Feature Travel Archives

2008: Quebec City's 400-Year Anniversary


Quebec City Summer Festival

By Patricia Keegan

Leaving Washington’s humidity and abrasive politics behind, I hopped on a flight to join the Quebec City Summer Festival and its 400th-Anniversary celebration. Several hours later I was in Canada’s charming French city discovering an entirely new, light-hearted perspective.

From early July, for the past 41 years, Quebec City has rocked to the rhythms of an outstanding music festival that reaches out to the world, spotlighting artists from Quebec, as well other countries and cultures. For 11 days the city sizzles with high energy. Over 400 music and street performances transform the oldest fortified city in North America into a gigantic outdoor stage.

This year brings even more excitement with the year-long celebration of Quebec‘s 400th Birthday and some of the world‘s mega stars.


Framed in the window of my room on the 21st floor of the Quebec Hilton, was the first of many lovely scenes. Along the horizon a string of low lying hills and fields in the distance follow the curve of the St. Lawrence River. Arching above this pleasant landscape was the fragment of a rainbow serving as the backdrop for the Quebec flag flying above the Parliament building. This building is just one of many architecturally magnificent edifices in this unique French city.

Built between 1877 and 1886, it was designed by architect Eugene-Eitenne Tache in the Second Empire style and has four wings that form a large square. To the left, in the far distance, theChateau Frontenac stood in ethereal grace like a fairytale castle.  From my box seat I had a clear view of several stages. Just below I heard the sounds of Yesterday’s Ring, a Quebec rock band, causing a stir among hundreds of people. A roaring line of motorcycles circled the stage. I pulled a chair up to the window and started reading the program when suddenly I was startled by a friendly “Hello” beside me. I saw a man with a big smile on his face, dangling from a rope and waving outside my window. As he was disappearing in mid-air I returned his wave.

With the fading sun reflected in the dome of the outdoor stage it was time to join the festive crowds. Looking up at the Hilton from across the street, I could see a group of 14 men, springing off of a side wall of the hotel, tumbling upside down and performing amazing ballet loops on ropes. Necks craned, the crowd on the street, including me, were mesmerized by the daring feats of these aerial acrobats. Surprises are a part of the festival celebration in the streets.

Along with many, many artists from Canada and France, some internationally known stars will also grace the Festival stages.Paul McCartneyoffered Quebec a free concert on July 20. On August 22, another major artist, Celine Dion, lit the Quebec stage with another free concert.

I was really lucky to be in Quebec for Celine Dion, and the French favorite Charles Aznavour, who attracted a crowd estimated at 100,000 to the historic Plains of Abraham. When the Aznavour concert overflowed, the gates to the open air theater, closed. The crowd swarmed to the hills, gradually turning into fireflies -- flashing pinpoints of red light from the Hydro-Quebec flashing badges. Singer song writer Linda Lamay held the stage for one hour prior to the Aznavour performance. Lamay is a young artist from Quebec whose French songs are mainly about women’s issues, mixing a little humor with depth.

The Plains of Abraham is a spectacular setting which, to be truly appreciated, has to be seen from afar, away from the crowds sprawled on its sweet smelling, grassy banks  When a small figure, the great Charles Azanvour, dressed in black with a head of white hair, appeared at the front of the stage, looking at one of the huge TV screens, I could even see the twinkle in his eyes. The crowd went wild in their greeting. At first it seemed his voice was not carrying, it was too soft. However, as he sang his familiar repertoire, he seemed to gain more and more energy. At one point the receptive audience joined him in his popular, well known songs of love and loss. He soon shed his jacket, did a little dance and joked, calling himself a “museum piece.“

The crowd enjoyed it. He was a star, he was like family, and he gave a lively performance. Aznavour, now 84, came to Quebec over 50 years ago when it was considered a small, backward town.

At an earlier press conference he was asked how he felt about coming back to Quebec.“ I like it.  I like the familiar language, I always feel at home in Quebec.  Nobody had to convince me to come.”

To a question asked about his life as a singer and what it meant to him, he answered, The best job in the world is the one you love.  All aspects of what I do are great, I always think of life’s good moments.  Wherever you are coming from, you do what you can do to enjoy your life.”

When  a reporter asked about future projects, he replied, “I had a lot of projects at 20, but now its more about will I be able to do tomorrow.”

Over his 60-year career Aznavour has appeared in more than 60 movies, composed some 1,000 songs and sold more than 100 million records. His songs have been sung by Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, Bob Dylan and Ray Charles to name just a few. As a direct descendant of Armenian parents, Aznavour has been dubbed the International Ambassador of Armenia.

