Category Archives: Travel

A Very Alsatian Christmas: Day 4 – Strasbourg Grub Crawl

And so another trip comes to an end. Can’t complain when I have managed to have three very different trips in a year although it remains to be seen how next year will pan out given what a painful time we are likely to see in the UK.

Anyway, happier things. Today was the final day of the trip and, with a later afternoon train out of Strasbourg, that meant we were able to have another go around some of our favourite Christmas markets with much much MUCH smaller crowds than on Saturday.

This ended serving two purposes. First, it was the time to mop up any souvenirs we wanted to get. For me it meant to fulfillment of a long-time desire of mine to have a proper Christmas Market grub crawl. After all, there were three of us which means we’d be able to try a bunch of things whilst not having to buy three portions of everything.

First was a visit to the Christkindelsmarik, aka the oldest market and the one we did last back on Saturday. The food was spatzel with knockwurst and a Munster sauce. This is the kind of spatzel I had really been fancying when we’d visited Colmar – so I am extremely glad to have had some now.

We then went through the largest market, with the Christmas tree, towards the Place au Chateau market. The food was a tartine flambé with sausage and emmental. There is not a theme here, but having seen a lot of people walk around with this, I just really wanted to try it. It’s something so simple and when I think of the price point of 6 Euros, the London markets really do have a lot of nerve.

Walking onto the Saint Thomas market, we had the best part of the grub crawl – potato galettes with Munster on. Honestly, it didn’t really need the cheese because the galettes were just so flavourful and crisp. This is something I am going to have to look up at some point because I need to know how to make these and then watch myself balloon.

Finally it was back to the Place Kleber market to have dessert of a chocolate covered soft bretzel with a final cup of hot apple juice. The grub crawl was complete and final souvenirs have been bought. All that is left is to actually get on the four trains that will get me home and rest up before work in the morning. Trips like this really are just too short, but should be enough to lift the spirits as I write my magnum opus (aka my handover notes so I can move on to a new job). This blog will be quiet once again until late April where more holiday diaries will hopefully be going up – covid permitting.

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A Very Alsatian Christmas: Day 3 – Europa Park

The ability to stay in one country and then hop over a border for a day trip is something that (as a little islander Brit) still flummoxes me. This is the beauty of Europe and the EU and… well anyway not going into those feelings.

Part of the big sell of Strasbourg for me was that it would mean a return trip to Europa Park. I was there previously in August 2018 and I have been telling anyone who asks that this is the best theme park in the world full stop. Have I been to enough to make this judgement? No, but as a package it just blows everywhere out of the water.

In December, the ways to get there are a bit more limited as we aren’t exactly in the on season. There is the traditional train and express bus route – but it’s a bit of a faff as you need to change trains and that’s not something that you want to be doing too late at night. Thankfully there is a daily coach that stops there as part of a route between Strasbourg and Freiburg – which ended up being perfect.

I think in my post from four years ago, I went into a lot of detail about the things we did on our day. Most of this still stands. Europa Park is just this perfect mix of excellent theming and variety in well made attractions. They are even starting to lean more into their own IP as part of creating an internal universe, which I think is brilliant. If some of their kids books had been in English, I would have been tempted to pick up a copy.

So, what is different between now and over four years ago? For one thing the entire park has been decked out for Christmas and the results are truly stunning. During the day, it is pretty but you wait in anticipation for the sun to set and the lights to go on. And when they did it was a unreal fairyland. Everywhere came alive. The German main streets, Spain and Scandinavian areas were especially magical with all their Christmas lights on. I would have been happy to stay longer and just walked around without getting on rides.

Being the area of the world we are in, there is also a Christmas Market here with a main concentration of stalls in Germany, but other country areas also have their own offerings. Even though lunch was a return trip to the Foodloop where we had some pretty brilliant burgers delivered by rollercoaster, there was a chance to have some actual winter snacks from the market. Namely dampfnudel and a cinnamon sugar covered Baum-striezel. Perfect for an evening before watching the parade.

As for new rides, two have opened since we were last here and one has reopened since it was damaged in a fire back in May 2018. Starting with the new (at least to me) there is the CanCan coaster – which opened very soon after we were here. It’s a bit of a batshit take on Space Mountain where you are randomly bombarded with Paris Ian imagery and then end up in the Moulin Rouge with cancan girls and fireworks – I loved it.

Second is new this year: Josefina’s Magical Imperial Journey. This is a replacement of a ride that was part of the shrinking Adventure Land, and a welcome replacement at that. What was previously a ride through ‘Africa’ in a way that smelt distinctly colonialismy, has become a fairytale boat ride in an expanded Austria area. A good move to remove racist depictions from the park and another expansion of the internal consistency of the park.

That finally brings me to the Pirates of Batavia. I bet if it hadn’t burned to the ground in 2018 it would not be anywhere near as good now. They took their time rebuilding and this current incarnation first had visitors in 2020. In many ways it’s a typical dark ride much like the similar ‘Pirates’ ride in Disney. However, the animatronics are so much better and so much is happening in every scene that second ride was well worth it.

It’s sad to leave Europa Park. It’s one of those rare places where I just have moments of the unmitigated joy that comes from being a child. Whether it’s catching air on Woden, flying through Europe on the Voletarium (which made me cry, again), or watching a T-Rex having a birthday party – Europa Park just speaks to me in ways that few places do.

I will be back in a few years to see what they are going to come up with for their new 19th land: Croatia. Will we have a similar experience today where pretty much all attractions were immediately walk on to ride? Probably not, it was pretty insane today. But I just cannot wait to see what their take on Nikola Tesla will be.

Tomorrow is our last day here and I am writing this having picked up a small dinner from the McDonald’s across the street. My rule still applies of trying to have something unavailable in the UK – so I had their version of the Croque Monsieur and the brand new McQuesadilla that is being trialed in France. I would have both of those again, but I probably won’t as tomorrow will be a final whip around of the Strasbourg markets before heading back to London.

A Very Alsatian Christmas: Day 2 – Colmar

If we had really wanted to, we could have found a second full day’s worth of things to do in Strasbourg. That would have been one or two of the museums and then maybe some more time in the Christmas markets. Thing is, we already have most of a day on our final day that we plan to do mop-up… so three nearly full days felt a bit much.

