Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Chocolate Fudge, Maple Butter and other Yummy Things

We get an early start, walking in the park before breakfast and then down cobbled, curving little streets that probably looked much the same three hundred years ago as they look now.  Everything is still closed, of course.  But Xingxing can sniff at the base of each and every lamppost, while I can look at the shop windows.  I'm particularly taken by a display of beautiful, painted leather handbags.  I've never seen anything quite like them.  They look very French.  Also, very expensive.
After a delightful repast of fresh fruit, croissants and coffee back at the hotel overlooking the boardwalk and the river, we're out exploring again.  Canadian license plates bear the slogan, Je souviens.  It means, I remember.  And they do.  Especially in Quebec.  Every statue, every building, every little park and every street name evokes a battle, a general, a king or some other historic figure.
The plan was to follow the self-guided walking tour I'd found in a brochure. But as the sun rose higher in the sky and the shops and restaurants opened and the streets began to fill with pedestrians, I abandoned any idea of a plan and simply wandered, enjoying the Gallic ambience.  Xingxing followed his nose and I followed him, pausing every now and then to read a plaque. We wend our way back up towards the boardwalk along the river, where we discover Funiculaire du Vieux Quebec (which has been in operation since 1879 and is one of the only funiculars on the continent)  that whooshes us down the cliff to the waterfront Quartier Petit Champlain -- much easier than taking the aptly named Breakneck Staircase!
And then at 717 Boulevard Louis XIV we discover Le Fudgerie, where we browse among the beautifully displayed boxes of handmade fudge -- 80 different kinds of fudge.  Platters piled high with tempting samples demanded tasting.  How to choose among them?  We settle on a Sampler Box that contains generous slabs of Ancienne, Cappuccino, Marron Vanille, Fleur de Cao et Piment and Sucre a la Creme.  And a separate box of dark chocolate.  I'm sorry.  I cannot resist fudge.
Our afternoon tour takes us to Chute Montmorency, a 272-foot high waterfall that -- we are reminded on several occasions -- makes it 99 feet higher than Niagara Falls.  You can either take a cable car to the top, or walk through a park to the base.  We choose the latter, and end up mere feet away from tons and tons of water crashing down practically within reach.  It is awesome.  In the winter, it freezes solid and people who are training to climb Mt. Everest climb it, for practice.
The bus then crosses a bridge to the Ile de Orleans,  which was the breadbasket of old Quebec (and was therefore burnt to the ground by the British on at least one occasion) and was first settled in 1661. It still maintains its basically rural state, with a population of less than 1000.  The highlight here is Marie's Bakery, but the attraction isn't so much the bread (which is very good) as the maple butter, which is incredible.  Quebec is the source of 85% of the world's maple syrup, and Marie sells quantities of it, as well as boxes of maple sugar candy and her inimitable maple butter, which is made by churning the maple syrup into butter.
Back on the mainland we head north, past Beaupre.  Beaupre means "good plains" because that's what the first French colonists thought they were.  No rocks, no trees, just rich, fertile soil and lots of river frontage. They arrived in the spring, built their little 20x20 timber houses, planted and harvested their crops -- and then winter came, and whoops! they'd never seen anything like this in France. Thirty feet of snow.  Temperatures 35 degrees below zero.  Icicles hanging from the walls inside their houses.  It must have been awful. But somehow the little settlement survived into spring -- only to be flooded out by the raging, swollen St. Lawrence river.  It was at that point they realized their "good plain" was also a flood plain.  Being French they rebuilt, but further up on the hillside.  Someone asks why they built their houses out of timber, rather than stone.  Turns out, timber provides better insulation.
We finish off with a visit to the Basilica of Saint Anne de Beaupre, dedicated to Saint Anne, the grandmother of Jesus.  Established 350 years ago, it is a pilgrimage site and nearly a million people come here each year to be healed, often leaving their wheelchairs and crutches behind. The original building burned down early in the 19th century and this one is made -- unlikely as it seems -- out of concrete blocks.  The huge, embossed copper doors to the basilica were made locally by Albert Gilles, whose family still operates the nearby copper smithery.
Xingxing has trotted obediently through all of these wonders, particularly enjoying the gardens in front of the basilica, where he takes pains to makesure that all the local dogs will know he passed through.
Back at Le Chateau Frontenac, we opt for room service. What a day!  Or as they say in French, Quel jour!

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