Tuesday, December 20, 2016

George Washington’s New York

Fraunces Tavern is the oldest establishment in New York serving food and drink and a favorite of George Washington
George Washington was not really a New Yorker.  He was born, raised and died in Virginia.  He spent much of his public life, as both a president and a general, in his favorite city of Philadelphia. But New York?  Not so much. 

It’s hard to blame him.  He fought six battles trying to defend New York, and lost them all, but one.  When he finally retreated from New York, he wanted to burn the city to the ground, but Congress stopped him.  Officially, at least.  No one really knows who started the fire on September 21, 1776, but George was not disappointed when hundreds of houses in New York did in fact go up in flames.

Despite all this, George Washington probably did have some very fond memories of the city.  It was in New York that he was sworn in as President and spent 17 months, before the capital was moved to Philadelphia.  And it was here that the Revolutionary War officially ended in 1783, with a triumphal march by the Continental army down the Broad-way, stopping from tavern to tavern to drink 13 toasts at each one in celebration of the new country.  

George Washington portrait by John Trumbull in NY Historical Society

Because New York was so small at the time of the Revolution, most of the sites associated with George Washington are within a short walk of each other.  You can have a drink and a meal at his favorite tavern; see the pew he sat in at his church; view the gravesite of his trusted chief of staff (and current pop star) Alexander Hamilton; stand on the spot where he was sworn in as President, and walk across the Brooklyn Bridge, passing almost directly over the spot where he retreated after the Battle of Brooklyn, saving the army in what has been called the most magnificent military retreat in history.

As George might have done himself, it’s best to begin the tour with a drink.   

When Samuel Fraunces opened his tavern here in 1762, there were already 217 taverns in New York to serve just 13,000 people.  Today, it is the only colonial tavern to survive and the oldest establishment serving food and drinks in New York. 

Taverns at the time were a combination of an inn where you could stay and a public house where you could get a drink and meal.  Both offerings were pretty dreadful.  People shared beds and sat at simple communal tables, often arranged around a fireplace, with a mishmash of different flatware and glasses.  Taverns were expensive because patrons had to pay not only for food and drink, but also for the candles used.

The Tallmadge Room in Fraunces Tavern today
The average colonial of the day drank a staggering four gallons of hard liquor and 14 gallons of beer or cider a year, and since pipe smoking was common, the room would be filled with smoke, gambling, gossip and politics.  Taverns were hotbeds of radical ideas, and because Samuel Fraunces (or Black Sam, as he was called by friends) was a revolutionary, his tavern was home to the Sons of Liberty and other rebels.

When the British captured New York in 1776 and occupied it for seven years, they forced Samuel to seek safer ground and his son-in-law, a Tory, took over the tavern.  But on Nov. 25, 1783, the day the war officially ended, the British departed, General Washington marched in, and he and 185 friends gathered at Fraunces Tavern for a celebration dinner.  In New York, Nov. 25 was known as “Evacuation Day,” and was an official holiday for more than 100 years.

A private dining room in Franuces Tavern as it would have looked at the time of George Washington
George had promised his wife Martha he would be home in Mount Vernon for Christmas, so after eight days of celebration in New York, it was time for one last farewell luncheon party – the last time, as far as any of them knew, that Washington and his army officers would ever see each other.  Washington fully intended to retire to his home and become a farmer, far from public life.

For the last meal, the tavern laid out an impressive spread of cold meats, but the atmosphere was so sad, no one touched their food.  The best known account, written by Colonel Benjamin Tallmadge, and now on display in the restaurant’s museum, described the scene as General Washington entered the room.

“His emotions were too strong to be concealed which seemed to be reciprocated by every officer present. After partaking of a slight refreshment in almost breathless silence, the General filled his glass with wine and turning to the officers said, ‘With a heart full of love and gratitude I now take leave of you….I cannot come to each of you, but shall feel obliged if each of you will come and take me by the hand.’

General Knox being nearest to him, turned to the Commander-in-chief who, suffused in tears, was incapable of utterance, but grasped his hand when they embraced each other in silence. In the same affectionate manner, every officer in the room marched up and parted with his general in chief. Such a scene of sorrow and weeping I had never before witnessed and fondly hope I may never be called to witness again.”
Good thing he wasn’t at any Hillary parties the night of the election.
You can see the actual room where this emotional farewell took place upstairs in the Fraunces Tavern Museum.  This is a gem of a museum.  In Boston or Philadelphia it would be a huge attraction, but somehow in the overwhelming opportunities of New York, it gets lost.  You might find, as I did on a recent Friday afternoon in December, that you have all two floors of it to yourself.

The Porterhouse Brewing Company in Fraunces Tavern

The Long Room, where the dinner took place, has been reconstructed as it might have looked on that afternoon.  It is a typical colonial dining room, with wood table and chairs, candles and framed prints, and actually not that different from the one you can dine in downstairs.  

