French lifestyle in Canada: Quebec City marks its 400 anniversary

( dpa ) - It's not a particularly special occasion when a European metropolis reaches the 400th anniversary of its foundation. But when it happens to a North American city, it's marked by a big party.

This year Quebec City is celebrating it 400th birthday. The centre of French lifestyle in Canada is looking back on four centuries of history while acknowledging the self-confidence of the present.

Monsieur Bouchard looks quite familiar: he wears a top hat, has a dark beard, round spectacles and a devilish smile - in short, he bears an uncanny resemblance to the Swedish children's book character Petterson.

However, Monsieur Bouchard does not live in Sweden but in a four hectare vineyard on Ile d'Orleans situated on the Saint Lawrence River.

"The climate on our island is mild and sunny. Wine has always been drunk in large quantities in the city," says Bouchard as he points west with his shears where the last rays of the sun are falling on the towers of Quebec City.

The people who live in the capital of Canada's largest province of Quebec cherish their French way of life.

The love of wine, good food, the French language and culture is more pronounced here than anywhere else in Canada.

As soon as you step into Cafe St. Malo in Rue Saint Paul you feel as if you have arrived in Brittany.

Waiters in long aprons serve tasty croissants and steaming cafe au lait in the morning.

In the evenings, three-course meals and wine are proffered just like in the other cafes in the old city centre.

It's mainly visitors from the United States who display the most delight at this sight - and not just because of the charming atmosphere in the bars, but also for Quebec City's historic centre with its sturdy walls and romantic alleyways.

It's said that many Americans who are too busy to travel to Europe like to come here for weekends just to get a taste of "European living".

Time appears to have been frozen at Place Royale on the banks of the Saint Lawrence. All of the buildings here have been restored, cars banned from the streets and granite paving stones cover the walkways.

Four centuries ago, the oldest urban and business district in North America was populated mainly by labourers, fur coat makers, fusiliers and all manner of ruffian.

Today the square is firmly in the hands of jugglers, street musicians, tourists and locals taking an after-work stroll.

Quebec has a continental climate: the summers are warm and sunny and temperatures often reach 30 degrees Centigrade or more in July.

"But our winters are very hard and very long. Enormous quantities of snow fall," says Elyse Busque from Quebec Tourism. Even Montmorency Falls outside the city gradually freezes in winter.

When that happens bizarre ice formations appear where in summer water foams and splashes. Montmorency is 84 metres high - higher than Niagara Falls.

A huge festival is planned to mark the 400th anniversary of the city's foundation by the French explorer Samuel de Champlain.

"We'll be celebrating almost the whole year long," says Denys Legare from the province's administration.

The high point of the festivities will be an opera and a "Mega- Happening" on the historic battlefield at Plaines d'Abraham July 3 to 6.

Even the functional-looking, 600 metre long and 40 metre high grain silos in the harbour will form part of the celebrations.

From June 20 to July 29, they'll serve as the projection screen for a light show designed by the director Robert Lepage.

"The world has never seen a light show on this scale before," promises Legare. Plaines d'Abraham forms part of the large Parc de Champs-de-Bataille and is popular with joggers and walkers.

But it also has a bloody history. In 1759, French and British armies fought each other here. The British won and with that victory the map for the further development of the continent was redrawn.

What was known as New France ceased to exist and the French ceded ownership to the British.

The people of Quebec, however, were allowed to maintain their linguistic, cultural and religious independence.

The British hoped by doing so they would earn their trust as further south the American War of Independence had broken out and a short time later U.S. troops would besiege Quebec.

Today, Canada's bilingualism is firmly anchored in the constitution.

What strikes most visitors is the frequent mixing of English and French, especially when Quebecois - as Quebec residents are known - deal with tourists.

To communicate with visitors who do not speak French, Quebecois have to muster all their English language skills.

That explains why when looking for his reading glasses Bouchard murmurs, "Where is my lunette?"

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