As I passed through the gateway of the oldest walled city in North America, I could hear a buzz of excitement. Hoards of visitors swarmed the cobblestone streets. They had come to Canada to join the people of Quebec City in the celebration of their French heritage. For 15 years, the citizens of the UNESCO-protected site have partied in the streets for five days and nights during Les Fetes de la Nouvelle France or The New France Festival.
It takes place in early August in Quebec’s Lower Town where, in 1608, the first French settlers established their colony on the banks of the St. Lawrence River. The stone buildings that you see today have replaced the original wooden structures that were destroyed in the devastating fire of 1682. Festival activities center mainly in this area, but extend to Upper Town, too. Quebec is a walking city on two levels and traveling through the narrow, incling streets is doable. But if you find the walk too challenging, a funicular will carry you up and down the cliff.
I was fortunate enought to be outfitted with a beautiful gown of that earlier time period. Along with my colleagues, I felt that we had stepped back in time. Dressed in styles from the 17th and 18th centuries, Canadian men, women and children were transformed into the aristocracy, farmers, merchants, soldiers, clergy, trappers, buccaneers and the others who inhabited the early settlement — with even a few folks representing the native people of the region. Those of us in costume paraded through Old Town behind a band that was dressed in historic uniforms.
Later, my companions and I wandered about, enjoying some of the many street performers, musicians and story-tellers. Characters on stilts entertained us festival-goers. The highlight of the day may have been the authentic marriage ceremony performed in the Place Royale where the wedding party was dressed in historic costumes. In an open-air marketplace, we sampled local foods, wines and beers. There, we relaxed in a shaded pavilion, and listened to live music while savoring our bread, cheese and white wine. In nearby restaurants, “17th century” waiters and wenches served traditional French dishes (with a distinct French-Canadian flavor, of course). You hear French spoken everywhere, although most people understand English, and signs and menus are in both languages.
The New France Festival is unique, and shouldn’t be missed. Look for it next year from the first Wednesday to the first Sunday in August.
(This is an excerpt from my article on American Airlines Black Atlas.)