But the rest of the museum is a kick.  There’s one of Martha’s silk shoes, the last letter from spy Nathan Hale (who was hung in 1776 and has a statue nearby at City Hall), and a wild assortment of trinkets and mementos from the Revolution and those who have preserved its history.  

The collection of illustrations by John Ward Dunsmore fill the walls of the museum
Currently, for the first time, there are 47 paintings of the Revolution by master illustrator John Ward Dunsmore.  This is the only time the paintings have all been together and they chronicle the entire war. He worked for a calendar company, and these paintings will be familiar to anyone who has ever had any interest in the colonial period.

George was no stranger to taverns or liquor.  He liked wine, beer, and cider and was at one point the largest manufacturer of whiskey in the nation.  Three of his dogs were called Tipsy, Tippler and Drunkard.

The small bar in Franuces Tavern connects to Porterhouse Brewing
After the museum, the restaurant is a bit eclectic, with offerings from jambalaya to lobster tortellini, but for those desiring authentic, there are beef and chicken pot pies, Scotch eggs and something called George Washington’s Horseback (bacon, dates and almonds).  

The atmosphere?  It could not be better.  The main dining area (the Tallmadge Room, named after the Colonel) has a gorgeous room of wood tables lit by candles.  There is a maze of corridors that lead to private dining areas and a bar with stuffed chairs, a roaring fireplace, and enough wood and prints to make George feel at home. 

Cask conditioned IPA in Porterhouse Brewing Co.

The biggest surprise, is the Porterhouse Brewing Company, which has taken over half the main floor and has 140 craft beers to try, including a range of craft beers all brewed in Ireland.  It’s all wood, mirrors and brass with brightly lit bottles and little nooks carved out for private gatherings around communal tables.  Other than the no smoking laws, it’s pretty certain that the Sons of Liberty could still gather here and talk about The Donald pretty much in the same way they once did about George III.

The cobblestone Stone Street is lined with taverns and restaurants

Neighborhood Walks with George in Lower Manhattan

The great thing about Fraunces Tavern is that it is in the heart of Lower Manhattan.  Just a short musket shot away is Stone Street, the first paved street in New York.  Now closed to traffic as a historic district, the petty cobblestone way is lined with taverns and restaurants and evokes a feel for, if not colonial New York, at least the old New York of Godfather II.  In summer, the two-block area is filled with outdoor umbrellas and is one of nicest places to dine in the city.

A block in the other direction takes you to Battery Park, which in George’s time was an island and fortress with 100 cannon.  Today it’s been connected to the mainland and has one of New York’s oldest standing forts  – (from a different war, Castle Clinton from the War of 1812) – and two emotional memorials. 
The Sphere by Fritz Koenig

The Sphere designed by Fritz Koenig was a monument to world peace that stood in the plaza in front of the original World Trade Center. In the 9-11 attacks, it was buried under tons of rubble, torn apart, bent and scraped, but it was dug up, reassembled and now sits in Battery Park as a testament to New York’s resiliency.

Nearby, the Merchant Marine Memorial is truly eerie. Commemorating the 7,000 merchant marines who died in World War II, it depicts a sinking ship and drowning sailor with his arms stretched out of the sea. Depending on the tide, you see half of his body or just his arm and neck reaching out for help.

The Merchant Marine Memorial in Battery Park

New York’s famous Broadway starts at the intersection of Battery Park and Bowling Green (a small green triangle where George could have enjoyed the passion of the day – outdoor lawn bowling).  Here you’ll find the 7,000-pound bronze Charging Bull sculpture by Arturo Di Modica that has become the symbol of a bull market on Wall Street. Rub its nose for luck, and continue up Broadway to the beautiful Trinity Church, where 

Alexander Hamilton is buried.
The first Trinity Church was destroyed in the fire that George didn’t set in 1776; the current church dates to 1846.  At first Hamilton was not allowed to be buried in the quiet churchyard, where gravestones date back to 1680.  The church strongly disapproved of dueling and did not want to be seen as sanctioning it.  

Alexander Hamilton's Grave at Trinity Church

Ironically, Hamilton’s son was killed in a duel three years before, and is thought to be buried in the same graveyard, but because of the stain of dueling, his grave was unmarked.  Hamilton lingered for several days after his famous duel with Vice President Arron Burr and was able to plead in person from his deathbed with Reverend Benjamin Moore, rector of Trinity, and finally was allowed to be buried at the church.  Today, thanks to the hit musical, his grave is a popular site for selfies.

From the church, cross Broadway and head down Wall Street and you’ll soon see George Washington’s statue on the steps of the Federal Hall National Monument.  The statue is approximately where George was inaugurated as president (although at the time, he was inside another building that stood here.  The statue is the same height and street location as where he stood). 

