Monday, March 2, 2015

Shaking Hands with Jesus in Old Quebec

It wasn’t like a real shake hands, of course; Jesus’s hand being made of a silvery metal, protruding at an angle of thirty degrees from a giant-sized solid bronze door (the Holy Door), on hinges, standing open at the side of the Church. As we passed through the door into the sacristy, Rose and I touched Jesus’s right hand in our left (the least awkward choice), briefly so as not to hold up the line of pilgrims in the Garden. We shook hands on the doorstep of the Notre-Dame de Quebec Basilica- Cathedral last August during our vacation cruise to the Magdalen Islands on the St. Lawrence River. All our past sins were immediately forgiven, cancelled out with one handshake, the flyer said. Quebec had applied to Rome for permission to install the Holy Door for the 350th Anniversary of the City’s founding. It is one of only seven in the world. It remained open for all of 2014, then was shut to reopen in seven years. We were lucky to get in when we did.

Unusual as our encounter with the Holy Door was, it wasn’t the highpoint of our trip. The cruise itself was: seven days on the St. Lawrence, a River so big that when you weren’t in sight of the Quebec Coast, you felt like you were sailing the Atlantic. Our ship, the CTMA Vacancier, a converted cargo ship, is owned by the Magdalen Islands Co-op and used in summer for tours, then reverts the rest of the year to hauling produce to and from the Islands. It held 350 souls including us, all but twelve of us French-speakers, four linguists from the crew designated to babysit the outlanders.

We boarded in Montreal on a late July morning, having taken the 7-hour train ride on Amtrac from Albany to Montreal the day before. Very informally friendly, scores of passengers clustered under a circus-sized tent on the Harbor dock, chatting, laughing in French, old friends, till we were shepherded by French-speaking monitors (who seemed to know everyone but us) onto buses for the short ride to the ship. We’re mostly senior citizens.

For the next two days and nights we sail up the majestic St. Lawrence. Plenty of chairs on deck (of molded plastic construction as befit the blue-collar character of our vessel), perfect for taking the bracing sea air while mesmerized from staring into the roiling waves as the ship knifes through the water. Our first stop is Cap aux Meules, the main commercial hub where we dock for the next day-and-a-half while we leave the ship to board tour buses to see the churches, restaurants, an aquarium, and artisans of this hilly Island. There are eight major Islands in the Magdalens, a small archipelago in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, just off Prince Edward Island and Nova Scotia. On Grande Entrée Island, settled in the Eighteenth Century by Scots, they speak English and a dialect of Gaelic, rather than French, the common tongue of the Islanders.

Bused to the aquarium, we hoped to see the Great White Shark reportedly caught several years ago in the local waters but, alas, he wasn’t there. The aquarium manager explained to us how the provincial government decided that the locals were not up to the task of caring for their shark and so took him away; clearly the insult still smarted. How a Great White happened to find himself in the St. Lawrence River went unexplained, and I wasn’t about to tactlessly ask. But there were fresh lobsters in abundance. Rose and I ate them at La Factorie where you get on line at the steam table and a middle-aged woman grabs up a two-pound lobster, whacks it three times with a cleaver and plops it onto your tray. No frills. We ate all our land meals at La Factorie.

Back on the River, I experienced again the greatest pleasure of the voyage—to sit on deck in an Adirondeck chair at dusk as the ship plowed along—feeling alone in a vast space listening to the sibilant hiss of rushing water as the mind floats free. It’s as close as I’ll ever come to the perfect Ocean Voyage, which for me always has Humphrey Bogart, Mary Astor and Sydney Greenstreet fencing verbally while lolling in deck chairs swathed in blankets (the movie, Across the Pacific, 1942).

The best thing on board ship, after the people and meals, was the nighttime entertainment in the ‘Nightclub’. Might be a Canadian thing: passengers and staff dancing solo on stage, like a Texas Two-Step without a partner. They had remarkable endurance. But the piece de resistance was Johnny Cash. You never heard the like of this Johnny doing Sunday Mornin’ Comin’ Down, I Walk the Line, and Ring of Fire—“I fell into a burning ring of fire. I went down, down, down and the flames climbed higher. And it burned, burned, burned the ring of fire. The ring of fire.” Music by Cash, lyrics in the FrancoAnglais patois of Renee Langois—live on guitar and DJ hookup, the music pounding down, Renee rolling his ‘r’s like revving a motor. Best of all, the audience knew all the words and joined in (Frenchified, of course). The Man in Black is a headliner in Montreal. On the return trip, Renee Langois metamorphosed into Elvis (not as successfully, alas).

Our ship laid over eight hours in Quebec’s Old City. (Love the place!) When we visited last April, I used Quebec novelist Louise Penny’s Bury Your Dead as Guide Book, following in the footsteps of her Armand Gamache, Chief Inspector of Homicide in the Surete du Quebec, as he investigated the death of an archeologist, the body dumped in the dirt cellar of the Quebec Literary and Historical Society, last bastion of the English-speaking Quebecois. In the novel, it is a bone-rattling, snowy December as Gamache trudges around the City—over the Plains of Abraham, site of the decisive Battle for Quebec in September, 1759, during the French and Indian War; in-and-out of the elegant Chateau Frontenac, the ancient fort-like hotel perched on the precipice overlooking the River and Vieux-Quebec.

Being French, Gamache manages to eat and drink in the homey restaurants, cafes and fragrant bakeries of the Old City as he searches for a killer and to solve the mystery of the final resting place of the French General, the Marquis de Montcalm, who died of his wounds while losing the Battle for Quebec and Canada to the English General James Wolfe, who also succumbed on the Battlefield. We retraced Gamache’s steps, trudging along in milder April weather (still a test as Old Quebec is an up-and-down town, no street going along for long without a steep rise and rapid descent). Fortunately, the best croissants in the French-speaking world are to be had at Le Paillard, a short walk down Rue Saint-Jean from the Notre-Dame Cathedral. Take it from me: Chief Inspector Armand Gamache knows his croissants. At the Literary and Historical Society, the staff kindly gave us a tour that included the dirt-floored cellar where English prisoners were imprisoned during the Battle for Quebec, and where, appropriately enough, Louise Penny buried her English body.

© 2015 Bob Knightly


  1. Bob, how wonderful to see your piece today! We've really missed your posts. I enjoyed the trip with you and Rose - can just taste those croissants right this moment! ..... Hope you shared this with Louise Penny! tjs

  2. Welcome back!!! Lovely post. Now I want to cruise the St. Lawrence. David and I have been thinking about a river cruise for a while, and this just might be it. Excuse me now, I have to go find croissants and make some cafe au lait.

  3. Thanks for the tour! Good I had a snack before I read this. I miss you and Rose. What fun to travel with you here.