After a pleasant Thursday night at the Hotel Acadia, Susanne and I woke up and had breakfast down the street at L’Omelette, a diner-esque cafe with bottomless coffee and excellent muffins. The weather was supposed to improve: hopefully we’d have the chance to abandon our jackets some time in the afternoon. For now, though, a chill lingered in the damp air; I just wondered how long it would last.
Grabbing our cameras back at the hotel, we started to make our way to Basilique Notre Dame, Quebec’s grand cathedral. About halfway to the basilica we stopped at a nunnery chapel with a small museum, but the posted operating hours were wrong, and we weren’t able to go inside. Soon, we reached the cathedral, which fortunately was open for visitors. The interior was quite ornate, with some of the artwork dating from the 1700s. The cathedral itself, however, had burnt down on more than one occasion, so the structure itself dated from the early 20th century. The most impressive sight within the cathedral was the stone baldachin soaring like a gold-leafed canopy over the altar. The baldachin was unusual because it wasn’t supported by columns; instead, golden caryatids arched from the church walls, supporting the baldachin like so many Atlases suspending the earth in mid-air. There was also a pretty replica Rome’s St. Peters Basilica behind the altar.
Exiting the cathedral, we stopped in a museum shop across the street to see if we could find a public restroom. A woman there directed us to a shopping arcade across the square. After making our necessary pit stop, we explored the arcade briefly before entering an enormous Christmas shop next door. A veritable smorgasbord of Christmas ornaments and artificial Christmas trees, the store catered to every taste imaginable. Along with ornate ornaments and statuaries from Russia and Poland, they sold a wide array of Christmas kitsch, including Elvis ornaments (Young Elvis and Comeback Tour Elvis), Simpsons ornaments, I Love Lucy ornaments and troll ornaments. And let’s not forget their Santa Claus collection: Santa golfing, Santa on his Harley, Santa playing piano for tips, karaoke Santa, Santa riding his lawn mower.
Heading to the Lower Town, we walked down the Break-Neck Staircase and found ourselves in yet another horde of tourists. The giant cruise ship that had been docked in the port yesterday was long gone, but that didn’t mean the crowds had thinned out. Two groups of tourists, one Japanese and one German, filled Place Royale until the place looked like an impromptu block party. It was too crowded for our sensibilities, so Susanne and I went looking for Cafe du Monde, one of the better known cafes in the neighborhood. After several minutes of confusion, walking in circles while glancing down at my map, I soon realized that my Quebec for Dummies book had neglected to place the cafe in the right location. The book mentioned that the cafe had moved into new digs recently, but they didn’t update their map. Rather than hunt around for it, we decided to walk northeast to Rue St. Paul to explore some of the local antique shops.
Rue St. Paul was quite charming and decidedly less crowded than the area around Place Royal. Locals walked their dogs while a handful of tourists ambled from shop to shop. We split our time indoors and outdoors, now that the sun was beginning to shine brightly outside. Several of the antique shops were quite impressive, with fine collections of early 20th century furniture, model ships, kitchen knick knacks and other curios.
We strolled along Rue St. Paul until lunchtime, at which point we decided to try out one of the creperies recommended in the Dummies book. We followed the book’s map , walking counterclockwise along the city walls, until we reached the upper left corner of the map. According to the book, several creperies were just off the map — a little arrow on the map told us we should keep going. We walked for another 15 minutes, towards the train station, until we became rather suspicious that we were being led on a wild goose chase. Susanne wasn’t feeling particularly well at this point, so we decided to give up the chase, walking uphill through the city walls. Then, we noticed a sign pointing in the direction we were going for Rue St. Jean, which turned out to be the name of the street on which the creperies could be found. Puzzled, I doublechecked the book — yep, the map was insisting that we were headed the wrong way. No longer trusting the book, we walked another two minutes until we indeed found Rue St. Paul — in the heart of the Old City, just five minutes’ walk north of our hotel.
Profoundly irritated by the book’s error, we took solace in the fact that Casse Crepe Breton — one of the best creperies in the city — was just a few doorsteps to the right. We joined the small queue outside the restaurant and waited for around 10 minutes before being seated. The menu at the creperie was rather straightforward: pick the number of toppings you’d like inside your crepe, and list them out when the waitress arrives. Susanne and I both went for the max: five toppings. Our crepes were more salad than pancake, filled to the point of eruption with asparagus, spinach, peppers and onions, with a bit of cheese to bind it all together. The crepe itself was crisp and flaky on the outside, soft and steaming on the inside. Gallic comfort food at its best.
After lunch, we walked for a while along Rue St. Jean until Susanne decided she wanted to take a brief nap. I walked her back to the hotel — a short, but steep uphill walk from St. Jean — then returned downhill with my laptop in tow. Back on Rue St. Jean, I found a hip little coffee shop that roasted its own beans — you could practically smell the place from two blocks away. With a rich cup of Yemeni moka java by my side, I pounded away the previous day’s events for about 90 minutes so I could post them on my blog.
