Quebéc: Oasis of calm

THERE IS SUPPOSEDLY a café somewhere in Paris that offers a ten per cent discount to English tourists who don’t try to order in French.

If only the French had the charm of their Canadian cousins in Québec, who are delighted by any attempt to speak the language, and whose nasal North American twang removes any inhibitions about a poor accent.

Even better, the Québecois will tell you that their language is purer than that spoken in France.

Whereas the French have adopted words such as le weekend, le parking and le e-mail, in Québec no such laxity is allowed, as befits their belief that they have preserved the language in its purest form since their isolation from the old country. (Of course, the French believe the Québecois have been contaminated by their ‘English-speaking’ ‘neighbors’.)

Whatever the truth, the reality is that the province of Québec seems an oasis of culture amid the shopping-mall sterility of much of North America.

The fresh croissants for breakfast, the lingering lunches and the artery-clogging dinners tell you you’re among people who believe life is for living.

Montréal is the second-largest French-speaking city in the world, a bustling young metropolis whose famed underground city allows it to shrug off the harsh winters.

The more sedate Québec City traces its roots back to 1608. As the first French settlement in North America, it was founded on the mighty St Lawrence River.

In 1759, the city fell into British hands with the battle on the Heights of Abraham that famously finished with the death of both opposing commanders, generals Wolfe and Montcalm.

That 400-year history is something that proudly sets the Québecois apart from many of their US neighbours, a difference they celebrate at every turn with festivals of music, theatre, dance and comedy.

Now a Unesco World Heritage site, its population of about 160,000 gives it a friendly small-town feel.

So friendly, in fact, that on a walk back from an out-of-town mall, a passing teen said ‘bonjour’ to me. Taken aback, I wondered if she had mistaken me for someone she knew.

Minutes later, another pedestrian greeted me. Coming from London, I was rather taken aback but, you know what, I found it wasn’t anything to be frightened of.

Québec City’s narrow streets teem with life, from teenagers practising circus skills (Cirque de Soleil hails from here) to couples checking out café menus; cars are banned from entering the well-preserved city walls.

I visited in spring and, with the sun out, everyone was embracing it with enthusiasm. No wonder: in winter, temperatures can drop to -50ºC.

But don’t worry, I believe the welcome is just as warm all year round.

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