Nouvelle France Festival in Quebec City, Canada
On a recent August morning I discovered the antidote for the maladies of modern life. A visit to the 18th century, courtesy of a costume, and the Nouvelle France (New France) Festival in Quebec City. Well-dressed couples were strolling the cobblestone streets. The women in their gowns of silk and lace. The men with waistcoats and satin breeches. The townspeople were clearly enjoying their day, nodding to one another. Watching street performers. Eating barbequed sausage. It was 18th century Quebec, and I was having a great time. Decked out in my pale pink satin and lace gown, I strolled, flounced, curtsied and nodded Bonjour to my compatriots.
Quebec City founded in 1608 by Samuel de Champlain as the cradle of French civilization in North America. The French may have abandoned the fledgling colony to the British by the Quebecois never abandoned their heritage. Old Quebec (Vieux-Quebec), a UNESCO World Heritage site, preserves and celebrates its unique history and forms the perfect stage for this Nouvelle France Festival.
The best place for costumed 18th century strolling is the Place-Royale with its charming, wandering streets. The history of Place-Royale is the history of Old Quebec. Part of the Basse Ville (Lower Town) and older than the Upper Town -- by 1680 the Place-Royale proudly took its place as the town square. But fires, cannon bombing during the time the French and British were vying for the colony, more fires, even urban blight had reduced the once-proud area. In 1960 the government embarked on a program to return it to a vibrant living history. The new Place-Royale is based on plans and decrees from the 1700s and the buildings have been rebuilt in a Norman style construction that might have been the homes of wealthy merchants. Fires were a major concern 400 years ago, so the buildings were constructed of stone, with firewalls between building and ladders on the Mansard roofs. When a chimney fire occurred it would be easy to climb up the roof and douse it. Today, the buildings provide shops on the lower floor and housing with modern conveniences on the upper floors.
Down nearer the water a large grassy area became an open-air tavern. Thatched roofed stands sold barbequed meat, fresh fruits, eggs, cheese, cider, and more. Cyrano de Bergerac wandered through the crowd, charming the ladies with his declamations on the size of his nose. Even without understanding French, it is tres charmant.
The festivities certainly aren't restricted to Place-Royale. In fact, they are spread throughout the entire old city and form a mosaic of experiences. Every night there's a gala parade open to everyone with a costume. For our parade, we walked along through the center of town and ended in Montmorency park. People filled the sidewalks and waved and we curtsied, tipped hats, and waved right back.
Although participating is the highlight for many (especially with cheering spectators), the parade features entertainers and the very popular Giants, large walking marionettes, including the newest a 15-foot tall Great Spirit of the Nations, an acknowledgement of the first inhabitant, the native American First Nations.
The ability to become part of the pageantry is part of the charm and success of the Nouvelle France festival. "You yourselves are becoming an attraction at the festival, " noted Michel Proulx, the president of the 2004 New France Festival. There are places to rent a well-made costume for the festival but many people make their own ranging from simple long dresses to elaborate fur trimmed confections. Peasant outfits were as popular as the more elaborate creations and far easier to make, especially for a family. The key wasn't the status of one's clothes looking back a few hundred years, but the desire to participate.
A pass, which provides entree into the 1,100 events in 17 venues cost $7 (CD) in 2004. Probably one of the greatest entertainment bargains this decade. Although technically bi-lingual, Quebec City is mostly French-speaking and entertainment is presented in that language. Unless you're fluent in French the story-telling and recreations of council meetings may prove problematic but music is universal and international and included Celtic, Cajun, Scottish and more. Acrobats charmed crowds of adults and children. Plus whiskey tastings and traditional dances. I confess I skipped most of the cultural experiences and even the music to savor the city.
Quebec City manages to be both uniquely historic and welcomingly sophisticated. We wandered through the city, perfectly content to mix 18th century dress with modern shopping and credit cards. Trying on a lovely boucle knit sweater over my satin and lace gown created an incongruous image, although perhaps not as odd as walking into the tourist information desk to request a map to help find our way through th city. "It's changed a lot in 300 years," quipped my companion dressed in a lively blue waistcoat and breeches.
Ah, there's nothing as restorative as a visit to the 17th or 18th centuries. Especially with modern conveniences.