The drive over to Bingham and up to Jackman last Friday was bleak. Mostly, it was the time of year; it’s always disheartening to watch Maine’s late-winter drag its heels over the muddy threshold into early spring.
Still, we were in a celebratory mood. The next day would be Douglas’ 68th birthday, and we were on our way to Quebec City for the weekend. It wasn’t a first visit for either of us, although neither of us had been there for many years. It was, however, our first trip there together, and we were looking forward to exploring new territory and new experiences as a couple and making them our own.
As I grow older, I find it increasingly counterproductive to think of birthdays, Christmas and other gift-giving occasions as a chance to add to my store of worldly possessions. Douglas feels the same way. What seems far more valuable to us these days is investing in our relatively new relationship through shared experiences, large and small. A date-night movie, an afternoon leafing dreamily through the seed catalog, a snowy tramp through the woods — low-budget activities like these, and the gift of precious time they entail, bring us closer and help us learn about each other better than any new book, tool or kitchen gizmo ever could.
The birthday trip to Quebec City was pricier and more elaborate, to be sure, but it did not disappoint. And the favorable currency exchange rate made it much easier to handle.
Quebec City is most famous for its historic district — the old port area built on the low banks of the north-flowing Saint Lawrence River and the fortified city on the plateau above. It dates from the 1600s and earlier, with deep roots in French Catholic culture, British aspirations and Amerindian relations. A UNESCO World Heritage site since the mid 1980s, the old city is a study in European architecture, bumpy cobblestone streets, terrific markets and cafes, museums and and boutique shopping.
The overbuilt Chateau Frontenac, an immense hotel erected by the Canadian Pacific Railroad in the late 19th century, occupies the high point in the historic area. Wrapped around all this is the contemporary metropolis of Quebec City, complete with ethnic neighborhoods, a bustling seaport, parks, theaters, farmers markets, public transportation and all the civilizing elements of a modern city.
We booked accommodations through AirBnB. It’s always a little bit of an adventure, but we’ve never had a bad experience. Our lodging in the old city was no exception: a cozy suite of three small rooms and a private bathroom in an historic home on a quiet street, just a minute’s walk from the central square. Our host, Gilles LaFleur, spoke perfect English and served us tender buckwheat crepes with homemade applesauce for breakfast on our first morning.
We signed up for a guided tour on Saturday and spent about three hours tramping energetically through the narrow streets with just one other couple — Americans from upstate New York — and our guide, Robert. It was a good decision; Robert was smart, funny and knowledgeable, and he clearly loved his job. This early in the season, there were few other tourists around; come summer, Robert said, the crowds would be shoulder-to-shoulder.
By the end of the tour, we came to understand how the city developed architecturally, why French is still the official language, why the powerful financial institutions on Rue Saint-Pierre moved west with the invention of the steamboat, how much influence the Catholic Church has lost in recent decades and much more.
Importantly, we had also espied a number of interesting restaurants on our tour. While we were in Quebec, we feasted on rabbit and duck en cassoulet, meltingly tender osso bucco, braised lamb shank, spicy pates and rich meat terrines.
Many friends recommended this cafe, Le Lapin Saute. We enjoyed rabbit and duck en cassoulet.
Wine is shockingly expensive — $50 for a bottle in a restaurant is low-end — so we drank quite moderately, although we did enjoy a reviving afternoon martini and a plate of crispy pommes frites, sprinkled with Parmesan cheese, shaved truffles and green onions, in a jazz bar.
On Sunday, after enjoying Gilles’ excellent homemade muesli, we strolled through the Marché du Vieux-Port and filled a couple of tote bags with local organic cheeses, organic whole grain flour, seal-meat sausages, coils of fresh pasta, a bottle of high-proof “ice” cider made from apples frozen on the tree, a tiny jar of emu pate (!) and one tender, irresistible pastry, layered with fruit preserves and glazed to gleaming perfection.
From the market, we walked to the Musée de la Civilisation. I was lukewarm at first about visiting a museum whose name seemed to promise pottery shards and moth-eaten dioramas, but I wanted to please Douglas, who likes these things. Boy, was I ever surprised! The museum is modern, interactive, relevant and compelling. We were especially mesmerized by a large collection of contemporary indigenous art from Australia and an exhibit of ancient Egyptian “magic” artifacts, both mounted with great creativity and clarity.
We left Quebec reluctant but happy, enriched by a weekend packed with new sights, smells, tastes and ideas. The long drive home to Sandy Point seemed a little sweeter, spring a little closer and our relationship a little brighter, strengthened by all we had seen and done together in celebration of this birthday and our future together.