It seemed that everywhere I turned in Québec City, the capital of the Canadian province of Québec, there was another National Historic Site. I couldn’t decide which to focus on first – so instead chose the whole area of Old Québec (Vieux-Québec), declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1985. The historic district of Vieux-Québec is located on Cape Diamond (Cap Diamant), a promontory that overlooks the St. Lawrence River, a major thoroughfare from the Atlantic Ocean to the interior of Canada. This distinct quarter of the city includes the Upper Town (Haute-Ville) on the Cap Diamant promontory and the Lower Town (Basse-Ville) at the base of the cliff next to the St. Lawrence River. What began as a military fort above and fortified trading post and settlement below is today a Mecca for history buffs.
The Upper Town (Haute-Ville) is the former site of Fort Saint Louis, established by the French explorer Samuel de Champlain in 1608. The Upper Town is enclosed by the Ramparts of Québec, the only enduring fortifications walls in northern North America (north of Mexico). These walls were declared a National Historic Site of Canada in 1957. The four remaining gates into the fortified Upper Town include the Portes St. Jean, St. Louis, Prescott and Kent. The currently standing gates in the wall are all later rebuilds of those that originally allowed entrance into the city. Port St. Jean is technically the oldest, having been originally built in 1694, but its current manifestation is a 1939 rebuild of the 1791 and 1865 rebuilds. Today most of the buildings we see while walking through the streets of the Upper Town date to the 19th century, with a few from the 17th and 18th century dotted throughout.
One of the most recognisable structures within the Upper Town is the Château Frontenac. Designated a National Historic Site in 1980, this iconic railway hotel was constructed in 1892 and sits on the location of the Château Haldimand, the seat of the British colonial governors of Lower Canada and Québec from 1786-1866. The Château Frontenac was designed for the Canadian Pacific Railway company by the architect Bruce Price as one of a series of hotels. Newer portions of the hotel were designed by the architect William Sutherland Maxwell. On the river side of the Château is the wide wooden Dufferin Terrace and beneath its boards are the remains of the Saint-Louis Forts and Châteaux archaeological site (designated a National Historic Site of Canada in 2001). When the Dufferin Terrace needed maintenance work in 2005 there was an opportunity to conduct archaeological excavations of the remains of Fort Saint Louis and its’ châteaux. This was an extremely rewarding excavation – revealing extensive architectural remains spanning from the 1620’s to the 1800’s and about 500 000 artifacts. Today Parks Canada facilitates visitor access to the exposed archaeological remains.
After the British conquest in 1759 the Upper Town was occupied mainly by British government officials and Catholic clergy. This change in the governance of Québec was the result of one of the most pivotal battles in Canadian history: the Battle of the Plains of Abraham. In September 1759, General James Wolfe led British troops up the steep cliff of Cap Diamant to the plateau immediately west of the Citadelle of Québec (stay tuned for the next blog post to learn more about this fascinating National Historic Site of Canada). The British, armed with muskets, arrived under the cover of darkness and ambushed the French who were under the command of the Marquis de Montcalm – the battle likely lasted under half an hour. The French settlement of Québec thus came under British control, a significant point in the evolution of what is now Canada. In fact, The Plains of Abraham are so important to the Canadian story it became Canada’s first National Historic Site in 1908.
The Lower Town (Basse-Ville) was the site of a settlement of interconnected buildings known as the Habitation de Québec, also founded in 1608 by Samuel de Champlain. This fortified trading post was the first permanent French settlement in North America – marking the founding of the City of Québec and one of the first major European footholds in Canada. The location of this early settlement is now centred round the Place-Royale and the Catholic Notre-Dame-des-Victoires Church, built between 1687 and 1723, and selected as a National Historic Site of Canada in 1988. During the Battle of the Plains of Abraham the church was heavily damaged and it took until 1816 for the restoration to be complete.
Sitting at a patio table in one of the many restaurants in the Basse-Ville you can examine the surrounding buildings at your leisure. The two and three story plastered stone homes are typical of the French architectural style of the 17th century with their dormer windows, large chimneys and party walls that rise above the gabled roofs to act as firewalls. Once the British began governing Québec City in the mid 1700’s the Basse-Ville was occupied mainly by French and English merchants and artisans. Today you can reach the Lower Town from the Upper Town by the series of steps culminating the Escalier Casse-Cou (Breakneck Stairs), or take the funicular car from the Rue Petit-Champlain up to the Terrace Dufferin and the Château Frontenac.
I entered Québec City via the historic railway station the Gare du Palais (Palace Station) and made the steep trek up the Cote du Palais to my accommodation. Built in 1915 by the Canadian Pacific Railway the château-esque station is located where the Charles River meets the mighty St. Lawrence River to the west of the Old Port (Vieux Port). Ships navigated the St. Lawrence River throughout the 1600’s and the export of Québec’s natural resources stimulated the construction of naval dockyards here in 1738. The Vieux Port is considered the oldest port in Canada and was also one of the world’s five most important ports in the 19th century – supplying (among other goods) huge Canadian timbers to Great Britain. In this period the port was also the gateway to Canada for Irish and British immigrants who were processed at the immigration shed at the Louise docks.
The few days I spent in Vieux-Québec were not nearly enough to fully experience and appreciate all this location has to offer. The number of significant historic locations within such a small urban area is unparalleled in Canada and so you really do feel like you are catching a glimpse of a bygone age as you walk down the narrow streets.