Tuesday, 3 March 2015: The bus tour and the Beaux Arts

Written 5 March 2015

At 6 a.m., the alarm on the iHome went off, then persisted in going off again every 15 minutes, even long after I unplugged it. When I came down to breakfast, rather earlier than I had intended, I took it with me and dumped it unceremoniously on the front desk, assuring them that I did not want or need it for the duration of my stay.

pastries jams Despite the skiing crowd, this is the Frontenac's slack season, which is why (a) the meeting organizers got such a good deal on the room rates and (b) two of the hotel's four restaurants are closed for renovation. Breakfast was therefore being served in Le Champlain, the hotel's high-end restaurant, usually open only in the evenings. For $28, you could get the full buffet, but I just ordered the "basket of pastries" and decaf coffee. Decaf only came as espresso, but they brought it in a large cup with lots of freeboard, together with a pitcher of hot foamed milk, so I made an excellent café au lait out of it.

Each table was set with little bottles of three fruit spreads (orange, strawberry, and raspberry) and honey from the hotel's own rooftop bee hives! Butter is served in little crosshatched spheres, piled in a small dish. Very agreeable breakfast.

me view When David finally showed up, he was accompanied by a now-senior colleague, Mark Butler, of Old Dominion University, whom we remember from his grad-school days at Florida State. He and a couple members of his lab had arrived early so as to put in some time skiing before the meetings started. We threatened to start a betting pool on whether he would have to deliver his talk later in the week on crutches.

At the right here is the view from the restaurant's window. At the left is the statue of Samuel Champlain, founding Quebec in 1608. To his right, below the horizontal black sign, is the uphill end of the funicular that (for $2.25) will take you up or down the steep bluff that separates the Frontenac from the banks of the St. Laurence. Beyond it, you can see the river itself, thickly cluttered by drifting rafts of ice. Quebec is a couple of hundred kilometers from the Gulf of St. Laurence, let alone the Atlantic, so the river is entirely freshwater, but even that far from the sea, it's still tidal, so the movement of those ice floes reverses twice daily. "Quebec" apparently comes from an Indian word meaning "narrow spot." Champlain chose the location because it commands a narrow spot in the river.

ice hotel parliament As I studied the city map over breakfast, I spotted an ad for two-hour bus tours of the old city. As we were unlikely to do any walking tours in this weather, we jumped at the chance. Our timing was perfect, as one was due to leave in half an hour from right in front of the hotel. Leaving the hotel, the bus was full, but more than half of the group got off at the first stop—the ice hotel. I had seen the ice hotel on the map but thought it was outside the area we were likely to see. Its management, however, has contracted with the tour-bus service to provide a shuttle for people wanting to tour it. As a result, our tour started with the announcement that we would make a 20- to 30-min detour to drop folks off at the ice hotel, then start the two-hour tour from there.

The photo at the left shows all that we could see of the ice hotel from the bus, apparently a small permanent building that serves as an entryway. For a virtual tour of the actual ice part, just Google "ice hotel quebec" (without the quotes). It's pretty big!

During the bus tour proper, the driver stopped periodically to let us get out and take photos. At the right is the Parliament building. As the bronze lettering says, its right wing (as viewed here) is dedicated to Maisonneuve, its left wing to Champlain, and its center pavilion to Jacques cartier. As we have been told repeatedly (by the bus-tour guide and others as well), Jacques Cartier (no relation to the present jewelers) brought back to Europe stones he thought were gold and diamonds but which proved to be pyrite and quartz crystals, giving rise to the expression "false as a Canadian diamond" (ironic these days, as Canada is now the third largest producer of real diamonds worldwide and is gaining on the top two).

fountain snowshoeing In front of the Parliament building is this fountain, still decorated for the recent Quebec winter festival. During the festival, a huge snow fort is always built on this site, but it's always torn down immediately afterward, for safety reasons.

At the entrance to the nearby Terrace Dufferin, a vast terrace that runs along the top of the cliff overlooking the river, was this large temporary gate welcoming snowshoers (called "raquetteurs" in French). There and in many of the city's other snow-covered parks, we also spotted cross-country skiers, and in one place a winter triathlon seemed to be in progress.

tower snow We saw two of these round stone Martello towers, left over from the days when the city defended the river. In time of need, the roof is lifted off by a system of pulleys, allowing the heavy guns inside a 360-degree sweep. As it happens, they've never been used because they were built just after the last time the city was attacked.

During one stop, I took this photo of the sidewalk at a random street corner, just to show about how much snow remains on the ground throughout the city. The city uses miniature snowplows to clear the sidewalks, and the larger street trees are protected by belts of vertical wooden planks tied around their bases, to keep the plows from nicking the bark.

