Stage-struck in Quebec

With joie de vivre, Daniel Scott explores the all-singing, all-dancing city of festivals.

Charles Dickens was among the first travel journalists to discover Quebec in 1842, describing it with typical expansiveness: "The impression made upon the visitor by this Gibraltar of America: its giddy heights; its citadel suspended, as it were, in the air; its picturesque steep streets and frowning gateways; and the splendid views which burst upon the eye at every turn, is at once unique and lasting."

Visiting North America's only walled city nearly 170 years after Dickens, I am equally beguiled. Sure, the weather's been iffy and this morning's bicycle ride beside the St Lawrence River was lashed by a downpour of monsoonal proportions. But, right now, midway through my afternoon walk along the 4.6-kilometre city wall, the sun is out, the sky is blue and Quebec is indeed looking "splendid".

I'm in Quebec for the last days of its annual summer festival, during which every corner of this compact city seems to host events, art installations or exhibitions. During the past two nights, Placido Domingo and Sting sang in the principal venue on the meadow-like Plains of Abraham, just outside the city walls. In the Old Port, every night the curtain rises on native Quebecois Robert Lepage's Image Mill, the world's biggest video projection. Elsewhere, at four rendezvous points in the heart of the city, another Quebecois cultural icon, Cirque du Soleil, invites the public to follow its street performances exploring culture and identity.

As I amble atop the chunky city walls, it comes as no surprise to hear the strains of a gospel choir rising from somewhere within Old Quebec. It is some time before I can ascertain exactly where the exalted voices are coming from.

Finally, as I near one of the wall's main entrances - Porte Saint Jean - I see a large gathering beside an outdoor stage in Place d'Youville. I adjourn my walk and stand at the back, taken by the festive spirit, the range of ages in the crowd and the infectious jigging and clapping of the all-white Quebec Celebration gospel choir.

Then, to an ecstatic reception, the choir launches into Hallelujah by one of Canada's favourite sons, Leonard Cohen. The singers on stage belt out his magnificent anthem with all the soul of an Alabama church choir.

From this moment on the sun shines literally and metaphorically on my time in Quebec as its summer festival serves up a rich and varied cultural feast. Leaving behind the choir, I stroll down the pedestrianised Rue Saint-Jean and almost immediately run into an ebullient group of wandering minstrels playing wind instruments with the gusto of an oompah band.

After completing my tour of the city walls and descending to the riverside, I find four clown-like performers on outlandish mobile music machines entertaining another horde. Then, for the last two hours of a packed afternoon, I follow my horrible fascination inside the Pavillion d'Espace to see the visiting Bodies exhibition, where human corpses are displayed in dizzying scientific detail.

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Now a designated UNESCO World Heritage treasure, Quebec city was founded by French explorer Samuel de Champlain in 1608, making it one of the oldest in North America. Champlain was, like James Cook, a gifted explorer who wrote compelling accounts of his travels. He envisaged the site of the new settlement, high on the cliffs at a point where the vast St Lawrence River narrows, as an ideal administrative centre for "New France". Yet while the French ruled this part of Canada for more than 150 years, Champlain's countrymen didn't warm to it. Only a third of the 30,000 who crossed the Atlantic during that period stayed and Quebec, at the centre of a lucrative fur trade, eventually fell to the British during the Seven Years War (1756-1763) between the two countries.

The capitulation, ending a three-month siege of Quebec by the British, occurred at a plateau outside the city walls on September 13, 1759. The Battle of Abraham Plains lasted less than an hour.

Nevertheless, the battle cost the lives of the French and British generals, Montcalm and Wolfe. "I will die in peace," Wolfe reportedly said, after being mortally wounded but learning that the French soldiers were fleeing.

While the British held on to power here until 1867, when the first British North America Act began the process of Canadian independence, they were relatively kind to the remaining French population and there is no question which culture has the strongest influence in modern-day Quebec city - 96 per cent of the population are native French speakers and the accent is strong, nasal and occasionally hard to follow, even for those who understand the language.

There is a Gallic confidence and swagger about Quebec. "All Quebecois are fiercely proud of their city," guide Sharon Frenette tells me during a whistlestop tour of its highlights. "We are certain of its charms," she adds as we look up at the Scottish brick facade and green copper roofs, turrets and cupolas of Hotel Chateau Frontenac. This is Quebec's most prominent building, a vision of Napoleonic grandiloquence that rises from the old city. It is also, according to Frenette, "the most photographed hotel in the world".