Anywhere else in the nation – or the world – Federal Hall would be famous. In New York, the 1842 modified version of the Parthenon is overshadowed by, well, everything else.  But climb the steps and go in – the rotunda is amazing, it’s free, there’s a lot of history and (always important in New York) there are clean, free public restrooms.  There are exhibits on the inauguration and the Revolution in New York, and a there’s a fascinating “All George” gift shop offering everything from Christmas ornaments to bookmarks featuring his familiar face.

The statue of Washington on the spot where he was inaugurated facing NY Stock Exchange
One of the most iconic photos in New York is to frame the statue of George at Federal Hall with the famous gigantic flag that hangs on the New York Stock Exchange across the street. If you look closely, you’ll see that the stock exchange is on Broad Street, not Wall Street. Less well known is that yet another of New York’s terrorist attacks took place here in 1920 when 31 people were killed by a bomb placed in a horse and carriage. The building across the street from Federal Hall still has pot marks from the explosion.
St. Paul's is the oldest church in New York

Back to the Broad-way, it’s three blocks to St. Paul’s Chapel, known as “the little chapel that stood.”  Built in 1766, the chapel survived not only the great fire of 1776, but also the attack on Sept. 11, that brought down the two twin towers of the World Trade Center, located directly across the street.  

St. Paul’s was not damaged and became a place of refuge for the firefighters, police officers, and other first responders working through the devastation.

St. Paul’s was George Washington’s church in New York.  You can see a replica of George’s modest pew box, where he prayed after the inauguration.  The churchyard is particularly moving.  George certainly walked through the gravestones here, because this was the main entrance to the church in his day.  It is a truly a spectacular sight to see gravestones from the 1700s with Santiago Calatrava’s new World Trade Center Oculus Pavilion directly across the street.

Santiago Calatrava's Oculus Pavilion from the graveyard of St. Paul's
Finally, from the front of the church on Broadway, head to the ramp that is the pedestrian walkway over the Brooklyn Bridge crossing the East River.  George had entered New York in the spring of 1776 as the hero who driven the British out of Boston.  But then the Empire struck back, sending the largest armada of ships and men the world had ever seen to that point. 

Washington tried to defend all the potential landing points, but the British outmaneuvered him and put 30,000 redcoats on Long Island.  Then they conducted a secret night march around Washington’s flank, and in what became the Battle of Brooklyn, the largest battle of the Revolution, they badly beat him and almost destroyed the American army.  Only a valiant last stand by Maryland troops at the Old Stone House saved the day.

The Old Stone House in Brooklyn was the scene of severe fighting in 1776.
Near the Park Slope neighborhood in Brooklyn, in Washington Park, the Old Stone House Building is now a museum.  It is a reconstruction of the 1699 Vechte-Cortelyou House in the exact location where the battle took place.  The museum has models and exhibits of the battle, but it takes a lot of imagination to picture this place in 1776. 

Diorama of the Battle of Brooklyn depicts the fighting around the Old Stone House

Easier is to look down at the East River from the Bridge.  With the victorious British to his front, and the river to his rear, Washington had only one option – somehow he had to retreat and ferry his men across the East River without the British knowing it.  The embarkation point was the little shore-side park, Fulton Ferry Landing, just to the north of the Bridge on the Brooklyn side.  

Keeping fires on the front line burning as a disguise, and in a providentially thick fog, Washington managed to extract his entire army of 9,000 men back to Manhattan to give them a chance to fight another day.    

Emanuel Leutze's painting of George Washington Crossing the Delaware hangs in the Metropolitan Museum of New York,  
A retreat may not be the most glorious of military maneuvers, but if George Washington had not managed to retreat from New York, there almost certainly would be no United States of America.  And for that, New Yorkers…..and George Washington… were always grateful.   

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Denver to Vail – the Slow Way

I-70 heading west.  It is exactly 100 miles from Denver to Vail  Photo:  Stevie Crecelius
Every month, almost a million vehicles travel the 100 miles on Interstate 70 between Denver and Vail, Colorado.  They zoom past gorgeous Rocky Mountain scenery at speeds up to 75 mph, burrow through the highest auto tunnel in North America, and switch back their way over two-mile-high Vail Pass.

Main Street Georgetown
But those in the know, slow down and stop in four delightful and historic towns along the way.  The Interstate highway bypasses these villages with nothing but a sign, but if you take time to visit, you’ll discover an operating steam locomotive that still chugs over a 100-foot-high trestle, old gold mines and gold mills, hundreds of historic Victorian buildings, tranquil river walks, zip lines that hurl you off a cliff, breweries, fine dining, river rafting through sheer canyon walls, and some of best riverside shopping in Colorado.

But be careful.  With all the delights along the way, you may never make it to Vail.  Heading from Denver, here’s where to make a detour.


