A little French polish.
Forget Paris, MICHAEL O'FLAHERTY finds that je ne sais quoi in Quebec
ON ARRIVAL at my chateau in Quebec City, I was greeted by the Ambassador. His Excellency immediately suggested - in French, of course - that we take a walk together.
I was fortunate. Normally, with such distinguished company, you have to make an appointment and I was happy to oblige. Although tired from jet-lag, I had to be as diplomatic as possible.
The Ambassador looked at me with big, brown, doleful eyes. So I put him on his lead and we ventured out into the streets of the city.
Before you accuse me of being barking mad, I should explain that the Ambassador is a dog. A dog called Santol. And he has been adopted as a canine ambassador by the magnificent Chateau Frontenac Hotel, where I was to spend two idyllic nights during a four-day stay in the French-speaking Canadian province of Quebec.
Santol is a four-year-old Burmese-Labrador cross. A Labramese. Black with patches of white and sporting a snazzy red collar, he was originally bred and trained to be a guide dog.
At the ornate front entrance of the Chateau, His Excellency Santol greets arrivals with a friendly wag of the tail and there's usually a queue to take him out for a walk.
"Please visit the Concierge Desk to schedule your appointment with Santol," says a notice at the Chateau, part of the luxurious Fairmont Hotel group.
Those who are honoured enough to partake of the Ambassadorial walk are provided with basic commands in French, since Santol has not yet learned English and the Quebecois, or Quebecers, are very protective of their language and heritage.
"Assis means Sit" says a leaflet the Chateau gives to walkers. "Coucher means Down, Reste means Stay."
We took a leisurely stroll together to Place d'Youville Square, via the Rue du Tresor with its resident artists, the Notre Dame Basilica and the Rue Saint-Jean, where Quebec City's most fashionable dogs take their owners to shop in the various boutiques.
Santol's home and mine for my brief, but charming stay, is a dramatic sentinel of this vibrant, historic city. The Fairmont Chateau Frontenac - its design based on chateaux in the Loire - towers above the city, looking down almost in disdain, upon the St Lawrence River. The indigenous natives called it the River That Walks. Today, it is simply known as the Mighty River.
Chateau Frontenac is to Quebec City what the Eiffel Tower is to Paris. Perched high on Cap Diamant, with 618 sumptuous rooms, it was built by the famous Canadian Pacific Railway and opened in 1893.
The chateau (it seems wrong to call it a hotel) became the action centre of the Quebec conferences of World War II, which involved Winston Churchill, US President Franklin D Roosevelt and Canadian Prime Minister Lyon Mackenzie King. Other famous guests include King George VI, The Queen, Princess Grace of Monaco, Chiang-Kai-Shek, Charles de Gaulle, Charles Lindberg, Alfred Hitchcock and Montgomery Clift.
Even for the hoi polloi, this is a place which oozes style - there was a wonderful touch in the chateau's ornate Le Champlain dining room, when ladies who wore black dresses were given black napkins. The rest of us had to make do with white.
Next July, on the day before American Independence, the 750,000 citizens of Quebec City - and Santol - celebrate its 400th anniversary.
The city was founded by the French explorer Samuel de Champlain, known as the Father of New France, who designed it as the only walled city in North America. The city is now a World Heritage Site and within those stone walls today are narrow winding streets with boutiques and handicraft shops, bistros serving cafe au lait, and restaurants delivering superb, French-influenced food.
"Here", a Quebecer told me, "you eat first with your eyes, then enjoy the food."
There is a distinctly European atmosphere here in the heart of North America, but at the same time it is uniquely Quebecois. How to define that?
"Well," said my lady guide Margerita, who told me she was of Polish descent and that her Russian husband was related to the Romanovs and played the bagpipes, "We are very French in a lot of things, but we have been influenced by English, Scottish, Welsh and Irish immigrants.
"But we still keep our language. If we don't, we lose our identity and we want to hold on to our French flair."
Quebec City starts the celebrations next year with a huge firework display on New Year's Eve. From July 3, the crucial day, celebrities will perform in a series of events running until October.
As yet the organisers are reluctant to give details, but the extraordinary Cirque du Soleil, who hail from Quebec, are due to provide a spectacular closing show.
In the meantime, there will be street parties, fireworks galore, concerts, theatre, an urban opera, and a stunning exhibition of 276 pieces of art from the Louvre Museum in Paris. There will, of course, be an emphasis on Quebec's history and a Son et Lumiere display which the organisers say will make its way into the Guinness Book of Records. International events, such as the World Ice Hockey Championships, will also take place.
I had come to this wonderful city expecting a dour kind of unfriendly Frenchness sometimes found among Parisians. Frenchness, yes: after all, 95 per cent of the population speak the language and all immigrants must study and learn it. But the Gallic influence is tempered by the influences of all the other nations who make up this one nation of Quebec, particularly the English (Victoria Day, in May, is a public holiday).
Quebecers welcome visitors and demonstrate a joie de vivre not always found in the mother country.
My sojourn in the province began in the bright and lively cosmopolitan city of Montreal, with a night at the luxurious Fairmont The Queen Elizabeth, which proudly announces that it has welcomed queens, princes and princesses, heads of state and international business leaders. Perhaps more famously still, it was the hotel where, in Suite 1742 in 1969, John Lennon held his famous 'bed-in' where the song Give Peace A Chance was written and recorded.
The next day I travelled by train to Quebec City - a journey of just over three hours.
After two nights at the Chateau, and walks with Santol, it was time to see animals of another, much larger, variety - whales.
We drove through magnificent scenery to Baie St Catherine, where I donned orange waterproofs which blew up to make me look like Michelin Man, and went to sea in a Zodiac.
This inflatable craft with a 500-horsepower engine, tore through the waves like a tornado, bumping me into a state of torture. But the pain and the anguish were worth it to see the wonderful creatures rising from the waves.
I left Quebec reluctantly, having seen only a snapshot of its wonders. I shall return..