Next, Frenette takes me to the Quebec citadel, the large fortification constructed in Canada during British rule, and later to the Museum of Civilisation, which has excellent interactive displays on the region's indigenous people - the name Quebec is derived from the Algonquin Indian word for "where the river narrows" - and history since Europeans arrived.

We briefly leave the city to drive to Montmorency Falls, where 35,000 litres of water a second plunge down an 83-metre drop, and to visit the beautiful Ile d'Orleans. This green island in the St Lawrence River is renowned for its fine produce, particularly fruit, cheese and wine. It also has some 600 historic buildings, including the oldest church in New France and many summer homes belonging to wealthy Quebecois.

On evening strolls I wander out of my hotel adjacent to the Old Port and straight into scenes reminiscent of Paris: cobbled streets, pavement artists, brasseries busy with diners and windowboxes billowing with flowers.

One balmy night I pause to listen to a grey-bearded harpist beneath a fresco, in trompe l'oeil style, depicting the city's 400-year history. A little further along is a street lined by old merchant buildings leading to Place Royale, once the cradle of French civilisation in North America. Nearby, a funicular carries passengers to the Old Town but I follow a series of stairways up, passing cafes and shops outside which hang the entire furs (including heads) of once-magnificent bears and wolves. The gruesome sight doesn't dent the appetite for entrecote steak and frites of those dining outdoors at Chez Rabelais at the top of the stairs.

Reaching the Old Town, I arrive at the Promenade des Gouverneurs, a broad, elevated wooden walkway that wraps itself around the base of the citadel and provides lofty views over the St Lawrence River. There is yet more street theatre attracting crowds.

I can think of no other city, not even Edinburgh, that embraces its summer festival as lustily as Quebec. Perhaps it's because of its long, cold, lonely winters. Quebec is one of Canada's snowiest cities, with average annual falls of 316 centimetres.

Yet as I picture it cloaked in snow, I imagine it only adds to the allure. Predictably, the Quebecois also celebrate the big freeze, with a 17-day winter carnival from late January with ice castles and snowmen.

As darkness falls on my final night, I join 5000 spectators on Quebec's waterfront for Lepage's vast projection. Beamed by 27 projectors across a 600-metre long, 30-metre high expanse of 81 grain silos above the port's Louise Basin, the daring ambition behind the project is what strikes me first.

The background's surface area is larger than 25 Imax screens and the picture created thrice as big as the previous record, at the pyramids.

Then, as the 40-minute history of Quebec gets under way and an evocative soundtrack kicks in from 329 carefully positioned speakers banked up the slopes of the Old Town, I get the sense of being part of a giant ritual.

The audience, perched on fold-up chairs, on benches, or dangling legs over the edge of the wharf, is hushed and reverent as if attending an immense outdoor church.

The film moves from the city's earliest days, using illustrations of founder Champlain setting up the trading post, to the technological present. Most impressively it melds archive footage with images that turn the silos variously into a moving train, a huge keyboard and ships steaming up the river.

Image Mill is a work of genius from Quebec city's theatrical superstar and his army of producers and technicians. It will show here for the next four summers.

For me, it provides a final and lasting endorsement of the city's cultural vibrancy, its history, its modernity and its spectacular beauty.

Daniel Scott travelled courtesy of the Canadian Tourism Commission and Tourisme Quebec.

FAST FACTS

Getting there

Air Canada flies non-stop from Sydney to Vancouver (about 14 hours there and 15 back) and then to Quebec via Toronto for about $2605 return including taxes; Melbourne passengers pay about $100 more and fly Qantas to Sydney.

Staying there

Hotel 71 is a boutique hotel in a 19th-century bank building in the old port. Rooms from $C166 ($174) a night in winter and $C199 in summer. See hotel71.ca.

Hotel Chateau Frontenac is Quebec's landmark hotel with 600 rooms in the heart of the old city. Rooms from $C179 a night in winter, $C229 in summer. See fairmont.com/frontenac.

Things to do

Quebec's winter festival, Carnaval de Quebec, is on now until February 14; see carnaval.qc.ca. The summer festival, Festival d'été de Quebec, is on July 8-18; see infofestival.com.

Robert Lepage's Image Mill is free and will play during the summers until 2013.

Cirque du Soleil's Quebec city street event runs five nights a week from June 24 to September 5.

The Museum of Civilization, 85 Rue Dalhousie, open Tuesday-Sunday 10am-5pm. Entry $C11 adults.

ENF Canada runs cycling and walking tours of Quebec. See enfcanada.com.

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