Quebec City: étonnez-moi

Philippe Halsman used that phrase “astonish me!” to challenge his collaborators to greater things. The photographer of over 101 LIFE covers, among many other things, was one of the main exhibits at Musee des Beaux-Artes in Quebec City.  He was a master at unmasking celebrities and capturing their essence. This is one of Marilyn.

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And Alfred Hitchcock.

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Halsman worked on many projects with Salvador Dali, including this famous photo.
Explanation of how this photo was accomplished below:

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This fabulous museum is a must-see, if you have more than a couple of days in Quebec City. It is spread out over four buildings, and requires more than one visit to do it justice.

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The museum focuses on notable Quebec artists, including Jean-Paul Riopelle, Fernand Leduc, Alfred Pellan and Jean Paul Lemieux. This is one of the latter’s moody paintings.

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We’ve all seen contemporary art that makes us shake our heads and wonder, “Why is a marine blue canvas hanging in a national museum? ” I asked the same question of this one below, knowing with certainty that with masking tape and a few tins of paint (only in far better colours), I too could be an artist of note.

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The explanation of this painting may help clear up the confusion.

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The grounds outside the museum include sculptures and imaginative landscaping, including this “framed painting”. An interesting project to remember for when we once again have a home: plant a shallow box, throw on a frame and prop it on an easel.

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I have so much to show you that I can’t possibly go into all the historical details of Quebec City. We were just there for two and a half days, so we concentrated on just being in the streets and enjoying the show.

A young circus couple busking in one of the squares.

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One of the many caleches riding through the streets of Old Quebec.

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The parts of Quebec City you are likely to visit will be Quartier Petit-Champlain ( the lower part of the city by the St. Lawrence River), Vieux Quebec ( the walled area of the city that includes the Citadel, the plains of Abraham and the Chateau Frontenac), and perhaps the area just outside the walls – Grand-Allee/Avenue Cartier.

A quick story: We had booked a room in Vieux Quebec – just $120 a night (should have been our first clue), with $14 a night parking (standard for Quebec). When we arrived, we were dismayed to find a hotel with dismal lobby, peeling paint, smelly carpets and a room that faced a fire escape and air conditioning that didn’t work. We were offered another room, which was worse.  The hotel owner essentially told us to leave when we complained (which we were happy to do), except that now we were in Quebec City at 4:00 pm with nowhere to go. After a few disheartening stops at other modest hotels, (all full at $250 and $300 night), we located a hotel across the harbour at Levis and were happy to find a spacious, clean, quiet room that gave us an excuse to take the ferry across. This was our view from the ferry:

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The ferry crosses over in 12 minutes and drops you in lower Quebec, which is like landing in Europe, complete with (for us) foreign language.

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Stone buildings and overflowing flower baskets are pretty much a theme here.
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Quebec City is noted for its fabulous restaurants – Lapin Saute is one of them. It wasn’t outrageous in price – a nice lunch would have been about $60 for two.

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Right beside this restaurant was a sweet little park, complete with chairs and shade.

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When we were in Southeast Asia, we were quite amused at how choreographed the tourist photography was – coquettish poses, jumping in the air, etc. This Asian woman was fascinated with the wall mural, and executed a number of poses to mimic each scene. Stephen snapped this photo just before she leaned down to fake a slap shot.

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There are two ways to get to Vieux Quebec (upper) from Petit-Champlain (lower). You can walk up many, many stairs or you can take the funicular. We walked.

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The view from the top, looking down over the harbour and Lower Town.

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At the top, the mighty Chateau Frontenac – the showpiece of the Quebec City skyline.

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The area around the Chateau is buzzing with activity. We listened to music, sat and people-watched and marvelled at a Dali sculpture – such an incongruous sight in front of  this stately grand dame.

