Counting Fleurs-de-Lis on the Wall: Old Quebec

July 14, 2013 — I was running, heck sprinting, a fever on the day we were supposed to visit Quebec City, but no way was I going to let that stop me from seeing the only walled city in North America.

In the past, cities like St. Augustine in Florida and Charleston in South Carolina had defensive walls, but at some point went all Ronald Reagan on them. Today, the only legitimate place to use a siege engine north of Mexico is the capital of the province of Quebec.

Most of Quebec City is like any other city. Glass and metal and sprawling and simultaneously boast-worthy and embarrassing for our species. But then you reach the stone ramparts of Old Quebec, which you can’t miss because it feels like you’re driving into an area where cars shouldn’t go. Like the gateways should have massive doors and be separated from us by a moat.

At the very least, the whole thing should be separated from us by time. Quebec City was established in 1608, mere months after Jamestown in Virginia, by French explorer Samuel de Champlain. He called the colony New France, and the walls started going up later that century. In another timeline very close to our own, a lot more people in the Western Hemisphere speak French.

Today, they extend some three miles around the Upper Town of Old Quebec. Over the centuries, they’ve been fortified, destroyed, rebuilt and, most importantly, preserved. Of course, the whole purpose of the walls have changed in modern times. Instead of repelling invaders, they now attract them.

Four gates permit access to the city: Porte St. Jean, Porte St. Louis, Porte Prescott, and Porte Kent. We invaded Old Quebec through Porte St. Louis, parked our Trojan Horse in a garage, and took off. Old Quebec is a walking city, except for when it’s not. Everything of interest is relatively close together, but tortuous hills and terrifying staircases can make points of interest not worth visiting in the moment. We ended up hanging out around Porte St. Jean, since it was blocked from automobile traffic by a festival that we accidentally timed our visit for.

Speaking of festivals, we probably didn’t visit Quebec City under the most ideal of circumstances. Aside from me being sick, it was hot. Like I-didn’t-know-Canada-got-that-hot hot. Like see-people-rocking-hear-people-chanting-feeling-hot-hot hot. And it was the height of tourist season on top of it being festival time. At one point a street-performing fire-eater surrounded by about 40 people asked who was from the U.S. Almost all of them raised their hands…and this was July 4 weekend.

Let’s just say the place was a party, and let’s just assume I made a great wallflower pun here.

On the east side of the city, Old Quebec drops down a cliff to Lower Town and the St. Lawrence River. Lower Town isn’t located within the walls, and you can get to that part by car, stairs, or vertiginous funicular…which unfortunately wasn’t running during the day that we were there. The upper entrance to the funicular is on a boardwalk where glass enclosures give views of 17th century cellars in the shade of the fortress-like Le Chateau Frontenac hotel. Meanwhile, the fortress-actual Citadelle overlooks the whole scene.

Le Chateau Frontenac

As to the city within the walls, I’ve been to half a dozen Canadian cities, and none of them seem much different from their U.S. counterparts. Old Quebec is the exception and seems directly transplanted from Europe by helicopter fleet. And not just because everything is in French.

The highlight for me was being able to actually walk up and across the tops of the walls as easy as any sidewalk. The grass-topped gates give a great view, and lots of people were hanging out up there, a few precariously so. It was pretty awesome, especially considering that in any other city, we’d have to settle for park benches in a flat park instead of the edge of a stone block that's part of an ancient defense perimeter.

In the end, though, we didn’t just fence-sit, we get caught up in the party and had a lively, feverish, sweaty old time, where we mostly followed street performers around.

But I still look forward to returning one day when nobody’s around and everything’s closed. I’m just that guy.