Andy Carvin's Waste of Bandwidth

October 8, 2004

Sunshine on the Chateau Boardwalk

Filed under: Canada — Andy Carvin @ 7:51 pm

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·.

Your Quebec Weather Forecast

Filed under: Canada — Andy Carvin @ 9:52 am

We just finished breakfast and are heading out for a couple of hours to enjoy the nice weather that descended on Quebec yesterday. Today at 1pm we have a three-hour train that will take us to Montreal, which supposedly will reach the high 70s this afternoon. Definitely an evening for lounging at outdoor cafes. Unfortunately a cold front is coming through tomorrow afternoon, bringing rain then cooler temps for the rest of the holiday weekend. But with 27 kilometers of underground shopping, not to mention some killer art museums, Montreal will keep us busy no matter how the weather turns out for us…. -andy

October 7, 2004

Quebec Froid

Filed under: Canada — Andy Carvin @ 10:53 pm

The taxi stand was deserted. A raw drizzle blew across the parking lot to where we were standing along the curb, as we wondered why there wasn’t a single taxi at Quebec’s airport. We certainly weren’t alone in our puzzlement; several businessmen who accompanied us on our morning flight from Montreal waited impatiently with their briefcases, clearly irked by the lack of transportation.

It wasn’t the most auspicious start to our short Canadian vacation, but we didn’t want it to get us down. After 15 minutes or so, we managed to find our own taxi; a large, middle-aged gentleman who spoke English with a heavy French accent. He didn’t seem to know exactly where our hotel was, so he flipped through his street map as we waited at each stop light, until he gained the confidence to guide us safely to our accommodations.

By 10:30am, the taxi drove through St. Louis Gate, our entryway into the walled city of Quebec. In the distance we could just make out the roof of Chateau Frontenac, Quebec’s most famous landmark. Before the view of the grand hotel improved, though, we veered left on Rue St. Ursule, where we found Hotel Acadia, our home for the next two nights.

The rain had stopped by the time we exited the taxi, which was good news, since we wouldn’t have much of an opportunity to lounge at the hotel. Check-in wasn’t until 3pm, still more than four hours away, so after we stowed our bags in a luggage closet, we found ourselves back outside, wondering exactly what we should do next.

Susanne and I were both quite hungry; we’d left our apartment in Brookline just after 5am without a proper breakfast, and received only light snacks on our flights to Montreal and Quebec. I suggested we walk towards Place D’Armes, in the heart of Old Quebec’s Upper Town, to see if we could find a cozy breakfast cafeto warm our bones and fill our stomachs. We followed Rue St. Louis towards Chateau Frontenac, passing several French bistros and Italian restaurants, all of which might serve as candidates for dinner tonight.

In less than 10 minutes, we were standing along the southern edge of Place D’Armes, a tree-lined square with a large water fountain in its center. Just to our right, Chateau Frontenac loomed high above us, casting a giant shadow over the square. The square sloped at a sharp angle, leading downhill to a row of shops and cafes. We quickly found a cute restaurant with a rather diner-like interior, including green booths and middle-aged waitresses. It was the perfect place for an omelette and cafe au lait.

Having finished brunch, we walked west along Rue St. Anne for just a few yards until reaching a sloping alley packed with artist stalls. They were hawking watercolors and engravings of featuring Chateau Frontenac from all conceivable angles, weather conditions and seasons. The collections were also peppered with cute pictures of smiling cows, mischievous cats, and nautical scenes. One of the artists complimented Susanne on her long white knit cap, saying she should might try knitting one like it herself.

The artists’ alleyway exited on Rue Buade, which we followed east for a couple of blocks until we reached Parc Montmorency, a leafy space that also served as part of city walls. We walked through the park, admiring the canons and the view of the St. Lawrence River, not to mention Chateau Frontenac, which dominated the skyline behind us. After taking a few pictures of the chateau, we hiked down a steep, winding road until reaching the top of the Break-Neck Staircase, which has served to connect Old Quebec’s Upper Town and Lower Town for more than 300 years. The staircase was less steep than I would have imagined, given its melodramatic name, but the damp conditions made me grip its rail tightly nonetheless.

