Angelina Jolie, Hillary Clinton and Madonna are all descended from the first 800 French women Louis XIV sent over to colonise Quebec in the late 1600s. At least that is according to our tour guides Katia and Andre, who kept us informed and entertained on a lively day-trip to Quebec City with Gray Line Montreal.
Founded in 1608, Quebec City is Canada's oldest city and is regarded as the cradle of French civilisation in North America. It is the only walled city north of Mexico and in 1985 was named a UNESCO World Heritage site. Its history is palpable in the narrow cobbled streets, stone buildings and wooden balconies that characterise the old part of the city and give it a distinctly European feel.
View from the top of the funicular railway line, Quebec City
On the two and a half hour drive northeast from Montreal to Quebec City, Andre, who was also our coach driver, was charming and funny, giving us count-downs to photo opportunities en route and a commentary leaving Montreal and on the approach to our destination. One of the quirkier facts he mentioned was that an ice hotel is built in Quebec City every year, which takes one month to build, lasts for three months between January and March and is booked up two years in advance.
Katia took us on a speedy guided walking tour of the lower part of the old town, including Place Royale and Petit Champlain, the oldest commercial district in North America, providing an informed, bilingual commentary about the history of the city.
We re-boarded the coach for a visit to the Montmorency Falls, about 13km northeast of Quebec City. At 84m high these Falls are higher than Niagara Falls and are spectacular. We only stopped to take a photograph but you could spend half a day there, riding up on the cable car or taking the stairs, walking across the suspension bridge on the crest of the Falls and visiting the interpretation centre, café and restaurant at Manoir Montmorency.
Returning to Quebec City's Upper Town, Katia pointed out the fortified city wall, the business district, some of the main buildings housing the government of the province of Quebec, and the train station le Gare de Palais, built in 1915 by the Canadian-Pacific Railway company in the same style as the Fairmont Chateau Frontenac hotel which dominates the city skyline with its pointed green turrets.
Quebec City's main employer is the government, which accounts for 45,000 jobs in a population of 516,000. Tourism is the city's second most important industry, followed by information technology. Fun snippets of information mentioned by our guide included the fact that the video game 'Assassin's Creed' was created in the city as was the original design for Crocs shoes, and KFC, the well-known fast food chain, is called PFK or Poulet Frit Kentucky in Quebec City.
After the guided tours we had three hours to explore the city by ourselves or go on a pre-booked boat trip along the St Lawrence. The highlights for me included browsing the dozens of shops in the historic part of town, riding the funicular railway from the Lower Town to the Upper Town and taking in the views at the top, and seeing the two fantastic trompe l'oeil or three-dimensional murals in the old town.
Day trips by coach aren't for everyone and they have their pros and cons. On the plus side they are great if you are travelling alone, are short of time and want a quick tour, if you can't drive or don't have the budget to hire a car, or if you are not very able-bodied. You do have to follow a tight schedule and there is no room for slackers – if you're not at the coach when you're supposed to be the coach will leave without you!
You need to book your Gray Line tour in advance online or by phone. The day starts at 8am if you elect to be picked up at the Peel Street tourist office in Montreal or earlier if you pre-arrange a hotel pick-up. There is one comfort stop half way to Quebec City when you can also buy refreshments. Departure from Quebec City is at 5pm and you get back to Montreal at about 8pm.
I've visited Quebec City and it's very charming with historic old-world French flavour. When I went, we took a horse and buggy ride up on to the Plains of Abraham (famous battle site). Definitely worth visiting.