Enter my husband who did some research and came up with today’s day trip out to the small Alsatian city of Colmar. I had never heard of this place before he mentioned it to me, but after looking at some pictures I was more than convinced that this would be an excellent Christmas Market day trip.

Colmar is only half an hour away by train and, as long as you don’t have strikes like we did, the trains are pretty frequent. It is then a 10-15 minute walk from the station to the town centre… although there are signs of Christmas stuff well before you make it into town.

For one thing, the Champ de Mars (which is a more common name for a French park than I’d realised) has a path lined with green and white Christmas trees – the path leading you to Place Rapp. The trees were lovely, but Place Rapp set the scene of a lot of what is to follow.

There is no market here, but there is an ice rink, mini-roller-coaster, carousel and a carousel bar (think a small bar in the style of a carousel, which slowly spins as it plays remixes of Christmas songs). As an overall feel, if I was to have a child and take them to a Christmas market, I would go to Colmar. There is a family-friendliness here with many markets having a ride (think cars on a track or a horseriding ride) whilst also having things for the adults to enjoy other than the liberal amounts of mulled wine. There is also a proper sized Ferris wheel, which we would have gotten on if visibility has been better.

I also think that this child of mine would probably end up loving Disney films and so Colmar would be another perfect pick. I don’t think that I have been to a more picture-perfect chocolate box kind of a town when it comes to this specific Germanic style of buildings.

Yes, Colmar is in France nowadays – but Colmar and the Alsace region has swapped hands enough times over the years that it is both French and German in influence. Makes you wonder how different things could have been if the old Kingdom of Lotheringia hadn’t quickly failed.

Anyway. Old European history aside – the old town of Colmar is utterly stunning even on a grey and rainy day like we had. It’s like a magnified version of what makes the Petit France section of Strasbourg so wonderful. Colourful timber-beamed buildings that don’t quite hit right-angles alongside other building that may have a random turret or just a lot of heads on it (okay that’s one building, but it helps with the point). You can just spend a lot of time wandering around enjoying the beauty and I can only wonder how it is during a sunny spring day.

In total, there are 6 main Christmas markets in Colmar – although the Marche Gourmand near the Cathedral is more a fancy covered food court than an actual Christmas market. Still though, this was five regular markets which were all head and shoulders above pretty much anything I have seen in the UK in recent years. Even the inside artisinal art market had some really lovely things – especially the ceramics.

Food-wise the markets in Colmar had similar offerings to Strasbourg. We’re talking a lot of Alsatian food including bretzels, tarte flambé, choucroute and the smell of Munster cheese. I think I ate a bit of everything I just listed and honestly could have gone for some of the sausage with Munster cheese… but I need to save some things for Tuesday.

There were also a lot of different things on offer at each market – again each one was not a copy-paste of the other. Some had more gift things mixed with the Christmas stalls, then others would be more oriented around different kinds of decorations (like Christmas lights disguised as leaves or flowers) which I have never seen before in a market.

In terms of setting, there are two markets that really stood out thanks to the beauty for the area. You have the market in the Place de l’Ancienne Douane – which is around the old customs house. The large building itself is all patterned roof tiles and arches – the kind of building you could imagine Disney building to hide various mechanisms. The surrounding buildings compete by having their own beauty supplemented by their decorations – which caused many a pedestrian snarl as everyone tried to get the perfect picture.

The other was the market in Petite Venise. I mean, with a name like Petite Venise it doesn’t take a genius to get why it would be so beautiful. The buildings feel more like a film set built around a lovingly maintained set of canals. This is where the self-proclaimed ‘romantic hotel’ can be found and, well, they certainly got that name right.

We ended our time in Colmar with a visit to the Carousel Bar. I had my second hot apple juice of the day and my rusty French language skills continue to get the workout it desperately needs. As an idea, the carousel bar needs to be replicated as it is such fun – even if their upbeat remix of White Christmas has been stuck in my head for the remainder of the evening.

Despite the slightly patchy service, we lucked out with the train back to Strasbourg and even managed to get seats despite many people insisting on having a seat for their rucksack. Truly never seen so many people in a single carriage do this.

Anyway, dinner was back in Strasbourg and I ended up having another choucroute garnis. The burger on the menu I liked the look of was gone so I went with this second choice. Still though, for a second choice it’s still pretty great to be having sauerkraut and all the trimmings. This picture is a pot I shared with my husband… although I would have given all the sausages a go and not looked back.

Tomorrow we are hopping over the border into Germany as we do a revisit for what might be my favourite theme park in the world: Europa Park. Fingers crossed it stays dry and there isn’t too much traffic for the coach. Honestly, I cannot wait.

A Very Alsatian Christmas: Day 1 – Strasbourg

If there was further proof within my personal life that the worst may be done with COVID-19, we have the reinstatement of Christmas Market trips – which had been an almost annual tradition for some time. I mean, the last trip I took before the world shut down was a trip to Seville for their Christmas times.

This time, we have ventured to Strasbourg – the self-styled capital of Christmas. To make things that much easier, we went there by train – first by Eurostar between London and Paris and then onwards to our final destination via the TGV. It was a post-work trip (even then I managed to pull enough overtime to get an agreement in that I could leave 90 minutes early) which meant we arrived around midnight local time.

So now it’s Saturday and our first full day on this trip. Woke up feeling dehydrated and thoroughly rotten. Breakfast helped a bit, but wow was that a lot of carbs to load up on straight away. Still, the pain au chocolat was nice and it was a good excuse to have some jam without having to get a whole jar.

This is one of those rare holidays where there is no real itinerary for each day, just a vague idea of what major thing I want to do and see. Makes for a different kind of trip than I have done in recent times, but does allow for a bit more meandering. We just knew that over the course of the day we wanted to visit Strasbourg Cathedral and the 13 different Christmas markets.

Everything in this capital of Christmas is located on an island that makes up the beautiful centre of the city. We started our visit on a little set of peninsulas nearby also known as La Petite France. This is one of those classic areas that used to be undesirable due to the presence of industrial processes but has since become a really beautiful and green area as the facilities were moved out of the city centre.