The coffee shop didn’t have free wireless Internet access, so I decided to go for a walk to see if I could find public Wi-Fi access somewhere or another. The day had turned gorgeous — sunny and in the mid 60s — so I soaked up some rays while walking through the upper town, checking my laptop every block or so to see if it could pick up a signal. Past cafes and pubs, parks and public buildings, there wasn’t a Wi-Fi signal to be found. Eventually, not far from the hotel, I stumbled upon a school. I opened my laptop and quickly found a strong signal. Leaning against a tree, supporting my laptop with on hand while Web browsing with the other, I logged onto my blog and posted my journal. The connection was painfully slow — it took about five minutes to post it — but eventually I managed to get it online.
Back at the hotel, Susanne was up and around, ready to hit the streets again. I told her to leave her jacket behind — totally pointless on this Indian summer day — and we followed our usual path along Rue St. Louis to Chateau Frontenac. I’d recalled that there was a patisserie on one corner of the building, and it seemed like a fine afternoon to sit outside and contemplate a rich, overflowing eclair. We walked through the inner courtyard of the chateau and exited the back side, at which point we found ourselves within a swarm of lady bugs — hundreds of them, fluttering around like cute little blobs of paint that don’t make a stain when they land on you. I still had one or two of them left on my shoulder when we reached the patisserie, only to find the shop closed, with no operating hours posted.
Since we were already there, we decided to sit awhile on one of the many benches scattered along to boardwalk just east of the chateau. Hundreds of tourists strolled the boardwalk, many of them lapping at ice cream cones. Along with the buzz of many languages being spoken, we were treated to three concerts at once: a Quebecois woman playing folk tunes on a harp; a man playing Chinese songs on a violin; and an elderly couple seeing mellow jazz standards, the wife taking the lead while the husband sang harmony and played saxophone. As far as cacophony goes, this was as relaxing as it could be.
Still feeling the need for a snack, we left the chateau and walked downhill to the north, just past the cathedral towards the far eastern end of Rue St. Jean. About three-quarters of the way there we found Le Cafe Depot, a small coffee joint with a nice selection of starchy offerings. We got a couple of drinks, an oatmeal cookie and a small piece of carrot cake — not the eclair I was lusting after, but beggars can’t be choosers. As luck would have it, though, we soon discovered a patisserie about 50 feet downhill from the coffee shop. A delectable caricature of an eclair stared at me from a large sign. Maybe next time, I guess.
Susanne and I spent the next hour or so strolling along Rue St. Jean, visiting one little shop after another. An adorable little candy store was overflowing with Thanksgiving and Halloween treats, while a music store proudly displayed the new Tom Waits album. The sun was now low in the western sky, and we had to cross the street to avoid being blinded by it as we followed the street uphill. Eventually we left the shopping district and found ourselves adjacent to Artillery Park, a lovely green space marking the northeastern corner of the walled city. We found a stairway leading over the giant stone gate, which offered us a beautiful view of the shops along Rue St. Jean. Following the wall further south, we reached a hilly section of the park in which several groups of black-clad Goths picnicked with their dogs. It was a fine spot to watch the sun set over the Old City, as one of the dogs darted up and down the hill in pursuit of its favorite tennis ball.
We slowly made our way back to the hotel, where Susanne checked email why I took a quick shower. We caught the 6pm news on CNN, during which Lou Dobbs displayed a grimacing picture of Tom DeLay with the words ãEthically Challengedä slapped below his mug. The image appeared no less than three times during the show — looks like Lou wasn’t happy about DeLay not returning the show’s phone calls.
For dinner, we walked not far from the hotel to Primavera Pizzeria, a charming little eatery with a beautiful brick stove set into the corner. We split a vegetarian pizza surrounded by a small, but international group of diners — a Hungarian couple, a party of Italians and a large family of Indians, all united by good brick-oven pizza. Rather than linger for dessert, we went in search of another cafe for our final round of food. We walked Rue St. Louis to Chateau Frontenac, enjoying the warm breeze and the trotting of horse carriages up and down the street. One of the churches near Place D’Armes was ringing its bells as we found ourselves walking behind a trio of nuns. Such a wonderfully European moment.
After a while, we ended up at L’Omelette, where we’d had breakfast 12 hours earlier. Not much ambiance compared to many of the other local cafes, but for whatever reason this particular dinner had the biggest selection of deserts. We each enjoyed a slice of maple pie — kind of like pecan pie but without the pecans — and a cup of herbal tea, as a Quebecois family next to us was caught in a feedback loop of hysterical laughter. The teenage son was so overwhelmed with laughter he had a coughing fit, and eventually had to excuse himself to the restroom. He came back 10 minutes later, still laughing uncontrollably, tears running down his eyes. If we only knew what the punch line had been·.