Would rural Quebec would be something like rural parts of the USA, but everyone speaks French? With my friend Lyman and I set out to discover Quebec in eight days of cycling.
In planning this trip I discovered a basic fact: Quebec has been built as a collection of settlements along the St. Lawrence River. Quebec City stands at the point where the river narrows at a mountain range, offering an early seventeenth century military planner a perfect place for defending the river. Two hundred miles further upstream, Montreal was built at the fall line, the limit, at least four hundred years ago, where ocean going vessels could go. This map shows the bicycle ride we ended up doing. Quebec City was about halfway. After the bike ride we returned from Rimouski to Montreal in a rental car.
Air fares to Canada tend to be expensive, and driving with the bicycle saves advance planning and causes less global warming. With my Bike Friday in the back I drove our 2005 Toyota Prius up from North Carolina. My friend Lyman had flown in from Austin TX and I picked him and his Bike Friday up at Baltimore’s BWI airport. We then overnighted with my sister Betsy and her husband George in Princeton NJ. She was not going to bicycle on this trip but she rode with Lyman and me in the car six hours up to Montreal so she could use my car to noodle around Quebec on her own. We stopped for a beer at a brewery in Plattsburgh NY, just south of the Canadian border.
The three of us had a fine Moroccan dinner that night in Montreal. The next morning Lyman and I fitted up our bicycles and headed out. By Quebec standards it was going to be a hot day, high about ninety. This turned out to be the hottest day of the trip.
Betsy was going to fly back home three days hence and leave the Prius for us at a lot near the Montreal airport. This first day Lyman and I bicycled from the downtown hotel northwest through Montreal streets, heading downriver along the north shore of the St. Lawrence. It is about 200 miles from Montreal to Quebec City, and we hoped to make it in four days.
Quebec urban apartments have a consistent theme, steep outdoor staircases to second floor apartments. In America the stairs are normally inside, not that I had ever thought about it all that much. It is one of those things in a foreign country that remind you: not everybody does everything just like Americans.
Quebec has a province-wide bicycle route system called La Route Verte (The Green Route) I have not seen a state in the USA that has anything quite so well arranged for long distance bicycling. (New York State and the Erie Canal route comes close.) Its design seems typically Canadian, not expensive but well thought out. It spoke of a government that is trying to solve a problem and create something, rather than be at war with itself. On La Route Verte you just have to follow the signs.
For the first four days we bicycled La Route Verte no. 5, which follows the north shore of the St. Lawrence river. In urban areas it leads a bicyclist through webs of residential streets, but connecting those when necessary with mostly paved bike paths.
In rural areas La Route Verte is mostly just signage showing a bicyclist the safest routes, sometimes on rural back roads.
and much of the time on lightly used highways, virtually always with a wide shoulder.
On occasion Route Verte uses a design I do not approve of, a two way bike path along one side of a conventional street. (I do not think it is safe going through intersections bicycling the wrong way against traffic.)
On this first day out we biked through the northeastern side of Montreal which is clearly the poorer industrial side of town. Later on, a bike path followed along the St. Lawrence River with its ocean going vessels.
We rode a long way that day (59 miles), especially considering that the first part included constant stopping and starting through neighborhoods, and that it was about ninety degrees outside, and both of us are in our mid sixties.
There are not a lot of motels on this stretch of the north side of the river. We exhaustedly pulled into this place at about five in the afternoon.
It is a Friday night in July, the height of the summer season. Complet! No rooms! What do we do now?
The young woman at front desk of Villa D’Autray Motel spoke virtually no English and could not have been nicer. While she turned us down for a room she invited the two of us to come swim in their pool while we sorted out our situation.
Lyman and I took the desk clerk up on her offer and we hung out for a while in the pool, in our bicycle shorts.
A couple of guys drinking beer in the pool were playing Appalachian / Irish sounding music, with French words, on their boombox. I had vaguely heard of that Celtic music from Brittany sounded similar to American Appalachian and Irish music. There are no words in this particular recording but when there were words, they were totally in French.