For the a great view of this small area, there is the terrace over the Barrage Vauban – a covered bridge and dam that once formed part of the cities defenses. It was here that I gave in and had a painkiller and was all the better for it because, in the end, I am here to enjoy the Christmas sights.

La Petite France also had the first of the many markets we were going to visit throughout the day. This market also had three live singers and it was just the perfect way to start this Christmassy experience. The setting with all the old timber buildings was similarly darling and something that would repeat throughout the day.

You see, by calling themselves the Capital of Christmas, there is a lot to live up to. With 13 markets that is already a good start (although some are about 2-3 stalls). None of them have the massive wow factor of the main market in Vienna, but they make up for it in variation and some real unique finds depending on the market you visit.

No, what Strasbourg has in spades is local businesses who go for Christmas with gusto. In the daylight, it is already pretty stunning with many buildings decked out with various bits of greenary and (I guess this is a local thing) teddy bears. I will get to nighttime in a bit, but even in daytime this city was already giving many other places a real run for the Christmas money.

There wasn’t really a lunch per se, I mean you cannot walk far without the smell of mulled wine and Munster cheese commanding your full attention. I had to give into this for lunch with, what was essentially a really fancy cheese on toast with bacon and Munster cheese. They also had a stunning looking one with emmental and sausage on it, but I wanted to follow that smell.

We managed out time well so we didn’t have to queue too long to get into the cathedral. If I have to compare it to another I’ve visited, it would be like a smaller Cologne Cathedral. It’s from the same era and with the same architectural hallmarks. The watchword for this is austere. It has such a big presence and, inside, it is not too ornate but rather there is this might.

At the back, there is main thing you come into the cathedral for: the astronomical clock. It is not the original clock, in fact it is the third incarnation and less than 200 years old. However, it is a beautiful and ambitious timepiece. I wish that we could have been here for solar noon too see it in full gear, but I think there was a mass at the time which prohibits entry.

This cathedral also had a pretty extensive nativity display going from conception to baptism. Truly I have seen some pretty elaborate nativity displays in churches, but not sure if I have seen one that is a literal time, this wide and with such a large depiction of an elephant. Whoever made this had a true love of the humble elephant.

After the cathedral, we visited all the other markets we had yet to see. I think that my favourites ended up being at Place Benjamin Zix, Place au Chateau and the Christkindelsmarik at Place Broglie. Nearly all the markets were completely packed with people given that this is the first Saturday in December. I hope that when we go and buy some things on Tuesday afternoon, it’ll be a bit quieter and we can maybe sample some of the spatzel without waiting 15 minutes in line.

By the time we were most of our way through the final market of the city, the sun was down and the lights were coming on. The city was already rather beautifully decked out for the holidays, but with the lights on – things just got kicked up a notch.

Honestly I’ve never known anything quite like it. The density and the variety of lights on display is something truly special. At times you wonder if there is a competition since some some streets and shops got all out on their decorations. Some of those that fall middle of the pack would make a massive impact back home in London, but here it’s another lovely display featuring lights and some kind of winter animal. We spent a very long time just walking around and staring at the lights. Strasbourg after dark in December is truly special.

For dinner, we went to a lovely restaurant called Au Pont Saint-Martin and shared an absolutely massive serving of choucroute garnie. Literally translated this means dressed sauerkraut, but in practice this variety was sauerkraut with potatoes, three types of sausage, ham hock and thick cuts of bacon. There were three of us and it was meant to serve two… in what universe is this the right amount of food for two people. It’s delicious, but too much. Thanks to our waitress who didn’t try to oversell us!

Since we are here for Christmas primarily, tomorrow will see us venture out to a neighbouring city to see their Christmas wares. It is set to be smaller and quieter than what we saw today, but it should still make for a lovely day as long as the weather holds out.

Two Weeks in Canada: Day 15 – Leaving Canada’s Never Easy

Final day blues are here. Not just because it means a return to the real world, but also because it means just a lot of time sat in airports, on planes and then trying to find out way home when the most direct route has engineering works.

Anyway, we still had a morning before needing to start on this ridiculously long journey – so we tried to make the most of it once the remaining cereal bar were eaten as a quick breakfast as we finished the remaining packing.

There was one thing left on our list of things to do whilst here: a trip on the ferry to the town of Levis on the opposite side of the river. Being very much the off-season, pretty much anything we would have wanted to do as a tourist is closed or has severely reduced opening hours. That’s fine though, we’re only here for a bit of a wander and to take in the view of Quebec City.

During our wander, we went up a long and winding red staircase because Levis, like a lot of Quebec City, is on the higher parts of the cliff face. There is a bit of a historical trail that you are able to follow, but we just went for two things on the map. First, the local Notre Dame church. Had this been a weekday we’d have been able to go inside, but alas it is Saturday and those doors were very much closed.

Still though, we mostly came here for the views. So a bit of a walk away we ended up at the Terrasse du Chevalier-de-Levis. Essentially, a park on a terrace with benches and lovely views across the river. I can only imagine what beautiful sunsets can be seen from this vantage point. I think the view we got on this sunny and cloudless morning were more than adequate though. Feels like a really good way to say goodbye to the city.

So, we headed back across the river and walked around the Petit Chevalier area for a bit before a spot of brunch made up for some Beavertails greatest hits. I have been wanting another avalanche for a while and this felt like the perfect time and perfect wear her to be sat outside with this.

And so the travels begin. We technically got to the Quebec City Airport a bit early, but that just meant time to make sure devices were properly charged and to get ourselves another greatest hit of the trip.

By some amazing act of joy, one of two open food places at the airport was an A&W. This looks like a lot of food, but the next time we’d potentially get a chance for some food would be 7 hours away and at ordering this, we weren’t confident we wouldn’t have to really rush for out connection. So, I actually got to eat an uncle burger at proper temperature (a well as a chicken buddy burger). Both of these just further cemented my opinion that A&W Canada may just be one the best fast food chains I’ve been to and will miss when I am back in the UK.