An old water wheel along Clear Creek in Idaho Springs
This is the first real mountain town from Denver, and because of that, it’s become the Mile High City’s adrenaline capital.  You can jump off rock cliffs on terrifying zip lines or scream through rapids in Clear Creek Canyon.  Clear Creek offers more rapids per mile than any other commercially rafted river in Colorado.  There are a staggering 18 companies in town offering wet suits and rafting trips.  You can rent ATVs, horses, or mountain bikes and explore dozens of trails, one of which is affectionately called the “Oh My God Road!” You’ll find out why when you see the drop-offs without guard rails.

Colorado’s first major gold strike was discovered in Idaho Springs and today the town’s historic main street is lined with Victorian buildings that have been converted to bars, breweries, restaurants and mountain gift shops.   Beau Jo’s Pizza is a town institution.  For more than 40 years, they’ve been dishing out a hearty pie of what they call “Colorado style” pizza, which means each one weighs 3-5 pounds.  Go mountain climbing before you eat the pizza.  Down the block, the Buffalo Bar is where to stop for Colorado buffalo or lamb burgers.  Buffalo is the leanest of red meats and has less calories than chicken.  That’s also the home for the new and stylish Westbound & Down Brewery.  Try a CPA (a Colorado Pale Ale). 

The Argo Gold Mill processed $100 million of gold.

At the other end of Main Street, Tommyknockers Brewery has been turning out award-winning brews for 20 years, including winning 17 medals at Denver’s prestigious Great American Beer Festival.

Tommyknockers were mythical two-foot-high creatures who lived in mines and caused mischief.  If you have the nerve, you can enter the real Phoenix Gold Mine, a place that looks straight out of a Lone Ranger movie.   Put on a hard hat and follow a vein of gold through a twisting, dark and damp tunnel, just hoping that the creaking 100-year-old wood beams hold up for at least one more hour.  Right in town, the Argo Gold Mill processed more than $100 million of gold in its day.  Today, it’s a steampunk’s dream of mining equipment, shafts, belts, wood ladders and stairs.  After the tour, they’ll teach you the fine art of gold panning.    

Georgetown (mile marker 228) -- the Silver Queen
Georgetown looks like a Colorado Christmas Card, something you would never suspect from the I-70.
When John Denver was looking for the most picturesque town in Colorado for his holiday film, “The Christmas Gift,” he picked Georgetown.  Ironically, millions of people zoom by this pretty village on I-70, or just stop at the gas stations at the exit, never knowing that just a mile away there are 200 Victorian buildings and one of America’s most beautiful main streets. 

The Georgetown Loop crosses Devil's Gate Bridge
It was silver that made the Georgetown rich and led to elaborate mansions and beautiful homes painted a rainbow of colors.  But it was the still-standing steeples here and there that preserved the town.  Not the churches.  The steeples are the remnants of volunteer fire companies, of which Georgetown had the best in Colorado.  Most mountain mining towns were made of wood and burned to the ground at one point or another.  Georgetown never had a major fire, and so the gorgeous main street and dozens of homes were all preserved and today, along with neighboring Silver Plume, are part of a National Historic District.

There are Western book stores, rock shops, railroad stores, galleries, Native American artworks, cute little restaurants – and of course, the Western staple – saloons.  But the most fun is to walk or bike the backstreets, past one colorful Victorian home after another. You can tour the 1867 Hamill House, the home of a former Colorado governor, or stop in to see the Hotel de Paris, one of the West’s most opulent hotels that served French champagne and oysters in the 1870s.

The steeples around Georgetown are old fire departments that kept it safe.
Of all the railroad engineer feats in Colorado, one of the greatest – and scariest – is the Devil’s Gate Bridge, the 100-foot-high narrow trestle that allowed the railroad to corkscrew around and literally crossover itself, just like a Lionel toy train set, climbing 600 feet in elevation in just four miles.  The feat became known as the Georgetown Loop, and today it offers a short – but thrilling – steam locomotive ride to Silver Plume, once a booming mining metropolis, but now more of a ghost town with dirt streets and old and empty false front buildings.

The steam train sends huge plumes of smoke 100 feet in the air as it chugs up the steep climb though stands of aspen, sending people scurrying from side-to-side of the open gondola cars for photos of the ever-changing scenery.  The train lets go with a whistle every time it crosses the stream, and that’s the moment to have your video going.  The sound of that whistle echoing off the mountains will be one that haunts you for a long time.

Silverthorne (Mile Marker 205)  -- A River Runs Through It

The Outlets of Silverthorne are beside pretty Blue River
Few places have changed more than Silverthorne.  Before 1967, there was nothing here but a gas station and a makeshift construction camp for workers building Dillon Dam.  Today, Silverthorne will celebrate its 50th anniversary in 2017 as a town that has now grown to 4,000 souls and offers one of the most beautiful shopping experiences in the nation – the Outlets at Silverthorne.  There are more than 50 brands here, offering savings of up to 70 percent on Ralph Lauren, J. Crew, Columbia, Calvin Kline, Eddie Bauer and Levis.  But it’s the setting that makes it special.  The shopping is split into three villages on both sides of the meandering Blue River, which flows right through the center of Silverthorne.  Bridges connect the shopping villages, which also have underpasses beneath the roads.