Still wet from the pool we got back on the bicycles. I located a Days Inn three miles up the road in Berthierville, the only other hotel in the area, and I booked it on my phone. The Villa D’Auhtray Motel we had not been able to say in was on a lovely two lane highway along the St. Lawrence River. On the other hand, the Days Inn de Berthierville is next to the freeway where most of that town’s commercial buildings had transplanted themselves, just like in America.
Near the Days Inn there were no restaurant restaurants, just a collection of fast food places. We got a to-go bottle of wine and ate outside at a chicken place, not sure if that was legal or not. The dimly lit “lounge” of the Days Inn had gambling machines, just like those one sees in “Internet cafes” in obscure parts of North Carolina; we stayed clear. The free breakfast the next morning was in the same lounge.
The Musee Gilles Villeneuve was almost next door to the Days Inn. We stopped by when it opened at 9:30 AM. We were the only visitors.
Yes, I had vaguely heard of Gilles Villeneuve. He really made it to the big time. Like so many Formula One drivers, he had died young in a fiery crash, him at age thirty-two in 1982. He clearly was the young man from Berthierville who had made good. Were the two people working the counter were Gilles’ relatives?
Before he got to Formula One Gilles had started racing snowmobiles, which up until this moment I had never known such racing existed. How Canadian! Apparently Gilles drove whatever he drove insanely and recklessly fast, until the danger ultimately caught up with him.
The museum had a slot car track, Lyman and I enjoyed racing each other.
Back on the road, we headed northeast downriver, north side, on La Route Verte no. 5, on roads small and large. We were dodging rain showers.
Some of the towns were picturesque.
We had had to stop several times to keep from getting wet, including about an hour on the porch of a semi-abandoned farmhouse. The weather was finally clearing as we pulled into Trois-Rivieres, population 140,000, the largest city between Montreal and Quebec City.
Wikipedia describes Trois-Rivieres as a factory town struggling with closed factories. This entire region seems to have been very much into paper and newsprint. Arriving downtown Trois-Rivieres we looked around for a bar. The Billie Jean sure seemed to be the place to be. Everyone was drinking pitchers of Bud Light. Les Quebecois clearly like to get outside the few days of the year that the weather is nice. The waitress spoke no English but understood enough to bring us two local IPAs, We looked for a hotel on our phones.
We found a nice hotel a few blocks away and biked over there along the riverfront.
Later on we went out to dinner to Le Buck just a few blocks in the other direction, in the historic part of town. Almost all these towns along the St. Lawrence were settled by the French in the 1600’s.
It was a different vibe from the bar scene at Billie Jean. Le Buck is a fancy restaurant with outdoor seating where both of us got steak frites, no appetizer, and a shared bottle of the lowest cost red wine. It may have been the best meal of the entire trip.
Quebecois food is not French any more than American food is British. In the major cities of Quebec there are certainly fancy restaurants that mimic fancy French styles. Elsewhere the Quebecois eat in their versions of chain restaurants and diners. In general, average Quebecois restaurant food is better than average American restaurant food. The most famous Quebecois dish is poutine, a decidedly blue collar pile of French fries on a paper plate covered in gravy and cheese collards, something to cheaply warm the bones in typically freezing weather.
The next morning we biked through the streets of Trois-Rivieres before leaving town north on the highway along the river. I suspect almost no one has air conditioning, people were hanging outside.
It was still two days cycling to reach Quebec City. La Route Verte routed us mostly on the Quebec highway 138 (already paralleled by a freeway) but when possible on the even older road that passed directly through small towns.
Les Quebecois are heavily into motorcycles, RV’s, SUV’s, and muscle cars. We had pizza for lunch at a restaurant advertising specifically for motorcyclists but it had a much fru-fruier vibe than the average biker-friendly place in America. It was all very nice.
We stayed that night at an Airbnb in the small town of Portneuf. This personable woman rents out bedrooms in her suburban house, her enormous but friendly dog lying all about the place. The dog slept outside our room at night, as if to guard it. Lyman and I were able to walk to a small restaurant.
The next day we cycled again on La Route Verte 5, which is mostly Quebec route 138 along the north shore of the St. Lawrence.
The terrain had gotten challenging, steep hills for the first time. Lyman here is wearing his hooded Patagonia sun protection bicycle jersey. The temperature was in the upper seventies with a really bright sun.
