Canadian beacon

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 30 May, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 30 May, 2007, 12:00am

It seems like any other cobbled street in Old Quebec, inviting you to walk through the arch and up the hill. But then I notice that people's attire is the garb of several centuries past and our guide points out that the fellow in the upper window of the building on the left was there in 1535. Jacques Cartier explored the region for France and now features in an impressive mural, La Fresque des Quebecois, depicting 400 years of history.

History weighs heavily as we enter the Place Royale, where Samuel de Champlain established a French colony in 1608.

By 1950 the square was a dangerous slum, but restoration work during the 1960s resulted in many derelict buildings being carefully demolished and rebuilt according to 18th-century plans, with original stones. On one side of the cobbled square stands North America's oldest stone church, Notre-Dame-des-Victoires, named for early victories over the British.

The main claim to fame of nearby Rue du Petit-Champlain's is that it's the oldest shopping street in North America, and the retail activity continues apace. Apart from fashion boutiques and restaurants, there are shops selling artwork, Native American crafts, leather goods and jewellery.

From here you can avoid the Breakneck Stairs - although the famous staircase looks less intimidating than it sounds - and take the funicular up to the town's higher level. The station is inside La Maison Louis-Jolliet, where the explorer of the Mississippi River lived until his death in 1700. The view across the lower town to the St Lawrence River gives a sense of perspective, but there's no escaping the picture-postcard structure that dominates the cityscape of Old Quebec: Le Chateau Frontenac. Named after a governor of New France, the imposing hotel opened in 1893. Tours of the Chateau are led by guides dressed as 19th-century chambermaids and bellboys or, in our case, as Madame Rose in a fancy red dress, playing the role of one of the first guests in 1893. It was here in 1944, she reveals, that Winston Churchill, Franklin D. Roosevelt and Canadian prime minister MacKenzie King planned the D-Day invasion of Europe.

The old-world ambience makes Quebec highly walkable, so as night falls we stroll the cobbled streets with a guide from Ghost Tours of Quebec, who tells spine-tingling tales of executions and cursed ships sinking in the St Lawrence River. In the Cathedral of the Holy Trinity we hear about the 1832 cholera epidemic and Iris Dillon, who barricaded herself in her house, fearing she'd catch the disease. When her husband returned from overseas and was told she had died and been buried, it was discovered that she had suffered from narcolepsy, whose victims fall asleep and appear dead, and that she had been buried alive. Our guide hints that her ghost may be trapped in the church.

The English took Quebec in 1759 and their Cathedral of the Holy Trinity became the first Anglican cathedral outside the British Isles when it was consecrated in 1804. The Catholic equivalent is Notre-Dame de Quebec Basilica, and other churches, chapels and religious museums abound.

Quebec's fortifications have earned it World Heritage site status. One piece of living history is the Citadel, built by the British from 1820. It's now the residence of the Royal 22e Regiment and tourists may only visit on official guided tours. From late June until early September, the changing of the guard takes place every day at 10am.

Next to the Citadel stands a peaceful park whose history is anything but. The British subdued the French there in 1759, at the Battle of the Plains of Abraham, annexing the colony. Cannons in the Citadel overlook the St Lawrence River and the old town, and the strategic importance of the bastion becomes obvious as you head downhill to the town, walking along the ramparts of the city walls and through the gates.

Quebec is the only North American city to have preserved its fortifications, but heritage and conservation were hardly hot topics in the 19th century, and the demands of commerce and access almost resulted in the destruction of parts of the walls and many gates. Only when governor-general Lord Dufferin arrived did public opinion turn, saving the fortifications for posterity. The new St Louis Gate, built in 1878, stands as a testament to his efforts, and lends the place an air of old-world charm. Not least when a horse and carriage pass through it on a warm, clear morning.

Getting there

Air Canada ( flies from Hong Kong to Quebec City via Toronto. For information about Le Chateau Frontenac go to; for Quebec City and the region go to