And this was even further cemented when we arrived in Toronto and tried to get dinner at the only food place left offering a full menu (ish… like most of their stuff turned out to be unavailable it’s just that I didn’t try to order it). For $10 more, we get less with poorer service, poorer quality and a bit of a sad food note to end on… but airport food shouldn’t count.

So that really is it for Canada. Weird finishing off this final post once I’ve stuck the our clothes in for a post-laundry wash. Really sad that this trip is over, but wow what a lot of memories and pictures I will always have from this Canadian adventure.

Two Weeks in Canada: Day 14 – Walruses and Ghosts

This is the last full day of our Canadian odyssey. Same day as Carly Rae Jepsen dropped her latest album, so that’s keeping me company alongside the remnants of yesterday’s mammoth bag of popcorn. The hub is currently getting the bulk of the packing sorted as I write – so hopefully I’ll be able to finish in decent time and be able to help him.

Whilst we were too late in the season to get on a whale watching tour, that doesn’t mean that I have to leave behind any joy of seeing marine animals. About half an hour out of town by bus and a weird pedestrian path-less walk is the Aquarium of Quebec. To allow for mop-up time in the afternoon, we had already pre-booked our tickets for a 10am entry… so ended up with another McDonald’s breakfast as it was quick. This breakfast came with a free apple pie for an unknown reason and I am not going to quibble with that.

The Aquarium of Quebec feels almost a bit of a misnomer. Sure, there are two aquarium buildings filled with fish, but the draws are to be found in the outside and open-air exhibits. For now though, let’s focus on what is indoors as that’s pretty much the order I ended up seeing things.

In the larger of the buildings, you have a more regular type of aquarium. However, as this aquarium was more set up originally set up as research into indigenous species, most of the fish you find in the larger building are Canadian and so you’ll find fewer tropical species. However, let’s not forget that Canada is the second largest country in the world. So for each tank with halibut (who are so awkward looking, bless them) and trout, you will also find octopus and the most darling hermit crab I ever did see.

The other building is more spread around two themes and the inevitable touch tank of rays (although these were cow-nosed rays, aka the cutest of all rays). The first is the best collection of jellyfish, underscored by a Sigur Ros track. There are a lot of jellies here and the clever use of mirrors make these weird creatures go on for ever. Moon jellyfish, sea nettles, bay nettles and a bunch of other species were just happily undulating away as the coloured lights changed.

Next door was a number of different seahorse displays as well as sea dragons and the close-related pipefish. With both this and the jellyfish, it was nice these groups of animals getting their own dedicated areas as, all too often, they kinda get lost in the shuffle of other aquarium animals. Here, they are allowed to be the stars.

So by the time we were done with the fish, it was time for the seal feeding and demonstration. This aquarium has both harbour and harp seals sharing an enclosure, which they seem fine with as they go about swimming and playing with each other. The harbour seals were especially cute as they were getting their medical checks and being rewarded with fish straight from the bucket.

After this demonstration, we noticed that people had begun to gather at the polar bears. Well, where the polar bears in Toronto were all resting – these two were far from sleeping. We were at the enclosure for a long time, running back and forth as they swam and playfought. Actually seeing them like this was awe-inspiring. These are stunning creatures, but as they were rearing at each other during the fights, there is this innate part of you that is triggered about how dangerous they are and to be thankful for concrete and glass.

Over our shoulder I then heard another sound – one of walruses grunting. Yes, in all the time we’d been with the polar bears, the keepers were now doing feeds and checks on the walruses (a father and his twins) – albeit not publicised and not in the wider display tank. Honestly I could just spend hours watching walrus swim and being their tusky selves, but it was so odd seeing them ‘walk’ rather than swim.

We swung by the arctic fox exhibit before leaving – weird co-incidence that this fox was born in Hong Kong’s Ocean Park, so I will have met his relatives. The timing of the exit could not have been more perfect, the aquarium was pretty empty during our visit and was about to be filled with two school buses worth of kids on a school trip. Bullet dodged.

Lunch was, what I assume as of writing this, my last plate of poutine that I will have in Canada and last plate for a long time. Back in town, we stopped into a branch of Frite Alors! to try one of their glammed up poutines. My husband went for one with bacon, cheese and sour cream and the bit I tried was very delicious. As for me, I was able to try out the General Tao poutine and… the chicken and sauce on this make the whole plate a winner. Damn I am going to miss poutine.

Since it was a perfectly clear day – and I am going to thank the weather Gods once again for giving us amazing weather on this trip – we went up the Observatoire de la Capitale to get that bird’s-eye view you just end up craving when in a city for long enough.

From up high, you really do see just how small an area is occupied by the walled old city and how it’s not to dissimilar in size to the citadel. This is also the only chance to get a decent view of the shape of the citadel itself, unless you have a helicopter I guess. The observation deck was clearly an after thought and more of a converted top floor, but hey with all the floor to ceiling windows, you get brilliant views in all of the cardinal directions.

By now we were heading towards an hour before sunset, so we finally got around to taking a big walk around the Plains of Abraham and the wider Battlefield Park. It was here that a half hour battle ended a war between the British and French due to the capture of the city of Quebec. An extremely interesting bit of history amongst everything else we have learned this trip.

As well as being a site of historic importance, this is also a really beautiful park to walk through. Even now as the trees are beginning to thin out a bit, this was a lovely way to spend an hour. Some of the views you can get here across the St Lawrence River are beautiful as long as you are okay with a cargo seaport just being off to the side. But hey, without that, it’s easy to forget that you are in an urban park because it sure is peaceful there.

Dinner was some sandwiches that we had purchased earlier from Metro. Neither of us really wanted a full meal and, hey, these Italian sub sandwiches were pretty good even though they were eventually eaten 3 hours after being bought and having a merry tour of the park. We took this chance to refuel before our final item of the day.

This isn’t something I have done before, but we went on a ghost tour. I know some of these put in a jump scare, which is why I haven’t done them – but this thankfully didn’t have any of that. Instead, a dapper looking guy took us around the lower city and told us stories of tragedy, executions and mass graves. Not a lot of ghosts, but I liked it more that way. Made for a really nice end to these few days.

