Cross-training with Les Habitantes
Québec City Skating – Head just a little North to the ‘Paris’ of North America…
Posted Monday, 29 November, 2004
There is a plaza just outside the St. Jean gate, (in the old city wall), in front of the Palais Montcalm. It’s only the ides of November, but I’m ice skating on it. The knee hurts a little if I cross in one direction, but I love skating, it’s like flying. It’s a great combination of power and speed in the outside air, like riding a motorcycle. It’s one of those uniquely ‘northern’ activities that just make me happy, like a kid at Christmas.
In November it’s easy to love winter. We haven’t been beaten over the head with it for 6 months yet and it’s still a novelty. The weather is warm for Québec, mid-thirties Fahrenheit or hovering around zero if you’re the rest of the world. The plate of ice is smallish and irregularly shaped. It is, after all, not an ice rink per se, but a frozen over plaza. There are no hidden pipes to create what forms naturally all over Canada 6 months out of the year.
There are 30 or so of us skating in circles as the evening crowds of tourist wander by. Sometime they stop to ponder or take pictures. Most of us are swathed in warm winter coats, gloves and hats, even though, for Québec it’s really quite balmy. They dress in anticipation this time of year. They know from experience it is far better to have too much protection than to be caught unprepared in the chill of a Canadian weather change.
Québec City sits in Eastern Canada on the banks of the St. Lawrence River. If you look at the map, it’s due north of Maine. I have an office there. I drive up from Massachusetts most of the time because there is no direct flight. It takes about 7 hours. It’s a pretty drive through New Hampshire and Vermont.
My trip consists of pointing the car north and setting the cruise control. Besides the fauna and flora, there’s nary an opportunity to tap the brakes. (Once I got stuck in rush hour traffic in Lebanon NH and had to slow down to 70 MPH) If I have time, I can stop and sneak in a run in the White Mountains or Green Mountains or even the North East Kingdom, which can be very nice for trail aficionados.
When I get to Québec City I tend to take its charms for granted. Probably because I’ve spent so much time working there, I associate it with long days and stinky hotel rooms. It really is a lovely place to visit, (when you’re on vacation).
I’ve had a number of excellent runs there. Usually at the crack of dawn, in the blistering cold, but excellent runs nonetheless. One of the interesting things about the city is its geography. Much of the old walled city sits on top of Cape Diamant overlooking the St Lawrence River. No matter where you run in the city you can’t avoid climbing up and down this 200 yard tall cliff.
There are roads that go right up the cliff at 20-30 degree climbs. This is interesting considering the whole place is covered with snow and ice 6 months out of the year and they drive like Parisians on amphetamines. (It’s ok; they have ‘snow tires’) My personal favorite mode of ascent is the wooden staircases. Those who live in the city don’t drive, they walk. Like all very old cities, Québec is designed for walking. There are wooden staircases built up the side of the cliff in all directions, which gives running a cool hamster-habitrail feeling of discovery and novelty.
One of my old-standby runs is as follows: Leave the Holiday Inn, (down at river level). Follow Ave. Charest along the bottom of the cliff towards the river. You pass the Victorian era, still operational Rail Station, some very pretty 17-18th century brick and stone row houses and the Port with its pleasure boats and grain elevators. At the end of Charest, take a right on Champlain, along the waterfront at the base of the cliff.
It was here where Jacques Cartier spent a winter in 1535 at a place the natives called ‘Kebec’ or ‘where the river narrows. Jacques tried to settle here a couple times but thought it was to darn cold and skedaddled back to France. In 1608 Samuel de Champlain, in a fit of colonial expansionism, set the roots of New France here to stay.
If you look right while running west along the river front, you’ll be treated to the old part of the old city. Here on La Petite Champlain, crouching under the lee of the cliff, are sturdy stone buildings from the 1600’s with narrow cobbled streets filled with souvenir shops and yummy restaurants.
The original settlers built their shops and dwelling here at the base of the cliff. It wasn’t until some time later that they figured out it would be easier to defend from the top of the cliff.
Looming above La Petite Champlain are the walled fortifications of Old Québec with the grand Chateau Frontenac preeminent like a living postcard. I say this because if you look at any post card of Québec you will see the Chateau Frontenac front and center, a magnificent fairy tale castle rising from the heart of the city. For a couple hundred Canadian dollars a night you can stay there.
If you look left, you may be surprised by a nine story tall cruise ship bellied up to the quay, its scale totally out of proportion in the old city, like a 747 in your grandparent’s living room. They pull up in the night and disembark a few hundred argonauts for the day.
This is also, in August, where the Marathon des Deux Rives finish line is. The race starts over, across the river in Levis. I ran the demi-marathon (half) one year and the landmark cool feature is crossing the big old iron 1917 bridge across the river a few miles upstream. I also remember people who ran the marathon trying to get back up the hill to their hotel rooms, ouch!
Here as well is where they have a canoe race across the river in the dead of winter, where teams of participants swim-paddle-scramble across the ice chunks to the other side. One thing you can say about the Québecoise, they aren’t afraid of a little cold!
All this happens in the first mile out from the hotel. I sometimes cut up the winding streets and paths to explore the city proper, but usually continue down the bike path in the direction of Montreal to a set of stairs hidden a few kilometers yonder. These stairs must have a really cool French name, like the ‘Rue Diablo’ or something, but I don’t know it. They are set into the back of the cliff and rise straight up to the top. I lost count at 300 and something, and I dare you to run these puppies without stopping. Even better, run them in six inches of fresh powder!
