Les Fresques des Piliers – The Totems of Saint-Roch

Nothing is uglier—or divides and segregates a city more—than a wide, grade-separated highway. But in stunningly beautiful Quebec City, large concrete pillars provide an ideal canvas for enhancing the city’s outdoor art.

Many of the supports on the giant highway overpasses have every square inch covered in museum-quality frescoes stretching from the base all the way to the bridge deck.

Click on the image to see the beautiful full-sized version. Some pillars feature scenes from Contes Chevaleresques (Tales from the King’s Court) and imaginary fairy tale scenes. Clearly visible here is “L’Horloge” (The Clock), “Hommage aux Cirques Québécois” (a circus tribute), and a scene straight out of M.C. Escher. Other pillars contain murals resembling interior and exterior scenes of Sainte Chapelle in Paris, one of the world’s most beautiful cathedrals.

An even uglier history
Clearly these pillars did not have a beautiful origin. On April 22, 1972, during the height of Canada’s push to build huge highways to accommodate rapid escapes from the city to new suburbs, 2000 parishioners of Notre-Dame-de-Saint-Roch, the cultural hub of the very working-class Saint-Roch neighborhood, received registered letters announcing (with no previous warning) that their homes would be demolished to build what is now called the Dufferin-Montmorency highway. The highway would (and still does) connect Quebec City’s main government buildings with suburbs rapidly being built along the coveted waterfront and island properties east of town that wealthy bureaucrats and professionals were increasingly calling home.

Tourists in Old Quebec and Saint-Jean Baptiste can see these massive viaducts from blocks away, and they instinctively avoid the area (and thus miss out greatly). Residents of Saint-Roch don’t mind a bit; they have the increasingly artsy community to themselves.

Parish priest Paul-Henri Lepage famously noted that “the elevated highway was built on the heads of the poor. The Parish of Notre-Dame has disappeared, and in its place have been erected the icons of the new religion of modernity: the cement totem pole.”

Saint-Roch took the brunt of highway construction in Quebec City for decades. Today the neighborhood, which borders the two Quebec City neighborhoods that nearly all tourists visit, remains visibly cut off by large highways that form its eastern, western and southern borders (its northern border is the St Charles River).

However, Saint-Roch, with its rich history and extremely close-in location, is now fully revitalized; it’s essentially Quebec City’s Brooklyn. Old factory buildings are filled with art studios, impossibly cool cafés and restaurants (that I tried to capture in photos which didn’t do any of them justice), hip indie boutiques, and murals covering the few remaining undeveloped spots . Even its giant concrete eastern and southern borders are now filled with art.

If you click to see the full-size version of this image, you might chuckle at the wizard bearing down on the street sign under the highway

At the juncture where Quebec City’s two biggest interior highways converge, Saint-Roch’s industrious residents gradually found this normally depressing concrete nexus to be doubly advantageous.

First, they created stunning artwork (that is never vandalized): “Les Fresques des Piliers” (the Frescoes of the Pillars).

Eight years after these pillars were painted, a trickling of tourists were just starting to take notice. NOTE: if this preview is sideways, the full sized version will likely be oriented correctly.

Secondly, Saint-Roch is no longer an industrial afterthought of the city’s elite. Thus, residents are probably relieved that the two highways (175 & 440) forming the southern and eastern borders create a visual barrier that keeps 99.9% of Quebec City’s tourists from walking either west from Old Quebec or north from Saint-Jean Baptiste. You can actually see tourists turn around once they spot the huge viaducts from over a block away.

These locals are surely relieved that the huge viaducts in the background effectively prevent nearly all tourists from entering their neighborhood. Contrary to the interminable waits a couple blocks away, they won’t have to wait for seats at La Barberie.

Normally, city residents probably want as much tourist patronage as possible, but if you’ve been to impossibly beautiful “Old Quebec” or the neighboring Saint-Jean Baptiste neighborhood during the height of tourist season, you would completely understand how the residents living just a block beyond these borders might actually be thankful for the highways that serve as natural tourist deterrents. And Saint-Roch businesses are clearly not suffering these days, with or without international tourists.