While in Quebec he received the Order of Canada award making him an honorary officer.  As the medal, representing Canada’s highest civilian honor, was hung around his neck by Quebec’s Governor General, Michaelle Jean,  Aznavour, with tears in his eyes, called the harmony of French and English cultures “impressive, because it shows this is big country, a great country, and a country that moves forward with a strong soul.”  He was introduced to Canada by Edith Piaf in the 1940‘s.

Celine Dion Concert Rocks the Plains of Abraham

Drums rolled, beams of light shot through the night sky, while the energy of a crowd estimated at 250,000 burst into cheers at the first glimpse of the dazzling Celine as she appeared on the stage. Dressed in a white sequined top and gray satin pants, her blond hair tousled just right, she wowed the crowd shouting; “Hello, Happy Birthday, Quebec! Are you ready?”

She stomped across the stage in silver stilettos, singing and pumping the air with her fist. Classy and sexy, Celine flirts with the world, dramatizing her songs while maintaining a sincerity that is both inspirational and unique. I was standing very close to the stage and could see the myriad of expressions crossing her face and could feel the intensity she puts into every word. From my prime location, in a 3-hour concert, I became a Celine fan. It would be a major challenge for any star to top the performance she gave as a gift to Quebec that evening. Her concert featured a galaxy of Quebec stars including Garou, rocker Eric Lapointe, Claude Dubois and Dan Bigras, each one a superstar, each one unique as they sang duets with Celine.

The youngest in a family of 14 children, all musicians, she surprised the audience when she brought family members to the stage to sing a medley of songs and telling the audience, “I want you to know what it was like to be in my family.” She dedicated the songs to her late father. Celine performed a total of 30 songs -- all in French.  They ranged from solos to duets to trios with her guests and spanned rock, pop and blues, several power ballads and lots of traditional Quebec songs.

It was close to midnight when Quebec songstress Ginette Reno appeared on the stage to sing a duet with Celine.  I had never heard or seen Ginette before, but as soon as she opened her mouth and began to sing, I was thrilled with the power and richness of her voice. It was obvious in this duet “Un Peau Plus Heut” that there was a lot of feeling between the two stars.  Celine was in tears at the end of the song as they hugged. I was very touched by the outstanding performance as were many in the audience.  I learned later that Reno was always one of Celine’s role models. When Celine was five years old she jumped up on a table to sing Ginette Reno songs. Evidently, there was a period when they were not close, but they have reunited, and this is the first time they have sung together in concert -- a dream come true for Celine.

Quebecois will tell you how proud they are of Celine, who was born in Charlemange, a small town near Montreal, Quebec. One fan described her as “a talented star who never veered from her values and has always managed to be authentic.”

Now is the Time to Visit Quebec!

For the entire span of 2008, Quebec City will be celebrating the 400th anniversary of establishment of Quebec by French explorer Samuel de Champlain on July 17, 1608. Today everybody in Quebec speaks French with pride in their unique city. This is not a problem as you will always find people who speak English.

Celebration 2008 opened on New Year’s Eve, December 31, 2007 and is already half way through the year. Samuel de Champlain named the city Kebec, a word from the Amerindian Indians -- meaning where the river narrows. Champlain worked with the Amerindians who helped the French adapt to the new climate and way of life. Together they built the commerce of the region, harvesting beaver pelts for hats that were sold to France. Little did Champlain know that he was establishing the roots of French civilization in the Americas.  During the 17th- and 18th-centuries Quebec City was the center of New France and its enormous territory. At that time the “empire” covered all of Eastern Canada, and much of the Eastern United States. From its origin as a fur trading post to its present day status as capital of the province, Quebec City has been restored and celebrates its past.

Loews Le Concorde Hotel

Quebec city is home to many appealing hotels, but for a first time visitor Loews  Le Concorde is an excellent choice.  In a prime location next to the historic battlefields of the Plains of Abraham and its park with gardens in full bloom, it is also a comfortable walk to the walls of Old Quebec. The Grand Allee is right on the doorstep. For those interested in the fascinating history of this lovely city, this hotel has an unbeatable central location. Guest rooms are spacious with high quality beddings to insure a comfortable night’s sleep.

L’Astral, a revolving restaurant atop this 25-story building is a major attraction in Quebec both for the view and the cuisine.  From here there is a spectacular view of the silver domed churches, the parliament buildings, the narrow streets filled with colorful awnings, the Chateau Frontenac and the St. Lawrence River filled with sailboats. In the evening the lights create a romantic atmosphere with a similar feeling one gets looking from the window of a plane about to land.