From the staircase, Susanne and I reached Rue du Petit Champlain, one of the most charming streets in all of Quebec. Lined with boutique shops and cafes, the cobblestone lane also happened to be the oldest street in the city. We strolled down the street, watching the sun break through the clouds for a few minutes at a time. From what I could tell, the weather was doing its best to improve for us, but the chances of this day becoming no-jacket weather seemed extraordinarily slim. If we were lucky, perhaps we’d be able to keep our umbrellas sheathed for the rest of the day.

The boutique shops provided a brief respite from the outside chill; the kitchenware shop was particularly charming, with a fine collection of French crockery in blue, white and yellow, with checkered tablecloths to match. Back outside, the street was getting crowded with tourists; despite the undesirable weather, visitors from the US and Japan managed to make the street feel downright claustrophobic after a while. Eventually, we backtracked a few blocks then veered to the right until we reached Place Royal, the cobblestone square that marks the spot where Champlain founded Quebec just shy of 400 years ago.

On the southern side of the square, we entered Notre Dame Des Victoires church, the oldest church in Quebec. Rather modest in its design, the church was a peaceful place to wander for a few minutes. Hanging high above the church pews was an 18th century model ship that had managed to survive at least one major fire. It was a remarkable model; I would have loved to have seen it from any angle besides the whale’s eye view that we had from the pews below.

Walking a few blocks northeast of the square, we soon reached Musee de la Civilisation. One of the most popular museums in Quebec, it featured a range of temporary exhibits, as well as a permanent collection on Quebec’s history and the First Peoples — or Native Americans — of the province. Since it appeared the day wouldn’t get any warmer than the current chill, Susanne and I bought a pair of tickets and went exploring. The first exhibit was about the history of the Roman Empire, told from the perspective of Gallic comic hero Asterix. The exhibit was really intended for kids, so the history we learned from the displays was rather limited. The most interesting part of the exhibit was a small theatre showing Asterix cartoons. We managed to catch a cartoon short in which Asterix and his buddies managed to find themselves in ancient North America — how or why I don’t quite understand — and encountered an evil, dastardly Native American medicine man who threatened to torture one of them unless they gave up their secret magic motion. Given the fact that part of the museum was dedicated to the cultural diversity of Quebec’s indigenous First Peoples, we were shocked by the racist nature of the cartoon. It reminded me of the anti-Japanese Bugs Bunny cartoons that you rarely see any more. But this was like showing those cartoons while an exhibit about Hiroshima and Nagasaki was in the gallery upstairs.

Thoroughly baffled by the exhibit, we moved on to a grand retrospective on the history of sand. Yep, sand. Actually, it was more interesting than it sounds: they had a laboratory set up with stereoscopic microscopes so you could examine samples of beautiful sand samples from all over the globe. There was also a strange performance art exhibit in which beach deck chairs were set up in front of a giant cloth screen, showing fuzzy, crudely animated videos of beaches from around the world while painfully minimalist jazz played over a PA system. Amazingly, we laid down on the deck chairs and watched this for at least 20 minutes, part hypnotized and part hysterical from the oddity of it.

We briefly skated through a couple other exhibits before leaving the museum for a cellar bar whose name was something like Mon Oncle Antoine. The interior was dark, dank, smoky and cozy — the perfect place for a pint and a bowl of vegetable soup. The only downside to the bar was that everyone there seemed to be from the USA. Come to think of it, practically everyone we’d encountered exploring Old Quebec appeared to be from south of the border. Hopefully we’d be able to stumble upon some hole-in-the-wall joint in which everyone else was speaking French and chainsmoking, for a complete 360 Quebecois experience.