The Quebec City suburbs on the south side along the north shore of the river are clearly the ta-ta side of town. We bicycled past miles of tract mansions, just like in America, except the occupants speak French!
Coming into Quebec City a serious bluff blocks the riverfront. To stay on the bicycle route we had to push the bicycles up these stairs, which connects to a bike trail.
Bicycling further into the city it still looked like the average American neighborhood, even though it was not. (We are in French speaking Quebec, right?) We tried to keep up with this young woman as we all followed La Route Verte signs.
After biking in rural Quebec for four days, arriving Old Quebec is somewhat shellshocking. Other than Campeche, Mexico, Quebec City is the only walled city in North America.
To quote Lyman, Old Town Quebec City is like the French Quarter in New Orleans, except here they actually speak French!
We had booked an Airbnb in but had to wait for the “owner” to show up and let us in. It was an apartment in Old Town. We got a coffee next door. The neighborhood was full of summertime tourists, although it seemed like relatively few were Americans. We watched people go by our open cafe window.
The Airbnb representative finally showed up and let us in. She was colorful.
The view from the back deck of the Airbnb apartment was in many ways as interesting as the front.
The view out the front window.
On this Tuesday night in July restaurants were busy! My friend Joe back in North Carolina had recommended we eat at Le Lapin Sauté, but tables were unavailable. On the phone a place called La Buvette did not have a table but could seat us at the bar at 8:30 PM. It was hip and expensive and delicious and pretentious but somehow not totally memorable. It might have been because I felt we did not get enough to eat! (Lyman had gotten the “mozzarella foam” appetizer!)
Lyman (rightfully) was interested in the history of the city. The French had not only walled the city, they had built a fort (the Citadelle) atop the hill that the city sits on, where the river narrows. It seems like a perfect place to defend one’s territory. In 1759 the English somehow lured the French out of their position and defeated them on the Plains of Abraham, a flat low spot just below the town. That was the end of the French rule over Quebec. The next morning Lyman and I walked up to the Citadelle.
Looking down the skyline is dominated, not by the Citadelle but by the huge hotel Chateau Frontenac built in 1890 by the Canadian Pacific Railway.
About lunchtime we checked out of our Airbnb and rode our bicycles to the ferry landing at the riverfront of Old Town. We got a surprisingly good pasta lunch among the tourists and souvenir shops.
We were about halfway through our bicycle trip. The next four days would again be along the St. Lawrence, but this time on the south shore. North of Quebec City the north shore becomes mountainous while the south shore is more of a flood plain, sometimes with lovely views of the mountains on the other side of the river. While there is a bridge near Quebec City we chose to cross by ferry, which leaves from Old Town. We could join the crowd of people wheeling their bicycles right onto the boat. The crossing took about fifteen minutes.
Starting here for the next four days we bicycled about 200 miles north of Quebec City along the south bank of the St. Lawrence River. This region is now my favorite part of Quebec to bicycle. Leaving the Quebec City suburbs there was a bicycle path along the river for several miles.
Eventually we bicycled north on Quebec route 132, also labeled as La Route Verte no.1.
La Route Verte signs sometimes diverted to the old road through towns. The town of St. Jean de Bellechasse looked cutesy and properous. We stopped for ice cream.
Maybe it was the weather but this whole stretch of road gave off a wonderful vibe, as La Route Verte meandered along the riverfront on a thin road with almost no traffic. A few miles further there was an outdoor barbecue stand fronting the river, the mountains lining up on the other side. We skipped the barbecue but got beers. Eventually we started chatting with a nice couple also there enjoying the afternoon even though we barely understood each other’s languages! They are from Quebec City, they drive out here sometimes just to enjoy the view.
Just a mile or two further, in an area called Bertheir-su-Mer we stopped and got a room at a motel that the couple had told us about. In America this place might have been creepy, an aging motel on the riverfront with a faded sign along a two lane highway. Here there is nothing creepy about it; the rooms are clean and a nice locally owned bar and restaurant is attached.
We had a nice simple dinner watching the sun set over the river.
The next morning we had breakfast at the same restaurant, the Mont Sainte Anne ski resort visible across the river.
