In March 2002, after five months of working for the American Red Cross, I burned out: brain fried, emotions drained, body tired. I needed to get away, but I didn’t have much vacation time, so I headed to Québec. It seemed as far as I could go in four-day weekend. When I returned I e-mailed some friends about my trip. In honor of the approximate nine-year anniversary of that trip and the upcoming #UsGuys meetup in Toronto, I’m sharing a slightly revised account, in two parts (the second will appear on Thursday).
TRAVELS & TRAVAILS
It was an adventure just getting to Québec. There are no direct flights from New York (which surprised me), so I had to go through Toronto. It was windy in Toronto, and the plane coming to NY was delayed. The plane landed at almost the exact time the connecting flight to Québec was supposed to depart, but fortunately it was also late. Even so, I had to run the entire length of the terminal and was one of the last to board.
It’s a pretty short flight, just over an hour. The plane began its descent to Québec—and then began to climb again! The pilot’s voice announced that there were strong cross winds, poor visibility, and icy runways in Québec; we would have to return to Toronto.
It got a little bumpy as we were descending towards Toronto. If this was acceptable, what was the weather like in Québec? I wondered. The woman sitting next to me looked nervous. “They oughta pave these roads!” I said, and two rows laughed nervously.
We landed again in Toronto, same Gate 204 we had departed from. The baggage carousels were on the far end of the terminal. My suitcase was the next-but-last to be off-loaded! And then, of course, there was the matter of finding a place to stay. The first hotel I called had a room available and a shuttle bus that would get me there. But by the time I checked in, it was 12:45. After a much-needed hot shower, I had very little time to sleep and still make the 7:05 flight to (we hoped!!) Québec. I requested a wake-up call for (gulp!) 5:00 a.m.
At the airport the following morning, things seemed to be going a little better. My fellow passengers had a sort of grim determination to be optimistic until proved otherwise. We boarded the plane a little late, but things seemed to be going better.
The flight was uneventful. But, then, so had the previous attempt been, until we were approaching Québec. The man seated to my right had not been aboard, but had heard about our adventure. As we began to descend, he turned to me and said, “Looks like you’re going to make it this time.” I told him that we’d begun our descent the previous night, but had to pull up and return to Toronto. He looked a little concerned. But, lo and behold, we did land. A collective sigh of relief was heard.
We headed toward the baggage carousel. Québec’s airport is much smaller than Toronto’s, so we didn’t have the long walk. But there was still a wait… and wait… Again, I went to the Baggage Information desk. I gave my name and showed my stub. The man at the desk punched the information into his computer. My suitcase was on the 10:15 flight. I left my hotel name and address, and was told my suitcase should be there by 1:00. I went outside and hailed a taxi to the hotel. The man who’d sat next to me on Thursday night saw me waiting for a taxi and came to say hello. Door to door, the trip had taken 23 hours, and I didn’t have any clothes but what I stood up in.
The hotel was lovely. I poked around my room, thinking I ought to be doing something before I went out to look for lunch. Oh, yeah! I should be unpacking. Well, that’s not going to happen for a while… So I walked outside, turned the corner, and found a small restaurant serving crepes. I was famished!!
WANDERING THE STREETS
One of the things I enjoy about travel is just wandering around. As anyone who’s traveled with me knows, I usually do lots of research before the trip; but once I arrive, I’m willing to deviate from my plans. Really, I just want to know what my choices are. If I decide to skip one attraction to spend twice as much time at another, that’s OK.
It was the wandering that was a problem in Québec. To one of my northern ancestry, the cold air and snow on the ground was exhilarating. New York was having an unusually mild winter: only one snowfall that stuck to the ground and a record high of 69 one day in January. That may be good for a lot of people, but I wanted just one good dose of winter before Spring came. And I got it! Only problem was, I had to learn to walk on snow again…. And, as I had my camera with me, I had to decide whether I was more concerned about breaking my leg or my lens.
Canada knows how to deal with snow. They rarely use salt to melt it; they put down a grit that almost looked like cinders (but are they available anywhere anymore?) that gives traction in the snow. So in less than an hour, I was walking like a penguin, at least on the level surfaces. Problem is, Québec is hilly, so sometimes it made sense to walk four blocks on gently sloping sidewalks rather than one block on a steep, slippery hill. But I got to see more that way. (And the exercise would do me good once I hit the restaurants…. And hit them I certainly did!)
