A stroll along Canada’s No. 1 street

petit-champlain-cafes

Visitors enjoy the atmosphere of Old Quebec on Rue du Petit-Champlain. (Julia Pelish/Vacay.ca)

[This article was originally published in Vacay.ca and the Huffington Post.]

QUEBEC CITY, QUEBEC — Eric Vezina can trace his roots to this spot, a cobblestone street that is 12 metres wide and 500 metres long, with a history older than the nation and a devotion to culture that is as fierce as it is endearing. Walking along Rue du Petit-Champlain, Vezina says, “My family goes back 11 generations in Quebec, to 1659. They helped build this street.”

A maintenance worker for the businesses in the area, Vezina speaks proudly of the heritage his ancestors played in establishing this section of Quebec City that dates more than 400 years and of where the street stands today, which is at the head of the nation. Vacay.ca has spent months visiting Canada’s urban centres to determine which streets are the best places for you to spend your time and dollars when touring the country. Rue du Petit-Champlain, lined with shops that belong to an artists’ cooperative, ranks No. 1 among the Top 20 Streets to Visit in Canada (full list to be published on September 17).

The street has boutique shops, artisan galleries, and restaurants, as well as a 200-seat theatre within centuries-old stone walls, a mural that depicts different stages of the city’s history, and a touching memorial to the 20 victims of an 1841 landslide that saw shale from the hill above  tumble down 300 feet. Look up beyond the cross that honours those lost and you will see the city’s greatest landmark, the Château Frontenac, rising tall from atop the Dufferin Terrace. The famed hotel was built in 1893, however, making it relatively modern when compared to the street and district beneath it.

Rue du Petit-Champlain is the oldest commercial street in North America. The Breakneck Stairs that lead down to it from Côte de la Montagne — a winding route that doubles in winter as the course for the annual Red Bull Crashed Ice races — are steep and dramatic. Built in 1635, the staircase has 59 steps that take you to Rue Petit-Champlain and the adjoining streets that make up the Quartier Champlain district.

Beyond the eye-catching scenery, what distinguishes Petit-Champlain from every other street in the nation is its emphasis on local culture in a tourist-heavy location. The street receives one million visitors a year, yet you will not find a Starbucks or McDonald’s here.

“We just say no,” notes Pascale Moisan, director of the Quartier Champlain cooperative. She mentions that Subway recently wanted to open a franchise location on the street but was refused.

Forty-five stores belong to the cooperative, with most owned by artisans and boutique fashion retailers. There are a couple of restaurants and chocolate shops. Not all the stores in Quartier Champlain are part of the cooperative. The one national chain that has a storefront here is LUSH (102 Rue du Petit-Champlain), but Moisan points out that its cosmetic products are handmade and that helps it complement other shops in the district.

In winter, the street is cleared by the cooperative’s members because Petit-Champlain is too narrow for snowploughs. The community also places 40 trees along the street at Christmas and more than 15,000 lightbulbs are used as decorations. It creates a beautiful scene, a winter wonderland that underscores that the street is as much for residents as it is for visitors.

“We have the best of both worlds. We have shops and things to do for the people of Quebec who enjoy the area, and you have stores that have lots of appeal for tourists,” says Monique Zimmermann, proprietor of Brin de Folie (38 Boulevard Champlain, linked to Petit-Champlain by a staircase), a colourful shop with zany gift items.

Despite the Quartier Champlain’s boutique atmosphere, the prices aren’t outrageous. Odette Lachance, a worker at the clothing store Blanc Mouton (at 51 Rue Sous-le-Fort, near the corner of Petit-Champlain), says there is an awareness that tourist areas have a reputation for overpricing their goods. Blanc Mouton’s owner, Marie-Pier Vincent, is conscious of that fact, she notes.

“We try to keep the prices as low as possible. That’s why you’ll find clothes here that would be much higher priced  in a big shopping mall,” says Lachance of Blanc Mouton’s clothing, which features Quebec designers and includes a line of tops handmade by women in a village with only 300 people.

You will also discover a fascinating taxidermy and outdoor apparel store (Bilodeau, 20 Rue du Cul-de-Sac, just south of Petit-Champlain) that features furs and pelts that are from the province’s Inuit communities. None of the animals are hunted for their pelts. The store purchases them after Inuit hunters have killed the animals for sustenance. A polar bear pelt sells for $12,000, but there are much more affordable and practical items for sale. Another unique spot on the district is Shamâne (70 Boulevard Champlain), which opened in April and sells soaps and skin-care products made with donkey cream. Donkeys in Charlevoix are milked daily and that milk, which is thinner than goat or cow milk, is turned into silky, all-natural products.

Beyond the shopping is a vibrancy that comes from being in a place that matters. Rue du Petit-Champlain has character and that alone makes you want to be here.

“The people of Quebec realize that this street is an important part of our heritage,” Moisan says. “We want to take care of it.”

See photos and read more about Canada’s No. 1 Street on Vacay.ca

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