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by Bob Brooke

La Bonhemme Carnaval, mascot of the Carnaval QuebecI’m sitting in a small cafe just off the Place Royale in Old Quebec sipping delicious cafe au lait and munching on a flaky croissant as snowflakes settle gently on the gathered snow mounds outside the door. The sub-freezing air outside frosts the cafe window and the wind blows in crisp gusts. Giant icicles hang from the eaves of centuries-old buildings along the narrow street. It’s February--Carnaval time in Quebec.

Carnaval is to Quebec as Mardi Gras is to New Orleans. But that’s where the comparison ends. Here among the collection of charming 17th century houses and shops nestled along the banks of the frozen St. Lawrence River over half a million people gather to eat, drink, and participate in all manner of athletic competitions--most of them on ice. None of that frilly Mardi Gras stuff for the hearty Québécois.

Quebec, founded as a fur-trading post by Samuel de Champlain in 1608, remained French until 1759, when General James Wolfe's British forces vanquished the troops commanded by the Marquis de Montcalm on the Plains of Abraham. Carnaval transforms this public park into a wintry wonderland of crystalline snow sculptures as the site of the International Snow Sculpture Competition. The Competition is actually what drew me here.

But Carnaval de Quebec is so much more. People also flock to see the annual canoe race across the frozen St. Lawrence River, as well as car races, road rallies, a dogsled race, even a soapbox derby. But for now, Quebec’s Old Town begs to be explored. I have lots of time until the canoe race preliminaries get underway, so I set out to discover the charm of this city.

Old Town
Quebec’s Old Town retains the look and smell of a French provincial city, like Chartres or Caen. I begin my stroll in the Place Royale, the cradle of French civilization in North America. It was here that Samuel de Champlain built his first "habitation" in new France. It soon became the marketplace of Quebec City, and prosperous merchants built their houses here. But the British bombardments and widespread fires during the siege of 1759 all but destroyed the lower town, and by 1832, most businesses had reestablished themselves in the upper city, leaving the area largely abandoned.

Today, Old Town, a national historic site, contains the greatest concentration of 17th and 18th century buildings in North America. Intriguing shops, cafes, and restaurants line its narrow streets and alleyways along the waterfront.

In the oldest house on the Place Royale, I discover La Maison du Vin (The House of Wine), where I not only learn all about wines, but view a $15,000 bottle of Rothschild wine and actually hold one worth $900! That’s as close as I’ll get to fine wine. But what fascinates me are the wines and their correct glasses on display alongside vintage bottles in old wine vats on the lower level.

Directly across from La Maison du Vin, on the site of Champlain's original settlement, stands the Church of Notre Dame de Victoire. Built in 1688 and burned in 1759, it was later restored. I marveled at its high altar, carved in the shape of a fort, with pierced windows and turrets. A replica of Champlain's ship hangs in the center.

The Upper City
But this isn’t all there is to Old Quebec. A quick ride up a steep funicular railway takes me to the upper city and the Place d'Armes, once the parade grounds of the old garrison, formerly called the Rond de Chaine because of the huge chain that encircled it. Unlike the Old Town below, this area contains charming guest houses and restaurants within its old city walls.

From the Place d’Armes, I stroll along Dufferin Terrace, the long boardwalk that originates at the Place d'Armes and the prime point for viewing the canoe race. I find the walled city especially alluring as I walk briskly high above the river, the air filled with the fragrant smell of wood smoke and the clatter of horse's hooves on the cobblestone streets.

But walking in the sub-freezing cold high above the St. Lawrence can take its toll. I need some warmth and refreshment. The heady aroma of cooking meat draws me into Aux Anciens Canadiens (The Old Canadians), a provincial restaurant located on Rue St. Louis. Its French Canadian ragout, a hearty stew, accompanied by crusty French bread and washed down with several glasses of Merlot wine does the trick.

After lunch, I walk along the walls to the Porte Sainte-Louis to see the world famous Ice Palace. Standing at the base of this glittering monument to winter, I can’t help think how Louis Jobin let his imagination soar as he first carved ice and snow during the late 1890s. What he didn’t know was that he would set the standard for ice and snow sculpting. And the tradition continues. Today, the Carnaval competition draws contestants from around the globe.

Again, the coldness numbs my bones, so I stop at a street vendor to sample a shot of Caribou, the traditional drink of Carnaval. Not only does it warm my heart but the warmth trickles all the way down to my toes. One is enough. Two would have knocked my socks off.

Le Bonhomme Carnaval
Newly warmed and refreshed, I hurry over to the Dufferin Terrace to watch some of the canoe race preliminaries. But the biting cold and wind is too much for me, so I stroll up the Grand Allee as the afternoon light slowly dims. Everywhere people are laughing, singing, dancing and blowing on noisemakers. One of the traditional Carnaval parades is in progress. When Le Bonhomme Carnaval, the giant seven-foot snowman mascot of Carnaval appears, the crowd roars. As he passes, everyone cheers and hollers, vying for his attention. Reaching for as many outstretched arms and hands as he can, Bonhomme turns and waves, introducing the red-sashed fiddlers and folkdancers following behind him. Again there’s even more noise, more excitement from the crowd.

As I work my way through the crowd up the Grand Allee after the parade passes, glittering lights lure me onto the Plains of Abraham. There before me stands a myriad of shimmering snow sculptures, each one seemingly more magnificent than the next. As I stroll among the sculptures in awe, strains of Wagner’s Rode of the Valkyries fill the air, transforming the scene before me into the set of a classical winter opera.

I came away from Quebec with a new appreciation for winter. At home in Pennsylvania, winter is often looked upon as a dreary time--a time to stay indoors, a time of depression. But not here in Quebec. To the Québécois, Carnaval is more than an annual celebration. It’s a state of mind, a place where for ten days every February, they glorify winter. It's a place where people's imaginations take over, where adults can feel like kids again. For the Québécois, winter is a time for rejoicing and what better way to do that than to join them in celebrating Carnaval.

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