So that’s pretty much it. Tomorrow we fly out in the evening, so we have a bit of a morning in Quebec City before about 20 hours of travelling get under way. Hopefully we’ll get the final thing done on the to do list and be able to say a proper goodbye to this city and then the country.

Two Weeks in Canada: Day 13 – Un Petit Tour

The threat for a long time was that it would be a day of near constant rain. Hell, for a time there was even some snow predicted. Well we got some serious rain and a fair bit of drizzle, but in the end the worst of it all happened whilst we were on a coach or inside. This weather warning has chased us for the whole two weeks and it pretty much worked out.

So today we went on an organised tour outside of Quebec City. We’d have rather made our way to some of these places, but it’s post-Thanksgiving and pretty much the end of tourism season. At least there was this tour which rather conveniently started out almost opposite the hotel.

Since there was no lunch stop, we had to make sure we had a good breakfast. We headed down into the lower levels and I had a rather nice plate of French toast, bacon and potatoes whilst my husband had crepes and bacon. This would need to get us through until the tour had us back in the city at gone 15:00, which it pretty much did.

We had two things we wanted to see as part of this tour, which ended up being the final two stops after the guide completely flipped the itinerary. Guess it meant that things improved with every stop as the first two were the kind of stops that consistently turn me off doing a guided tour like this.

So we first went to the island of Orleans, which you can see from Quebec City and is set up mostly to be agricultural. The kind of place where all the city’s fresh produce comes from and you might take your kid to go picking strawberries. It’s also got a lot of tree coverage which meant us giving through golden corridors of leaves that would all be on the ground in about a week’s time.

However, we were taken here to… visit a chocolaterie. Not even a big chocolaterie at that. Sure it smelt gorgeous and one of the people on the tour ended up spending $80 on stuff, but this isn’t why we were here. So, to kill the half-hour, we walked a little bit to some kind of promenade walkway to take in some views across the St Lawrence River and take some photos of what this river looks like at low tide. We also got some shots of Montmorency Falls, the (now) final stop on the tour and the reason we were on this bus.

The guide took us off the island and through some rather lovely residential areas. He also reinforced a bit of a point he made earlier when an American tourist tried to make him stop speaking French and instead speak English… that we were in classic French Canada and that very few people in the communities we were now driving through would be able to converse in English. Again, this is a foreign and beautiful land.

Stop two was a copper gallery slash shop. The reason for it being on this tour is that the large copper doors of a church we are visiting was made by the man whose family now continues his work of making copper embossed art. At the back is a collection of embossed silver artwork depicting the life of Jesus from birth to ascension. All brilliant works of art, but also this place is definitely trying to their $30 bookmarks, jewellery and a stunning rooster that is a steal at $2950.

Not too far was the third stop, the first that I was really looking forward to: the basilica of Sainte-Anne-de-Beaupre – the largest church in the province of Quebec. Given how devout this province has been within it’s history, this claim isn’t to be taken lightly – this is a massive church. Also, less than a century old as the previous iteration burned down in 1922 and took a long time to rebuild.

When you are inside, the newness of the church shows. It’s something I’ve seen in all these major Canadian churches. In the older European churches, the walls are littered with religious art of different dates and provenances and there will be slabs on walls and floors about those whose bodies are interred here. This is not criticising or saying older European churches are better, it’s just something we’ve only been able to put our fingers on today.

This is a stunning church though. I think this may end up being my favourite of all those I have seen on the trip and might be the first one I’ve visited where there is allegedly a priest near the gift shop who will bless purchases. Then again, this is one of those sites that receives a lot of pilgrims (Pope Francis himself visited in 2022) and is linked to healings. So it makes sense it would have a way to get your purchases blessed for the sake of healings.

Then, finally, it was the last stop: Montmorency Falls. These falls, which are 50% taller than Niagara Falls, aren’t the easiest to reach in the off-season and are well worth a visit. Honestly, I wish we could have been here for a lot longer than the 45 minutes allotted by the tour, but at least it wasn’t raining!

 

At the falls you have some options of how you want to view them. You can see them on ground level, you can make a climb up some stairs or you can take a cable car to an upper level and see them from a suspension bridge. We opted for a hybrid of the first two as we weren’t sure what seeing the Falls from above would really bring.

Waterfalls above a certain volume and height are always stunning. Montmorency Falls were especially stunning as all the rain had generated a bunch of smaller cascade falls to the left of it. Also, the jagged nature of the waters descent really contrasted with the smooth curtain of water at Niagara. This is a fall you would not survive a spill over.

The best of all the views came when we stopped halfway up the stairs (we didn’t have the time to go further) and took it in from the lookout they had built up there. Really was the best way to get a bit closer and just take in the scale of the power on display here. I just need to return to Canada and some of the other amazing waterfalls that they have here.

True to the guides word, we were back in the city centre little after 15:00 which meant we needed to find some lunch right away. I don’t think we’d walked 50 metres before finding a good smelling place for lunch. Sure it was a burger and fries, but mine had smoked meat on it. Also the hub got a venison burger with mushrooms cooked in maple whiskey. Definitely felt like something Canadian only.

The rest of the afternoon was spent back down in the lower areas to finish off some souvenir shopping. I got my final magnet and key chain of the trip, my husband finally found himself a good zipped hoodie and we got some nice soft plushies to give to the nieces. Also, for later, we visited one of the many boutique popcorn shops and got a bag that was, in retrospect, too big for us.

We stayed in for the evening for the first time this holiday since our previous attempt was scuppered by the keycode to our Montreal accommodation getting changed. This meant we were able to watch an episode of Le Maitre du Jeu (the Quebecois version of Taskmaster) live on television.

There aren’t a lot of takeaway options in this area of town, but we did manage to find a place called Mango Tea which fit the bill perfectly. So there I was, sat on the floor watching a Quebecois show with subtitles, lychee bubble tea, a very good lemongrass beef banh mi and some popcorn. I think it’s one of those quieter evenings that I really enjoy.