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Naturally, we went inside. With room rates running $400-$600, we were surprised that the lobby was not more luxurious. The chairs were a bit worn and the valet was a bit cranky. I guess the gawking hordes of non-guests becomes terribly tiresome – our baby strollers and fanny packs and plastic water bottles don’t set the right tone. Still, the Fairmont Chateaux are Canada’s pride and we all feel entitled to them.

Vieux Quebec is contained within thick, high stone walls. The Citadel and Plains of Abraham are to the left of the Chateau Frontenac – we wandered the grounds but did not take a tour – we had done that on a previous visit. We probably walked every street inside the walls, or at least it felt like it. Be prepared with good walking shoes and be ready to climb very steep hills. The rewards are worth it.

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IMG_0188Red roofs, tin roofs, tiny dormers, paned windows, thick wooden doors – the same and yet all so different. Every corner brings another delightful view.

Outside the walls and down Grand Allee is an area well worth visiting. It is still very much “old Quebec”, but is a little more of a neighbourhood.

Who wouldn’t want to live in one of these charming flats? These trademark iron staircases can be found all over the province – hell on moving day, but a space-saver with buildings that come right onto the sidewalk.

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A typical corner store, (or depanneur), selling the essentials – Pepsi, beer and wine.

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Another typical sight – outdoor dining – flower-filled patios tucked in every nook and cranny in Quebec.

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A number of shops were dedicated to furs. With a history of hunting and trapping and long, cold winters, fur coats appear to have made a respectable comeback in Quebec.

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As dedicated as they are to preserving and honouring their past, Quebecers are very much in the present.

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A final photo from Lower St. Lawrence, taken on our drive from Gaspe towards Quebec City. The landscape got softer, the mountains disappeared, and the north shore of Quebec came into focus. It set the tone for arriving in a city that is like no other and a province that is indeed “a distinct society.”

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We have barely scratched the surface in Quebec – a la prochaine.

On to Ottawa to see friends; slowly we are making our way back home.

Gaspé: the Friends and Family Tour

We know very few people who have spent any time in Gaspé; many aren’t even sure where it is. So we were so surprised when our friends Sheila and Ajay and their kids started going down to Coin du Banc, a small village near Percé. After a few years they bought a cottage and after 27 years, have become a big part of that community every summer. Ajay, who is the founder of the Guelph Jazz Festival, has transported his love of music to Gaspé. This year he organized a week-long improv music camp, which attracted participants from all over the country.

We were lucky enough to catch the final concert, held in the old church/museum. I’m a bit befuddled by improv – a woman barking into a tin pail, or rolling on the floor with a piece of rag rug is way over my head, but it was lots of fun and a good reminder that music takes many forms. The big lesson of the week’s camp was “how to listen” – an ongoing challenge for me.

The participants, taking a bow at the finale.

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Our friends Sheila and Ajay – in their element in this beautiful part of Gaspesie. We only had a few minutes to chat, but it was great to see them – the only thing that’s changed is the grey hair.

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As I mentioned before, my cousin Bob came to our rescue when he discovered we couldn’t find a place to stay; he moved to his girlfriend’s place for two days and handed over his apartment to us. We were extremely grateful for that generous and hospitable act and just as grateful to spend a bit of time with him and Phyllis – it had been many years. They treated us to an incredible home-cooked meal, which is so appreciated when you’re on the road and even sent us home with a tin of Quebec maple syrup!
Phyllis and Bob inside the shed they’re building.

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My  cousin Bob and uncle Keith are our two remaining family members in Gaspé. Everyone else moved away years ago, but a number of them still make the yearly migration. Our timing was good this time around – we got see not just Uncle Keith but my cousin Esther, who was down to visit her dad. Sadly, it coincided with my uncle’s wife being in palliative care, so not the happiest time for everyone, but we did manage to fit in a quick visit. Again, so easy to pick up with family and old friends –  Esther and I had not seen each other in over three decades. The passing of time didn’t seem to matter.

