Looking Stylishly 18th Century at Quebec City’s Fetes de la Nouvelle-France

June 15, 2011  
Filed under Travel

By Steve Bergsman

Revelers in Quebec City show off their period costumes as they prepare for the Fetes de la Nouvelle-France. (Photo courtesy of Steve Bergsman.)

The famed Fairmont Le Chateau Frontenac looks like Sleeping Beauty’s castle and dominates the skyline of Quebec City, and on the second floor there’s a set of historic photographs that most people don’t get to see. This floor is roped off from the lobby so the photos are usually out of bounds. That’s too bad because after I sneaked a peek at the photos, I came away with a lot more insight into the character of Quebec City citizenry.

The most interesting of the photographs were of the city’s 1908 tricentennial festivities. To celebrate 300 years of Quebec City history, its turn-of-the-century citizens threw themselves a big party on the Plains of Abraham, where the British defeated the French in 1759, and dressed up in period costumes of New France, which is what the French colonies in North America were called before the British took control.

In Canada’s great battle of the military titans, England’s Gen. James Wolfe defeated French troops led by Louis-Joseph Marquis de Montcalm, and the days of New France were over. Although the battle is now centuries in the past, in Quebec City they don’t forget the good ol’ days. Quebecers celebrated the founding of Quebec at 300 years and at 400 years, and they continue to do so annually in a festival of French heritage appropriately called Les Fetes de la Nouvelle-France. For the annual Fetes, the current citizens of Quebec City still dress up in the attire of 17th and 18th century New France – the glory days of the city’s heritage.

Despite the political controversies in this part of the country, Les Fetes de la Nouvelle-France is about having fun — and dressing funny. I know this first-hand from hanging about the city dressed in the wrong century.

One sunny day in late summer day I could easily have been spotted walking along the city streets like the haughty nobility of yore in an exquisite outfit of brocade long coat, matching vest, waist-shirt, long stockings, pantaloons and tri-cornered hat. My companions were dressed equally as fantastically. Some were dukes and duchesses, some servants and we even boasted a tavern maid or two. Amidst the tens of thousands of tourists visiting the city in modern-day shorts, T-shirts and jeans, many of the good citizens of Quebec City enjoy nothing more than to meander about like characters from “Tartuffe.”

I saw wenches and pirates, squires, royalty, militiamen, First Nation warriors and bourgeoisie. I even spotted the king of France strolling about in a beautiful deep-blue cape lined with fur — appropriate since it was the fur trade that originally attracted colonists to the wilds of North America.

The center of the fun was a fair in Lower Town, where everyone could eat, drink and be merry in 17th century style. It was there that I realized it was not only local citizens who liked to dress up as Samuel Champlain or Robespierre, but other Canadians, as well. I had a glass of mead (actually a beer) with a young couple from Ottawa who had traveled to town just for the day dressed in costume.

Besides walking around like an extra from the movie set of “The Three Musketeers,” there are a number of planned activities, including an opening parade where anyone who has a costume can be a participant. When I was there, rain postponed the beloved parade, but there is always an alternative when a festival lasts four days.

Last year a young Quebec City couple decided to get married as part of the festivities. They and their wedding party were dressed in 18th century garb, and to get to the stage where a real-life priest would perform the ceremony, the groom had to land by boat at the shore and then march through the city to the “wedding chapel.”

The groom was met at the dock by a martinet who made various pronouncements in French and a group of musicians all finely dressed in 18th century marching band outfits. With the band at the fore, the finely attired citizens of Quebec City followed behind in a lengthy procession that wandered through the streets of town.

What the parade attendees didn’t know was that my stockings wouldn’t stay up, the pantaloons that needed to be tied at the knee kept coming undone and I was sweating under my heavy brocade coat and felt tri-corner hat adorned with faux fur. I took comfort in knowing that when my image hit the Facebook pages, at least I was dressed as a duke.

WHEN YOU GO

The 2011 Fetes de la Nouvelle-France will take place Aug. 3-7: www.nouvellefrance.qc.ca.

It’s hard to make a bad choice of lodgings in Quebec City. I stayed at the Loews Le Concorde Hotel (www.loewshotels.com), located near the popular watering holes and restaurants of the Grand Allee Est. I also spent a few nights at the iconic Fairmont Le Chateau Frontenac (www.fairmont.com), the edifice that dominates the city skyline. It can be found in Upper Town, along a promenade that overlooks the St. Lawrence River. Both are in terrific locations. — CNS

 

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