Tomorrow is, somehow, the final full day here in Canada. Got some really nice things which will hopefully carry me through what will end up being nearly 24 hours of travel. Until then, I’ll have some fish to see and some ghosts to walk.

Two Weeks in Canada: Day 12 – Vieux-Québec

I think I can call it for now, the old city part of Quebec City may indeed the prettiest area of any city I am likely to visit in North America. I know there is a bit of a European bias going on here, but this is still giving me vibes of like a small city in Western Europe than something on the other side of the pond. Clearly it’s all coming from the French sensibility of it’s early days, but wow it’s a real treat to be roaming these streets all day.

Breakfast was a simple one day. Since we are in what feels so much like parallel universe France, I found us a cafe around the corner where we had a massive butter croissant and I had a pistachio latte. Trying to assimilate so hard that I actually had a fancy coffee drink and, as someone who doesn’t really like coffee, it was pretty good.

So, the whole point of today was to really see as many of the main attractions in the old city area of Quebec City. Any leftovers being rolled over into some spare time on future days. The first call was made at the Notre Dame of Quebec, which is the end of this weird mini-tour of Notre Dames.

The interiors of all three Notre Dames have been very different. This one with cream walls with any accents being in gold or a very pale blue-grey. The chancel was absolutely beautiful with those gold arches all reaching towards Jesus at the top. What was also interesting to me is just how welcoming this particular church felt, probably helped that there were some nature sounds coming from one of the rooms. Almost feels like Montreal is the church that inspires awe, but this is the one that might inspire more togetherness.

We then paid another visit to City Hall and their Halloween village. Some of the impact is lost in the daytime, but it allowed me to take some pictures of elements that were occupied last night. I also got a better look at what turned out to be a nursery of pumpkin babies. Like these were literally pumpkins in cribs, with blankets and expressions drawn on in Sharpie. Yet, these are some of the cutest non-animal things I have seen for while. Don’t know what is wrong with me.

Not too far from here, and visible from most points in the area, is the towering Chateau Frontenac. Inside is a hotel that I would be able to afford without some serious career adjustments. This is one of those buildings that just looks good from any angle and it is appearing in so many of my snaps.

Given how high we are, there are also some beautiful views overlooking the river and over to the neighboring town of Levis. Hopefully we’ll find the time to take the ferry over to Levis and get the reverse of all the photos I took, but that’s assuming good weather (and tomorrow is looking like a wet one).

It was more view appreciating as we walked along the Dufferlin Terrace, a very scenic boarded walkway that hugs the end of the hill and gives more chances for good views of the river and the surrounding area. Honestly, despite the rather bleak sky in all the photos it really did turn out to be a nice day.

Up the stairs and a bit of a walk later and we arrived at the Citadel of Quebec. Built as a means to defend the city from American forces, it never had to be used as a defensive position, but it still has an interesting and storied history. It is also still an active military site, so if you want to actually see it, you need a guided tour.

We just missed a tour, so we milled around the attached museum and read up about the history of the citadel itself and the Royal 22nd Regiment that it currently houses. By the time of the tour, we felt pretty knowledgeable – but it was still very much worth it for the lovely tour guide we had taking us around for an hour.

It also allowed us to get some great views from up on high, as we stood next to a cannon called Rachelle. Speaking of cannons, because we were on the 11am tour, we finished just around the time of the firing of the noon shot. So we got to see the preparation, loading and then firing of an actual cannon. That was actually really cool to have experienced.

As we needed a larger chunk of time for the afternoon, we skipped some things on the list to be taken up in two days time and instead made our way to the lower lever of the old city, via a lot of stairs. The impression made of this area was immediate in part to a street performer playing one of my favourite tracks from the Amelie soundtrack. But more on this area later.

Lunch was something that I have been meaning to get ever since I found out that Canadians had their own word for it. So it was a Pogo (aka a corn dog) with some creamy coleslaw and a helping of Italian-style poutine (aka fries with a tomato-ragu sauce and the cheese curds… I love this country). With a little room left, we shared an order of pouding chomeur for dessert so we could try something Quebecois. I man this was a bowl of cake soaked in it’s own caramel sauce and then topped with ice cream. It was glorious.

Around the corner was the Museum of Civilization, which we wanted to reserve the rest of the afternoon for. I hadn’t read too much into what was here, but now I have been it feels like this name may be a little bit grandiose and something that feels more apt for the Met or the Louvre. It was still a fun way to spend an afternoon though.

First section we visited was all about the history of Quebec as a province and as a cultural identity. As this is a more modern museum, there is definitely a difference in how things have been framed around the interactions of the white settlers and the First Nations peoples when compared to the older explanations in the Chateau Ramasey.

For me, the biggest takeaway was something that the Museum of Canadian History glossed over a bit: the timeline that led to the two votes for an independent Quebec. Like, I understand this a lot more now and can definitely see how emblematic the French language is since the region is no longer as brought together by the Catholic church. I just hope that, for the Quebecois, they are happier to be part of a unified Canada than at that point 30 years ago when the difference in the referendum was razor thin.

Also among the permanent galleries was an area about First Nations people in Quebec. There was a separate room dedicated to an art piece around the awful impact of residential schools; which we then saw an American tourist literally walk through… as in he thought the door was a usable door rather than a piece of the actual art. Talk about on the nose. I just sat there in utter shock because as a living metaphor it was utterly ridiculous.

Two temporary exhibitions were also available, but the one I want to talk about was all about poo. It’s presented in a very tongue in cheek fashion a lot of the time, but it also really talked about some important issues around egestion, our attitudes to it and how so few people around the world do not have access to sanitation.

We also learned things like how astronauts poo in space, saw a piece about the trouble and stigma faced by those with ostomy bags and then played some poo-themed arcade games. Seriously, a whole room with some games in it that were educational about defecation and poo health. I know it’s a bit of a taboo topic, but what a way to talk about it. I would love it if this exhibition could somehow be cascaded to a bunch of museums around the world as it talks a lot of truths that many don’t want to discuss.

Our day was then finished off with some proper exploration of the Basse-Ville. This meant walking the old world streets and enjoying the beauty of the (rather empty) Place Royale before navigating around the Petit Champlin area with all it’s little shops and restaurants. I feel like when we get some focus on souvenir shopping, we really are going to be spoiled for choice.

