Quebec City: the Heart of Canada

Lily Iona MacKenzie's picture

No place in North America equals Quebec City for its charm, unique culture, and beauty. The only walled city north of Mexico, when you pass through the portal into the city’s historic section, the focus for most visitors, it’s like entering a fairy tale complete with a castle. The century-old Fairmont Le Château Frontenac—with its towering top ringed by steeples and turrets—overlooks the St. Lawrence River and soars over the town, adding to the magical feeling. 

Fairmont Le Château Frontenac. From Quebec City: the Heart of Canada

But this impressive hotel hasn’t always dominated the old city. Many museums, churches, homes, and scenic lanes date back to the 1600s. These are the structures that define Quebec City and give it so much charisma. The Frontenac is the icing on the cake. 

Quebec’s Upper Town (Haute-Ville) is perched on cliffs overlooking the St. Lawrence River and provides views of the countryside for many miles beyond. Accessible by steep stairs or via a funicular car, Old Quebec’s Lower Town has its own historic charms. The Basse-Ville sprang up around the city’s harbor and was the original neighborhood of the city. Homes, shops, and ancient streets sprawled here at the base of the cliffs centering around Place Royale—a square on the site of the garden of Champlain’s Habitation (1608). 

The preferred entry to old Quebec City is via the Grande Allee. Time seems to have stood still here. It’s like entering another world, another time, another place, and it works its charm on you. Only Rottenburg in Germany, another walled city, has had such an effect on me. 

Grande Allee. Quebec City: the Heart of Canada

A horse drawn cab is the appropriate way to view this wonderful place. Our driver was a redhead of Irish descent but born and raised in Quebec. He spoke very clear English, his words carefully enunciated. He wore a straw hat, and the horse’s name was Dixie. We learned that the animals aren’t overworked. A vet checks them every day, and they only pull a carriage every other day. 
On our fire-engine red cab, we wove through narrow cobblestone streets past stone houses festooned with window planters. In the more commercial area, the vividly colored umbrellas at sidewalk cafes competed with the flowers for lending bright patches to the scenes. We also passed the Hotel Clarendon, built in 1870, where we stayed. It’s the oldest hotel in the walled city. Located away from the most festive streets, it’s still in the center of the action. Our room had a window overlooking the St. Lawrence, a clock tower, a part of the Château Frontenac, and a park. 

Horse-drawn carriage rides! Quebec City: the Heart of Canada

For visitors to Quebec City, dinner at Ancienne Canadien is a necessity. We visited in July and celebrated my husband Michael’s birthday there. Though it was summer, I ordered an authentic French Canadian Xmas dinner: meat pie, meatballs, boiled potatoes, fruit salad, and pork and beans. Michael had duck breast in maple syrup sauce accompanied by a tasty pork pate. My dessert was the traditional white bread with maple sugar on top floating in cream. Tremendous! Michael chose maple pie and all the waitresses sang happy birthday to him in French. 
Luckily we ate early. It gave us time to digest our dinner while we strolled around Dufferin Terrace and watched a couple of splendid street shows, a magician, four gymnast jugglers, and unicyclists. All summer, the terrace is alive with street artists, musicians, mimes, one-man bands, and many others. You can also see the canons that were used to defend the city more than once throughout the centuries.

Later we had a glass of port at the Hôtel Terrasse Dufferin, overlooking the St. Lawrence River. 

View from Dufferin Terrace. Quebec City: the Heart of Canada

Before leaving Quebec, we took a bike ride on the Plains of Abraham, the tremendous park where “a pivotal battle in the Seven Years' War (referred to as the French and Indian War in the United States)” occurred. 

The battle, which began on 13 September 1759, was fought by the British Army and Navy, against the French Army, on a plateau just outside the walls of Quebec City, on land that was originally owned by a farmer named Abraham Martin, hence the name of the battle. The battle involved fewer than 10,000 troops between both sides, but proved to be a deciding moment in the conflict between France and Britain over the fate of New France, influencing the later creation of Canada. (Wikipedia)

Garden at Plains of Abraham.  Quebec City: the Heart of Canada

The blood and anguish has been transformed into a flood of flowers surrounded by masses of green grass and a first class museum, the Musee de Quebec. Brick and stone make for a handsome interior, and huge galleries show off the extensive art collection. 

Musee de Quebec.  Quebec City: the Heart of Canada

A Canadian by birth, I’m going to generalize here. The link between French and English speaking Canada that our horse-cab driver represented captures the essence of Canada, with Ottawa the head and Quebec City the heart. Without Quebec, something precious would be lost to Canadians. It’s a touchstone and, Quebec City, which lost once to the British, must not lose again. It has the exuberance, the emotional life, and the sensuality that some Anglos can lack. Quebec City also is the heart in that the Americas emerged out of European sensibility, and that presence is felt here perhaps more than anywhere else. 



A Canadian by birth, a high school dropout, and a mother at 17, in her early years, Lily Iona MacKenzie supported herself as a stock girl in the Hudson’s Bay Company, as a long distance operator for the former Alberta Government Telephones, and as a secretary (Bechtel Corp sponsored her into the States). She also was a cocktail waitress at the Fairmont Hotel in San Francisco; briefly broke into the male-dominated world of the docks as a longshoreman (and almost got her legs broken); founded and managed a homeless shelter in Marin County; co-created THE STORY SHOPPE, a weekly radio program for children that aired on KTIM in Marin County; and eventually earned two Master’s degrees (one in Creative writing and one in the Humanities). She has published reviews, interviews, short fiction, poetry, travel pieces, essays, and memoir in over 140 American and Canadian venues. Fling, one of her novels, was published in July 2015 by Pen-L Publishing. Bone Songs, another novel, will be published in 2016. Her poetry collection All This was published in 2011. She also teaches writing at the University of San Francisco, is vice-president of USF's part-time faculty union, paints, and travels widely with her husband. Visit her blog at:


Photo courtesy and copyright Lily Iona MacKenzie