Quebec City gears up for a long 400th birthday bash

Officials hope for boost in tourism during 10 months of celebrations.

quebec 224.88 (photo credit: Courtesy of Enviro Foto)
quebec 224.88
(photo credit: Courtesy of Enviro Foto)
Strolling through a winding maze of streets in the centuries-old walled city, where the main language is French and the view encompasses castle turrets, famous battlefields and one of the largest rivers in the world, it's easy to feel that you have traveled back in time to old Europe rather than Canada. Touted by its proud inhabitants as the cradle of French civilization in North America and a world heritage treasure, Québec City is undergoing a major urban facelift to revive and modernize its historical old stone buildings and narrow streets, in preparation for its 400th anniversary celebrations in 2008. The $96-million birthday party will kick off December 31, 2007 on the stroke of midnight with a spectacular display of fireworks and end with a special creation of the artisans of Cirque du Soleil on October 19, 2008. Officials in Québec City, the capital of the province of Québec, are hoping that the anniversary bash throughout 2008 will bring in a five percent increase in the five million visitors who pass through the city each year. In anticipation of the yearlong celebrations, the federal, provincial and city governments have invested $170 million in infrastructure projects, including improved access to the St. Lawrence River with a new 1.5-mile riverside park, and Espace 400 - a gathering place and performance site that will be at the heart of 120 days of commemorative activities, 2,000 street art shows and other events highlighting the city's history, culture, food, theater, music and art ( This is all to celebrate the founding of the city on July 3 in 1608 by the French explorer, Samuel de Champlain, who established the early settlement Kébec - an Algonquin word meaning "the place where the river narrows" - on the banks of the St. Lawrence River. Commemorating this day, the city is planning a four-day bonanza, starting on July 3 featuring an urban opera with at least 1,000 artists. Using the city's buildings as a backdrop, the celebration will then move from one area to another. The opera will incorporate music, dance, fireworks and art, telling the story of the city's 400-year history through the seasons. Québec City was fought over by the English and the French many times during wars in the 17th and 18th centuries. The English finally took the city over in 1759, resulting with New France becoming a British colony. In 1985, the Old Quarter was declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO, which noted that it represented the only fortified city in North America. Even without the 400th anniversary celebrations, there is plenty to occupy visitors when visiting Québec City throughout the summer and the winter. A sight not to be missed is the leaf-color change that take place in autumn, from yellow to deep red, over hundreds of thousands of acres. With the added old European charm, visiting Québec City has been described as the closest thing to being in Europe without actually leaving North America. It can be easily reached by a short flight from points in the northeastern United States and eastern Canada, and is just a three-hour drive from Montreal. From Israel, the air journey will take you around 11 hours, with Air Canada offering direct flights to Montreal and Toronto. Québec City, which is home to some 622,000 inhabitants, is divided into the Lower Town and the Upper Town, connected by steep streets, funiculars and staircases. The city still prides itself as the world's second-largest French-speaking city after Paris. French is the main language heard when walking through the winding cobblestone streets, fieldstone houses and narrow alleys of the Old Quarter, filled with elegant restaurants, bistros, cafes, museums, art galleries and retail shops. Artists sell their wares to the rising number of Japanese, American, European and Canadian tourists strolling along the narrow streets. Just outside the gates of the old town are the historical plains of Abraham, where in a 1759 battle, the French ceded Quebec to the British. Today it has transformed into a breathtaking public park, offering walking trails and river views in the summer and, in winter, cross-country skiing, snowboarding and sledding. Adjacent to the park and close to the entrance of the gates of the old town, the Loews four-diamond Le Concorde Hotel hosts a unique rooftop revolving restaurant located on the 29th floor with a spectacular view of the Laurentian mountains, wild tree-lined landscape, the river and the old town. Staying within the gates of the old town, the luxury-minded might not want to miss out on the Château Frontenac, which to Québecians is what the Eiffel Tower is to Paris. Turned into a hotel palace in 1893 with round towers and cone-shaped roofs, it has been host to many prestigious visitors, including Queen Elizabeth, Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan and Jacques Chirac. The more romantically minded with a smaller budget will find it more convenient to stay at the small boutique hotels in the old town. Just a 20-minute escape from the city takes the visitor to Québec's natural wonders and hidden treasures, the focal point of which is its spectacular waterfall, higher than Niagara Falls. After a brief cable car ride and a short hike, you get to the bridge, which spans across the waterfalls, from where you can admire the spectacular sight of the rushing waters against a backdrop of the colors of the season. Make sure you also get to visit the sugar shacks and experience a taste of tire d'érable, a maple taffy obtained by pouring hot syrup into wooden troughs packed with fresh, white snow. Sugar shacks are cabins in a maple grove where sap is slowly boiled in big vats until it turns into enticing liquid gold. Once it hardens, simply roll it around a wooden popsicle stick for a sweet and delicious treat. Then, to work it all off, join in the fun of a country jig or two! The writer was a guest of the Québec City Tourism Office.