Dinner, much later on, was at a restaurant near the hotel which was exactly the type of French Canadian food that my husband has been looking forward to. Also meant we could cross off the final two entries in our ‘to try in Canada’ food list as both could be found in their set meal menu. What a result!

To start with was pea soup, made with yellow peas and rather different to the Dutch pea soup you could probably pitch a tent on. It was the perfect warming dish for what was becoming an increasingly cold evening. The main was tourtiere – a local type of meat pie which is very much the French showing us Brits how to make our own food and in a better way. I didn’t even end up using any of the condiments as there was so much delicious gravy to dip the fries on.

Finishing it all off was a maple syrup pie. I mean the waiter commented that we were going for the full Quebec experience and boy howdy did we go for it. This pie was sweet enough to make me scared for my teeth, but so silky smooth and flavourful that I wanted to appreciate every bite. I think I was about half way done when I noticed my husband was basically finished.

A bit of a massive first day here in Quebec City and tomorrow is us actually taking a guided excursion into some nature… on a day where the rain is set to not cease. We would have preferred to do this ourselves, but so much seems to stop in Canada once they’ve had Thanksgiving. Hey ho, should at least be a fun day if a little wet.

Two Weeks in Canada: Day 11 – Trek Across Quebec

I think today’s the day where it really hit me that this trip is going to come to an end soon. As long as there was more than one city left to visit then the prospect of an end point felt just that further away. So it was with such feeling that we packed up and made for Montreal’s Central Station.

Breakfast was some s’mores Pop Tarts we found on sale, lunch was at the station’s McDonald’s because the fancy food court stuff was very expensive; also we got a ‘free sandwich’ coupon in the Monopoly promotion. So I got a free chicken habanero sandwich (still trying to go for things I can’t find in the UK) and the hub got himself pancakes and sausage because all day McDonald’s breakfast is a thing here.

At just over 4 hours, the train journey really passed in a flash. Probably helps that I spent half of it writing the massive post for yesterday, then I swapped seats with the hub to get the window whilst I was all cozy in my soft hoodie with my podcasts. We also, somehow, ended up with seats in the comfort class – so that was great legroom and proper plush seating. If I could get that for the flight back to the UK it would be amazing.

And so we arrived in Quebec City in the very late afternoon and it was very much raining as it continued to do so for the rest of the evening. Really does feel like a terminus rail station, but what a beautiful station to welcome you in. The interior makes you feel like you about to run into Phineas Fogg and Passepartout as they get into the home stretch of their journey around the world.

It was a quick march to the hotel some 15 minutes from the station and up the hill into the upper part of Quebec City. Managed to pick some great hotels for this visit and this one appears to be no exception. Wonderfully situated in the old town near some key landmarks and the room is just darling. During this trip have managed to stay in a chain hotel (Ottawa), the largest hotel in Canada (Toronto), a self-catered studio apartment (Montreal) and now a boutique hotel. Kinda keeps in with the different feels I have been getting from each location.

By the time we got ourselves properly situated in the hotel, the sun had set and it was time to get some dinner. However, with all the lamps on, I had to have a little bit of an explore as we slowly meandered to the restaurant. We got a sneak preview of some sights on tomorrow’s itinerary, looked over the river to the neighbouring town of Levis and then saw something that was super cute.

So, of course, we are getting very close to Halloween and the further along this trip we’ve gotten the more we’ve seen decorations coming out. Well, the City Hall of Quebec may have won it for me. It’s like they’ve set up their own Halloween Village like you’d see for Christmas. Very kid friendly, utterly charming and exactly my kind of speed.

Dinner was at the small chain Poutineville where, of course, we wanted to get some pimped out poutine. We also indulged in a rare instance of appetisers with their combo plate – which I had to get because of the deep-fried pickles. We ended up sharing two ‘regular’ sized plates of poutine. The first was the chain’s signature with braised beef and a red wine gravy, the other a more insane affair with hot dog, bacon, ground beef and a regular poutine gravy. Both delicious, but in the end we both had different favourites (mine was the less refined hot dog one) and we just finished off those plates solo. Now just to figure out how to get poutine to be popular in the UK…

It was still raining, but the initial walk to Poutineville had enchanted me so much that I wanted to walk around the old town a bit more at night to see everything lit up. We stopped by the Parliament building (again something we’ll spend more time on in the coming day) and had a general wander around the area and just taking in the architecture of the old city.

Then came the Christmas shop. A massive Christmas shop that on some days is open until nearly 11 at night. I just couldn’t not go in and then end up getting something for home to remind me of this trip to Quebec. Just have to keep my fingers crossed that my new figurine and ornament will survive the flight home. Now to bed as tomorrow is going to be a big day.

Two Weeks in Canada: Day 10 – Fleuve et Montagne

Well this is our final full day in Montreal, so it was a bit of a jam-packed itinerary. Even though we removed the Museum of Beaux-Arts since it was closed today and allowed us more breathing space.

Lots of walking on the docket which came via one of the sponsors of this trip (oh I wish): Tim Horton’s. Finally found a place that carried the steak and egg biscuit and it was just okay. Like I don’t know what I was expecting, but their sausage biscuit is the way to go.

As part of our continued donut watch, we tried out the plain cake donut and the apple fritter. The plain cake shows off what is the fundamental of a good Tim Horton’s donut, but without a glaze it was a bit on the dry side. On the opposite side, the apple fritter was a bit of a wet donut. It was delicious and may be the best of the trip so far, but it fell apart a bit.

To start off the day we headed towards Mt. Real itself, whose presence would dominate the Western sky if it wasn’t for the tall buildings. Going with the mass TripAdvisor good words, we started the day at St Joseph’s Oratory. The exterior is stunning and one of the largest church domes in the world. As with a lot of things, it is in the middle of a massive construction project set to finish in 2024 – so the immediate impact of the white steps was lost.

Now, I am writing this paragraph a day later which means a lot of my feelings have since cooled but – this Oratory was not it. Not only was it a massive disappointment because the gardens, greatly advertised on the website, were closed for the season (not that you’d know from their website) but so much of all of this felt heavily commercialised. I was keenly aware of all the places that they were trying to get money.

