It was around Thanksgiving of 2015 that I looked at my calendar and realized that I wouldn’t have the boys from Boxing Day to New Year’s Day and that I also had the week off work. Maybe I should take a trip somewhere, I asked myself. By myself. Yes, that’s exactly what I needed to do. It had been a really difficult year and why not end it in a fabulous way?
I decided that a bucket list trip was needed. Quebec. I could practice my French (I have a degree in it), eat fabulous food and enjoy the architecture and culture. I booked a flight to Montreal, then a train to Quebec City and a flight back to Richmond. Six days, on my own, in a place where I didn’t know a soul and I could wander the streets anonymously, with my camera in hand and no specific agenda. In freezing cold weather. I ordered a long thick coat from Land’s End.
I was a little nervous when it came to leave for the airport but little did I know that I was about to embark on a magical 6 days of discovery. After touching down in Montreal, I got a taxi to my hotel which was tucked behind the Notre Dame Basilica. The Hotel Saint-Sulpice is located in Old Montreal. Despite the historic location, the interior is modern, the rooms accented with pops of red amongst the predominantly black and brown decor. After getting settled, I decided to venture out into the cold and take a walk. It was late but I didn’t care. I rounded a corner and there stood the Basilica which momentarily took my breath away, little did I know that the interior would have me in tears the next day.
It was a Sunday the next day and I decided to attend Mass at the Notre Dame Basilica. I joined the crowds of regular worshippers as well as fellow tourists and entered what has to be one of the most beautiful buildings that I have ever seen. I was born and raised in the Catholic faith but lost my way as a teenager and never quite found my way back to it. However, the Cathedrals, churches and rituals never fail to draw me in and bring me peace. Mass was said in French, with a brief welcome in English from the Bishop. There was a full choir with the organ and I was moved to tears. The indescribable beauty, the sound of the music, the haven of warmth from the frigid outdoors, the feeling of being somewhere so very safe….I’ll always carry that from this experience.
Thoroughly moved by my experience here, I left the rich warmth for the frigid grey outdoors and made my way to Restaurant Holder for a classic Bistro brunch of Eggs Benedict and a Kir Royale. Perfect. The afternoon was spent exploring Old Montreal, admiring the buildings, people-watching, and eventually finding myself in another place of worship, the Chappelle Notre Dame de Bonsecours, also known as the Sailors’ Church, a gorgeous church right by the river.
Without a doubt, one of the goals of this trip was to learn to happily be alone, to enjoy my own company and be comfortable with that. As a lover of food, that meant learning to walk into a restaurant and asking for a table for one. It’s not easy when you start out but now I have no problem with it. That evening, I just decided to go for it. I didn’t just go into a casual restaurant, I booked a six-course tasting dinner at the highly rated Bonaparte in Old Montreal. I was pretty nervous as it was quite posh and I was to be the only solo diner there. However, they put me at a lovely table beside a wall with a view of the window overlooking the street. It’s astonishing to me that I have no pictures of that evening nor can I remember what exactly I ate. But boy do I remember how I felt. I knew that the waiter had warmed to me when he found out I wanted the full hit of courses and asked him to pick wines to go with them. I had swiped the pad of paper from my hotel room along with a pen and wrote notes, not about the food, but about future plans, goals for my boys, catering ideas…I think everyone there thought I was a restaurant critic because I received the best service ever! The delicious wine and food relaxed me and I found myself lost in my own thoughts and pleasure, pretty much oblivious to the surrounding diners. Mission accomplished.
On a daily basis, I posted pictures on Facebook and got such great feedback that it really helped push myself out of my comfort zone. My people needed stories! They had signed up for the experience and each morning, it helped me to get out of bed and go in search of adventure so that I’d have something to report at the end of the day. This particular day was frigidly cold and I walked to the Plateau Mont-Royal, the famous park overlooking the city. I have never been so cold but also have never needed such a long walk, “miles and miles of therapy” I believe my friend Tina commented. The walk took me through the more business part of the city and once again, I found myself ducking into a Cathedral nestled amongst the modern buildings, this time the Cathedrale Marie-Reine-du-Monde, a smaller version of St Peter’s Basilica in Rome.
It’s a steep walk up Mont-Royale and particularly tough in such cold temperatures and ice. The steps to the viewing area were cordoned off due to the ice but most people decided to ignore that and take them anyway. Being by myself, I decided to not risk falling and literally take the road less travelled. And I’m glad I did. The road gently wound up and around and I was able to take in lovely views with no crowds. By the time I reached the top, I was absolutely freezing but the view and sense of accomplishment was worth it.
I walked about 10 miles that day and didn’t eat until 4, I remember collapsing into a small Bistro, ordering Lamb Shank and red wine and devouring it like I hadn’t eaten in weeks. What a day, one I’ll never forget.
A snowstorm hit that night and I woke up to a very white Montreal. It was the day I was catching a train to Quebec City, but unlike other places in the world, the train left right on time!
For only about $40 more than Coach, I treated myself to a Business Class ticket. A great value. While we hurtled through the Province, I was served drinks from the bar and a hot lunch by the most charming staff you can imagine. The Canadians really are lovely. There was a full blown blizzard going on outside but the warmth and camaraderie inside the train served as a lovely contrast. A delightful way to spend three or four hours.