This stairway to heck dumps you out on the top of the cliff behind the fortifications on the Plains of Abraham, an open, flat bit, where the British managed to end the dispute over who ruled the new world in 1759. The Brits floated past the fort and snuck up the back side of the cliff. When the French woke up they found a Red Coat army arrayed on their flanks. The ensuing battle ended French colonial ambitions in North America, but made little dent in the French culture that was by this time firmly established in Québec.
There is now a nice 1000 meter oval on the plains. There is an inner tarmac loop for in-line skaters, a grassy infield for all sorts of outdoor sports and hobbies in the brief summer, and an outer cinder path for the occasional New England runner who needs to do some speed work. The cinder path is marked with cryptic 100 meter bricks that I’ve yet to figure out what exactly they are measuring.
If you left the Holiday Inn at 5:00 AM, by the time you climb up to the plains on my route you will be treated to the red ball of the sun climbing over the St. Lawrence to the east. Picture this on a crisp morning where there is an unblemished 6 inches of fresh snow sparkling on the foreground. It’s really quite beautiful.
On this route I will then make my way back along the edge of the cliff towards the old fort. The ‘citadel’ is a massive low stone structure perched on the front of the cliff, bristling with black iron cannon, overlooking the river. It is sometimes referred to as the ‘Gibraltar of North America’. It is all a big museum now, with a ceremonial contingent of soldiers for the tourists. Québec is a huge tourist destination.
One of my favorite parts of this run is the promenade attached to the cliff along the front wall of the fort. It is like something in a video game. A wooden-planked walkway of stairs and paths that clings to the fort wall and follows it back towards the Frontenac, looking straight down on Champlain and across at the lights of Levis. You get some significant ‘scenic views’ opportunities.
The walkway spills out into a broad boardwalk under the Frontenac where tourists gather and there is always some sort of civic festival being put on. From here you can wind your way through a choice of old streets. I usually head uphill (again) out one of the citadel gates to run by the parliament building with its forest of statuary, a who’s who of New France in stone. There is an actual large stone wall with parapets and the works around the old city. It is constructed of large stone blocks and looks like something out of the Knights of the Round Table. From there I wind my way back down hill to my hotel. This is probably about a 10k. When I’m lazy, I just run the bike path along the river because it doesn’t require any mountaineering.
I never see many people running although the province has a strong distance running tradition. Boston Marathon geeks will be able to tell you about Gerard Cote who caused Johnny Kelly to finish second a number of times in the 1940’s with four first place medals. If they are real nerds they can even tell you about Jacqueline Gareau who’s first place luster in 1980 was tarnished by the trolley-hopping Rosy Ruiz.
On this night my knee is too sore to fight the hills and I take to the rink to work off my mussels in garlic wine sauce, fish soup and blueberry cheesecake, (gateau fromage et bluets).
The skaters are a mix of locals and tourists. The locals are obvious by the power and grace with which they move. Even on this small rink, you can sense the power and agility of perennial hockey players slightly bent forward, legs balanced to protect the puck that isn’t there. The Canadian women, educated on an alternate figure skating curriculum, practice twirls in the corners.
The tourists lurch about on rental skates, frequently sitting on the side and laughing with their friends at the absurdity of the night’s activity. That’s right, in the heart of old Québec ; you can rent skates at the plaza. The skating itself is free. Which makes perfect sense, because skating for the Québec oise is equivalent to walking.
Not only are they renting skates, but they will sharpen them for you too and there is a pigmy Zamboni that is housed here that emerges every hour to clean the ice. Only in Canada would the city officials support such a thing.
I’m in my old hockey skates, scarred with 20 years of collisions and puck marks. The blades are almost ground flat from sharpening. The eyelets I fixed with super glue a decade or more ago. You could say they are ‘comfortable’. It is easier to get my skates sharpened here than in Massachusetts. The nice lady renting the skates has a robotic machine that does all the work. Only in Canada…
The guy who drives the Zamboni is wearing a NASCAR jacket and whizzes around the small surface sliding sideways in the corners, like the Dukes of Hazard. It’s surreal and funny sitting there listening to piped French songs and watching Jean-Claude Duke go through his hourly dance on the ice.
My knee is ok in one direction and luckily for me everyone in North America skates counter-clockwise by default. I skate for an hour or so and then amble back though the streets to the hotel. I treat myself to a Cuban cigar, (don’t tell John Ashcroft). What the hell, I’m not in training.
I walk by the place where they have a wonderful ice palace and ice sculpture display in February during the winter carnival. It’s really quite something with multicolored spotlights reflecting and refracting through the ice. Even though it’s colder than the surface of Mars in February, all the hotels are sold out and crowds of people are out cavorting in the ice.
In February they have a hotel entirely made out of ice that you can stay in, if you’re into that sort of thing. Not me. Tonight I head back to the Holiday Inn.
Even though I’m jaded with too many business trips north, you should go the Québec sometime, you’ll love it. In the brief summer they go crazy like people escaped from an asylum and the weather is great. In the winter, it’s harsh, but beautiful, and just as alive.
The city is beautiful, the food is outstanding, and the women are French (need I say more?) The exchange rate is in your favor and it’s relatively close by. Fly into Boston, New Hampshire or Vermont and take the scenic drive. Montreal, the ‘big city’ in Québec is only a couple hours north of Burlington, VT. From there you can drive the 2.5 hours to Québec City or take a train.
Look for me, I’ll be the guy skating counterclockwise, looking like a hybrid between a tourist and a local, smelling of mussels and cheesecake.