quebec or old Quebec City. One note if you are planning to have a massage it’s best to book it days before you arrive. I waited and discovered they were booked up for 4 days… and I’m only staying for 3. It is also run by a non profit society, with all the money raised going towards its upkeep and the promotion of its holistic philosophy. The restaurant offers delicious and healthy food with a focus on vegetarian, raw healthy eating, although meat dishes are also offered. There is a living wall in the restaurant, a vertical garden so that the plants can provide healthy, clean and natural air purification.

As soon as you walk into the room your senses are awakened by the cleanliness and the spiced scent from the potpourri in the wardrobe closet. While the furnishings are sparse the beds are still luxurious. It was one of the most comfortable beds I have ever slept in, with four fluffy soft pillows and a full, comfortable duvet. Everything is white except for the Hudson’s Bay blanket over the foot of the bed. The hotel even offers the pillows and duvets for sale and a link to the Quebec based bed manufacturer if you want to continue your experience at home. I have travelled the world and stayed in every type of accommodation but have never experienced a hotel like the Monasteres Des Augustines.  Not surprised that St. Augustine is credited with a quote that I live my life by, “The world is a book and those who do not travel, read only one page.”

First on the agenda was getting quickly settled in my room so I could find someplace to enjoy a Christmas dinner.
The obvious choice was the Christmas feast at the iconic Chateau Frontenac but the prix fixe was more than $150 and that was just a little too rich for my budget. I decided to take a quick stroll through the old town streets and see what was open and was pleasantly surprised by the number of restaurants and bars that were open on the holiday, so I had quite a few to choose from. I settled on a busy tavern called Les Freres de la Cote on Rue Sainte Jean, just a couple of blocks from my hotel. It was a busy place but they found me a seat at the bar and despite the crowd, the bartender was attentive and made me feel welcome. They had a number of specials on the menu and I settled on the Butternut Squash soup starter followed by Bison with potatoes and vegetables. The bison was cooked perfectly medium rare and was still moist and tender and I couldn’t get enough of the rich gravy. I wanted to lick my plate when I was finished it was so good. I wasn’t planning on having dessert but when I saw that they were offering tarte au sucre (or maple sugar pie), a traditional Quebec specialty, I couldn’t resist. It was just as I remembered, creamy, rich and sweet (though not cloyingly sweet).

I decided to walk off some of my dinner through the streets but I must say I wasn’t quite prepared for the bitter cold. While the temperature reads minus 9c, it feels much colder, with the wind gusting to 50 kilometers an hour it created a windchill of minus 20). Still I managed to get a feel for the area, enjoyed the sights and even considered going for a skate, but decided to leave that for a warmer day. I ended up buying a hat with ear flaps to help keep me warm.

Also walking through the narrow streets, I found they were very icy. People warn you about that but be prepared. I saw many people holding onto each other to avoid wiping out.

Even though this was my holiday trip, I still couldn’t justify spending the money for a room at the historic Hotel Frontenac.  Nevertheless I still wandered through the lobby, admiring all the Christmas decorations set up. Outside there was a winter festival underway.  Families, all bundled up in their winter gear, were able to ride down a man-made ski slope on a toboggan, and nearby a couple of Canadian lumberjacks were serving up traditional maple taffy by pouring fresh, boiling maple sap on snow creating a sticky, sweet treat enjoyed for generations in Quebec and other parts of Canada.

The cold weather restricted my sightseeing for the rest of my short trip.  I did do a bit of shopping in the small stores throughout the old town.  It was like being sent back 200 years, with the old stone buildings and cobblestone streets and of course the horse drawn carriages.  I passed by a quaint restaurant on one of the main streets,

Restaurant Aux Anciens Canadiens, set up in an old house in the heart of the old town. It lived up to its name, established in 1675! And the food is typical French Canadian.  I first had the pea soup, followed by a beef, pork, stag, elk, bison meat pie with a spiced fruit compote and finished off with maple syrup bread pudding.  You can’t visit Quebec City without a meal at this iconic restaurant.

Despite the cold, ice and snow, or because of it, I had a wonderful, magical Christmas in Quebec City.  Now I can’t wait to go back in the summer when I can enjoy more of it. 

 

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