It is hard to imagine both the excitement and nervousness that Jacques Cartier (1491-1557) and his crew must have felt in 1535 when they sailed up the St Lawrence River and set foot on the land where the Iroquois Village of Stadacona was located - the village that would in time become Québec City.
While he stayed here only a short time, he returned again in 1541 to establish a settlement, but this was short lived, though his maps and charts would live on, and no doubt formed a basis for Samuel de Champlain (1574-1635) choosing Stadacona as the site for a new Settlement here in 1608, using the Algonquian name Kebec for the name of that settlement.
In France there are a number of walled cities, built as strategic Military fortresses to protect those within from those without, and often these were built on a hilltop or commanding position over the land, river or ocean that lay below them.
The location of Kebec (Québec City ) must have seemed perfectly suited as the place to build a fortress town, with its commanding position overlooking the St Lawrence River, with high cliffs separating it from the River below. From here at the top of the clifftop, you have a perfect vision of the land and river, and if an enemy was to attack, they would be pushing uphill making it easier for those above to fire muskets and cannon balls downwards in their direction.
The new settlement lay in the middle of Iroquois Territory, but also faced British forces too, who had no desire to have a French Settlement established in land that could potentially be theirs. In 1629, the British mounted an attack on Kebec, and managed to secure it, but then a Treaty between England and France led to Kebec being handed back to the French in 1632, and the town became the main town for New France, with other French settlements being established along the St Lawrence River and in Arcadia, with the fur trade continuing to develop between the French and First Nation tribes.
For the next 127 years, Québec City and the settlements along the St Lawrence River were under French control, but then in 1759 the British under the leadership of General Wolfe attacked Québec City on the Plains of Abraham, and war followed which ended in the Treatise (Treaty)of Paris being signed in 1763, with Québec coming under British control. Under the terms of the Treatise, the French in New France could continue to speak French and their rights to practice the Catholic religion was respected too.
When the American Revolutionary forces (The American War of Independence – 1775-1783 from Britain) began in 1775, Revolutionary forces from New England attempted to also attack Québec, thinking that the French and First Nations people would also rise up and challenge the British forces. This didn't happen and by this time the British were in a much stronger position to both protect the city and also repulse any enemy forces. In 1812 when the Americans again sought to attack what the British had renamed as Upper and Lower Canada, they were again repulsed, and in 1867 Canada became a Confederation within the British Empire.
Where in Montréal the walls of the City were built between 1716 and 1738 but then pulled down between 1804 and 1817, the Fortified stone walls of Québec City are still there and kept in very good order.
The Québec City wall fortifications were first built in 1620 and then over the years enlarged, extended first by the French and then the British up until 1871 so that the walls created a ring of defence around the City. The high stone walls were built on two sides sandwiching ramparts of solid rammed earth filled in between the walls to get height, with a walkway on top, and the outer walls then extended above this walkway to provide protection to the Guards. The Guards were then able to march and parade along the walkway, protected by the outer walls from the potential enemy, remaining out of sight at the same time. Small slits in the stonework provided an open window to the countryside and River below, with the slits being used to fire cannons or other arms from when needed.
Four small conical roofed Martello towers were also built strategically along the wall to provide an even better view of any approaching enemy ships on the River, and three Porte entranceways were constructed on the side furthest away from the River side as access points to the walled city within. These are the Porte Saint-Jean, Porte Saint-Louis and Porte Kent.
Today, you can still see the remarkable stonework, walk along the walkway on top and get an understanding of the wall and its use in defending the City. It is definitely worth doing, be it that you walk the whole 4.6 kilometre length of the wall, or just a part of it.
While the walls of the City were the main part of the early defence arrangements, and a small fort had been builtthe weakest part of this defence was the western side away from the River where the high cliffs below the wall were located.
Winning a war by Military force was and still is a lot to do with tactics as well as the armaments involved, and in 1759 when the British forces led by General Wolfe (1727-1759) attacked the French led by the Marquis of Montcalm Gozon (1712-1759), they did so by drawing the French troops out of the City and their camps to the south, north onto the Plains of Abraham. General Wolfe was himself was fatally wounded on the day, and Montcalm died the following day of his injuries, but following the surrender of the French, the British were able to take control of Québec City.
There is a Museum (Musée du Fort) located at 10 Rue Sainte-Anne. See www.museedufort.com
Once the British gained control of the City, they also recognized the weaknesses of the existing defences. Plans and designs were made to build a much stronger Fort as a means of protecting the City, but the costs were thought to be too high for such a construction, so it was not until 1820, following the 1812 war between Britain and America that construction of the star shaped Citadel fortress would begin, a construction that took some 30 years to complete.