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With just two days in the town of Gaspé, we had a lot of ground to cover. First, we headed to L’Anse-aux-Cousins, about 3 km. from town, to see my mother’s old home. We have always pronounced this “Lancy- Cousins”; nicely butchering the French pronounciation. It is properly referred to as “Lonce-o-coozen“.

Some of the earliest settlers here were Irish, English, Scots and from the Guernsey and Jersey Islands; these are my ancestors. Today most of the peninsula is French, with just a few pockets of English left. Pronunciation of place names depends upon with whom you are speaking.

This was my mum’s childhood home.

The current owners call the home “Twin Brooks” – aptly named for the brooks that run on either side of the property. There used to be a henhouse at the back and a massive vegetable garden at the front – both gone now. So is my grandmother’s beautiful flower garden. Perhaps someone else’s grandchildren play here now.

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The town of Gaspé is considered the birthplace of Canada – this is where Jacques Cartier first landed in 1534 in his exploration of the Gulf of St. Lawrence. He planted a wooden cross then, but a mammoth granite cross was erected in 1934, and since then a recreation of village stores and homes as they appeared in the 1900s has been installed at the base of town, in front of the harbour.

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The town of Gaspé (pop. – 16,000+)  is the major centre on northern end of the peninsula; this is where hospitals, schools, an airport, and other forms of employment are located.  Gaspé harbour is a thing of beauty.

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When we were coming here as kids, the main street had a number of souvenir shops and a department store and the usual range of amenities. Now, there are select shops selling foie gras and nice lingerie. The French influence has been a positive thing – Cafe des Artistes has been around for ages.

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It breathed new life into the old post office and brought freshly roasted coffee and bohemian art to the mix.

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A trip to Gaspé is not complete without a visit to Percé, and most notably, The Rock.

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Named Percé by Champlain because the rock is “pierced”, this is one of the primary attractions of the Gaspé Peninsula. At low tide, you can walk right around the rock – you can see the sandbar in this photo. However, in the past few years, there has been so much falling rock and incidences of injury that the pathway is now considered “at your own risk” and signs are everywhere warning of the danger.

We didn’t have time to attempt the walk around the base of the rock – we were between tides, but happy to visit from shore.

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An interesting sidebar to Percé was its counterculture, hippie sensibility back in the ’70s. This building, now closed for some future project, was an artist/cultural centre.

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“Artisans” abound in Percé.  The walking stick carver has probably been hanging out in Percé for years, maybe decades. Funny how time gets away from you.

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This fella is banking on tourists not noticing that he has no woodcarving skills whatsoever, and will buy a piece of “Quebec art” from him anyway.

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The town of Percé has always been filled with tacky little souvenir shops, but that was almost part of its charm. Come for the Rock, buy the T-shirt.

That said, we were shocked by the change in Percé.  That magnificent rock has ceased to be regarded as a democratic natural wonder and has become a ticket to print money. Several municipal parking lots charge $9 for parking. A kiosk leading to a lookout suggests a $1 “donation” to walk up a hill for a better look at the Rock. Mediocre restaurants offer the same dated menus and charge $18 for a club house sandwich with greasy fries. With the exception of a very few shops featuring local artists, the main street is lined with stores carrying the same schlock. Dispirited tourists wander the streets, looking for things to buy. Even the mascot outside one of the stores seemed exhausted by it all.

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In spite of all that, if you visit the Gaspe peninsula, you can’t miss Percé. Here’s another reason to just enjoy the area and ignore the rest:

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A bientôt, Gaspé. We had a very happy detour with you.

On to Quebec City…

Gaspe: The Accidental Tourists

We weren’t even supposed to be in Gaspe on this trip. We had planned to go to the Charlevoix-Saguenay area, but since we left our bookings too late, there was not a room to be found anywhere. Plan B – Gaspe, and what a wonderful Plan B it was.  Both my parents are from Gaspe and we came here every summer when I was a child. Stephen and I came here once with our boys when they were young and then just the two of us several years later. Gaspe’s not where I’m from, but it still runs pretty deep.

