At dusk on a glowering February day, we trudged up the snowbound sidewalk of Rue St.-Louis, a street of limestone town houses just inside the walls of Quebec City. The icy footpath was so narrow that we had to walk single file, eyes glued to the ground. As we neared the Porte St.-Louis, an arched opening in the massive 18th-century stone fortifications that surround the city, we stopped short: entombed in the ice was a trove of discarded Polaroid photographs, some ripped in half.
We pulled one loose: two girls and a guy, huddled in the back of a truck, looking like they were laughing at a shared joke. They were young, their faces illuminated yellow by the last rays of sun, their knitted hats drawn tightly over their ears, their down coats held close about their chests. Their mirth may have been beer-fueled, but they were having the time of their lives in midwinter. The warmth contained within the four edges of the photo melted us. We had to join the fun.
We marched on to our destination, L’Astral, a restaurant on the 29th floor of a skyscraper just outside the city walls, to watch the sun set and to find something more potent than beer. We ordered shots of Fine Séve, a fiery, caramel-tinged Québécois eau-de-vie distilled from maple syrup, and asked the waiter if he knew anyone in the photo: "Vous connaissez ces gens-lá?
Without a moment’s hesitation, he reached for a pair of reading glasses in his vest pocket. He regarded the snapshot intently, then gave it back.
"Sorry," he said, "I don’t."
It may seem foolish to expect to find strangers in a crowd of 530,000, but in Quebec City in February, that possibility doesn’t seem so remote. There’s an intimacy to the town—the walls that contain it and the bitter chill tend to draw people together. Though we’d only been here for two days, we’d already hailed the same cabdriver twice.
Raised in a palmettoed Southern town where school gets canceled at the first flurry, we’d always been wary of winter. We hoped that Quebec City would teach us to embrace the season’s rawness—not only to enjoy it, but to love it with conviction, as the surfer loves the leading edge of a hurricane.
And we suspected Québécois food and drink would be our wave in. Settled by French fur-traders 400 years ago, the city has never lost its Gallic heritage. We’d heard there was a casual, distinctly quotidian quality to its food life—excellent bread baked around every corner, shelves of local cheeses in neighborhood markets.
As we sipped our Fine Séve—without a doubt the classiest expression of the maple tree—we watched the lights of the city sparkle to life while cross-country skiers on the Plains of Abraham (site of the 1759 battle in which the British defeated the French settlers) moved lazily through the lamplit park, casting shadows on the snow.
From our perch, we could see across the rooftops of the Old Town, Vieux-Québec, much of which lies inside the massive city walls, to the St. Lawrence River beyond them. The vertiginous cliffs that divide Vieux-Québec into an Upper and Lower Town accentuate the angularity of the architecture, all gabled roofs and soaring turrets. As we slowly made our way to dinner in the Lower Town, we passed stone-and-timber cottages set into the flanks of impossibly steep, curving streets, giving the whole place a sort of Cubist humor.
These mad-hatter streetscapes are what earned Quebec City its designation as a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1985, and they reminded us of the town’s sheer power as a tourist attraction. We wondered whether its French character, and particularly its cuisine, would be genuine—or something trotted out for the sake of visitors like us.