Old Cities and the Smell of the Ocean
Written by Issa Breibish » Thursday, August 16th, 2012
We return to Montréal on a red-eye and arrive at the hotel before 8 in the morning. To our relief no-one’s in our room and they give us the key. The emotions of the previous days have us completely knackered and we spend the day in a daze of sleeping and watching the Olympics. The next day isn’t entirely different either and we wonder out-loud how we can sleep so much and yet still be so tired. Still, we know that we’ll be re-united with our bikes the next day and that definitely lifts our spirits.
The next morning we say goodbye to our lovely host at Auberge du Carré St-Louis, and head to Moto Internationale to pick up our bikes. Again we’re met with the smiling faces of Sergio and Liette, and the joint is jumping! But again, they encourage us to take over their space in service while we get all of our bags together, change and grab the bikes. They’re gracious beyond belief. We say our goodbyes, share a hug with Liette and begin to make our way to Québec City through the construction zone that’s Montréal. Still, with Sergios directions and couple of lucky turns we’re on our way in good time.
The road to Québec City is a straight-ahead affair that’s lined mostly by farms. It’s fertilizing season and much of the trip is made with the pungent smell of cattle filling our helmets. It’s a far cry from the peppermint fields we passed through in Oregon and I’d be lying if I said it’s awesome! Still, after some time we get used to it and it’s shock wears off.
As we round a corner, we notice traffic backed up for miles. Approaching the flashing lights we expect to see an accident, but instead we’re welcomed by brightly colored toys littering the highway. A pick-up truck carrying boxes of what looks to be sombrero-wearing toucans has lost it’s load. For the next 3 miles we see stranded toys lying roadside waiting to be picked up and delivered into happy hands. We try to take a picture but a policeman waves us along before we can get the shot.
Soon enough we’re in Québec City and we’ve made it in time for rush hour. Sergio mentioned that the city is quiet – not like Montréal. However, the town is bustling and traffic is in a frenzy. As we approach Old Québec, we get caught in a mess of heavy traffic, steep hills and one-ways. The pedestrian traffic is getting more dense, and the tourist quotient is high which is translating into panicked drivers. We pull over and gather our senses. We can see the Hotêl du Vieux-Québec but all the arrows point away from it. I’m tempted to go the wrong way down an empty one-way street but decide to take a circle route to the front. It’s mayhem. The roads are narrow, steep and often cambered and while my size makes it fairly doable, Nita’s fighting with her bike. She works through it like a champ and soon enough we’re at the entry to the hotel.
Hot and tired we unload and retreat to the room for a shower.
I’m certain there’s no other place like Old Québec in Canada. I’ve been told that people who are intimidated by Europe, travel here as a substitute and I can see why – though, I don’t like the idea of Old Québec as an analogue to Europe. It conjures images of something manufactured, as if to intentionally draw visitors to a spectacle, like Vegas, which of course it’s not. And while it is a magnificent city, it certainly feels as though it’s not a “locals” Québec. This area is dominated by tourists – mostly American and German, all wandering its magical streets. Old Québec is a vital and creative place with it’s streets filled with performers. Acrobats fly high into the sky on a backdrop of period architecture. It feels historic, and it feels like we’re somewhere else – outside of Canada. We feel displaced in the most beautiful way.
Like Ottawa, we’ve heard horror stories about rudeness but again, that’s not our experience here. Everyone we deal with is friendly and almost everyone is bilingual. We’re getting more brave at testing out our French and the poor people on the receiving end are patient and gracious. Wandering the streets we stop and listen to Les Bleu Pelouse, a great band playing by a café and we could easily spend the night watching performers entertain their gathered crowds.
We spend two days in Québec City before heading north towards Tadoussac. Hwy 138 is the first really great riding road we’ve seen in a while which makes the journey fly-by. As we get closer to our home for the night, the fog begins to roll in off of the mighty St. Lawrence and we catch a short ferry across the Saguenay into Tadoussac.
Built 3 years prior to Confederation, the Hotel Tadoussac was a last-minute decision for us. We’ve been staying at motels and hotels more than planned and the budget since our return to Québec is higher than we’d like. It’s a difficult balance – worrying about the finances of this trip is the last thing we actually want to be doing – but left unmanaged the trip will be over sooner than we want. Of course, it’s a stress that we can manage with more camping as we head east but for now, a room by the increasingly foggy St. Lawrence is a wonderful distraction.
The next morning is cool and the fog has remained thick over the water. We make our way down to a whale-watching boat to spend the day looking for Grumps (watch One Week and you’ll understand) north of Tadoussac. Now, you should know that Nita doesn’t do boats very well. At our friend Nuri’s 50th birthday she spent a 3 hour boat tour around Manhattan on the deck looking at the horizon. Motion sickness is the *worst* so this time we take Gravol and she’s a-ok – though I keep thinking she might fall asleep before boarding… maybe we’ll try half a pill next time! Aboard the ship I’m certain we’ll be lucky to see anything with this fog and, well, whales just seem hard to find.
I am, however, completely wrong.
