Not only is French an official language of Canada, it is the only official language in the province of Québec. As such, French is extremely prevalent in Ottawa (Canada’s capital city), Montréal, and Québec City; three of my favorite cities in all of Canada. The many dialects of Canadian French are different from traditional Metropolitan French in France, but it all sounds the same to me! With my rediscovery of the French language, I understand much of the written word, but it is next to impossible for me to speak it or understand the spoken dialogue. No matter, for the Québécois–in fine Canadian fashion–are equally friendly to anglophones.
The first stop on my “French highway”: Ottawa, Ontario and its neighbor Gatineau, Québec. After leaving Toronto, I had completely forgotten that Ottawa was the next big city on the map. And, well, I had never even heard of Gatineau before. As is typical, I changed my plans and spent the entire weekend in the area. For the capital of a nation, downtown Ottawa had minimal congestion, and it was easily navigated. I spent much of my time in the ByWard Market (a farmer’s market on steroids), and then crossed the Ottawa River to enjoy the fall colors of Gatineau Park, a beautiful national park overlooking the Ottawa Valley. Throughout Canada, most of the signs are in English and French, but once the border into Québec is crossed, all signs immediately turn to French only. It is quite clear Québec wants to secede from its motherland of Canada, and Gatineau was my first introduction to that independent feel of Québec.
The next stop, and the largest city in Québec, is on an island. Yes, an island. I had no idea, but the metropolis of Montréal is completely surrounded by water. Montréal is probably the most chic city in Canada. Vancouver and Toronto are similar, but there was something about the European feel of Montréal which made it the “cool kid in class”. Montréal is the second largest primarily French-speaking city in the world, after Paris. It is a modern, vibrant city rich in culture. Just steps from the modern downtown is Old Montréal, a step back in time. It is there I found heaven: my first taste of Montréal smoked meats and the dramatic architecture of the Notre-Dame Basilica. If I were to choose to live in a large metropolitan Canadian city, Montréal would be at the top of my list.
This brings me to my favorite eastern Canadian city so far: the capital of the province of Québec, Québec City, and more specifically the neighborhood of Old Québec. It is so memorable, that it easily makes my Top Ten List. I would compare it to Victoria, British Columbia, but with more of a colonial French feel instead of the English influence. Founded in 1608, Québec City is one of the oldest cities in all of North America. Most of Old Québec is still fortified by stone walls built in the mid-1700s. To reach Old Québec, I took a 10-minute ferry ride across the Saint Lawrence River from my campground in the town of Lévis. Like Old Montréal, Old Québec is a step back in time; unlike Montréal, which admittedly felt grungy at times, Old Québec is absolutely spotless. The tiny streets are lined with boutique shops, restaurants, hotels, and art galleries. The sounds of local street musicians fill the air, and the smells of outdoor eateries permeate. Old Québec. Go there! It feels like Europe–without the jet lag.
On every Québec license plate is “Je me souviens”. It means “I remember”. For the Québec cities of Gatineau, Montréal, and Québec City, I will always remember!
While in Ottawa, stay at Ottawa Municipal Campground. While in Montréal, stay at Camping Aloutte. While in Québec City, stay at Camping Transit. They are all great campgrounds that are relatively close to each respective city.