The Citadel is designed in a star shape to afford those defending the Citadel to have the best view of their enemies below, while inside the walls there are some 24 buildings serving the needs of the military forces within. The British then occupied the Citadel until 1871, with Canadian forces taking over at that time.
Today, the Citadel, located at Côte de la Citadelle (See www.lacitadelle.qc.ca )is still an active Military base, home to the Canadian Royal 22nd Regiment, and there is also a building inside that is an official residence used by the Governor General of Canada and for visiting British/Canadian Royalty on occasion. You can visit the Citadel and also witness the Changing of the Guard ceremony each day in the summer months.
Old Québec City is a very walkable city and this is a big part of what makes it so attractive.
The most dominant building in the old city is without doubt Le Château Frontenac Hotel – 1 Rue des Carrières, a Fairmont Hotel, built in 1893 in the age of the Great Railways Building Boom as a way to entice people to travel. It is named in honour of Louis de Buade, le Compte de Frontenac et de Palluau (1622-1698) who was the Governor of New France from 1672 to 1682 and then 1684 to 1698.
The Hotel has towers and turrets, and is as elegant inside as it is imposing on the outside with over 600 Guest Rooms and Suites, and all the facilities of a great Luxury hotel. Next to the hotel on Rue Mont Carmel there is also the Governor's Garden (Jardin de Gouverneurs) where there is a monument to both General Wolfe and to the Marquis of Montcalm.
In the early days of French settlement, the social order of French society also became part of the social structure in New France too involving a class structure where those of noble birth, representatives of the French Royal King, religious leaders, the Military were given authority and status over common merchants and workers. This status was also reflected in the location of the buildings where they lived and the prestige of such buildings and in Québec City this meant those of the higher order had the higher ground and those of lesser birth or status would live in the lower town.
While the Companie de la Nouvelle France (Companie des Cent-Associés) under the authority of Cardinal Richelieu formed in 1627 was granted the exclusive rights to trade Furs from New France, they were also given these rights on the basis of bringing new settlers to New France and also to teach the Christian faith.
In 1633 a Chapel was built and then replaced by a new Cathedral in 1674, named as the Basilica Notre -Dame-de Québec in honour of the Paris Cathedral of the same name. This Catholic Cathedral is located at 16 Rue de Buade.
Close by is the Ursuline Convent and Museum – located at 12 Rue Donnacona. See www.museedesursulines.com The Ursuline Order was founded in Brescia, Italy in 1535, and in 1639 their first members of the Order landed in Québec City under Royal Approval from the French King. The Ursuline Nuns role saw them both teach language, household skills and nursing skills, building a convent and chapel. Today you can see the Museum with a collection of items dating back to the early days of the Order and also visit the Ursuline's Chapel and see the remarkable carved wooden altar with its gild work and also see paintings that date back to the French Revolution. Blessed Mother Marie of the Incarnation (1599-1672) was beatified in 1980 by Pope John-Paul II, naming her as the "Mother of the Church of Canada".
In Québec City there is also the Anglican Cathedral too – the Cathedral of the Holy Trinity – located at 31 Rue des Jardins. This was built between 1800 and 1804 following a fire that burnt down the former Chapel on this site and the Cathedral, said to be the first Anglican Cathedral to be built outside the British Isles. British King George III donated specially designed Georgian Silverware and other objects of Religious significance to the new Cathedral and these take pride of place in the Cathedral.
The Stained Glass windows and interior of the Cathedral are magnificent, as is the Palladian style architecture of the church itself. The Bell Tower has eight bells – each ringing a different sounds based on their size and weight and they were made in London by the Whitechapel Bell Foundry, who also made the bells for Big Ben in London and the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia. Eight members of the Québec City Guild of Change Ringers ring the bells in sequence on special occasions.
The other church that you should see is the Église Notre-Dame-des-Victoires – 32 Rue Sous-le-Fort that has seen its share of battles. This stone church was first built in 1688 but then in the war in 1759 between the French and British forces it was hit by cannon fire and then restored in 1763. It sits facing Place Royale, a beautiful small square lined with small shops and 17th and 18th century buildings on each side. The Centre d'interprétation de Place-Royale is close by (27 Rue Notre Dame). Here you can learn more about this historic location and the history of the old city and even see some of the below ground cellars used to barrels of wine and supplies.