You can continue on the paved bike and walking trail beside the Blue River for miles, passing upscale restaurants near the river bank like Sauce on the Blue.  This gorgeous eatery has huge picture windows looking out onto the river, an outdoor patio, and offers wonderful Italian classics like Spaghetti Bolognese and New York Style pizza to more contemporary dishes like Penne Gorgonzola.  It will be the perfect place to dine before heading down the block to what will be the new Silverthorne Performing Arts Center, a cultural epicenter for all of Summit County.  The new space will have two theatres for music concerts, Broadway shows, lectures and other events, as well as outdoor space that can be used for summer concerts.  

The Gore Range rises above Silverthorne with gorgeous views in all directions
Not only is the river beautiful, it is designated as a Gold Medallion Fishing Stream, a honor reserved for only a few of the thousands of miles of waterways in Colorado.

Just down the road, past a field of grazing yaks, is Summit Sky Ranch, a new 21st century development of 240 single-family homes designed to fit into the landscape, rather than altering the landscape to accommodate the architecture.  Unique to the area, this will be a “dark sky community,” with lower light levels so as to make it easier to see the stars that blanket the Rocky Mountain sky above.   

Silverthorne has sweeping views of Lake Dillon.
A state-of-the-art observatory will have a 20-inch refactor telescope that can be enjoyed by all through live stream to the Aspen House community center.  The Blue River Valley of Silverthorne has very little ambient light, which is one way of saying, there’s nothing out here but mountains.  It can be dark, which makes the night sky all that more amazing.

Ironically in Colorado, which was filled with gold and silver mines, Silverthorne’s name has nothing to do with the shiny metal.  It was named after a local, Judge Marshall Silverthorn.  Someone added the “e” along the way.

Frisco (Mile Marker 201) 

Every corner of Frisco is decorated with flowers
Frisco was founded in 1870, so it’s been around a lot longer than Silverthorne.  Sort of.  Though it was a mining town and in its heyday had two railroads, a slew of saloons, shops and hotels, the depression hit Frisco hard.  By 1930, there were only 18 people left in town.  Frisco didn’t even get indoor plumbing until 1950.  But then in the 1960’s, Colorado’s ski industry was born with Vail, Breckenridge, Keystone and Copper Mountain all just a short drive away.  The former Ghost Town of Frisco boomed again with white gold.

Today, there are 2,800 full-time residents and 34 bars and restaurants.  From I-70, Frisco looks like a uninviting roadside collection of box stores and fast food, but if get off the highway and drive a mile to the historic downtown, you’ll be rewarded with one of the prettiest and most historic main streets in Colorado.  

Bread + Salt is the place for breakfast.
The Frisco Historic Park has relocated a dozen buildings, including an old jail, schoolhouse, ranch house, trapper’s cabin, chapel and others, and built them into a beautiful park on Main Street surrounded by Aspen trees.  Don’t miss the model railroad of Frisco in the 1800s; you can run the tiny engine and cars around the miniature village for a quarter.

Across the street, Prosit is a Bavarian beer hall with 30 European beers and a slew of sausages, including pheasant, buffalo, elk, and wild boar, all with sauerkraut, shredded cheese, peppers and every type of mustard.  Backcountry Brewery has an outdoor beer garden, while Bread + Salt is the town’s casual breakfast place, surrounded by aspens and flower boxes.

Frisco’s main attraction these days is the Frisco Marina, which sits on the shores of 3,300-acre Lake Dillon.  

The Marina is right in the center of Frisco
There are 25 miles of shoreline surrounded by mountain views, as well kayak and paddleboat rentals, sailboat regattas, boat tours, paddleboards, canoes, fishing pole rentals, sailing lessons and waterside dining.  Or rent a bike and pedal around the lake on paved, off-road trails.  Of course, the lake sits at 9,000 feet above sea level, so the sailing season is short….early June to mid-September.  When the snow starts (which can be mid-September!) Frisco’s Adventure Park, and the Nordic Center have multi-lane tubing hills, with a lift to take you and your tube back up the mountain.  There’s cross-country skiing, snowshoeing and skating. 

And, of course, if you’re really desperate to get to Vail, it’s just 30 minutes farther on down the highway.

IF YOU GO:   Town of Frisco 

Prosit on Frisco's main street is the place for buffalo and elk sausage and European beers.

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Ten Ways to Explore New France in Old Quebec

Old Quebec from the walls of the Citadel 
 It took just 15 minutes in a battle in 1759 to end the empire of New France, but it’s taken the 257 ensuing years to create the marvelous concoction that replaced it – the wonderful walled, multi-cultural city of Vieux Quebec.  Old Quebec is the most European-looking town in America, a twisting maze of cobblestone streets lined with colorful umbrellas and outdoor cafes, century-old stone buildings with bright red roofs and overflowing flower boxes, cute little shops selling local cheeses and maple syrup, and everywhere, cannons.  