While Old Quebec is stunning beyond words and attracts millions of tourists annually into its small area, restaurants like this one in Saint-Roch offer more room to enjoy the company of friends and even nature.

As usual, the tourists are failing to experience a vibrant historic neighborhood that hasn’t been converted into tourist shops or been frozen in amber as a caricature. In Saint-Roch they would discover not just incredible art, but some of the best shopping and dining areas that are typically known only to locals. This is where the most authentic neighborhood experiences are found not just in Quebec City, but in nearly all major cities.

Rue Saint-Joseph meets all five of Jane Jacobs’ criteria for a vibrant urban corridor: short blocks, a high diversity of uses, diverse ages and types of buildings, high residential and commercial density, and fine-grained architecture that provides a new entrance every 20 feet or so along the street.

In fact, Rue Saint-Joseph Est, the main commercial street of Saint-Roch, is one of the greatest examples of a retail “woonerf” that I’ve ever seen in North America. As in all other woonerfs, cars pass through very slowly, and *people* dominate the urban space, rather than cars. It’s also getting a lot of press as being “one of Canada’s greatest streets,” so even the international tourists are starting to take notice.

Saint-Roch’s old post office has been turned into a “boulangerie artinsanale” downstairs and a “boite” (nightclub) upstairs. Outdoor seating along–and often well into–the street is commonplace throughout the retail corridor of Rue Saint-Joseph that stretches unabated for over one kilometer.
Beautiful linear parks stretch for twelve consecutive blocks along Boulevard Langelier, which marks both the western border of both Saint-Roch and Rue Saint-Joseph Est. The boulevard is also the boundary separating all east from west addresses in Quebec City. Naturally, I never saw a single tourist make it this far west.

A 400th anniversary project
The pillar frescoes were commissioned as part of Quebec City’s 400th anniversary celebration in 2008. Of the 11 major mural projects, these frescoes are the only ones that portray imaginary scenes, rather than depictions of Quebec City’s breathtakingly rich history.

Below is a a mural painted on the side of a historic home that’s now the home of an artists’ co-op. It’s located on Rue de Petit-Chaplain, by far the oldest commercial street in North America; it’s been continuously lined with businesses and residents since 1608.

This nearly 1000-square-foot trompe-l’œil depicts the district’s history of the district, including the bombardments of 1759, the landslides of 1889, and the great fire of 1682. Fishing and sea trade were the original heart of the economy. Among the people depicted in the fresco are Captain Bernier (who was sent by the King of England to explore the North Pole), sail repairer Gustave Guay, and a sailor’s wife anxiously awaiting her husband’s return.
This is a view of another fresco that was commissioned for Quebec City’s 400th anniversary. It’s taken from the “middle” level of what is, as far as I’ve seen, the only true “tri-level” city on Earth. Quebec City has three distinct levels, each with entirely unique charms. The plateau where I’m standing (which is at the base of the world famous Château Frontenac hotel) is 200 feet above the St Lawrence River. The highest level is 500 feet above the river.

Beautiful previews of a future Quebec City post

Quebec City is by *far* my favorite historic city in North America. Boston may offer more to see and do, but it can’t come close to matching the experience of walking through the much older and more dramatically undulating city of Quebec. People often say, “It’s like Europe without the jet lag.” But Quebec City is even more than that to me; it captures literally all of the greatest aspects of a classic European city in one relatively small area.

In fact, I’ll likely do a separate post that showcases so much beauty and history of Quebec City that you’ll almost certainly start researching a trip to Quebec City and Montreal. Most people fly into Montreal (which I highly recommend visiting for several days) before taking the easy train ride to and from Quebec City.

I also have a few posts planned for Montreal, which happens to be North America’s most bike-friendly big city, among other surprises that I’ll reveal.