My first destination was the Museum in the Ursuline Convent. I’d been there before, on my previous trip to Québec. There I met a nun who was serving as a docent. When she asked how long I was staying in Québec, and I told her I’d only be there for one day, she made me promise to come back again and spend more time. I might not be much of a Catholic, but a promise made to a nun is still sacred. So here I was, back in Québec to keep my promise. And I remembered the gorgeous needlework on display there!
But first, I went back to the hotel. Had my luggage arrived yet? No. And so I wandered out again.
The Ursuline Convent is not on one of the main streets, so I meandered a while before I admitted that I wasn’t finding it. If you’ve ever been in Québec–especially the Old City–you know there’s one way to find anything: get to the Chateau Frontenac and follow the map and signs from there. The Frontenac is the center of Old Québec. So I found my way there, and got to the Ursulines without further delay.
When I went back to the hotel in the late afternoon, my suitcase had arrived.I unpacked my clothes and sprawled on the bed to look over the brochures I’d picked up in my travels. I dozed off, and woke up when my stomach decided it was time to look for dinner.
I had a list of restaurants I’d gotten from various Québec websites. Most of them said that reservations were recommended and I hadn’t made any, so I took to wandering again. I found a nice restaurant on the Rue Saint-Louis. Like most of the restaurants in the walled city, it was in an old building with thick stone walls. Two waiters pampered me—helped me off and on with my coat, refilled my water and coffee, etc. Forget feminism; I could get used to this! (But I want to vote, own property, and make a decent salary.) By the time I left the restaurant, I was mellow from food and pampering, and just jazzed enough on coffee to get out of my chair and walk to a pub I’d spotted on my walk.
You’ve gotta love a pub called “Pub Irlandais le Saint-Patrick.” The waitress said “bonsoir” when I entered. Clearly I wasn’t in Dublin. The decor was OK; I couldn’t put my finger on what was missing, but it was very close to the real thing. I ordered a black and tan, which was tolerable—too much Guinness to too little Bass. Next I ordered a Guinness, and the bartender actually put the shamrock design in the foam. The live music was good—a fiddle and a guitar. Too many people speaking French, including the fiddler, to make it feel really Irish. He even sang a song in French—very funny, from the audience reaction, but of course I didn’t get it. It didn’t remind me of traveling in Ireland, but it was nice. I wanted to come back another night and greet the waitress with “failte.”
I spent most of Saturday in Basse-Ville, the Lower Town between the cliff (where the Chateau Frontenac stands) and the St. Lawrence River. Being me, I got to the Lower Town before anything was open, so I wandered around taking pictures of the old stone buildings. The old city of Québec is very crowded: the buildings are close together and the streets are narrow and twisty. On a cold day in late March, it seems as if the buildings are huddling together for warmth.
Naturally, I found my way to the Museum of Civilization and the Maison Chevalier, a house museum. Once a museum geek, always a museum geek!
I made my way back to the Upper Town and found another cozy restaurant for dinner. This time, I sampled a few local brews with my meal. As I was making my way back towards the hotel I realized that, while it was still very cold, the wind had died down. It was only about 9:30, so I strolled past the street where my hotel was, and continued on towards the Frontenac. Sure enough, the wind had abated even near the cliff, so I ventured onto the Terrasse Dufferin and Promenade des Gouverneurs. They were almost deserted; the only people I saw were going in the opposite direction, towards the main part of the city. It was a nice evening and I enjoyed the solitude. (“Would I do this in New York?” I asked myself. “No, but this isn’t New York.”)
Although it was less windy, the ground was still quite snowy beneath my feet. My toes were starting to get cold. So I turned back and went looking for a place to have coffee. I found a pub/restaurant that seemed to cater more to the local crowd than to tourists. At the next table, a group of people were speaking French and dining on fajitas. (Now *this* could be New York!) I ordered coffee and maple pie. For those of you who think that bacon is the only Canadian food, let me explain maple pie. Imagine a pecan pie without nuts–pure sugary custard in a pastry shell. A small piece can give quite a jolt. Hot black coffee and naked calories warmed my toes for the walk back to the hotel.
The story will continue Thursday morning, at my usual time… Meanwhile I would love some comments. Have you ever been to Quebec? Taken a vacation to “get away from it all” during a stressful time in your life? Share your story.