Gray hotel At a high point near the Parliament building is this bust of Albert H. G. Grey (1851–1917), the Governor General of Canada who was instrumental in having the Plains of Abraham (the battlefield where the English troops defeated the French ones, bringing Quebec and its environs under British rule) declared a national park. They are now the largest park in the city, heavily used in the summer and full of skiers and snowshoers in the winter.

At the right is the best long shot I've gotten so far of our hotel, as viewed from the banks of the river. It's supposedly the most photographed hotel in the world, and I can well believe it. The building you see here has always been a hotel (despite being called a château) but it's on a site formerly occupied by the governor general's residence. Just Google "Chateau Frontenac Quebec" for many better shots than I've been able to get, including night-time views, aerial views, etc.

cathedral cathedral Another photo stop was at the Cathedral-Basilica of Notre-Dame de Québec. Here, I show two views of the nave—at the left toward the apse and at the right back the other way. It's not large by European cathedral standards, but the decoration is lovely.

We had only five minutes to look around and get our photos, but it's probably the only chance we'll get, as we're unlikely to walk back to it for a longer look.

cathedral funicular At the left here is the cathedral's pulpit with David in the foreground.

At the right is a view of the funicular tracks below the hotel, which you can see part of at the upper left. The statue of Champlain looms over the upper station. The funicular car is glass-walled, so you get to admire the view during the ride, and the trip up and down is so short that it has no seats, you just step in, stand during the ride, and step out at the top, like riding in an elevator.

The tour ended back in front of our hotel, rather later than originally scheduled. The tour guide was great—natively fluent in both French and English, although we happened to have all English speakers on our tour, so he rarely lapsed into French. He swore he was born and raised in Quebec City and never spent time in the U.S., but I would have pegged his accent as New York City! He gave us an enormous amount of information, especially about the history and geography of the region—so much I had trouble taking it all in.

tea crepe For lunch, we stepped into a little crêperie near the hotel. At the left is the quite pleasant tea David got in response to his order.

The establishment's savory crêpes were made with wheat flour, so David could have one (he can't digest the buckwheat that savory crêpes are made of in France). We both chose the "Québecoise," a crepe filled with egg, cheese, and white sauce with bacon. Surprisingly, it was served with maple syrup, which, surprisingly, was pretty good on it. Alas, the filled crêpe itself wasn't such a much—thin, dry, and not especially flavorful. We wouldn't go back there.

bar bench The restaurant's most interesting feature was its outdoor bar, left over from the winter festival, constructed entirely of ice! The bar itself is at the left, with liquor bottles embedded in it. At the right, with David, is a bench for use by patrons.

The whole thing was quite clear, so it must have been made with water boiled before being frozen, to get the dissolved gas out. We've since seen similar ones at several other locations, so molds must be available for making them.

We planned to spend the afternoon at the Musée du Fort, just a block from the hotel, but it was closed (without explanation) for three days, so we'll go on Friday afternoon instead. Next on our list was the Musée des Beaux Arts, so we hailed a taxi from the rank in front of the hotel and set off to see that.

Written 6 March 2015

museum gate At the left is the view of the museum's main entrance that we got from the tour bus. At the right is one of the few remaining gates in the city's walls. The tour guide emphasized that Quebec is the only walled city in the Western Hemisphere north of Mexico.

I took some photos of items in the museum, as I saw no signs prohibiting the practice, but partway through, a docent stopped me, saying it was okay to photograph the labels and explanatory text but not the pieces of art themselves. At that point, we were in a temporary exhibition, where restrictions are often greater, so I'm not sure whether my photos of the permanent collection are legitimate or not. Anyway, here I show only images I know are legit.

water spout tree At the left here is a piece that stands just outside the museum's main entrance, entitled "waterspout."

At the right is a piece called "tree," viewed from a balcony looking down into one of the museum's snack bars. I'm told it has a fascinating story (it appears to be carved from a single tree trunk), but I never got a shot of its label or explanatory text.

The work I was just about to photograph when the docent spoke up was itself a photograph. The artist had posed his aged and portly mother reclining nude on a fainting couch, with her aluminum crutches leaning against the couch and a bouquet of flowers in a vase to one side. The pose and her expression exactly echoed Manet's famous Olympia, and its title was The maid and the black cat are dead. Brilliant! In fairness, the work was accompanied by another photo in which the artist himself (equally portly) was posed nude in the same, but mirror-image, position. Great.

We also saw a long series of wonderful celebrity portraits, by a different photographer, I think. My favorites were Salmon Rushdie, Christopher Lee, and Michael J. Fox, but many other striking and beauiful portraits were included.

prison prison Part of the building housing the museum had once been a prison, and a couple of rows of cells have been preserved. They were all of the size and shape of the one shown here—deep and very narrow— allowing room only for a narrow cot, just room to sidle past it, and a bucket in the far corner.

They were windowless, so the only ventilation came through the barred transom over each door.