The gates are not historic, but were added to keep the walls intact

There are 4.6 kilometers of preserved cannon-studded stone walls circling the old town, which can only be breached by entering through four medieval-looking gates.  Once inside, you are in an UNESCO World Heritage Site fairy tale, an 18th Century European village with the fantastic castle-like Chateau Frontenauc – the most photographed hotel in the world – hovering over the town center.

In Old Quebec, every conversation begins with “Bonjour!”  Horse-drawn carriages clip-clop up the street, waiters carrying huge platters of beer and food shuffle from table to table and everywhere there is color, from parks filled with flower beds to historic flags flapping in the breeze to gaily painted wood shutters and doors.  

Pretty Rue Saint Anne is lined with historic buildings.

It is a far different place than the nearly abandoned and bombed out ruin of a smoldering town that the British marched into on September 13, 1759.   And yet, much of Quebec is still the same, because in Old Quebec, you are never more than a step or two from its 400-year-old history.

The battle lasted only 15 minutes, but you can spend days exploring the stories around it and discovering the crazy cultural mix that transformed New France into Old Quebec.  Here are 10 places to start.

The Plains of Abraham
Frenchman Jacques Cartier started it all by sailing up the Saint Lawrence River in 1534 and claiming all he saw (basically all of eastern Canada)  to be New France.  No one seemed impressed.  It was 74 years before anyone came again.  This time, in 1608, Samuel de Champlain sailed up the Saint Lawrence and for defensive purposes, at the river’s narrowest spot, protected by a sheer cliff, he founded Quebec City.  For 150 years, the town, surrounded by stone walls, prospered and did well with fur and lumber trade. 

But then Quebec got caught up in the first real world war, a global conflict between France and England that extended to America, where it was called the French & Indian War.  In 1759 a British fleet arrived at Quebec and lobbed 36,000 heavy cannonballs and 6,000 bombs into the town, destroying much it and setting the rest on fire. 

But still the French held out.  In a last ditch desperate attempt, British General James Wolfe led 4,500 crack troops on a daring night raid, climbing the “unclimbable” cliffs protecting Quebec to gain the open fields outside the city walls.  French General Marquis de Montcalm felt he must push the British back into the river, and in a military move still debated, he led 4,500 poorly trained French militia and regulars outside the walls to attack.   The British redcoats were arrayed in two lines – the first “thin red line” of history.  They held their fire until the French were 40 yards away, then delivered two devastating blasts of musketry.  The first French line of troops disintegrated into dead and wounded.  The rest were routed, the British took the city and that’s why Queen Elizabeth is currently on the $20 Canadian bill. 

The museum features a sound and light show re-creating the battle.
Today, the battlefield is a far cry from blood and smoke and serves as the lungs of Quebec – a huge, beautiful park filled with bike trails, picnic spots, and, of course, cannons.  The Plains of Abraham Museum offers “Battles 1759-1760,” a multimedia exhibition where cannon balls appear to come flying at you off the screen and chilling first person accounts tell the story of the tragedy inflicted on soldiers and civilians.  

It’s somewhat ironical the bloodiest battlefield of Quebec is now where the city relaxes with concerts and recreation, but the fighting is not quite over.   Plans to re-enact the famous conflict on its 250th anniversary in 2009 were cancelled when people still upset over the outcome threatened to disrupt it.

Fort Museum    
The best of 1960s and 21st Century technologies combine to tell the story of Quebec’s battles at this museum, where a gigantic 60-year-old diorama filled with hundreds of toy soldiers has been updated with modern computer graphics and sound effects.  Little ships move, bombs explode and there’s enough battle noise to please anyone in this retelling of the 1759 battle, and the later attack on Quebec in 1775 by the Americans, led by (of all people) the famous American traitor, Benedict Arnold.  It’s old school tourism, but it holds your attention, and provides a graphic backstory of why there are so many cannons around town.

Dozens of cannons line the 4 kilometers of walls. 

No trip to Quebec is complete without walking the walls, and the best way is with a National Park walking tour.  For some reason, all the guides of military sites seem to be young millennial aged girls with limited interest in the fighting, but charming accents and attitudes.  No worries, there was never any fighting on the walls anyway.  Our guide began by asking, “How many of you are Americans?”  Half the group tentatively raised our hands.  “Well, these walls were built to keep you out.  And until today, they worked.”  The joke is not lost on contemporary Americans who realize that in the 19th century, we were the enemy and Canadians were forced to go to great lengths building walls to keep Americans out.

The 4 kilometers of walls are indeed an incredible feat, comparable to any of the walled cities in Europe. And the tour by the French Canadian guides is delightful and filled with fun.  You’ll forget the dates, but always remember a sweet French accent saying, “So as you can see, the walls were built on the side of the city of which the cliff was not.”

