Travel

Old Québec to Gaspé

Hangings, saints, battles, natural beauty and the bones of our ancestors — a journey through history from Old Québec to the Gaspé Peninsula
Marcel Gagnon’s cement and stone sculptures lead into the St. Lawrence River in Sainte-Flavie, Quebec Expand Image

For the grand crime of petty theft, a 16-year-old girl was hanged in a cobblestoned street in Québec’s Lower Town in the early 1600s. I’m standing in that short street, reflecting on the rough justice meted out back then, when these narrow waterfront laneways were home to fur merchants, traders, sailors, soldiers, fishermen and the usual collection of wharf idlers. My friend and travelling companion, Ms. R. Lloyd, and I are following guide Michael Maynard of Ghost Tours of Québec on a spooky exploration of the historical underbelly of the Old City. In a square just around the corner, Maynard points out where Jean Rattier escaped hanging in 1680 for a quarrel that ended in murder. The farmer with five children avoided the noose by agreeing to become the city’s executioner. One of Rattier’s more heartbreaking assignments, 15 years later, was being forced to punish his own wife, who’d been convicted of receiving and concealing stolen goods. She was sentenced to the stocks, her head and hands locked in a wooden frame set up in a public square to encourage public ridicule and abuse.

“He’s the only man in North America who has ever legally locked up his own spouse,” Maynard tells us with a ghoulish cackle.

History doesn’t just repose on dusty library shelves in Québec. It’s nurtured and reinterpreted and retold, and still visible. The gallows Rattier used may be gone, but much from his era remains, from the narrow streets of Lower Town to the cannons poking from the ramparts and walls in the Upper Town. The preservation of Old Québec is so extraordinary that it was designated a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1985, as a “remarkable example of a fortified city of the colonial era, and unique north of Mexico.”

Our stay in Québec was the first stop in a week-long journey Ms. Lloyd and I had planned to locate a common ancestor on the Baie des Chaleurs in the Gaspé region of the province. Our trip would take us along the south side of the St. Lawrence River and through the Matapédia Valley.

But to start, we were treating ourselves to the July 1 holiday weekend in Québec. We stayed at the Hotel Pur, which describes itself as “a haven of minimalist design and urban sophistication,” in the quartier Saint-Roch, a short walk from the historic heart of Lower Town. Once a neighbourhood of factories and working-class families, it is being transformed into an entertainment district, with a mix of shops, clubs, restaurants and art galleries, and a vibrant nightlife.

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Map: Chris Brackley/Canadian Geographic)

The hotel’s hallways were a gloomy dark grey, and our room had no bedside reading lights, which was a bit too minimalist for my taste. But the floor-to-ceiling windows gave us a stunning view of the harbour and the fireworks that night. Ms. Lloyd, who has a tender spot for canines, was quite taken with the golden statue of Saint Roch with pooch at his side atop the historic Saint-Roch Church across the street. It was at eye level from our seventh-floor room, and glowed in the sunlight. Curious about the statue, I checked with the church and discovered that Saint Roch, who tended to plague victims and was assisted in his own recovery from illness by a faithful dog who licked his wounds and brought him bread, is the patron saint of dogs, as well as bachelors, diseased cattle, falsely accused people, invalids, gravediggers, second-hand dealers, pilgrims and apothecaries. I also learned that dog owners in Quebec can bring their pets to the church for an annual blessing, an event Ms. Lloyd took a particularly keen interest in.

We spent the weekend ambling around the neighbourhood and the Upper and Lower Towns. One morning we stopped for a coffee in Caffè Roma on rue Saint-Joseph. The young waitress was talking quietly with another patron when she suddenly burst into an aria from Puccini’s opera, Gianni Schicchi. Her voice had an astonishing range. It was a thrilling impromptu performance. She later told us she had just graduated from a music program and was embarking on a career as an opera singer. We tipped her generously.

That evening we strolled to the Old Port for an equally stunning performance of The Image Mill by the celebrated stage director Robert Lepage. Using multiple projectors and a booming sound system, Lepage tells the story of Québec’s history with photos and graphics projected onto the sides of 81 concrete grain silos that form a wall at least two blocks long. The silos became candles, piano keys, a radio dial and a screen for the display of archival photos and clever animations. It’s a spectacular show the city boasts is “the world’s largest architectural projection.” Versions of it have been running every summer since Québec’s 400th anniversary celebrations in 2008.

On our final night in Québec, we boarded the cruise ship Louis Jolliet for a tour of the St. Lawrence and a splendid dinner of filet mignon. As the sun began to set, the ship sailed upriver, past where in 1759 British General James Wolfe’s men crept up the steep cliff that led them onto the Plains of Abraham, surprised French General Louis-Joseph de Montcalm’s troops and ended France’s dominance in North America. Downriver, we passed Montmorency Falls, a massive cascade more than 1½ times higher than Niagara Falls, that tumbles into the St. Lawrence from the Montmorency River. Wolfe lost some 440 men here in an attempt to land an invasion force during his summer-long assault on the Québec Citadel. We were sipping coffee and enjoying our dessert as the ship returned to the Chouinard Pier below the imposing Château Frontenac hotel.

Thus immersed in Québec’s history, we crossed the St. Lawrence the following morning and drove east. We began on Autoroute 20, a featureless divided highway, but quickly exited for the more pastoral Route des Navigateurs, which mainly follows Highway 132 and runs along the St. Lawrence, threading through a succession of old riverside villages. The Quebec government has thoughtfully positioned rest stops along its highways, some a mere 13 kilometres apart. If you fuel up on coffee in the mornings, you needn’t worry about uncomfortably long waits for the next public washroom.

