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STROLLING along a French village lane with 17th-century stone buildings, then looking up to the hilltop castle that guards a walled city, it's hard to believe you're in Canada.
Quebec, Canada's oldest city, is the most European and historic settlement in the Americas, where 98 percent of the people speak French and the Old Town comprises beautiful buildings that have survived from another era. This exotic, foreign adventure is easy to realize, just across our border.
Old Quebec is the only urban area in North America designated as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO, verifying its unique historic status due to the excellent preservation of its 17th- and 18th-century buildings. This compact historic site is perfect for exploring on foot.
Quebec City alternated between French and British control during its first 100 years and is today a provincial capital with a complex society and rich cultural blend.
This site on the St. Lawrence River was first discovered by Jacques Cartier in 1535 and established as a trading post in 1608 by French explorer Samuel de Champlain, becoming one of the first, and only surviving walled town in North America. French settlers built the wall to keep Indians and British out, and when England took control in 1759, they enlarged the barrier to keep the French and Americans out.
A benefit of such military walls is preservation of the town within the fortification, which is certainly the case in Quebec's Old Town. The ancient zone is laced with quaint stone buildings full of stores, galleries, historic sites, museums, cafes and quality restaurants. There is nothing like it in America.
There is a modern town outside the wall, which is a pleasant place, but you should focus your time on the much more fascinating Old Town. This old section is divided into an Upper and Lower Town, each with its own personality. However, the Lower Town, at the foot of a cliff along the river just beyond the wall, is the older and more charming portion, so focus your first efforts here before you run out of time, energy and money.
This is the most enjoyable part of the city, the perfect place to look around and shop, so we will focus on this area today and leave the rest for another day.
Petit-Champlain District: Rue du Petit-Champlain is one of the oldest commercial streets in North America, established in the 1680s and occupied ever since. A fire burned down its first wooden structures, so the government decreed that subsequent buildings would be made of stone. Sometimes these early disasters are blessings in disguise because subsequent buildings are often created in a unified, harmonious plan with sturdy materials, as happened here. Many of the buildings are about 300 years old, designed in a European style popular in France. See www.quartier-petit-champlain.qc.ca for more information.
Back in the old days this was the river's edge, but landfill has pushed the waters back a few blocks so the streets no longer flood. The rising tide once functioned as a handy refuse disposal: Early residents just put the trash out at low tide, and the river would then wash it away. The St. Lawrence River is navigable from the Atlantic Ocean to Quebec but no further, which is the reason the settlement was established here in the first place -- as a port city for trading furs.
A few hundred years ago this was a boisterous waterfront that developed a reputation as a haven for randy sailors before falling into decline. By the 1950s it was a slum that some wanted to demolish. Of course, it has turned around, fitting the pattern of historic districts reborn as commercial districts. As recently as the 1970s, a group of developers invested millions of dollars in structural improvements and encouraged quality shop owners to re-enter.
Today the area possesses a neighborly, small-town feel. Shopkeepers all know each other and work together, establishing a financial cooperative that maintains the flowers and beauty of the street. Don't hesitate to ask a merchant advice about finding items they don't carry, which might be available in one of the 30 other shops along the lane. The merchants emphasize crafts, handmade goods, personal service and unique specialty items.
Rue du Petit-Champlain is just a few blocks long, so linger awhile, perhaps at one of the pubs, wine bars, cafes or quality restaurants. This area draws crowds of tourists, making it a very busy place. To avoid crowds, arrive early or late in the day, or visit during the off-season, outside the popular summer holiday period. Later in our walk, beyond Place Royal, the crowds begin to thin.
Several other streets in this picturesque neighborhood have a few more shops and restaurants to consider: ruelle du Magasin- du-Roi, an alley at the far end of Petit-Champlain; and curving around to the riverside, Boulevard Champlain, lined with terraces and colorful awnings.
Walk along the tiny street called du Cul-de-Sac, with its little shops, including an excellent gallery of native American art, Galerie d'art Indien 5 Nations. Look for the Maison Chevalier, an old house with 18th-century interiors, open free of charge on rue du Marche-Champlain as part of the Museum of Civilization. The building at the entrance of the funicular to Upper Town is Maison Jolliet, built in 1683 as the home of Louis Jolliet, who discovered the Mississippi River with Father Jacques Marquette.
Along rue Sous-le-Fort, admire the facades of Maisons Maheu (1683), Gosselin (1683) and Couillard (1688). A block further is the Batterie Royale, an outdoor lineup of old cannons pointed across the river, ready for the next attack up on their elevated earthen ramparts. There are other cannon clusters scattered around town, reminders of the battles that raged in those turbulent days.
Renovations have retained the early building facades but completely refurbished the interiors to offer the convenience of modern shops or residences within 300-year-old exteriors.
Notre-Dames des Victoires, the continent's oldest stone church, has a prime spot on the square. It was built in 1668, then rebuilt after war damage a century later of stone we see today, with enhancements in the Paladian style. A comprehensive small museum, the Centre d'interpretation de Place-Royal, was also built in the square, housed in an old stone house dating to 1637.
Another reminder of this neighborhood's long history is the centrally placed statue of Louis XIV, king of France at the time this square was established. The bronze bust is a copy of Gian Lorenzo Bernini's masterpiece in Versailles Palace. One block toward the water is another pleasant market square, called Place de Paris, with a large contemporary statue in the center.
Look for the impressive "Fres-que des Quebecois" outdoor mural around the corner which covers a large, flat wall with an astonishing three-dimensional scene. This amusing optical illusion offers a deep glimpse into another historic neighborhood, complete with old buildings populated by important characters from the city's past and with all four seasons magically represented.
Open since 1988, the museum vividly tells the story of Quebec's past with 50,000 objects in innovative displays. One segment of the building is devoted to "Memories," showcasing furniture, clothing, tools and hardware of Old Quebec. Another section covers the French period when Quebec was capital of New France.
Life in 20th-century Quebec is also showcased, with a major display about ice hockey, along with clothing, home appliances and hundreds of intriguing items. Prehistoric American cultures are also represented with beautiful stone carvings and artifacts. You could easily spend hours exploring the four permanent galleries and six special exhibits.
St. Paul Street: At the end of St. Pierre, you will come to rue St. Paul, with a small urban park at their intersection enlivened with a modern sculpture and burbling fountain. St. Paul is a pleasant tree-lined street, running three blocks, famous for its antique shops. Because this out-of-the-way street is about a half-mile beyond the tourist center, you will find it is much quieter and more peaceful. Shops pay less rent here, so you might find some better deals. Behind is a narrow alley, rue Sous-le-Cap, lined with ancient homes.
Next, walk one block to the Old Port of Quebec Interpretation Centre, a museum showcasing two industries once vital here: shipbuilding and timber. Dioramas re-create the old waterfront activities. Also offered are a movie about the port, logging demonstrations that show a tree transformed into lumber, hundreds of tools and artifacts. A rooftop terrace offers panoramic harbor and Lower Town views.
After your visit, the most direct route back to Upper Town is to walk from rue St. Paul up Cote Dambourges, following the left hairpin turn that leads into the center of the Upper Town, to be covered in a future article.
Dennis Callan is president of the Hawaii Geographic Society and frequently leads tours through Europe, Canada and the United States. He produces the "World Traveler" TV series, shown at 7 p.m. Tuesdays on 'Olelo, channel 53. His monthly stories for the Star-Bulletin explain how to get the most out of visits to the world's great places. His previous articles can be found on his Web site, www.tourvideos.com.
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