QUÉBEC CITY - The older my children get, the more discerning they become about holiday activities. My teenagers Ryan and Emma are not big on cycling, history or museums. And like most people they don't like rain much either.
So there we were with our bikes in the rain, standing outside The Museum of Civilization in old Québec City.
"Well at least it's dry in the museum," I reasoned. "Can't we just find somewhere to eat?" asked Ryan. It wasn't the first time Québec had witnessed a clash of wills - what military historians might call an impasse. After a three-month siege in 1759, it took General Wolfe and the British about 15 minutes to beat Montcalm and the French in the Battle of the Plains of Abraham.
It took the Judds about the same time to finish arguing, lock their bikes and enter the museum. Then something remarkable happened. "Game Story, the exhibition you play," read the sign in the lobby. Yes, besides first-rate exhibitions about Québec history and a showcase of Paris between 1889 and 1914, The Museum of Civilization was hosting a video game exhibition, featuring 450 artifacts and 88 video games to play. Everything from World of Warcraft to Pong was available.
We were still in the museum long after the rain had stopped and the sun had returned. It was just the first of several surprising events during our two-night stay in Québec City. That night we cycled our bikes to the Port of Québec Agora, an amphitheatre hosting Cirque du Soleil's Les Chemins Invisibles. Québec City might just be the only place where Cirque du Soleil is free! Had they been charging, our floor tickets would have cost a fortune because most of the show unfolded just a few yards from where we stood.
The Harbour of Lost Souls is the fifth chapter of Les Chemins Invisibles. The employees of an old customs officer decide to put on a show for his birthday in the hopes of helping him to find purpose in his life. The show is spectacular in its conception with performers suspended from cranes just a few feet above the audience and on moving stages that spring up in the crowd.
Cirque du Soleil is a tough act to follow, but the Image Mill is timed to follow it and succeeds if only for its epic setting. A legacy of Québec City's 400th birthday in 2008, the Image Mill is a sound and image show projected onto massive grain silos in Québec's harbour. We joined the hordes lining the harbour to watch this summer's show, a tribute to Scottish-born Canadian filmmaker Norman McLaren. A pioneer in synchronizing animation with music, McLaren, who died in 1987, would surely have approved of his work being presented on the biggest big screen ever conceived.
Back at the Hotel Royal William in Québec City's trendy New St. Roch neighbourhood, we locked up our bikes and I ventured out for a nightcap on Boulevard Charest Est. The Mo Resto Bar had one more surprise in store for me; beer pumps at the table! The beer is metered of course (it's not heaven) at 35 cents an ounce. But for my wife, I might still be there pouring modest amounts of Belle Gueule Blonde or Red ale.
Thanks to the success of Day 1, we sold the kids on a guided bike tour the following day.
At first glance, Québec City doesn't appear built for bicycles. Narrow lanes, cobblestones and hills usually look good in postcards, not from a saddle. But first impressions can be deceiving. A few bumps and the occasional grind are a small price to pay for a two-wheeled tour of North America's only walled city and UNESCO World Heritage site. For visitors with more time, there are several hundred kilometres time, there are several hundred kilometres of bike trails to ride beyond the fortress walls.
Our guide, Marc Lupien of Cyclo Services, has been riding the same Nishiki road bike for 35 years ("I changed the brake cable once or twice - and the seat!") and has seen the growth of bike culture here.
"It's not uncommon to see people buying $10,000 bikes in Québec City," said Marc. "It's a relatively short season, but cycling is growing faster than golf here."
While bike lanes line the edge of the St. Lawrence River and part of the escarpment above, cycling through Vieux Québec itself takes some improvisation. In summer the streets are busy with pedestrians preoccupied with their centuries-old surroundings. Fortunately, it's legal to ride the sidewalk and we were soon slaloming on either side of the curb.
Marc's tour skirted Laval University, formerly the Séminaire de Québec and the oldest centre of education in Canada; the Citadelle atop Cap Diamant, adjoining the Plains of Abraham; Québec's National Assembly and Chateau Frontenac, said to be the most photographed hotel in the world. (I'd swear it was the inspiration for Harry Potter's Hogwarts.) Just across from the National Assembly we stopped at the Fontaine de Tourny, built for the city's 400th birthday and a popular spot for wedding photos. It was hard not to notice the monolithic Hilton and Delta hotels, whose desperately unimaginative architecture is in dramatic contrast to most buildings in Vieux Québec.
We lingered in Place Royale, site of Samuel de Champlain's first permanent settlement in New France. Grey stones mark the footings of where Champlain's home once stood, right outside Notre Dame des Victoires, the oldest stone church in North America, dating back to 1687. There are similar grey stone markers all over Old Québec, said Marc, signalling other historic sites that would be impossible to excavate now.
We rode the waterfront and part of the old port of Québec before an adventurous ride through crowds of shoppers in the narrow, cobblestoned lanes of Quartier Petit Champlain. Once a fur-trading portside village, it's now full of boutiques, bistros and frescoes. A funicular railway connects the area to Dufferin Terrace, a beautifully landscaped boardwalk with the best view of the St. Lawrence River. It seemed like a fitting place to stop for an ice cream and consider the view Champlain enjoyed in 1608.
People had told me that Québec would remind me of an old European city. Aside from medieval Bruges in Belgium, I don't know of another place as beautiful as Québec City. Even Ryan and Emma liked it! If you go: In the heart of old Québec City since 1995, Cyclo Services offers bike rentals and a variety of guided bike tours. Visit cycloservices.net or call 1=877=692-4050.
The Hotel Royal William is in the heart of New St. Roch, a neighbourhood full of great bars, coffee shops, restaurants and independent stores. It's a few minutes bike ride from the old city and the train station. Packages start at $99 per person. Visithotelroyalwilliam.com/en/.
Free shows by Cirque du Soleil and the Image Mill are known collectively as Rendezvous sous les Etoiles and run Tuesday to Saturday, concluding with a Sunday performance Sept. 1. For more on Quebec's Museum of Civilization, visit mcq. org/en/mcq.
For all other travel information about Quebec City, visit quebecregion.com/en.
Camirand Photo / INNER courtyard of the Séminaire de Québec- founded in 1663 the educational institution is the oldest centre of learning in Canada.; Photo Claudel Huot / FAIRMONT Le Château Frontenac in the heart of Old Québec. Use Layar app to view more information on Québec City.; Photo Luc-Antoine Couturier / AERIAL view of the Plains of Abraham - the historic 18th century battlefield is now an urban park within Québec City.; Photo Neville Judd / A few bumps and the occasional grind on Québec City's ancient cobblestone streets are a small price to pay for a two-wheeled tour of the historic New France capital and UNESCO World Heritage site.;
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