We made it to the village of Sainte-Flavie and our first destination, Les Jardins de Métis, an hour before it closed for the day. The nearby village of Métis has long been a favourite summer destination for wealthy Montréal Anglos, many of whom have built imposing vacation homes along the river. Elsie Reford was one of those Anglos. From her uncle she inherited Estevan Lodge, a gorgeous 37-room house that sits on a rise overlooking the St. Lawrence. In the early 1920s, she began transforming the property, pruning and planting and assembling a unique botanical collection.

The gardens are now owned by a non-profit corporation and are open for tours. The collection’s emblem is the rare and exquisite Himalayan blue poppy, which blooms from the end of June through July. As we meandered along the paths, Ms. Lloyd, an intrepid global traveller who’s not easily impressed, paused frequently to take in and express her admiration for the beauty of the flower beds and the variety of the plant life collected and carefully labelled. One section, the Long Walk, was bordered by pink peonies in full bloom. Elsewhere we saw orchids and more than 50 species of lilies. The day was warm and humid but we were cooled by the fresh breeze coming off the river. With closing time approaching, we returned to the entrance and stopped at the gift shop where I purchased a package of black-eyed Susan seeds to add colour to my own weedy little garden.

Now we were within a four-hour drive of our final destination. In the morning, we left the St. Lawrence and followed Highway 132 south through the Matapédia Valley. The highway runs along Matapédia Lake and the Matapédia River, considered one of the best salmon rivers in Quebec. It’s bordered by well-tended dairy farms and rolling expanses of forests running down from the Chic-Choc Mountains. Along the way we spotted solitary fishermen in canoes or standing in the river in hip waders, casting their flies into the rushing waters.

Just after lunch we pulled into tiny Miguasha National Park on the Baie des Chaleurs. Here we met guide Sarah Connors in the park’s interpretation centre, who introduced us to our common ancestor, a rough-looking customer named elpistostegalian.

Miguasha, which extends a short distance along the bay, is Quebec’s other World Heritage Site, designated in 1999. UNESCO considers it “the most outstanding fossil site in the world for illustrating the Age of Fishes.” The shale and sandstone cliffs Connors showed us along the bay’s shoreline contain “the greatest number and best preserved fossil specimens found anywhere in the world of the lobe-finned fishes that gave rise to the first four-legged, air-breathing terrestrial vertebrates.”

Elpistostegalians emerged in the latter part of the Age of Fishes, also known as the late Devonian era, about 400 million years ago. They are the “closest ancestors of tetrapods,” the first four-limbed vertebrates on land, which the fossil record can trace all the way up to Homo sapiens and, eventually, to Ms. Lloyd, me and all of our fellow humans.

Elpistostegalians looked like “little crocodiles with fins,” favoured shallow water, had lungs and “could peek above the surface [of the water] with their prominent eyes,” which reminded me of the beady gaze of one of my old uncles. A school of elpistostegalians lived and died along what was then the high tide area of the bay, and were slowly covered in silt and thus preserved for our eventual discovery.

The interpretation centre in the park has on display an intriguing selection of fossils that have been extracted from the cliffs. Some are so remarkably detailed that scientists have even been able to identify their stomach contents.

We left the park in mid-afternoon and drove back into the Matapédia Valley to the village of Causapscal, where we took a room in a small fishing lodge overlooking the confluence of the Causapscal and Matapédia rivers. After dinner, I walked down to the water and sat on a bench to watch two women and five men fly-fishing in the waning light. They were well spaced in the rivers. No one was catching anything, but it was a gentle warm evening, and soon a small crowd of about 20 gathered on the benches lining both banks. Conversation was hushed, the bubbling rivers were soothing and the fly lines swooshed in the evening air.

We’ve come a long way, I thought, from the mud of the bay, some of the planet’s creatures having retained gills and fins while others developed lungs and dexterous fingers. Miguasha’s fossils are an instructive reminder of our evolutionary history and the genes we have in common with the salmon swimming in these rivers, as well as with all other creatures on the planet. Our racial, cultural and linguistic differences seem insignificant by comparison, and our acts of cruelty toward each other — hanging a 16-year-old girl, for instance — a reckless denial of our shared biology.

Navigating Quebec’s Past

Getting there
If you choose Highway 132 to get to Quebec’s Gaspé region, the road is a bit rougher, but you’ll be rewarded with charming views of villages along the St. Lawrence, as well as the river itself, which widens and has the brackish smell of mixing fresh and salty water.

Staying there
In Québec, we stayed at the Hotel Pur, which is near the Old City. The restaurant in the hotel, which overlooks a small square in front of Saint-Roch Church, served the most delicious breakfasts. In the village of Sainte-Flavie, we stayed at the Motel Le Gaspésiana. On our way back from Miguasha, we spent the night at Auberge La Coulée Doucein Causapscal.

Playing there
You can learn more about the spooky history of Québec by booking a tour at www.ghosttoursofquebec.com. The cruise we took, with dinner, was a treat and can be arranged at www.croisieresaml.com. For more on director Robert Lepage’s The Image Mill, go to www.quebecregion.com. Information on Les Jardin des Métis can be found at www.refordgardens.com. For more detail on the fossils of Miguasha go to www.miguasha.ca. Just down the road from Miguasha is Parks Canada’s fascinating Battle of the Restigouche National Historic Site, which is well worth a visit, too. It chronicles the battle between the French and British navies in the Baie des Chaleurs in 1760.

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