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A typical Gaspe scene – this one in Forillon National Park.

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So – Plan B sounded great until we discovered the same challenge – no hotel rooms anywhere.  Quebec is one hot destination – and unlike the Maritimes, where we saw licence plates from all over North America,  here in “La Belle Province” we stick out like a sore thumb. A lot of people don’t make it up the coast, in part because of the distance and perhaps in part because of separatist attitudes towards the “maudit anglaise.” That is an old story – we have encountered nothing but politeness and in many cases, perfect English. My sad attempts at French work in a pinch.

After a couple of frantic hours online, we found rooms for the first three nights and began our pilgrimage up the north shore of the Gaspe peninsula.

The north shore is full of twisty roads cutting through small settlements along the Gulf of St. Lawrence. Many of these tiny villages don’t even have gas stations or stores – they are simply a collection of houses. This stretch of road is stunningly beautiful and desolate at the same time.

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There is nothing here for young families, so many little villages no longer have schools. “A vendre” signs are common, as are abandoned homes. And yet, you run across a business  like this – a hostel/cafe run by young Quebecois – fabulous food, cool surroundings, hip young bilingual owners – the hope for the future of Gaspe and such an incongruous sight on this shore.

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And then there are the fromageries. Quebec is noted for its cheese, particularly for the stinky, runny unpasteurized cheeses that cannot be sold out of the province.

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Les fromages.

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This is exactly the same bread my grandmothers used to make – two blobs of dough in a metal pan and voila:

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We sat outside the store on a picnic table overlooking the water and had lunch. We haven’t had whole grains for weeks – you’ve just got to give in to that homemade bread.

Back on the road, the scenery unfolds.

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You’ve got to watch yourself though. In a province where smoking, drinking and tiny Speedos are still encouraged, they are surprisingly stern about their speed limits. The Quebec police are unlikely to be sympathetic to your story and they’re not above hanging out in front of the Catholic church, waiting for sinners.

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A safer form of transportation, perhaps.

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Outside of the big cities, motels are the way to go. They are usually spotlessly clean, affordable and easy – pull in and unload the car. Motel Nanook in Cap Chat was our first stop,  run by the vivacious Suzanne and her charming husband Marc.

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Just before Cap Chat, we passed an enormous wind farm – one of the largest on the coast.

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We headed a few kilometres up the road to St. Anne-de Monts for groceries and wine  and came upon a wharf full of fishers. You see how bundled up they were – it was cold and windy and we needed coats.

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A pretty sunset that night.

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The next day our stop was Cap de Rosiers, where our motel was situated right across the street from a National Historic Site – Canada’s tallest lighthouse (112 feet).

Our motel is that strip on the left of the photo.

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The view from the motel.

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Yesterday we woke up to bright sun and warm temperatures – perfect for a full day in Forillon National Park, at the eastern tip of the Gaspe Peninsula.  Forillon was formed back in the ’70s, amidst great controversy and bitterness among the local residents whose properties were expropriated to make way for the park. Luckily, my dad’s old home fell just outside the boundaries.
Those hard feelings exist to this day – the park has been both a blessing and a curse.   In some ways, Forillon improved and enhanced the experience for locals and tourists. For example, this boardwalk was built to provide better access to the beach, as well as a very enjoyable and practical multi-use roadway for walkers, cyclists, a small shuttle service and baby strollers.

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Grand-Grave is the site where much of the cod fishing was located. I remember fish flakes on the beaches – salt cod laid out to dry. They are long gone – just part of a museum now.

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This is part of the Blanchette farm – the home has also been restored as a heritage site – typical of homes in the area to this day.

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The old Hyman store was in operation until the ’70s – it is now part of the Heritage site. I went to this store and others like it as a child – just walking in the front door brought a flood of memories – the smells are the same.

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Park staff were on hand inside the store to answer questions.

