Posted by: Bob Fisher | May 3, 2009

Talking Travel’s Great Northern Adventure … at the Quebec Winter Carnival

Separated at birth, the twin brothers Bonhomme and Petit Bonhomme were finally re-united during one of the continent’s most exuberant winter festivals.

These two jolly fellows made history, made them laugh, made them cry.

Joie de vivre — one of the most commonly known expressions in French — became the transborder link between a Petit Bonhomme from sunny Florida and Grand Bonhomme, le Roi du Carnaval.

Together they celebrated the grand theatre of a glorious Québec winter.

An historical overview

A feast for the senses, Québec City is the quintessential traveller’s destination. This unique walled city (the only one in North America) reigns over the luxurious St. Lawrence Valley and is a geographical phenomenon in itself.

A traveller’s pilgrimage site, it is perched on a high promontory that looks out over the history of North America. It was here that First Nations people of Canada established a key trading post that became increasingly important when the European visitors first arrived in search of the the riches of the “New World” — furs.

And then in 1608 it became the cradle of French civilization in North America while English-speaking pilgrims were wending their way to more southern climes known as Virginia. (The Old World Lower Town is the site of this original settlement.)

Later in 1759, a 20-minute battle on the city’s Plains of Abraham would seal the fate of all of North America when two warring colonial European powers went head to head and Britain emerged the winner. This brief but historically tumultuous event, followed eventually by a grab-and-run event called the Louisiana Purchase, separated an English-speaking Petit Bonhomme from and French-speaking Grand Bonhomme for four centuries. But today, this UNESCO World Heritage site is one of North America’s premier cultural meeting places.

Today the world comes to Québec City (nearly four million visitors a year), and in 2006 so did a Petit Bonhomme from Sarasota. Florida.

Day one of the second week of Carnaval. To avoid being mobbed by his Québécois fans, Roy sneaks into town incognito, dressed as a Rastafarian lumberjack. Always the intrepid traveller, he makes his way through the woods to the Cabane à sucre (Maple Sugar Shack) on a Norwegian sled.

Québec City is a world cultural capital, always host to great performers from Édith Piaf to Bon Jovi, Metallica, and Rush. And of course, the province of Québec’s hometown-girl-made-good Céline Dion … or as they say in Québec, “Notre petite Céline.”

And it is a world-class capital in many other respects. If you want to develop a premier reputation as a chef, you must spend time in gourmet Québec. Here classic cuisine meets traditional French North American cuisine and the result is Nouvelle Cuisine Québécoise — voilà!

To the north are the Laurentians, some of the best skiing and other winter nature-based activities in Eastern Canada. And on a clear day you will see from the heights of Québec the Appalachian foothills and mountains and Québec’s New England cousins.

A hop skip, and a saut.

Roy meets one of his long-lost cousins, a coureur de bois. They bond instantly and Roy, feeling the call of the wild in his blood, takes up Carnival jogging. He becomes a role model of endurance for the locals. (Until now he had thought he was primarily Irish. However the common Celtic roots, DNA, and love of a good party are shared by the first families of the French Régime in North America and that other musical toe-tapping lot across the pond.)

To celebrate the arrival of the prodigal Bonhomme de Floride, the locals bring out the fiddle and spoons and the fête begins. Roy’s blood stirs and he acquits himself admirably, demonstrating he can dance as fast as he can talk. In the process he attracts the attention of numerous demoiselles.

What is this Carnaval de Québec?

Over 50 years old, the Carnaval is North America’s biggest winter Mardi Gras celebration, and the world’s biggest winter carnival. Québec likes to call itself “the World’s Snow Capital” and its geographic and climatic conditions do indeed make for a real winter experience, none of that brown slush that elsewhere passes for winter.

The first Carnival took place in 1894 and of course was not only a celebration of winter but also a respite from what were very harsh winter conditions in those le bon vieux temps (the good old days) . The Carnival is also a major cultural industry in Québec especially in the province’s capital Québec City. It is the largest Mardi Gras celebration in the world after Rio de Janiero and New Orleans.

Le Carnaval de Québec may well be Québec culture in its most vibrant and visitor-friendly form. This three-week revelry that precedes Lent is 17 days of arts, music, food, and outdoor athletic events that define the heart of the more than six million French-speaking Québécois in a province as big as France, Germany and Spain combined, a province of Canada that borders on the U.S. states of Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, and New York.

The events of Carnaval embody the historic traditions of the Catholic French Régime in North America and today represent a substantial francophone cultural identity and reality in North America. In a recent Carnival one million people took part in the celebrations, with an estimated direct economic spin-off of between 20-30 million dollars. The Carnival’s budget is more than seven million dollars.

Carnaval and its global ambassador Bonhomme are for many visitors from Canada and outside the country the first experiential contact with what in Canada has been called “a distinct society.” As a member of the Francophonie, the global confederation of French-speaking nations and territories, Québec is front and centre on the world stage.

Mardi Gras and Québécois culture

To a cultural anthropologist, le Carnaval is a living laboratory in the evolution of a unique group of people. Many of the elements — if not all — of human culture as we know it can be experienced during the Carnival.

Culture is usually defined as an integrated system of values, beliefs, and behaviour patterns that are acquired through the social evolution of a people.

And when you participate in Carnaval (like all good hosts, the Québécois are very inclusive in terms of Carnival party-goers — the more the merrier) you experience the sense of unity and common purpose — both physical and cultural survival — that a harsh but grand climate, a prodigious natural setting, and dramatic historical events have produced.

Reflecting its historical Catholic heritage, Québec’s Carnival is a unique representation of the celebrations in many countries that precede the Lenten period beginning on “Fat Tuesday” (Mardi Gras).

During Lent, it is a traditional custom to apply personal restraint and a temporary renunciation of the yummier things in life — the ways of the flesh. (Carnival — carne + vale — means “Bye bye flesh/meat”). And the period of Lent of course is the holiest time in the Christian calendar: the time of rebirth and redemption.

The winters in Québec are long and snowy, but spring eventually arrives. But before it does, why not make the best of it; and celebrate the winter that not only you have survived but have worked and played with.

One of the best-known songs in Québec is titled Mon Pays (My Country). This definitive expression of the the soul of the Québécois people celebrates in its refrain both Québec itself and the winter with which the Québécois identify with so strongly.

Mon pays ce n’est pas un pays, c’est l’hiver!

(My country is not a country, it is winter!)

Roy’s special status as an honorary (although petit) Bonhomme is recognized when he is invited to ascend the ice throne. His regal bearing is quite evident although his Floridian backside experiences some culture shock.

One of the most exciting events of the Carnival is the canoe race across the St. Lawrence River with its rapidly flowing current and ice flows. Teams from Canada and elsewhere compete in the gruelling race across the river and back. Because of his extensive experience paddling through the Everglades, Roy is asked to coach one of the women’s team. He is a tough task master but they love him all the more for it.

The Ice Hotel and other Views of Québec

During his visit to the Carnaval de Québec, Roy is given the keys to the Ice Hotel, and as he has spent many years in the travel industry, finds himself quite at home.

Roy is invited by Bonhomme to help launch the second week of the Carnaval. There is some initial language problem. Roy speaks English with a new York and Floridian accent and Bonhomme (when speaking English) speaks Canadian … eh?

But the launch goes off without a hitch.

For more information:

The Quebec Winter Carnival

The Ice Hotel

Quebec City

Québec City: 400 Years of Distinct North American History

The year 2008 marked the 400th anniversary of Québec City and the first permanent settlement in North America. Québec is always “a moveable feast” but 2008 was something very special.

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