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Celebrating Quebec’s 400th Birthday

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Photo: François Dischinger

So we were grateful to find not a single patron speaking English at Café Le St.-Malo, a restaurant of eight tables with a roaring fire in the hearth, tchotchkes on the mantel, and a friendly proprietress. A single chef worked an open kitchen, turning out dreamy cuisine grandmère: a rich mussel soup seasoned with saffron and nutmeg, and a pleasantly gamy rabbit with sauce moutarde, which we washed down with a lavender-scented Cahors. All the while, it seemed as if we were a few thousand miles across the Atlantic, on a harbor in Brittany.

When we left the restaurant, snow was falling in fat, clumpy flakes. Outside the window of our hotel room, an enormous yellow Caterpillar front-end loader in the parking lot of the Musée de la Civilisation scooped snow into its bucket and added it to a wall of the stuff that rose two stories high at one edge of the lot. Muffled by the hotel’s soundproof windows, the thud of the plow against the pavement and the beepbeepbeep when it shifted into reverse seemed more like a lullaby than an intrusion.

Though we hadn’t planned it, our trip coincided with Quebec City’s Winter Carnival, and upon arriving we found the streets of the Upper Town filled with revelers sounding raspy Bronx cheers on long plastic trumpets. Others carried plastic walking sticks that doubled as flasks for Caribou, a concoction of port spiked with brandy or vodka (and, so the rumor goes, caribou blood). We watched a glassy-eyed woman amble out into the middle of an intersection and point her trumpet skyward, honking, while her companion called after her: "Come on Josée, we need to track down your kids."

In fact, the carnival is a children’s paradise and includes an impressive soap-box derby past City Hall down a sloping avenue lined with hay bales. The town itself becomes a setting for a fairy tale: stores make ice sculptures to adorn their entrances, taverns build outdoor bars entirely of ice. But by far the most fabled component of the festivities is the canoe race on the St. Lawrence River. On the morning of the race, the water appeared to be a fast-moving mass of slush, and we were curious as to how a canoe might move through it. Down by the river, we learned how: the oarsmen hop out and push the canoe over the crust of ice. Even so, many teams seemed to be losing ground to the river’s current. The wind was whipping our faces numb—and we weren’t even wet.

We retreated from the crowds at the waterfront to a wonderland for decidedly more adult pursuits—the nearby antiques district of the Lower Town. At De Retour, a Midcentury Modern store that had recently opened, proprietor Pierre Jolicoeur had just received a mint-condition 1953 Danish Finnjuhl dining set, but he was more excited about his current refinishing project: a vintage desk set by Reff, a local designer and office-furniture manufacturer touted as the Knoll of Canada.

At Boutique aux Mémoires, an antiques store with a strong Québécois collection, Matt was smitten by a large oval painting of the city’s skyline, done from a vantage point much like the one we first saw at L’Astral, by Madeleine Laliberte, an artist who was once the shopkeeper’s neighbor. The painting’s pale, unfashionable mid-century blues, hennas, and mauves captured the city’s twilight mood. Louis Bolduc, the owner, has lived his entire life in Quebec City and had stories to tell about many of the works for sale, from flatware to porcelain. He seemed to know everyone in his hometown, too, so after we chose some city views from the vintage postcard rack, we showed him our Polaroid of the three mysterious revelers. "Non, désolé," he replied. "Je ne les connais pas."

Spending an hour browsing Bolduc’s shop is like being in a compellingly personal museum. Just a few blocks away, the Musée de la Civilisation, which dominates the profile of the riverfront in the Lower Town, is a museum with a rather more expansive vision. Its permanent exhibition—fresh, but achingly thorough—tells the story of the founding of Quebec by French merchants and kings in the 16th and 17th centuries. The British conquered the region during the Seven Years’ War, from 1756 to 1763, but French laws—and culture—remained in force, and many of the artifacts here explore the uneasy coexistence between the francophone Quebecers and the British crown. Not an overcoat button or lunch box escapes the lively scrutiny of the museum’s curators.

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