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There are several trails around Grand Grave – it is possible to go for 15 km. out to the most eastern tip and the lighthouse, but we stuck to a shorter hike along this path:

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And as we turned the corner, we saw a lynx staring down a young couple. As soon as we appeared, he slid down under the fence into the shrubbery, but not before giving us one final stare. It was thrilling.

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That is such a part of the attraction of our travels – the chance wildlife encounters. You know they’re there – five seconds can make the difference.

On to Peninsula to see the house where my dad grew up.

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It has changed a fair bit since Dad was a child – the current owners are a young family who were delighted to show my parents through the house when they visited one year. They still exchange Christmas cards. Unfortunately, nobody was home when we drove by, but I felt comfortable trespassing bit to have look around and take photos.

Just down the road, we went back into Forillon to visit Peninsula Point – one of our old swimming spots. I wouldn’t have recognized it – the beautiful boardwalk I showed before, as well as bike rentals, a shuttle and a stand renting standup paddle boards.

The beach and water are the same:

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A trip back to Gaspe is always steeped in nostalgia – I have one foot firmly back in my childhood memories – it is a bit of a parallel universe.  So when I see big changes, it is helpful to recall a story told to us by a Newfoundland woman. She was talking to her grampa about how her childhood beach had changed – the rocks she remembered being there were gone. His reply was eloquent, “Child, everything is product of time.”

Another product of time is Cap Bon Ami – an annual summer destination. The last time we were here was on our trip with the boys – we have a photo of them shrieking out of that ice-cold water.

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You can’t see from this photo, but there are hundreds of cormorants nesting in this cliff.
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Our last night on the north shore was spent at L’Anse au Griffon. We ate dinner at this very typical Quebec restaurant – old wooden floors, an art gallery upstairs and really well-prepared food. I ordered fresh cod and Stephen couldn’t resist the Gaspe sausage with local sauerkraut.

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I asked about the figures lined up along their fence. Each year, the town has a competition to create the most imaginative figure, and some of the winners are on display here. Others can be found through the town, in front of people’s homes.

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A couple of typical Gaspe homes.

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Our sunset last night.

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And one final shot that has nothing to do with Gaspe. We ran into a young family on holiday with their three-month-old puppy, Maui – a Bernerdoodle. Over-the-top puppy cuteness.

IMG_0212We’re on our way to Gaspe today. My cousin Bob lives in town and he came to our rescue. There is a huge music festival on now (hence the fully-booked hotels), so he is clearing out of his apartment for two nights and giving us a home.

Much more to come in a couple of days.

So long Ontario, bonjour Quebec et Nouveau Brunswick

Five bucks goes to the first person who can tell me what a duster is.

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This ephemera is part of the Lorne Katz collection. Another five bucks goes to the person who knows who “Ed” is.

Ed is Ed Mirvish, the late, great one-of-a-kind businessman who built theatres, restaurants and Honest Ed’s –  a square-city-block emporium to bargain shopping. He helped put Toronto on the map back when it was still competing with Montreal. Shoppers lined up for his specials – such as the one shown – the $6.99 duster. When Honest Ed’s closed its doors last year, among the items for sale were thousands of these signs – each one hand-painted and many of them speaking to an era that is now gone forever.

You have to be at least my age to know this, but a duster is also known as a housedress – garments universally hideous and instantly identifiable by their gaudy florals, often embellished with ric-rac trim and a front zipper.  Long before the days of yoga pants or even sweatpants, women threw on their dusters to vacuum, scrub and…dust. My mother wore them. Another item of note – the use of the word “misses” was for women of average height and weight, while “ladies” indicated a curvier body. I haven’t seen the use of “misses”  or “ladies” for a very long time – “vanity sizing” has taken over.

Back to Lorne and Anne Katz – dear friends from our pre-children days in Toronto. We grew up together.  Eventually we moved west, but stayed close and now one of their sons, Jacob, has a child of his own. Their other son Aaron, just got married three weeks ago in Germany to Vanessa; they are living in Berlin and back in Canada for their honeymoon. We had a fabulous multi-course dinner with them when we stopped by for a night with Lorne and Anne – a lot of laughs, but another reminder of time just flying by.