On the plus side, the main basilica was massive and very modernly decorated. It made for a contrast with other churches on the different itineraries which are more Gothic Revival. The Votive Chapel was also interesting, if only because as a non-believer I found this almost the concept of lighting votive candles to the extreme conclusion as you might see in the sets for a game like Bayonetta.

So I was seething that we had lost time, but turned that rage into action. We spent less time at the Oratory than we had expected, so it was a mission to get a good view of Montreal from high up in the park. Also allowed us to walk through some fancy neighbourhoods where realtor company’s are Sotherby’s auction house and the Halloween decorations are excellent.

We did some initial wood walking in the Summit Woods where we appreciate the more yellow colours of the surrounding trees, then eventually got to the main park area with Beaver Lake. Slight chill in the air, the fiery leaves and a warm maple flavoured London Fog in my hands – this is definitely autumnal living.

Eventually we arrived at the Kondiaronk Belvedere viewpoint and the views across the city were worth the hike and worth the fake-out of the Oratory earlier. The way that the red leaves almost framed the bottom of the cityscape no matter where you looked was incredibly special. The views continued as we walked down the many steps and exited the park on street level.

Next was the question of how we, now we’d been in Mt Real Park, what would be the best way for us to get to Old Montreal. By some coincidence, the place we’d exited was also the start of a tourist walk called La Promenade Fleuve-Montagne. The sole purpose of which seems to be just this, whilst also taking us via some local landmarks like the impressive buildings for McGill University and Phillip’s Square.

Rather than follow the route all the way, we took a slight diversion on a suggestion of my husband. He knows that if we’d had more time here, I would have wanted to do an ‘Underground City’ walk like we did in Toronto with PATH. It wasn’t a long stretch and probably wasn’t the best example of it, but hey we at least tried.

Finally we arrived in the old town and at Place d’Armes. This is one of the very few times where I got the feeling I had been here before as I had a real spark of recognition of the statue in the centre of the square, especially the bronze of the the First Nation man. Actually nice to not feel like I’d completely slept-walked through that trip 16 years ago.

Now, what do I say about the Notre Dame de Montreal. This is the big thing to see in Montreal’s old town. It is a beautiful Gothic Revival basilica and one of those things that would have absolutely crushed me if we’d been unable to see it.

The interior is beautiful, especially the roof whose decorations were done with inspiration taken from the Sainte-Chapelle in Paris. It was also interesting how the floor sloped down towards the alter at the front. On some level I assume it helps to give a better view and engagement for attendees sat at the rear, but it also really draws you in. Looking forward to seeing how the Quebec City Notre Dame matches up.

Time for a late lunch and something my husband has been wanting since we got into French Canada – crepes. Between us we tried two very different offerings at the Creperie Chez Suzette. First was the one I ordered that was filled with brie, ham and spinach then covered with a béchamel sauce, then there was my husband’s order of a goat’s cheese, honey and almond crepe. Both rich, both delicious and it was almost like we’d gotten dessert thanks to the sweeter one.

Fuelled up, we did some more exploring of the Old Town by going down St Paul’s Street. We revisited the old harbour area from out first night in Montreal, only to realize it is infinitely more fun once the sun goes down and everything is lit up. Also paid a visit to the Marche Bonsecours, which is a palatial looking building on the inside and has some shops and restaurants on the inside.

Our final stop in the old town was Chateau Ramezay. They have it on a lot of their information that this house was included in a 1001 historical sites to visit book. Felt like a no brainer to go inside, once we’d finished going around the period gardens at the rear which were free to take a turn about.

I think that if we’d not already been to the Canadian Museum of History this might have hit a bit differently. So much of the history was already covered there and in a more up-to-date fashion that didn’t completely shy away from the Europeans being terrible. It was interesting to get some of the city-specific history, but this wasn’t the highlight I was hoping it would be.

That was it for the old town, which still feels like I am walking through Belgium rather than Canada. We had to get back to our accommodation to drop of our bags as we had tickets to watch an NHL match that evening. We took the chance to take some chill time before having a pre-game burger at A&W (today it was the Papa burger and this may be the final time we get one in Canada).

So this was my second time seeing a league ice hockey match. When I was 12, I saw one in Prague – so over 20 years ago by now. At least this time I’d heard of the teams: Montreal Canadiens and the Pittsburgh Penguins.

The atmosphere was everything I was hoping for: full of energy and ultimately incredibly friendly. It was also so cool to see the classic tropes of North American sports in person. Like, the middle-aged woman actually playing the organ on site – including covers of ‘Karma Chameleon’ and ‘Something Stupid’. The tambourine sounds? Actual tambourines being played by in-audience cheerleader-types trying to keep the energy up. Also, for some reason, a live-DJ sponsored by Monster energy drink. All a bit mad in the best possible way, like their furry orange mascot.

It was a bit of an insane set of scoring in the end with the Canadiens winning 3-2, coming back from a two goal deficit and clinching the decider in extra time. The rapture when the Canadiens scored a goal was like nothing I’d every experienced before and, I guess, I now have an NHL team to favour as well as a new hat for when it gets cold.

Post-game was had at Dunn’s Famous where I finally was able to get my mouth around a Montreal smoked meat sandwich. The plate was massive. I decided to swap my fried out for latkes and it was exactly the right decision – to the point where I regret trading one of mine for some of my husband’s fries because of some longing looks. The coleslaw was also fresh and crisp with only a dash of vinegar needed.

Somehow there was room for dessert and I ended up with the best slice of cheesecake that I have had for years. It rivaled cheesecake I’ve had in New York it was that good. Sadly it’s pieces like this that have ruined UK cheesecake for me as we just don’t do it the way I like it. At least not in our restaurants where the filling is too homogenous and the base is too thick.

That’s it for our final full day in Montreal. Tomorrow’s is a long travel day to Quebec City so fully expecting the post to be rather short compared to this massive blog post. It’s the homestretch of my Canadian adventure and am already thinking what my West Canada adventure could look like.