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À la Française
Steeped in the traditions and the language of its mother country, Québec has a distinctly Continental flavor. Where else in North America can you relax on the terrace at a bistro, sipping a café au lait while listening to everyone around you debate politics or popular culture in French?
Québec is a little like the European country next door, the France you can drive to in less than a day from many parts of the United States. It's different from anything just south, or north, or east, or west of its borders. The people who reside in this relatively laid-back part of the world—French, English, and newcomers from around the world—share an approach to life that is uniquely Québecois. Locals are warm, intriguing, and gracious hosts. From the magnificent architecture of the grand basilicas to the trendy terraces lining the bohemian enclaves of Montréal's Plateau district, the French face of Québec is delightfully omnipresent, and one of the most charming elements of this destination.
You can immerse yourself in French culture at several venues. The plays of such prominent Québecois writers as Michel Tremblay command the stages of French-language theaters, including the Théâtre du Nouveau Monde and the historic Monument-National. The stately Grande Bibliothèque Nationale du Québec is home to more than a million books in French and English, with special collections for children and visually-challenged readers. The Université de Montréal houses 18 libraries and several world-renowned research centers. With 60,000 students and a sprawling campus, it's one of the top universities in the French-speaking world.
Savor French and Local Cuisine
The Québecois take their French food very seriously. Traveling through most cities and towns you won't have to look too hard to find a restaurant serving traditional French fare and regional specialties. Many restaurants serve cuisine du terroir (food of the region) using ingredients like lamb, veal, bison, caribou, and foie gras. These temples of gastronomy create artful dishes, usually with a contemporary flair. But not everything in Québec is haute. A far cry from fine dining is the time-honored and much-cherished casse croûte (snack bar), where you can chow down on comfort foods like hot dogs and chicken sandwiches with gravy. Every visitor has to sample poutine, a heap of french fries topped with gravy and melted cheese curds. And your best bet for a quick lunch might be a simple ham-and-cheese baguette from a great boulangerie (bakery).
Québec is one of the largest maple syrup producers in the world, so a visit to a traditional cabane à sucre (maple-sugar shack) is a ritual that comes every spring with the maple syrup harvest. There's no better way to sample the province's wares than by stopping by one of these rural establishments for a home-cooked meal that may include pea soup, baked beans, eggs with ham, and deep-fried pork rinds called les oreilles de Crisse (Christ's ears), a nod to the region's Catholic upbringing. But the food here goes way beyond French. Montréal's long-established Jewish community has contributed bagels and smoked meat sandwiches. The city also enjoys a world-beat of national treasures like Arabic shish kebab, Chinese dim sum, Spanish tapas, Vietnamese spring rolls, and Lebanese tabbouleh.
Shop for Fur and Crafts
People have traveled to Canada to seek out furs ever since the early 1600s. The fur industry still generates about C$800 million annually and employs about 60,000 trappers and 5,000 fur farmers, manufacturers, craftspeople, and retailers. Mink, fox, and chinchilla are the most commonly farmed fur-bearing animals in Canada. Trappers in the wild, many of them Native Canadians, also supply beaver, raccoon, muskrat, otter, bear, seal, and wolf pelts. In Montréal, the best bargains are found in shops near rue Bleury and boulevard de Maisonneuve. However, most furriers have moved north to 9250 rue Parc in the rue Chabanel fashion district. Harricana on rue Atwater is an atelier for unique, stylish accessories like backpacks and boas made from recycled furs. In Québec City, try Richard Robitaille Fourrures in the Old City. You can pick up a toasty fur hat for about C$100 or splurge on a glamorous mink coat for around C$5,000.
Arguably, it was the fur trade that allowed many of Canada's First Nations peoples to live according to the traditions of their ancestors, which explains why Canada has such a rich heritage of native crafts. Québec's best-known crafts are wood carving, weaving, pine cabinetry, leather and bead work, and canoe making. For guaranteed authenticity, look for the Canadian government's igloo symbol on crafts and the Beautifully Canadian logo on furs.
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