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Carnival in Quebec
Thomas R. & Deborah A. Fletcher
A serpentine river of snow–driven by the howling wind– twists and meanders across the runway as our plane touches down. Obviously this isn’t your typical winter getaway of drenching sunshine and warm sandy beaches. Quite the opposite. This is a land where the winters are deep, long, and cold. Welcome to Québec.
Long winters can take a toll on the psyche. We know, we live in a state where, as John Denver said, "dark and dusky [are] painted on the sky," where it seems we look at leaden skies six months of the year. In Québec, it isn’t the grayness–the sun does shine, quite often. It is the biting cold, where temperatures can plunge to -40 degrees F. Québec is held firmly in winter’s icy grip for months by temperatures that would drive most people indoors for the duration of the season.
Québec City claims the believable title of "snow capital of the world." Yet the city is populated with a seemingly indomitable people that refuse to be driven indoors by the icy winters. Instead, a festive spirit pervades. The narrow European-style streets are filled with people–from shoppers to street musicians. These hardy people are used to dealing with the cold.
Québec City developed an antidote to the melancholy of this cruelest season: Winter Carnival. Carnival represents a defiance, a refusal to give in to the cold. Carnival is a celebration of the joy of life in the midst of this cruelest season.
Québec’s Carnival has its roots in the European pre-Lenten celebrations of indulgence and revelry before the 40 days of Lent, where self-denial was to be the order of the day. Québec City was settled by the French in 1608. The city is located at a narrow spot along the St Lawrence River, on a broad east-west plain that extends from the Atlantic seaboard to the heartland of North America. (The name Québec means "where the river narrows.") The old city was the cradle of French civilization in North America. Québec became the capital of New France, overseeing a region extending south to Louisiana. Captured by the British in 1759, uncharacteristically, the city’s French culture was left intact. Instead of forced assimilation usually imposed when the British took control, the city’s inhabitants were guaranteed rights to practice their Catholic religion, retain the French code of law, and continue speaking French. The city’s walled fortifications were built under British rule, making Québec the only walled city in North America. Québec was named Provincial Capital under the Canadian Confederation in 1867. The old walled city became North America’s first United Nations Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) World Heritage City.
The tradition of Carnival came with those early settlers, but the first official celebration of Québec’s Winter Carnival was in 1894. Two world wars and the great depression caused the festival’s sporadic celebration for many years. In January and February 1955 the first modern Carnival was held, firmly establishing the tradition as an annual event starting in late January through mid-February.
Québec’s Winter Carnival has grown to be the world’s third largest carnival celebration (behind Rio de Janeiro and New Orleans) and the world’s largest winter carnival event. More than one million out-of-town visitors attend the event annually. This carnival event is not the licentious, hedonistic event expected in either Rio or New Orleans. People wear a good deal more clothing here–the cold sees to that. Carnival here is by far, more of a family event. There are activities for all members of the family. The city’s Plains of Abraham area is transformed into a winter playground for the family, with games, outdoor sports, a climbing wall, dogsled and sleigh races, downhill skiing for 5-8 year olds, snow rafting and a sugar shack (where boiling maple taffy is poured into troughs of snow for a popular sweet treat). There’s something for everyone. Tour the Ice Palace located just across from Québec’s Parliament Building. Take in a race. There’s the popular soapbox race held on the city’s steep streets, or the challenging Grand défi des glaces canoe race across the icy St Lawrence from Québec City to Lévis, as contestants battle ice floes, the current and the cold.
No article on Québec City would not be complete without a mention of the city’s fine cuisine. Tasty French cuisine is to found at every turn. Québec has more independent dining establishments than anywhere else in Canada. There are fewer chain restaurants and a greater variety of cuisine choices.
Located merely 30 minutes outside Québec City the Station touristique Duchesnay offers a unique attraction each winter–The Ice Hotel, or Hôtel de glace de Québec-Canada. This hotel brings to life those ice-fort fantasies of childhood in a way never imagined. Made completely of ice and snow the 3,000-square-meter facility features32 rooms and suites, a chapel, a disco ballroom, and a bar–where the glasses are chiseled chunks of ice. The season runs January through sometime in April (when the facility starts to melt).
Québec City’s location between two mountain ranges, the last remnants of the Appalachians to the south and the Laurentian Mountains to the north, means easy access to outdoor adventure. Mountains, rivers, lakes and protected wilderness areas offer unlimited adventure opportunities. Snowshoeing, cross country skiing, dog sledding and snowmobiling are popular winter pursuits.
If You Go:
65, rue De Buade
Québec (QC) G1R 4A2
Text and Photos [c] PROSE & PHOTOS