Before we knew it, I realized it was almost 3pm, which meant we could finally check into our room. Susanne hadn’t slept well the previous night and was eager to nap for a while, so we decided to take the steep funicular elevator back to Upper Town rather than snaking our way up the steep staircases. The funicular was packed with American and Chinese tourists; one of the Chinese women mysteriously told me, ãDo not touch glass,ä despite the fact that I was standing there with my hands in my pockets. Susanne later commented that maybe she was just afraid of heights or elevators and was trying to make some nervous conversation.

Before heading back to the hotel, we made a quick stop at Chateau Frontenac. The interior was beautiful, with dark wood and marble in every direction. We asked about whether they had high tea during the afternoons, in case we wanted to come by tomorrow, but soon discovered that they only offered it during the summer.

Leaving the chateau, Susanne and I walked west on Rue St. Louis, checking out some of the restaurants for dinner later that night. One Italian restaurant, Conti Caffe, had a nice menu, but I offered to scout around while she napped back at the hotel. Returning to the Acadia, Susanne promptly went to sleep for 90 minutes, giving me time to check email and explore the neighborhood. I’d hoped to find a quite cafe to get a cup of coffee, perhaps doing some journal writing on my laptop. But as luck would have it, I managed to walk a 45-minute circuit around the one part of Quebec’s Upper Town that seemed to lack any cafes or bars — or at least ones that were open late in the afternoon. I did, however, stumble upon the Inuit Art Gallery, which my mom had recommended highly. I spent a while exploring its incredible collection of Inuit statues: polar bears, eagles, walruses and an assortment of other animals in poses both fanciful and mystical. In one corner of the gallery, I overheard a couple haggling over a trio of pint-sized statues; the gallery wanted $2000 for them while the couple pushed for $1800. I guess I wasn’t going to be making any purchases that day.

Eventually, I returned to the hotel and jumped in the shower to warm up as best as possible. Susanne, in the meantime, woke up and was wondering what I had in mind for dinner. It was still rather early by Gallic eating standards — well before 7pm — but the restaurants were filling up with Americans, and we didn’t have any reservations anywhere. Fortunately, we managed to get one of the last unreserved tables over at Conti Caffe. The food there was delicious — French onion soup followed by grilled halibut in a sweet salsa with purple mashed potatoes. The fish portions weren’t huge, but the soup had done a fine job priming us for the main course, so by the time dessert came around, we were barely capable of finishing a small cr_me caramel shared between us.

We left the cafe and strolled back to the hotel. It wasn’t particularly late but we were both exhausted from having to wake up at 4:30am this morning. So we settled in to watch the Simpsons in French and a few other US programs, falling asleep before Sam Waterston was able to convict the bad guy.

October 6, 2004

And About My Photoblog…

Filed under: Canada — Andy Carvin @ 9:58 pm

Almost forgot: I have my camera phone with me so I will upload some pics as we explore Quebec. Just visit my blog homepage and look at the column of photos on the left side of the page. Right now you can see a yummy cup of cafe au lait; more to come soon… -ac

Chilly, Charming Quebec

Filed under: Canada — Andy Carvin @ 7:59 pm

Susanne and I arrived in Quebec around 10am this morning, and have spent the day doing our best to stay warm and dry. Despite the winter-like weather, it seems like a beautiful city. Our hotel is in the upper part of the old city, serving as a perfect base for strolling and cafe-hopping.

I am using a hotel computer for the moment until I can find a place with wireless access. Then I can type up something more substantial about our first impressions of Quebec…. -ac

October 5, 2004

Oh Canada!

Filed under: Canada — Andy Carvin @ 10:01 am

This Wednesday, Susanne and I will be heading up to Canada for a long weekend in Quebec and Montreal. I don’t plan to be checking email too much, but in case I end up bringing my laptop or get really proficient on my phone’s thumb keyboard, I may try to post some travel updates here on my blog. So check back in periodically to get a feel for the copious amounts of maple syrup we’re consuming, not to mention those late-night curling matches….. -ac

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