Hôtel du Parliament – 1045 Rue des Parliamentaires. See www.assnat.qc.ca This is the massive 8 storey building with the central clock tower that equally dominates the skyline of Old Québec City. It is one of the MUST SEE buildings in the city when you are here. Construction of the French Second Empire style Building occurred between 1877 and 1886, and it houses the Québec National Assembly Chamber and also the Legislative Council Chamber.
In front of the building you will see the Fontaine de Tourney (Fountain), gardens and a grand stairway leading in two arcs around a garden, but probably most notable feature of the building's exterior are the 22 statues of famous governors and other notable people from Québec history.
Inside is just as impressive, and if you can, take a tour of the building to see some of the stunning decore, stained glass windows and other features. There is also a café restaurant here too.
MUSEUMS - As you would expect there are a number of museums in the City that trace the history of the old City and they are worth seeing to really gain an insight into the city and how it evolved. Don't be mistaken by thinking that the city itself is a relic of the past, it is very much a vibrant city centre and at night comes alive too with great bars, music and restaurants, and during winter there is the lead up to Christmas when the snow arrives, while in summer there are festivals and events that make this city very much alive.
- Musée de la Civilisation - 85 Rue Dalhousie. See www.mcq.org This museum focuses on the changes that have taken place in life over the centuries. Also see the Musée de l'amérique Francophone – 2 Côte de la Fabrique with its first people's collections including Cree and Inuit art and cultural items, Musée de Place Royale – 27 Rue Notre Dame and the Maison Historique Chevalier 50 Rue de Marché- Champlain – a house museum with the house built in 1752.
- Musée National des Beaux Arts du Québec – off the Grande Allée, National Battlefields Park, next to the Plains of Abraham. See www.mnbaq.org/en This is a large modern Art Gallery displaying the work of both past and current notable artists in a number of galleries and pavilions here.
Parc des Champs-de-Bataille ( Battlefields Park) 835 Avenue Wilfrid Laurier is where the Plains of Abraham battle between the French and British took place in 1759, so in coming to Québec and Canada, it is also such a significant location that it should also be a MUST SEE on your list of places to see here in the City. The British won the battle, and this was very much a pivotal event in Québec and Canadian history but also had consequences for British and American history too.
This park area was first a farm owned by Abraham Martin, hence the name Plains of Abraham, but after the Battle at some point it became the property of the Ursuline Order and was kept free of development based on it also being land below the Citadel and therefore of military defensive value too.
The idea of developing a large park at this location was proposed by a number of people in the late 1800's and finally came to fruition in 1908, when the National Battlefields Commission was formed.
The park covers an area of 254 acres of grounds (103 hectares) and has been developed to encompass both its history – with signage, restoration of 4 Martello Towers built by the British, statues, the Jean d'Arc Garden area, but also provide nature and bike trails, and areas for enjoying the fresh air, woodlands, location overlooking the River, and in winter enjoying the snow that falls here. It is a beautiful park to come to. To get a feel for the Park's history head to the Discovery Pavilion at the Park entrance at 835 Avenue Wilfrid Laurier.
Just wandering the streets of Old Québec with its small roads, historic homes and small shops, bars, pubs and restaurants is a joy in its own right, but if you want to get a view over the whole city including the downtown high rise buildings in the new city head to the Observatoire de la Capitale – in the Édifice Marie Guyard (Complexe- G) building at 1037 Rue De La Cherrotière. See www.observatoirecapitale.org/en . This is high rise building where on the 31st floor there is an observation floor where you can take in a 360⁰ view of the whole city – both the old and the new.
There are of course tours of the Old City to take in the highlights or see particular aspects of the city and its history, and there are also cruises that you could take on the River, cross over the River by Ferry to Lévis or venture to other small towns along the river in both directions. There are many fine smaller historic hotels and of course you could also stay in the Chateau Frontenac too, one of the most famous hotels in Canada. There are also the Ski Resorts close by where in winter you can ski or snowboard (See www.ski-stoneham.com) and in summer there is hiking, biking, canoeing and all of the outdoors to enjoy.
If you come to Québec City in February, there is the Carnival (See www.carnival.qc.ca), Christmas too with the snow and atmosphere is great too, but equally spring and summertime let you move around more freely, and of course the Fall is great too as the leaves change colour.
Whatever time of the year that you come to Quebec City, you will no doubt have a great time. As I said at the beginning of this Guide to Quebec City, the Old City is one of my favourite places to travel to in North America.