Other exhibits included Inuit (Eskimo) carvings (many reminiscent of François Pompon to my eye, although the influence was probably the other way) and American and European painting and furniture.

When our feet gave out, we took a taxi back to the hotel (the museum thoughtfully provides a direct-line telephone to taxi dispatchers at the exit door) to rest up before our great dinner adventure. David had served notice that he wasn't willing to walk much of anywhere in the cold—since the surgery on his nose, breathing very cold air causes extreme sinus pain— but experiments revealed that holding a wool scarf over his nose helped a lot. He said he was willing to try it, on the promise that we would take a taxi back if it turned out to be awful, so we boldly set off on foot for the six-minute walk to Restaurant le Saint Amour.

skylight David As it turned out, the walk wasn't so bad, and the restaurant was very good, except for a couple of very long waits between courses. The space was tall and windowless (though much less narrow than the prison cells), so the decorators had lined the walls with mirrors framed by vaguely art nouveau woodwork and floral frescos, then replaced most of the roof with a huge greenhouse-like skylight, from which they suspended large hanging baskets of plants. The watering, grooming, and tending of those planters must involve tall ladders, as I saw no provision for lowering the baskets to floor level for service.

At the right, David studies the wine list. At the left edge of the photo, you can see part of the wall treatment.

ab foie We chose the larger tasting menu, so we ate all the same things.

At the left is the amuse-bouche: left to right, it consisted of a very small oyster on the half shell with a couple of herb leaves and a dab of tiny diced marinated fruit; a miniature crab eggroll resting on an avocado purée and topped with a dab of caviare; a couple of small slices of cold seared venison with cold sautéed mushrooms, cranberry purée, and goat cheese cream. All delicious, but of course I couldn't eat the egg roll because of the avocado, so David traded me his oyster for it.

First course: Foie gras three ways. At 12 o'clock high, a foie gras crême brulée; at 1 o'clock, a terrine of foie gras layered with shiitake mushrooms; at 7 o'clock, a disk of plain cooked foie gras ("au torchon"). All yummy. The slate was dotted and streaked with all sorts of tasty fruit purées—raspberry, cranberry, apricot, apple, pear—and behind the crême brulée; two slices of the best brioche toast we've ever had!

consomme ravioli Second course: Seafood consomme, with bits of vegetable and mixed seafood, topped with saffron-scented foam. A particularly delicious feature of the soup was the submerged slices of crisply fried shallots, which must have been added right before serving.

Third course: Tricolor sweetbread ravioli on a purée of sunchokes (i.e., topinambours, Jerusalem artichokes), topped with a seared Argentinian shrimp, asparagus, and a reduction sauce with a sweet French wine I didn't catch the name of. Good, but the pasta was a little gummy and you would never know the ravioli contained sweetbreads. They were finely minced and mixed with lots of tiny chopped cooked vegetables—the least successful of the courses. The sunchoke stuff, on the other hand was outstanding!

pigeon cheese Fourth course: After a very long wait, an excellent rare roasted half pigeon, boneless except for the tibia and humerus, with a purée of carrot and another rich reduction sauce. Also on the plate were some chunks of roasted golden beet, half a sautéed baby zucchini, and some slices of very sweet poached baby onion. Excellent.

Cheese: After another very long wait (David was at the point of walking out), three local cheeses whose names, alas, I didn't catch. Left to right, a semihard pressed cheese with a washed rind (comparable to a Comté, I guess), a semisoft with a washed rind (sort of like Chaume), and a very mild blue. All good, but the semisoft was my favorite. The only bread we were served was a saucer of thin slices to accompany the cheese. To the left of the cheese, under the heap of sprouts, were a few nuts (walnuts, hazelnuts, almonds) glued down with a dab of honey. To the right of the cheese, the lovely "flower" is made of thin slices of a mild, sweet apple. To the right of that were a few streaks of a tart red fruit purée and a dab of dark cherry jam.

dessert mignardises Dessert: All chocolate, all the time. Left to right, a quenelle of chocolate ice cream (as always, on a bed of cookie crumbs); a warm molten-hearted chocolate cupcake topped with chocolate mousse and little spherical store-bought chocolate crispies; a pyramid of dense chocolate ganache topped with a hazelnut and resting on an excellent and delicate shortbread cookie. All good, but David and I thought the dish needed something tart to set off the richness, like maybe a strawberry.

Mignardises: A chocolate chip cookie and a pink filled macaroon, ready packaged for take-out. I opened the box for the photo, but it arrived with the lid bent down and tucked in just behind the restaurant's name, to form a little closed, curved-topped box shaped like a treasure chest.

By the time we left the restaurant, it had (as predicted earlier) begun to snow. David was willing to walk back, so we had a lovely stroll back to the hotel. The snow continued all night, adding about three inches to the accumulation.

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