Maybe it is just me, but in America a menu might offer “two eggs any style with toast, hash browns and choice of bacon or sausage.” Here they say the same, in French, except that they say “bacon, sausage or cheese.” Cheese? So I got cheese. This is a low cost restaurant but unlike America plastic utensils are nowhere to be seen and the bread is fresh.
All day La Route Verte no. 1 mostly followed Quebec highway 132 as we biked about fifty miles along the riverfront in lovely sunny weather.
There were a lot of other bicyclists on La Route Verte. Most were not carrying luggage so we assume they were locals but there were lots of them. We ran into this guy, English speaking Canadian from British Columbia, he had been riding for about a week starting in Ottawa. He said he was going all the way to Newfoundland. Unlike us, he was going on the cheap, camping every night, sometimes sleeping in the weeds, and expected to be biking for weeks. He said he was responsible for no one, he only had to text his daughter every few days to show he was still alive.
Quebec has lots of locally owned hamburger and ice cream joints they call a Casse-Croute. Note that we were not the only bicyclists eating lunch there.
I saw his poster about the upcoming Chicken Festival while eating hamburgers at the casse-croute. There are indeed parallels with rural America, even if people here do not speak English. Demolition Derby! Escape Games! La Grande Debauche Gala de Lutte NSPW! (professional wrestling!). Polker Tournament! Musical Gala! Smoke Show! Rooster lunch! Flea Market! Derby de la Releve! (I think another kind of car crash thing).
We spent the night in a motel out by the highway next to the town of La Pocatiere. Dinner was at the adjacent restaurant Mikes. Mikes is a regional chain based in Montreal. Breakfast was at the Tim Hortons next door. Tim Hortons (“Always Fresh”) is named after a hockey player and is like the Dunkin Donuts of Canada.
Quiz question: why do both Mikes and Tim Hortons not have an apostrophe after their name?
Answer: BECAUSE IT IS ILLEGAL. Public signs in Quebec must be in French, and French does not have an apostrophe. According to Wikipedia, McDonald’s gets away with it because they are, well, McDonald’s.
Quebec has a well funded government office that English speakers derisively refer to as the “language police.” This office goes over things like restaurant menus. Restaurants in Quebec cannot use the word pasta, because that is Italian, not French. Seriously.
This underscores the stress of trying to preserve French language culture in a democracy without being draconian. Before the language laws were passed in the 1970’s French speakers felt like a persecuted majority, surrounded not only by the English speaking hordes in Ontario and the U.S.A., but bossed by an English speaking elite in Quebec. Now, big cities like Montreal and to a degree, Quebec City, both look multicultural and multiracial and are populated with immigrants from French speaking places like Haiti, Algeria, Morocco, Cameroon, and Vietnam. The rest of Quebec, not so much. Outside of Quebec City and Montreal over eight days I saw a total of about four people of color or Asian. I also saw over a hundred real estate signs and I started keeping tabs. Only ONCE was did the selling agent have a last name (“Baker”) that was not obviously French. Using real estate agents as a non-scientific sample, the overwhelming majority of people in rural Quebec have French language surnames.
I applaud les Quebecois for preserving their language. But this does underscore how difficult it becomes, with often the devil in the details.
Most people in rural Quebec seem to be from Quebec. In eight days in Quebec north of Montreal, with the hundreds and hundreds of cars that passed me on the bicycle I saw less than ten cars with license plates from other parts of Canada like Ontario or New Brunswick. I saw a total of two cars with USA plates. Two.
Leaving La Pocatiere we continued cycling northwest along the St. Lawrence River. La Route Verte directed us through towns, along the highway, and along parallel bike paths., some of them paved, some of them fine gravel. We got an early start.
By early afternoon we had completed 80% of the mileage for the day and we felt comfortable stopping at this microbrewery. It sat by itself on a lightly travelled highway. On this sunny Friday at 2:30 PM it was packed with people. We sat indoors at the bar but the locals seemed to enjoy sitting in the sun.
Since I am from North Carolina and our state government practically shut down on this issue, I bring up public toilets in Quebec. They seem much more forward thinking of this subject than in the USA. Almost all public toilets in restaurants and gas stations were marked as being for both sexes. Many places (like this brewery) had a shared sink with stalls open to all, a setup I have hardly even seen in the USA.