Tip: the guards enter the middle of the field, which is the best place to watch
Fed up with threats from America, in the 19th Century the now British Canadians finally finished the Citadelle, an impregnable “fort within a fort” -- the “Gibraltar of America” -- a place that was so powerful, it was never attacked.  Today, the star-shaped Vauban fortifications offer a look at 300 years of military architecture.  The highlight of the visit here in summer is the daily changing of the guard.  This is an active fort and the Royal 22nd Regiment is still stationed here.  The colorful, if a tad long, changing of the guard ceremony involves dozens of troops marching while a regimental band plays and officers yell orders.  

The Regimental Mascot Batisse 

Look for troops who seem to be shorter than the others.  They are women.  Some 10 percent of the 
regiment are women, and women participate in the changing of the guard, even as officers.

This is the only French regiment in Canada and all orders to it must be given in French.  Even Queen Elizabeth must give orders in French.  The Queen gave the regiment a Persian goat in 1955 to act as mascot and now the third generation of the goat, always named Batisse, is at every changing of the guard ceremony, posing for photos.  Don’t tell anyone, but there are actually three goats named Batisse.  The guides seem quite jealous of the goats.  “Each goat has to work only once every three days and the rest of the time they get to hang out with their girlfriends,” our guide said.

The views from the Citadel over Quebec are the best in the city, but you’ll have to take them fast.  This is a working fort and they don’t allow lingering.

The streets of old town

Many of the streets in old town are pedestrian. 
There are two Quebecs, the upper and lower town (the one on top of the cliff and the one below it, which has been greatly increased in modern times with landfill).  Both are fantastic.  The upper town has a maze of streets, some closed to traffic, and a beautiful wood terrace lined with gardens and cannons overlooking the Saint Lawrence River.  With the towering Chateau Frontenac as a beacon, it’s impossible to get lost, so the town is best explored by wandering aimlessly, ducking down this alley or taking that street to poke into shops selling maple syrup, Canadian art, Native American handcrafts, fur hats, and wool fashions.  Every third building is a colorful café or bar.  Rue Saint-Jean is a fun place at night, offering folk singers who do a mixture of songs in French and English. Paillard bakery is a favorite lunch stop with locals for sandwiches and pizza.   Craft beer has found Quebec with more than 70 breweries in the province creating 400+ different beers.  Maudite, Dieu du Ciel, and La Fin du Monde breweries are popular and widely available.  Rue Saint-Anne is a pedestrian street filled with local artists, portraitists and caricaturists showing off their works.  Rue Saint-Jean is closed to traffic on summer evenings and is lined with trendy cafes.

La Petit Champlain has 45 shops and restaurants.

The lower town is the oldest area of Quebec, especially at Place Royal, the oldest and most unchanged square of the city that looks much like it would have when Benedict Arnold and the American army attacked in 1775, just a few blocks away.  It was here in 1608 that Samuel de Champlain started the first permanent settlement in New France.  The Place Royal Museum has dioramas and a 3D movie to help you visualize the history that took place here. 

A bit livelier, is the Quartier Petit Champlain, the incredibly picturesque portion of the lower town where centuries old stone buildings now house 45 shops and restaurants, much of it terraced on the steep pedestrian path leading to the upper town.  There’s an 1879 funicular connecting the upper and lower towns for those that don’t do well on hills, but the climb is not that bad and is lined with shops and restaurants, so you’ll be missing a lot if you don’t walk.  The lower town specializes in handicraft boutiques selling jewelry, leather, fur, wool clothing, and decorative arts.
Flowers and cobblestones line the pedestrian streets in old town.

Both towns are home to incredibly talented street buskers who perform on stages sanctioned by the city.  From acrobats jumping through fire rings to Broadway quality singers belting out tunes from Phantom of the Opera, Quebec is like a three ring circus, and you are never far from free top quality entertainment.  Visually, the city is stunning with modern murals, outdoor sculptures and art works blending with 18th century stone architecture and cobblestones (don’t even attempt to walk in Quebec in anything but flat, comfortable shoes!).  

There are museums in Quebec covering everything from art to artillery, with historic houses, century old churches, monuments and an aquarium thrown in.  Of interest to seeing how New France became Vieux Quebec are the four partners of the Museum of Civilization, an organization dedicated to preserving the history and culture of the various people who have called Quebec home.  
A diorama of the famous 1759 battle in the Museum of Civilization

The modern Museum of Civilization is the city’s most popular museum, with a wide range of changing exhibitions.  There are artifacts from Cartier to Champlain, battle dioramas, and exhibits on the first peoples of America. 

The Musee de l’Amerique francophone will be a bit unusual to most U.S. visitors, who are probably unfamiliar with the word “francophone,” which means “someone who speaks French, especially in a country where there are two or more languages.”

