Every year on Shirleyfest, about midway through the month, I take a short trip near my host city. I have figured out a pretty good formula for this excursion. I never plan it in advance. I let my new local friends suggest the place and where to stay and where to eat. I then find the intersection of the best weather and the availability of the suggested hotel and that is when I go. That’s how I ended up at the Islington Hotel and seeing MONA in Tasmania, Australia and the Barclay House in the Cotswolds. This year it is recommended by my friends Danielle and Paul that I go to Quebec City, stay at the Le Germain Hotel and eat at Chez Boulay. I follow that advice exactly and I am very glad I do. Quebec City is drop dead gorgeous. It is as if you doubled Carmel, California and put the second one on a huge bluff above the first and added big sky, puffy clouds and lots of river traffic. Oh and by the way, the amount of history crammed into such a small space is mind-blowing. From French explorer Champlain’s discovery of the place in 1608, through the English overthrow of the French at the Battle of the Plains of Abraham and then its role as the one time capital of Lower Canada, you cannot turn a corner without feeling the history.
As for the title of this post, I am not talking about the existential philosophy about journey versus destination–I am totally on board with loving life’s journey. No, I am talking about the mechanics of getting from point A to point B. I have long suspected that the phrase “getting there is half the fun” was propaganda put out by our parents’ generation, who in our case would put five kids in the back of a Chevrolet and drive and drive endlessly and call that a vacation. They loved it. Of course they did–the two of them in the first class front seat, chatting away with a clear view. But in the backseat economy section, five of us were wedged in, punching, teasing, fighting for the window and sitting on each other (no seat belts of course). I mean really–when I thought about it, was it half the fun to spend two days crossing the Drake Passage strapped in my bed to get to Antarctica–or wasn’t it much more fun when I got there to be marching with the penguins? Nearly 24 hours flying to Botswana was not fun, but it sure was fun going on safari at night when I got there. There are really only two ways to get to Quebec City from Montreal–rail or bus. Every spot I checked said to use the bus as they are both the same price and same time investment, but the bus has many more scheduled departures. So, I take the bus for 3 hours. No big deal you say…..yes it is a big deal…..bumpy, claustrophobic and hot and while the website promises cushy comfort seats, with wifi –you really can’t read or use wifi when all you are doing is drumming your fingers and wanting to jump out the window and ask the cars whizzing by if you could possible ride with them.
I arrive (happily on terra firma) at the Le Germain Hotel. It is an oasis of calm, where Antoine, the professional, thoughtful concierge, and Esther, who is both lovely and extremely capable at the front desk, manage to put me in a top floor city view room that makes it hard to want to go out and explore. But first I need some food. I head to Café Bistro du Cap and have a lovely brunch on the terrace outdoors and a much needed Aperol Spritz.It is a gorgeous day so I first walk to the Musée National Des Beaux-Arts Du Quebec. It is a three pavilion complex mostly of modern and contemporary art. I really want to see an immense plexiglass exhibit called The Flux and the Puddle by David Altmejd. It is like a museum within a museum with figures and gels and resins and lots of things I can’t begin to understand running through these cubes of plexiglass. The description says it reminds us that evolution never ceases. I like that. Here is me alone in the room with the work…..evolving.I am finally forced to leave the museum as they are closing and I wander about through the Upper Town, seeing the citadel, churches and shops until heading down the Escalier casse-cou (Breakneck Stairs) to get ready for my dinner. Before dinner I snap this picture from my room of the sun setting over the city.I wander through the crooked streets and up the hills trying to find my restaurant in the night. I hear a man call out from way above me, “Are you lost, my dear?” “Hopelessly”, I say.”Come up the hill and I will help you”, he calls. I scramble up the hill and meet Jerry who moved to Quebec City from New York several years ago. He couldn’t be happier living in Canada in this beautiful little town. After a fun chat, Jerry points me in the right direction and I make it to Chez Boulay.
Chez Boulay is owned by Jean Luc Boulay and Arnaud Marchand, two legendary restauranteurs and is acclaimed for its seasonal northern cuisine. I have what may be the best meal yet of this year’s Shirleyfest. The meal is greatly enhanced by the vivacious, knowledgeable and extremely fun bartenders, Catherine and Mary pictured here.
They take the time to describe the exotic ingredients in the various menu choices and what wines would pair well with what dishes. I decide to start with arctic char carpaccio which has cattail hearts, milkweed pods and an elderberry marinade. Literally incredible.My main course is the house speciality of bison cheeks, braised in red currant vinegar, with celery root puree, carrots and potatoes. The chef kindly eliminates the mushroom component for me due to the unfortunate fact that I am allergic to mushrooms. This is my dish. Doubly incredible. My resolve to walk away happy and dessertless was to no use, as Olivier, Chez Boulay’s director, sensing he had a food lunatic in his midst sends out pie made from sea buckthorns laced with a pine forest spikenard creme anglaise. Yup that’s right and this is what it looks like.Tomorrow is another day.
The next day the weather changes dramatically, but the town remains charming. I bundle up and go to the outdoor market along the river where all of the wonderful local apples are available.I see the impressive Basilique Cathedrale Notre-Dame de Quebec.The most photographed site in Quebec City is the Fairmont Le Chateau Frontenac, a huge castle with a copper roof built originally as a residence for the colonial governors and since has housed celebrities and dignitaries. It is impressive on the outside, but inside it is overrun by my fellow countrymen conversing loudly in large groups. I am very happy I am not staying there and return to my lovely hotel to pack up and return to Montreal. Via the train this time!