Back on the bicycles we cycled up to Riviere du Loup (population 24,000) which along with the upcoming Rimouski is one of the two larger towns in this area. Both are college towns. The Riviere du Loup downtown sits up on a bluff above the river.
We had no idea why these streets were blocked off. It turned out it was for go-kart racing. They were loud.
From the Hotels Dot Com website we had found the lowest cost accommodations on this trip; US$ 32.00 per night including tax for a university dorm room right across from the go-kart track. Thankfully, the racing noise stopped by 6:00 PM. Caveat: there was no air conditioning and the shared bathroom was down the hall, just like in college. Unlike my actual college only a few rooms were occupied and the hallway was clean and quiet. I guess it is summer break.
We had to bicycle uphill to get there but downtown Riviere du Loup on a summer Friday night was hopping. They had a heavy metal band performing on the street downtown during the dinner hour, cover songs in English and a few originals in French. We walked around before the music started.
We ate outside at a restaurant called L’innocent. It was a few blocks up the hill from the heavy metal action; we could hear the music while eating but the sound was not overwhelming. We also people watched.
The next morning we got breakfast at Cafe Van Houte which I later learned is a Montreal coffee chain. There are a couple key differences from Starbucks. These differences were true at every other coffee place we visited in Quebec, both chain stores and locally owned. The croissants were absolutely fresh and delicious and were served on actual china plates with real silverware.
We bicycled out of town.
A few miles outside of Riviere du Loup we met a guy on the highway who on Instagram goes by the name Unicycle_Dave. He lives in Toronto and had started unicycling 2000 miles west in British Columbia. His custom made unicycle has a 36 inch wheel and a two speed gearbox. It is a fixie, he cannot coast, he has to always keep pedaling. He had been on the road 49 days and wants to go all the way across Canada to St. Johns, Newfoundland. He regular job is in video production and despite the fact that he had little room to carry anything, he had all sorts of complicated photography equipment, including a video drone, which he said he used occasionally. He wants to make a documentary movie about his journey. With his I-phone Lyman filmed me riding with him down a hill, as well as a still shot of the two of us.
We continued to bicycle along the riverside. The St. Lawrence was now so wide that you couldn’t see the other side, it was like the ocean.
We had decided to spend the night in the small town of Trois Pistoles, halfway between Riviere du Loup and Rimouski. Being on the waterfront it is very much a vacation town.
The next day would be our final day of cycling. We were headed to Rimouski where we had a reservation for an Enterprise rent-a-car to drive back to Montreal.
These forty something miles were the wildest of our trip, the flatness of a flood plain on the south bank of the St. Lawrence evolved into rocky outcroppings reminiscent of pictures I have seen of places like Nova Scotia.
About ten miles of the ride is through Parc National du Bic. We had smooth high pressure bicycle tires not well suited for off-road. These gravel trails were not as challenging as we feared, the riding was actually quite nice.
At a mini-mart we ran into Graham Rush, a retired Canadian foreign service office living in Kingston, Ontario. He was on a month-long solo bicycle ride, camping most of the time. He has toured by bicycle all over the world.
Rimouski (population 48,000) is a surprisingly large almost sophisticated feeling place with a waterfront bicycle path.
We dodged the rain just in time to haven a late lunch at this crepe restaurant where we had to wait for a table on this Sunday afternoon.
That evening we walked around downtown Rimouski where some kind of summer festival was going on.
I heard what I thought was live music, it turned out only to be a guy singing through a karaoke machine. Still, the crowd all knew the chorus. I have been playing and singing City of New Orleans on the guitar for forty years; obviously someone turned this around into a new song (in French!)
(click on any letter above)
The next morning at 7:00 AM I bicycled by myself through Rimouski to Enterprise Car Rental in the suburbs, right next to the Walmart. Even in Canada the Walmart is safe harbor. Just like in the USA people know that Walmart does not mind you parking there. There were about forty camping vehicles that had stayed overnight in the Walmart lot.
We had four hundred miles and a six hour drive just to get to the New York State / Canada border! I easily got the car and drove back to the hotel to pick up Lyman and his bicycle.