Bonhomme/Courtesy Quebec CarnavalWritten by: Julie Ovenell-Carter
Quebec knows how to party and you wouldn’t doubt me if you visited during Carnaval, which this year runs from Jan. 30 to Feb.15. This article highlighting the delights of Canada’s original winter festival originally appeared in the North Shore News in 2002.
A white flag at winter
When the late Peter Gzowski suggested Canada needed a national holiday in February, you would think that would have been good enough for the politicians. After all, Gzowski had his finger on the nation’s pulse for decades; the king of CBC Radio knew better than any bureaucrat what was good for the Canadian psyche. But no one listened, and now Gzowski is gone, and dreary February is still short, but not short enough.
Except in Quebec.
Maybe it’s because 96 per cent of the population in Quebec City speaks French that they missed the news that Canada does not have a holiday in February. Or maybe it’s because they’re so cold by February that drinking and dancing and singing and clapping is the only thing they can think to do to prevent freezing to death. Whatever the reason, for 17 days each February for the past 48 years, Quebec City has waved the white flag at winter, surrendering itself to all manner of snowy pleasures.
Bring the family
Quebec’s Carnaval is a family affair, a far cry from the debauched pre-Lenten festivals held in Rio and New Orleans. (Who really wants to bare breasts and buttocks in –20 weather anyway?) It’s so family-friendly, in fact, that the colorful parade is held on two Saturdays, passing once through downtown and once through a residential suburb. It’s one of the two great parades in Canada (the other being Calgary’s Stampede parade in July), with plenty of glitzy floats, marching bands, and of course, the lovable Bonhomme-a cross between the Michelin Man and Pillsbury Doughboy who serves as Carnaval’s mascot.
Visitors to Carnaval–especially winter wimps from the west coast–are strongly advised to adopt the local uniform: undershirt, turtleneck, fleece jacket, parka, snow pants, thermal socks, thermal boots, scarf, toque, and thermal mitts. (Pee first.) You will look like the Bonhomme (see right), but so will everyone else, and you will absolutely need that much clothing if you hope to enjoy the festivities, most of which are held outdoors.
Even with all those layers, you will quickly come to appreciate the real value of the Quebec two-step, a spontaneous dance performed by young and old alike to keep their toes from falling off.
(It’s an intriguing commentary on French-English relations that the signs along the parade route cautioning against drinking alcohol in cold weather are exclusively in French. Anyone with enough French to read them probably already has the sense to stay sober in the snow; it’s the vacationing English who are more likely to need the warning. Still, hypothermia or no hypothermia, nothing seems to stop either camp from sipping a little Caribou-allegedly once the blood of the animal but now a cloying whiskey-based beverage-from hollow plastic walking sticks sold at corner stores expressly for the purpose.)
A value-priced party
The revelry is valued-priced. A $5 plastic figurine of the Bonhomme, available on every street corner and worn on your coat, gives you access to the city’s three festival sites, and more than 300 performances and activities including puppet shows, story-telling, old-time fiddling, snow rafting (like white-water rafting without the water), ice-fishing, snow-shoeing, and sleigh-riding.
You can even take a lesson in snow-sculpting to gain insight into the technical expertise behind the dozens of giant-sized sculptures lining the historic Plains of Abraham. For 30 years, sculptors from around the globe (even teams from south of the equator) have gathered in Quebec to compete in the International Snow Sculpture Show; the ornate detail of their icy carvings is as much a testimony to their engineering skills as their artistry.
Who knew ice could be so much fun when you’re not trying to drive on it? The vast ice castle, built each year in front of the parliament buildings, erupts with a stunning sound-and-light show every 20 minutes between 6 p.m. and 11 p.m.
The view from the top of the ice luge, behind the Fairmont Chateau Frontenac, will take your breath away, as will the quick trip down by toboggan. And the adult-only Icecotheque at the Maurice Night Club, where drinks are served in ice beakers, gives a whole new meaning to disco cool. But the most memorable ice spectacle is the one you won’t find in the official program: the rushing St. Lawrence River, as cold and as thick with ice as a Slurpee from Seven-11.
Cross the St. Lawrence for the best view
For the best view of the churning slush–and perhaps a deeper appreciation for the fortitude of Canada’s early settlers–take the commuter ferry to Levis, just across the river from Quebec City. (The terminal is just steps away from the picturesque shopping district of Rue du Petit-Champlain; the return trip is less than $5 if you don’t get off in Levis.)
On the 10-minute trip over, watch how the fast-moving floes tear apart like ripped fabric; listen to the peculiarly menacing slip and slither of the frigid river. On the trip back, have your camera at the ready: this view of Old Quebec–now a designated UNESCO world heritage site–is particularly dramatic, with the venerable Chateau looming imperiously over the ramparts, like a seigneur surveying his land.
From the ferry dock in the Lower Town, there are two preferred ways to get back up and inside the walled city. Children invariably prefer the shorter route: straight up the hillside courtesy of the Funiculaire–the equivalent of a glass-sided elevator–running vertically between the Quartier Petit-Champlain and the Dufferin terrace, behind the Chateau.
But the longer and more visually rewarding route is along antique alley in the Vieux-Port district: the shops along Sault-au-Matelot and Rue St. Paul will charm anyone with a weakness for old Quebec pine. When the stores begin thinning out, veer left on Sous-le-Cap, the narrowest street on the continent, and follow the quaint cobbled pathway that will lead you back up to the ramparts and within site of Notre-Dame cathedral.
The ancient streets make no sense, and it easy, even desirable, to get lost–so dress for the cold. With the right clothing, and a break indoors for lunch and a mid-afternoon café au lait, it’s possible to remain outside for most of the day. Romance (if you’re without children), or fatigue (if kids are in tow), requires at least one trip through town in the snug, fur-lined comfort of a horse-drawn caleche. But mostly, the pleasures of Carnaval–walking, skating, dancing–are best enjoyed with both feet on the ground: no rental car required.
At night, young revelers do their best to sabotage the sleep of weary tourists, blatting incessantly on their long plastic trompettes, the favorite noise-makers at Carnaval. In the twilight moment before sleep descends, it is a sound reminiscent of an irritating summer mosquito.
But if a hovering mosquito often marks the close of a perfect Canadian summer holiday, why shouldn’t its equivalent mark the close of a perfect Canadian winter holiday?