The guides calm and steady voice begins to increase in volume as his excitement grows as whale after whale breaks the surface. “If you’ve never been whale-watching before, I have to let you know this is not normal!” he squeals into the mic. And it does seem quite unbelievable. A Blue whale, the largest creature to ever exist on our planet swims within 20 feet of our ship, while Fin and Humpback whales feed at the surface a 100 feet beyond him. People on the ship are cheering with each pass and the 3 hours on the water seem to pass so very quickly. We’ve seen more whales than we could imagine and it’s one on the best moments on the trip so far. They are majestic and amazing creatures and we feel so privileged to have spent some time with them.
After a great sleep, we head north a little ways and catch the ferry from Les Escoumins to Trois-Pistoles. When we make the reservation we’re told to arrive 45 minutes in advance or lose our spot which we think is a tad harsh, but when we get there what we witness is vehicular Tetris at its most precise. While we wait for the show to begin we meet two other riders waiting by the dock – Jacques and Robert.
Jacques speaks no English while Robert is quite fluent. We spend some time talking bikes, and travel and then Robert explains that he lost his wife a mere month ago. Holding back tears, he explains how after her passing he purchased the bike and was honoring a promise to enjoy life more and work a little less. Robert regains his composure, and begins to joke again with a wonderfully warm smile. He’s a proud and warm man and we enjoy every moment we share with him before the boat is loaded up.
Jacques and Robert are waved onto the boat first and, as we wait, the woman in charge of loading walks deliberately through the line picking cars at random that best fit the spaces. This is no first-come first-served operation. She walks by a car, folds their mirrors in. No good. Moves on. Yes, the Hyundai will do. And so it goes. We continue to wait patiently as the ferry fills up. Suddenly two pick-ups race down the hill and try to sneak on when the woman isn’t looking. She jumps in front of them and yells while waving madly. They slam on the brakes and are relegated to waiting after getting a stern talking to.
Finally we roll on behind an RV and the two truant trucks. We’re sandwiched in the space between two cars. A large crowd has gathered to watch the packing of the remaining vehicles – and it deserves an audience! Amazingly they manage to park one last car at an angle behind us and the boat erupts into cheers and applause. In fact, the cars are packed so tightly that some folks can’t find a path to their cars at unloading time. It’s something to behold.
As the ferry arrives at Trois-Pistoles, Robert finds us on the deck and shows us a picture of his wife. “She is always with me” he says, again fighting back the emotions. He’s a kind soul and our hearts hope he finds happiness. We wanted to tell him about Neil Peart, and the epic ride he undertook after he lost his wife and daughter and the hope-filled life that emerged from those ashes. But in reality I always have a difficult time broaching death. So we say our goodbyes and head north along HWY132 with a plan to circumnavigate La Gaspésie – the eastern peninsula of Québec that runs across the St. Lawrence, above New Brunswick. Coincidentally, our dear friend Mark Hamilton (founder of Woodpigeon) had sent us a note about it just days before we arrived:
@woodpigeontweet: QC is so good, especially Highway 132. Most beautiful in Canada. Will you go through Rivière-du-Loup? Also: Saint-Louis-du-Ha! Ha!”
He’s not wrong. All along the 132 I keep thinking, “If Canada has a rival to California’s PCH, this is it.” It’s a riding utopia that really gets going by the small village of Saint Flavie. In this idyllic town we are immediately drawn to a series of logs with heads carved into them set along an imagined pathway that disappears into the water. With the fog that’s now rolling in, they fade like ghostly figures into shadows.
The road continues to wind and rise, then drop to the water, flanked by rocks and trees that act as the only reminder that you’re travelling with any speed. This road is playful and undaunting and riding it is purely pleasure. It’s simply the best road we’ve ridden in Canada so far. Managing our speed, we can create gaps that leave us alone for an hour at a time. Often shadowed by gulls gliding just above the water, they occasionally dip a wing to draw a line through the waves.
We spend our nights in La Gaspésie at a series of small towns, Mont St-Pierre, Chandler and finish up in Bonaventure. Everyday the weather becomes more of a factor and the storm-front that brought the heavy rains to our aborted attempt of the Trans-Lab Highway brings dense fog and eventually rain to our glorious time on this road. At times we can barely see 20 feet in front of us and we’d never know if there was water to our left. Still, it’s a joyful ride and each town seems to fight the weather with colourful houses and a beautiful central church. From Mont St. Pierre to Chandler the towns become sparse and finding a place to spend the night is difficult – especially at this time of year.
Just before our last stop in Bonaventure we pause at Percé, a lovely city famous for a coastal rock! Actually, it’s an amazing natural bridge – one of the largest in the world. The town is the busiest place we’ve been to since Québec City with scores of tourists trying to get a good look at rocher Percé. We pass though, dodging pedestrians, enter a campsite on the other side of town and score a great view of the city and the rock away from the madding crowds. We’re becoming better at finding peaceful moments even in the midst of chaos!
The next day brings with it heavy rains and we only ride a couple of hours before stopping in Bonaventure. It’s a short trip but we take a day off to revel in the last of Québec before entering New Brunswick. We love it in “la belle province.” After a couple of weeks we feel more confident in fumbling our way through conversations in French, and enjoy not knowing what’s going on around us at all times. While I’m far too ignorant of the politics surrounding sovereignty and the like, I’m leaving this province with the hope that it’s uniqueness is protected and that it always remains a part of Canada.
I think we’re going to miss it here.
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