Breakfast, my favorite meal of the day, is served in the spacious bar off the main lobby. It was abundant in wild berries and every item you could possibly desire to make that first meal a celebration of the gift of a new day. The hotel also provides newspapers in English as well as French. The hotel has a most attentive and efficient staff who treat guests with interest and care.

There are many, many restaurants to in Quebec, and while having had the opportunity to sample a few -- which have all been good -- my favorite is Restaurant Toast, a great choice for dinner.  It is open air but with high walls, trees, and a spiral staircase, you can imagine being in a corner of an old castle. With the first bite, you know the preparation is driven bya desire to pleasantly stimulate the palates of its patrons. In this they are successful. Dining with three friends, we were all equally pleased with the entrees, the delightful service, fine wines and heavenly soufflé.

Robert Lepage’s Image Mill of History

Another spectacular presentation in honor of the 400th Anniversary is the amazing creation -- the world’s largest architectural projection ever mounted.  The Image Mill, set up at the city’s old port, is a playful animated show in three dimensions about the past, present and future history of Quebec City.  It presents a mosaic of icons, sounds and ideas organized around four major eras of the city. It includes the age of rivers and exploration, the age of dirt roads and settlement, the age of railways and resource development and the age of air travel and communications.  This is so well constructed, and so intriguing, that I'm sure it will be of interest to other cities as a way to highlight their history in an intriguing and fun way.

A Walk Through the City

An ideal ways to get to know the old city is to take a stroll along the narrow streets lined with stone houses. Occasionally, these buildings, with their pointed, or mansard roofs, have carriage gates that open unto a courtyard.

A special treat for art lovers is a visit to the Musee National de Beaux Arts du Quebec with its current exhibition Le Louvre a Quebec, featuring paintings, sculpture, jewelry, and decorative art objects from the prestigious collections of Le Louvre in Paris. A never before seen event in North America, the exhibit sheds light on the quality and diversity of the collection's relics of Oriental, Egyptian, Greek, Etruscan and Roman origin, with over 5000 years of history and civilization. This magnificent exhibit is best appreciated by renting the earphones to learn about the history of each piece

Quebec can boast of its many splendid churches and the strong influence of the church in its early history. The Notre Dame Basilica is well worth a visit. Built on the same site in 1647, it was destroyed twice by fire throughout the centuries. It is the oldest parish in North America. The cathedral is filled with impressive works of art, stained glass windows and many gifts sent from France by Louis XIV.

The Holy Trinity Cathedral, modeled after St. Martin in the Fields in London, house many precious objects donated by King George III.

A short stop in the Musee Bon Pasteur (Good Shepherd Museum) gives a poignant piece of history of the Good Shepherd Sisters of Quebec, who dedicated their lives caring for and educating abandoned women and children in the 19th-century.

The Musee de la Civilization is not to be missed with its interactive exhibits that entertain and teach viewers about fascinating discoveries around the globe. In honor of the 400th-anniversary, the exhibitUrbanology features real and imaginary project models inviting viewers to visualize what the urban lifestyle means to us in the 21st-century.

The walls of Quebec City still stand. The commanding wall was declared an historical monument in 1957 forming a 4.6 kilometer defensive belt around the old city. A sentry path lined with interpretation signposts runs atop the ramparts and gates, allowing the visitor to better understand the evolution of the last fortified city remaining north of Mexico City.

There are many dramatic dimensions to this city on the St. Lawrence River with the amazing architecture of the Chateau Frontenac never far from view. For most the first sight of the Chateau is a breathtaking experience.   Even if you have visited all the Chateaux of the Loire Valley in France, Quebec’s Chateau Frontenac stands alone, like a child’s dream of a majestic, magical castle. The foundation of this world famous hotel was built in 1893 and the structure completed in 1924. During WWII two historic conferences were held here and attended by Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill, guests of then Canadian Prime Minister MacKenzie King. Even if you don’t spend the night, there are tours through the hotel. Stopping by for lunch to overlook the St. Lawrence offers more time to enjoy delicious ice cream parfait while feeling the pull of centuries of history.

The Place-Royale around the Chateau has been completely restored with boutiques, restaurants, and residences. At the corner of rue Notre Dame is a large mural illustrating Quebec’s 400 years of history called the Mural of Quebecers. The mural is filled with symbols. I was delighted to see a small image of a shamrock on a baby carriage being wheeled along the street. This may have been in honor of the Irish immigrants who helped build the city.

To see the program for the  400th-Anniversary  visit  infofestival.com. Quebec, a city of Festivals, is one great spot to celebrate the exuberance of life.

For more information on Quebec visit quebecregion.com

Getting there: Simple -- Air Canada to Montreal followed by a short flight to Quebec. Air time is about 3 hours.