We last visited Quebec in 2000, on the first extended leg of our post-retirement travel. Returning to Montreal we wondered whether we'd still find interesting sights and new experiences. We shouldn't have worried! We have scarcely retraced our steps, and even the familiar places still fascinate us. Montreal windmill
This visit to Montreal turned out to be mostly a visit to suburban Dorval. We settled into a gigantic Best Western, which, with its conference rooms, marble-floored lobby, and full restaurant, seems to think it's really a hotel. We were amused to find that our room, #153, was around the corner and downstairs from rooms #101-150 -- apparently the only important thing is to have unique numbers. The hotel is next to the airport, train station, and a shopping mall, and it was a challenge to learn how to thread the stairs and tunnels across the busy freeway to the mall.
Dorval borders a large industrial area but much of it is pleasantly residential, with the flower-filled gardens Canadians create with such talent. We found our way to the water's edge and followed Lakeshore (Bord-du-lac) Drive for several kilometers around Montreal Island. We reacquainted ourselves with Canadian shopping malls, which offer walking possibilities on hot days. (We are still longing to be further north and east where the summer weather is just warm and Outdoor spiral stairs never blistering.)
Leaving Montreal, we drove a winding route through the city streets, marveling at the many ethnic groups and languages in this city. We enjoyed the curving iron stairs leading to second floor entrances in large old houses -- apparently a hallmark of a certain period of Quebec architecture. (No doubt it makes a lot of sense when the lower floors are covered with snow)! We were surprised at how many single-family homes remain inside the limits of this huge bustling city.
We decided to drive on the south side of the St. Lawrence, since we had taken the north side in 2000. Soon we were driving through the rich St. Lawrence farms, with long strips of grasses and grains; at this time of year the brilliant yellow canola flowers made a lovely contrast to the greens of the other crops. We followed provincial highway 132, which snaked through every riverside town and village. The broad St. Lawrence slowly grew even broader as we drove View of Quebec from Levis east. We spotted the occasional ship or boat on the river, and here and there a small marina, but the St. Lawrence is nowhere near as crowded with pleasure boats as the lakes of Ontario.
The views of Quebec from Levis are breathtaking, with the Chateau Frontenac towering atop the cliffs. The relationship of Levis to Quebec reminded us of the relationship of Sausalito and Tiburon to San Francisco -- just across the water, but a world apart. Here we found a fully occupied trail for bikes, pedestrians, and roller bladers, winding along the quaint waterfront. There was so much traffic on the trail that a certain ritual was followed where the trail crossed the narrow riverside road. The cars stopped to let the pedestrians and riders cross, and then -- lest the cars be stuck forever -- those on bicycles and roller blades and foot courteously stopped to let the vehicle traffic clear. This cycle was repeated at each of several crossings. The whole scene was very Canadian -- so friendly and considerate.
East of Levis we found more towns and villages. There is a freeway -- Highway 20 -- which avoids most of this beautiful scenery along the St. Lawrence. If you are in a big hurry to get to the Gaspe for a camping holiday, or on Montmagny church your way to or from work or business appointment, or just in a big hurry anyhow, then you can take the freeway. But if you're retired or have no appointments or reservations or worries, then do as we did, and take route 132, and even get off that road to drive through each of the towns and villages.
One thing we learned about Quebec from this ride was that the history of the province is intimately tied to the history of its churches. Each village has a church, big and beautiful with shining silvery steeples, and pews to accommodate the entire parish. That's because nearly everyone in the Quebec countryside is French and Catholic. Outside the Montmagny church we saw a sign for tourists describing the six churches since 1679. At first they were built because the town was growing, then because the church was destroyed -- first by flood, later by fire. The present church seemed solid enough to withstand any disaster, and it was beautifully furnished inside. Whereas churches in European cities often show signs of neglect and shrinking congregations, the churches of Quebec are all flourishing, Roadside shrine immaculate, well-maintained, and lovingly (and expensively) constructed.
There are shrines everywhere, and they are large and conspicuous and beautiful. There are shrines in towns, shrines where the road was blessed, shrines to commemorate a religious retreat, shrines near religious orders, shrines in front of ordinary homes and farms and shrines along the road. They all feature a big cross, and many have beautiful carvings of the crucifixion.
We stopped for two nights in Montmagny, a placid small place. On Saturday mid-day, as we walked through the center of town, a few stores were having sidewalk sales but otherwise not much was happening. Lots of the downtown stores had signs "A Louer." Montmagny was a thriving town, but many of its businesses had relocated -- a few near the freeway interchange, and a whole lot to strip malls and shops lining Route 132 on both sides of town. But downtown there was a boulangerie, just like in Paris, with baguettes and French pastries and little jars of pate and -- oh, my! -- rings of local soft cheese. After we found a stand selling fresh vine-ripened strawberries, we decided to eat in, and enjoyed fruit, cheese, and bread in our air-conditioned hotel room.
What a shame that plastic America has lost the art of serving fruits and vegetables that have ripened before they Sculpture garden are picked and rushed to supermarkets.
In St. Jean-Port-Joli we stopped briefly at an outdoor sculpture garden. This town and its surrounding area are a kind of artists' colony featuring woodworkers. Judging from the examples we saw, most seem to be following the same set of plans. We did, however, pass many studios and galleries featuring other kinds of wooden work in their windows, including lots of wood sculptures from many places in the world other than Quebec. There are many gites (bed-and-breakfast places) and small motels, as well as large resorts with golf courses. We worked our way past four separate bicycle packs out for a Sunday spin, each with a protective equipment van at the rear, hazard lights flashing.
Now we're further east in Matane, and at last the summer air is -- for us -- a delightful temperature (around 70). And the air! The air is so clear and clean you can see for miles and it's a delight just to see the beautiful blue sky with a few wisps of clouds. This beautiful summer weather is best close to the St. Lawrence, where the wide river cools the breeze.