The museums traces the history of French culture throughout North America, from the Mississippi and New Orleans to the Arcadians in Louisiana to many other little known influences.

For the right person, this could be a unique and once-in-a-lifetime experience.  The Hotel-Dieu de Quebec monastery was built in 1639 by the Augustinian Sisters, who made this the first hospital in America north of Mexico. Today, it is a 65-room boutique hotel, restaurant, museum and holistic wellness center that lets you experience what it was like to stay and live in a monastery.  Don’t even ask about Wi-Fi – you can’t even have an electric hairdryer or shaver.  The authentic rooms (or “cells” as they were called) are simple, clean and comfortable, with a sink and mirror, historic furniture, shutters and shared bath.  The 32 modern rooms have a contemporary look with private baths. 

But your room is just the beginning of the experience. There are packages that include workshops, lectures, concerts, meals and daily activities all designed to increase spirituality and holistic health in an authentic setting.  This is not the place to stay if you’re going to be out closing the bars on Rue Saint Jean, but for those looking for health, introspection and non-domination spirituality, look no farther.

If you’re not up to that, guided tours tell the story of the Sisters and with 40,000 objects, trace the history of medicine and the first hospital in New France.  There’s a bullet extractor used in the famous 1759 battle, and all sorts of horrific implements from early medicine.  In keeping with the program, you must be quiet during the tour and walk softly in the historic parts of the building.  

TheNew France Festival, Fêtes de la NouvelleFrance
Dance demonstrations, food, drink and music at the festival

Scheduled next for August 9-13, 2017, this festival is a must for anyone interested in history.  It’s also a hoot.  Staged in at the Artillery Park under the walls of the city, this is a massive celebration of all things 17th and 18th Century in New France with more than 400 programs and events, including a parade and fireworks.  Hundreds of people dress like 18th century soldiers, traders, common people, nobles, bar wenches and craftsmen.  You can rent costumes and join the fun, or at the very least, get a tri-corner hat, a tankard of ale and a turkey leg and enjoy the show.  Soldiers guard the gates, colonial bands play, Native Americans offer chants and there are craftsmen working their 18th century magic in a long line of booths selling leather goods, jewelry, muskets and pottery. 

Grab a tankard of ale and join in the fun.
Unlike so many historical re-enactments where the participants exhibit the three “O’s” (old, overweight and odd), here the costumed crowds are young and sexy, the beer is flowing, and there’s any number of delicious local delicacies to nibble on, from lobster rolls to local cheese fondue.  There are folk singers, buskers, corn-eating contests, colonial dance programs (even without a costume, you can learn the dances), military marching bands, gun firing demonstrations, and special tours of the fortifications.  There’s also a serious side with seminars and programs about the empire of New France.  

Roving costumed educators will tell you how there were only 60,000 Europeans in New France in 1759 versus 2 million people in the British colonies to the south.  Though New France was overwhelmed in war, the joie de vivre of the French people have kept the culture alive, and continue to celebrate it at this colorful festival.

New France didn’t exist during the Middle Ages and Renaissance period, but to make up for that, New York architect Bruce Price incorporated architectural styles from both periods into his masterpiece hotel, Chateau Frontenac.  Opened in 1893 (and expanded with five wings and a tower), the 611-room hotel is allegedly the most photographed hostelry in the world.  Who could doubt it?  It’s almost impossible to take a photo of Quebec without capturing this mystical castle in the center with its many fantastic green copper towers and turrets. 

The name comes from Louis de Baude, Count of Frontenac, who was the governor of New France from 1672-1698.  His coat-of-arms is on the entry arch to the hotel.  Under it have passed every celebrity to visit Quebec, from Princess Grace of Monaco and Celine Dion to Paul McCartney and Leonardo DiCaprio.  U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill held two of their few World War II meetings in the hotel in August 1943 and September 1944. 

The Chateau Frontenac looks like a castle over the European town of Quebec

Staying at the hotel is the ultimate Quebec experience.  There are 2,000 windows, 1.2 kilometers of corridors and it’s not unusual for the hotel to dish out 2,000 gourmet meals a day.  While the rooms have modern amenities in keeping with being one of the finest hotels in the world, the public spaces, lobby, 1608 Bar, and the rows of hotel shops are dripping with atmosphere and history. 

And then there are the views.  The hotel is built atop Dufferin Terrace, which is where Champlain built Quebec’s first fort in 1620.  Today, walking along the wide wood boardwalk terrace lined with cannons, there are sweeping views of the Saint Lawrence River in one direction and of the towering Chateau Frontenac in the other.  Had Montcalm won the famous battle in 1759, it’s hard to imagine how Quebec could have turned out any lovelier or more beautiful … or more French.

The friendly people of Quebec love visitors and enjoy discussing their amazing history and French culture.
IF YOU GO:     Everything you need is at the Quebec Region Tourism Office