Adventures: Quebec City time travels

I wind my way along streets flanked by grey stone buildings worthy of their UNESCO status, writes Ursula Maxwell-Lewis

Two swordsmen dueling at the 19th annual New France Festival Celebration

QUEBEC CITY: “Lean right over,” instructs Luce, my talented costume designer.

I’m being laced into layered petticoats, a forest green 17th century brocade skirt, and a fitted jacket with elegant duchess sleeves. “We’re aiming for voluptuous,” says Luce. Finally, we settle for ‘that’ll do’. A rose choker, matching reticule (bag), red leather shoes, and a jaunty grey feather (almost nailed to my scalp) complete my ensemble.

Six horse-drawn carriages wait patiently at the Chateau Laurier entrance.

We’re among the New France gentry invited to attend the 19th Annual Fêtes de la Nouvelle-France (New France Festival) Lords and Ladies Ball at the impressive Salle des Promotions of the Séminaire de Québec.

It’s early evening – an acceptably genteel time for nobility to appear in public. Elegant and stately, our sun-drenched cavalcade winds languidly between Lower Quebec City’s old stone houses.

Passing through walled Old Quebec City stone fortifications, 21st century sidewalk traffic is clearly caught off guard. People smile, wave, snap pictures. Children’s expressions are a delight. This is enormous fun. Playing along in character, we smile, bow, nod, and wave. I rather envy bystanders admiring the full impact of our very jolly impromptu parade.

Imagine my surprise when, upon arrival at the Ball, I meet 80 American ‘Outlandish Gatherings‘ clan members (aka author Diana Gabaldon ‘Outlander‘ series fans). Gabaldon has been a keynote speaker and workshop presenter at the Surrey International Writers’ Conference for over 15 years. They’re impressed with my Gabaldon connection. I’m impressed with their fabulous clothes, enthusiasm and knowledge of Outlander trivia.

“Why Quebec City for the 2015 gathering?“ I ask.

“It was closer than France, plus we like the low Canadian dollar,” they tell me. I’m told Claire and Jaimie, key Outlander characters, are crossing the channel in Book 9, hence the added appeal.

During the evening King Louis commands us to dance, eat, drink, and make merry. Like all loyal subjects we cheerfully oblige.

A bus – rather mundane compared to our impressive Calèches du Vieux-Québec arrival – awaits to ferry us back to our hotel before midnight.

Back at the Chateau Laurier a fellow time-traveller and I realise ladies’ maids weren’t supplied with our rented gowns. Unlacing our intricate 16th century clothing takes time and patience. Room service takes on a new meaning. Oh, where IS Anna from Downton Abbey when I need her?

This is the 19th New France Festival Celebration. Stephan Parent, festival general manager, tells me that plans are afoot to reenact the original trans-Atlantic voyage for the August 2016 event. Passengers will be direct descendants of original settlers. How, and when, they will be selected has not yet been announced. By the sound of it, it will definitely be an event you won’t want to miss – or perhaps apply for if your ancestors were among those settlers.

On the Saturday I don my finery (with assistance). Despite record temperatures, I confidently sally forth. Clearly the costume rental business is booming. Bowing and curtseying to my fellow ‘villagers’, I wend my way along streets flanked by grey stone buildings worthy of their UNESCO status.

Established in 1608 at the St. Lawrence River estuary, Quebec City is divided into equally historic Upper and Lower towns. Armed with a Quebec City and Area Passport for free museum admissions, an orange Le Bus Rouge bracelet to give my feet a rest, and a couple of funiculaire passes (an easy rock-face glide up to the Chateau Frontenac in Old Town) I’m focused on the Old Port. Flashing my $12 collectable sailing galleon medallion, I choose a complimentary raspberry crème glacée, and admire the wide assortment of food, lace making, craft demos, and children’s art activities. A ‘portrait’ with a dashing swordsman fresh from winning a duel, is a must.

The river view is stunning. It’s a12 kms bike ride from here to the 85 metre high Montmorency Falls.

I stop to chat with Quebec Family History Society (http://www.qfhs.ca) genealogists. My Scottish Huguenot genes have no roots here, but I promise to share their information for those who do.

Like most ‘re-enactors’, visitors from Poland, the Middle East, Ireland, the US, Germany stop me to ask if they can join me for quick photos. I’m going miss being a celebrity! Perhaps I should keep the costume…

Time didn’t allow for a cruise on the M/V Louis Jolliet with Croisieres AML, but I did have a chnce to tour the newly restored 17th century Le Monastère des Augustines.

On August 1 1639 three French Augustinian nuns landed in Quebec City. Tasked by the Duchess of Alguillon to care for aboriginal people and the few settlers in the area, the sisters established the Hotel Dieu hospital. It was the first hospital north of Mexico, and became one of 12 monastery-hospitals, the core of today’s Quebec healthcare.

Once cloistered behind massive stonewalls, the religious community has dwindled to 10. Time took its toll on both the religious order, and the historic old building. Ever practical, the sisters faced the future with courage and good business sense.

How were they to save their historic home, yet continue to fulfill their community commitment to mental and physical wellness, plus the advancement of health sciences? A Trust was the answer.

On August 1 this year, exactly 375 years after the arrival of the first Augustinian sisters, a $40 million dollar redesign and a Trust, allowed Le Monastère des Augustines to reopen as a wellness hotel (and museum) while still remaining a sanctuary.

Comfortable whitewashed room prices range from $54 to $71 per night. Reflexology, sleep therapy, yoga, and most programs associated holistic spa healing and therapy are available, as well as organic foods and attention to good nutrition. A far cry from the 17th century medical instruments and life in a closed Roman Catholic order as displayed in the ground floor museum – together with the original charter signed by Louis XIII.

My guide tells me that all profits are re-invested into providing care for those in need, as well as their caregivers. The sisters have remained true to the origins of the order, yet moved with the times without compromising their principles.

Aware of the contemplative quiet of Le Monastère, I imagine the swish of black and white habits, no-nonsense black leather shoes on stone floors (now a warm wood), bells summoning the sisters to prayers, or meals. To my surprise, I miss the smell of candle wax I always associate with convents.

What would it be like to spend a week in such a sanctuary? Would I suffer withdrawal from my Twitter-Facebook-Instagram lifestyle? Would I feel refreshed? Renewed? Get a grip on life? I wonder.

For detailed information on Quebec City go to www.quebecregion.com.

Ursula Maxwell-Lewis is a British Columbia writer and photographer. She can be contacted at utravel@shaw.ca

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