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I have little to report on Toronto – we’ve been in twice to see friends and I will likely be back again at least once in August. I love Toronto – even though housing prices are now rivalling Vancouver, it is still a city of neighbourhoods and nationalities and has retained enough grit and personality to keep it interesting.  Toronto would require a blog of its own, so my best advice if you haven’t been there yet, is …go! Discover it for yourself. I’ll talk about other things.

Like Farren Lake, in eastern Ontario.  Kris and Gord (whom we met two years ago in Mexico and who are partially unhoused) have the perfect solution. They sold their home in Windsor  and moved to their cottage on Farren Lake, where they live from mid-April to mid-October. The rest of the time they travel. Their lovely cottage, which they describe as “rustic” (it’s not – it is snug, beautifully furnished with unique finds and has a screened-in porch), is my happy place. Rock and floating dock, with pristine lake, loons and canoes. It is iconically “150” Canada – all they need is a Mountie and a jug of maple syrup.

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There was a good wind and a chop on the water – the only one who braved a swim was Stephen. You will never see a photo with me jumping into cold water – that is a promise.

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After a great gab and delicious dinner, we all settled down on the dock to watch the sunset.

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Good-bye to Kris and Gord – a la prochaine.

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The beautiful little town of Perth is just a half-hour away, so we stopped by for a visit. It is filled with stone buildings and weeping willows and reeks of history – a photographer or painter could spend hours here.

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So could architecture buffs. This appears to be a private home (I saw no B and B or municipal signs). Typical of the fine details and stately proportions of many Perth homes, although on a larger scale.

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The River Tay runs through town, with lots of shops and restaurants lining it, and the main street.

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We passed by the statue of Big Ben, the champion show jumper from the ’80s, ridden to victory by equestrian Ian Millar, who owns a stable near Perth.

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Their outstanding accomplishments are listed on a nearby plaque.

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And with that, we left Ontario behind and drove straight into La Belle Province. My family is from the Gaspe coast and I was born in Montreal, but entering Quebec is like a foreign country. It always feels a little je ne sais quois, including my inability to make myself understood in my high school (plus one teenage summer immersion in St. Pierre) French. While in Quebec I feel somewhat ungainly and upon leaving, I resolve to buy only fabulous shoes.

Minor insecurities aside, being in Quebec is a buzz. The following photos are just a preview on our way to the Maritimes. We will spend much more time in Quebec on our way back in August.

We called in at the Fairmont Montebello hotel, located about 90 km. from Ottawa.  The world’s largest “log cabin” was built in 1930 in just three months, in the form of a six-point star, out of 10,000 hand-cut B.C. red cedar logs.

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Set on the Outaouais River, used by the first voyageurs, Montebello is a destination for history buffs.

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I spoke to the very friendly concierges, Jessica and Rosalie, posing here with the very shy hotel mascot, Bello.

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We spent our night in Trois Rivieres, drove over the bridge at Quebec City and up the coast toward Riviere-de-Loup, taking the old highway as much as possible.

Some of the sights along the way:

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Quebec has a tradition of wood carving – everything from lamps to furniture to toys. Must be the long, cold winters.

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Habitant-style homes – dormers, stone or wood foundation and steep roofs to allow snow to slide right off.

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Making our way into New Brunswick (Nouveau Brunswick – the other French province). Beautiful scenery on our way to Edmunston – a stop for many on their way to and from the Atlantic provinces.

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We are staying at Motel Cleo – a combination hair salon, spa and themed-room motel (five rooms appropriately decorated – we are in La Chine; Paris and Rome were booked). Our first dinner in the Maritimes and fittingly, it was seafood – at La Pirate de Mer. Stephen had fresh haddock and chips, and I had a lobster roll – split toasted hot dog roll filled with big, fat chunks of lobster. More great food stories to follow.