Arriving in Quebec City was almost comical. Almost. The blizzard conditions were such that the snow and wind were pounding me horizontally as I left the station. I couldn’t see beyond about 2 ft. My hotel was just 500 ft from the station but I went in the wrong direction at first. It was one of those “what the f$&@ was I thinking?!” moments but I eventually made it to the lovely Hotel des Coutellier where the receptionist happily didn’t laugh at my completely disheveled appearance. I checked in to my delightful room and congratulated myself on not only making it there but also having booked a bar seat in the restaurant, Legende, attached to the hotel. Upon entering the restaurant, my best French came out all of a sudden, finally! The Maitre D’ replied to me so fast that I lost it immediately and he switched to English saying, “Oh, I thought you were French”. I could have kissed him.
I was led to my spot at the bar, seated between a lovely Midwestern American couple and a charming young couple from Montreal. They immediately started chatting with me and making recommendations. The bartender was a total foodie, in fact I was surrounded by people who were all about the menu. Paradise! I proceeded to have one of the best culinary experiences of my life: Oysters and champagne, a Smoked Artic Char Brussels Caesar then Bison. I finished off with the strangest dessert; a parsley and cilantro sorbet with meringue, herb cake and maple cream. It worked.
I slept well that night and woke up to my continental breakfast hanging in a bag on the door handle. I opted to spend my mornings leisurely, usually ready for a late morning walk, a search for lunch, then happily meandering through this lovely walled city. Montreal was fabulous, but Quebec City stole my heart. There was something about the unploughed narrow streets, the Christmas lights, the little shops and restaurants. I loved all of it! Of course, you can’t forget the imposing presence of the Chateau Frontenac. I will stay there one day, I really will.
The contrast between the grey and white outside with the rich colors and warmth inside, did not escape me. I loved it, in fact. The colors and textures in the food and inside churches and shops were so rich and made for even more of a sensory experience. I took a food tour one day that was so much fun. I tasted cheese at the Chateau Frontenac, sampled chocolate at La Fudgerie, toasted marshmallows on a patio and visited the big indoor market near my hotel.
At night, the city became even more magical with the snow and the lights. I would eat out early so as to not to have to walk back to the hotel by myself late at night. A particularly memorable dinner was at a restaurant close to the hotel, I forget the name of it, but I had a blind tasting menu. It was fabulous!
New Year’s Eve was my last full day. I had read about a restaurant called Le Clocher Penche in an neighborhood that was more local than touristy. They served brunch that day and it was absolutely worth the half hour trudge through the snow to get there. My Eggs Benedict with the twist of Duck Rillettes and a Blueberry Sauce was a culinary masterpiece. Topped with the freshest greens imaginable, I was in heaven.
After the countless calories I had consumed, a hearty walk to the Musee des Beaux Arts was much needed. On the map it was a straight shot. In reality, it was a steep climb which resulted in my scariest experience of the trip. Climbing a seemingly endless flight of steps. I hate heights and I detest steep steps. But, this trip was all about conquering fear so up I went. Heart pounding, knees shaking, I froze half way up but ultimately kept going. The relief at reaching the top of this ascent of terror, was overwhelming. When I looked back down, I felt pretty proud of myself.
Whilst I can’t claim to be an art expert, I love and appreciate it in my own way. I spent a blissful couple of hours at the museum. When I came across two paintings side by side, one red and one white, I sighed. I’ve just never taken the time to understand it. Then I read the description and lo and behold, I had a revelation. It wasn’t just a canvas with some white paint slapped on it…. moving closer to the painting I saw different shades, varying textures. Wow. Now I get it, albeit in my own special way.
When I left the museum, it was dark outside and time to trek back “home”, with dinner on the way there. I passed by a street near the museum that has carried the artwork outside, in the form of giant lanterns. Such a great idea that brought a wonderful character to the street.
My journey back took me through where all the festivities would occur for the countdown to midnight and the New Year. I loved seeing all the lights, the outside ice bars being set up, the Ferris Wheel in the Centre, all so festive. One thing I knew for sure was that I would be tucked up in bed by midnight!
I stopped off at Le Cochon Dingue for a Steak Frites dinner which was just what I wanted. I also enjoyed the lovely views in around the Chateau. I vowed I’d be back to this lovely city and couldn’t believe it was almost time to go home. When I got back to the hotel, I popped open a bottle of Québécois bubbly and watched the festivities on the television.
After 6 days of grey, I woke up to sunshine on New Year’s Day. I like to think it was symbolic of a new era.
I wanted to both end this trip and start 2016 with a bang. My flight home didn’t leave until late afternoon so I made a reservation for one at Le Bistro Sam at the Chateau Frontenac, for a very long lunch. Pure pleasure. I ordered one of their cocktails, an amazing apple martini, that had steam coming from it! Gorgeous presentation and a hefty price tag. I ordered the cheese and charcuterie board which consisted of local cheeses and house cured meats. For the next couple of hours I just picked away at this plethora of goodness, soaking in the luxurious atmosphere and rejoicing in the memories of a most fabulous week.
It’s been interesting writing this piece over 18 months later as life is quite different now, in a good way. I will always remember this trip as being a springboard to my new, more independent life. I would be fine by myself. I enjoyed the time alone. I planned this trip only 5 weeks before I took it and I loved every second. Traveling solo is eye opening. I think it heightens your senses and liberates you to soak in the experience catering for you, and you alone. You get to create and enjoy an experience that is wholly yours. Is it better to have someone by your side saying “hey, look at that”? Sure. That’s nice too. But, I’d travel by myself again anytime. And as for Quebec? I’d go back in a heartbeat.