Quebec: a poor man's Europe

(Originally published in The Forum, October 1992)

By Ross Collins

The province of Quebec might be called a poor man's Europe. Or Europe for beginners. It has an exchange rate, but the currency is in dollars and cents. It has a foreign language, but nearly everyone also speaks English. It has road signs in French, but people drive U.S.-made cars.

Yet to cast Quebec and its two main cities, Montreal and Quebec City, into the role of "Europe 101" is only a beginning.

Montreal and provincial capital Quebec City are about 150 miles apart and some 1,700 miles from Fargo-Moorhead. They claim a distinct North American culture of their own, a sometimes startling melange of French and English on an American plate.

Quebec City, elder of the two, is one of North America's oldest settlements, established 12 years before the Pilgrims sailed. It is thoroughly French. For a century and a half it was North America's premier commercial and military capital. It built fortifications to fend off British opportunism until capitulating in 1759. The British conquerors, fearing further attacks, added to the fortifications. Travellers may visit the citadel and stone walls.

Montreal was settled a little later, in 1642. At that time, big ships could not go past Quebec City up the shallow St. Lawrence. But Montreal did play a major role in the French fur trade. It was home to many of the voyageurs who paddled Minnesota's Boundary Waters for the majority of the 17th and 18th centuries.

Montreal attracted the British, who gained it along with Quebec just before the American Revolution. Less known is that revolutionary rebels from the American colonies also conquered Montreal--for six months colonial America ruled this Canadian city in hopes the French too would revolt against King George III. They didn't.

The two hundred years of British-French tension explains the almist schizophrenic bilingualism today. No shop or street sign can be in English, according to provincial law, yet a strong minority of residents call English their mother tongue.

"I went to an English-speaking school," said an artist in Quebec City's outdoor art market, in a city that looks as French as Lyons. "I had to learn French for self-defense." An English-speaking Quebec City boutique clerk confided, "Sure, they'll answer in English now, but after the tourist season, you'd better not speak to anyone in English here."

Quebec City offers the squiggly narrow streets of Europe's old towns, and the only city wall in North America, good dining, art, shopping and sightseeing. Montreal offers all the amenities of a major city, plus the charm of the Old Quarter and its ethnic restaurants.

The more urban Montreal has the top stores and a stunning botanical garden which includes Japanese and Chinese sections and an extensive bonsai collection. Quebec City is a stroller's delight. Dozens of boutiques offer unusual gifts and specialize in fine art.

Walking in the Quebec's old city is best, but keep in mind that Quebec City is on a bluff and is divided into a lower city and an upper city. A network of stairways (one is named "break-neck stairs" connect the two. When you're tired of step-aerobics you can take public transport or a funicular railway.

Both cities are not cheap but non-Canadians may apply for a tax rebate of up to 15 percent on merchandise and lodging. Quebec City has tarted up its old town to the point where it brushes the definition of tourist trap. Yet if you're going to Montreal, you owe it to your appreciation of the area to make a visit to Quebec City.

Don't worry about the language barrier--they'll greet you in French, but nearly always switch to English with a smile. This is not Paris.

For more information write to the Tourist Bureau, Gouvernement du Québec, 800 Place Victoria, Bureau 316, Montréal H4Z 1B7 Canada; or telephone (800) 363-7777.

Copyright 2004 by Ross F. Collins <>