Two long pedestrian-only corridors intersect near this spot in Old Montreal

In the meantime, here’s a brief preview of what awaits your visit to North America’s crown jewel of historic capital cities.

I’m curious: which ones are your favorite shots? 🙂

Click on any image to see the beautiful full-sized version.

Like many people, I arrived by train from Montreal. The historic Gare du Palais (“Palace Station”), built in 1915 and resembling a much smaller Château Frontenac, is most people’s initiation to a European fairy tale experience. The Palace Station is so named due to its proximity, seen here, to the Palace of the Intendant of New France. The palace is to our right of the fountain. The train station has all the classic features of large old train stations, in addition to extremely tall windows that let in tons of natural light (which many historic train stations lack).
There are only two cities in North America still surrounded by fortified city walls: Quebec City and Campeche, Mexico. Old Quebec’s four entrance gates each have distinct character and charm.
Monumental buildings, horse-drawn carriages and flowers lining many windows are the first things you see after passing through one of the gates into Old Quebec. In the summer, flowers line nearly every window of every café in the city.
Old Quebec has dozens of blocks of densely populated streets and alleys that feel as European as the main tourist streets of any major city in Europe.
Quebec City is full of scenes that feel as Parisian as any street in Paris. Despite bordering the U.S., Quebec City has a far lower percentage of people who speak more than a few words of English than any of France’s 50 largest cities, as strange as that sounds. This is Rue du Tresor, a beautiful open-air art alley — and one of dozens of alleys worth exploring throughout Old Quebec.
Rue du Petit-Champlain is not only North America’s oldest commercial street (continuously bordered by shops and residents since 1608); it is by far my favorite commercial street on the continent, if not the planet.
Whimsical decorations abound along Rue du Petit-Champlain, as well as throughout Old Quebec and its surrounding neighborhoods. The name of the restaurant (Le Lapin Sauté) is a clever double entendre meaning both “quick like a rabbit” and “sautéed rabbit”). This was the only cafe I saw whose windows were *not* lined with flowers. What the image is not depicting are the very French sounds of the accordion being played in the neighboring park.
Just another scene along the beautiful Rue du Petit-Champlain, which is one of many gorgeous commercial streets in Quebec City (both Old Quebec and in the nearby neighborhoods rarely visited by tourists).
Stunning, peaceful scenes also await just a few minutes from Old Quebec via a wide bike trail that follows the wide St Lawrence River. This creek is one of many tributaries to the St Lawrence River. The St Lawrence is the world’s widest river; it eventually drains into the world’s largest estuary.
Several parts of the bike trail heading north to Montmorency Falls extend out over the water and trace the edges of urban parks.
Montmorency Falls is a must-see when visiting Quebec City; I can’t even imagine its beauty during the peak of the autumn colors. The long bridge suspended 350 feet above the river is reachable only by a long, scenic gondola ride. To reach the park, I highly recommend taking the dedicated bike trail 9 flat, leisurely miles from the historic heart of Quebec City out to the base of the 276-foot-high falls.
This picture was taken from the short but very steep Escalier Casse-Cue (“Breakneck Stairs”) that form the north edge of Rue du Petit-Champlain. Completed in 1635, they’re the oldest public stairs built in either Canada or the U.S. Interestingly, this scene reminds me a little of Eureka Springs, a beautiful Victorian town built into extremely steep Arkansas hills.
This is a view from “Rue Sous le Fort” (street below the fort) of the Old Quebec Funicular, which is the only funicular of its type in North America despite similarities to those in Pittsburgh and Dubuque. It climbs 200 vertical feet to the base of the famous hotel Le Château Frontenac.
A ride up and/or down the funicular is clearly a must when visiting Quebec City. 🙂
Fairmont Le Château Frontenac is the *world’s most photographed hotel!* Built in 1893, it has more than 600 rooms on 18 floors. Alfred Hitchcock fans will recognize it from the 1953 film noir “I Confess.”
I never tire of the rich, layered look of hilly cities. Hills provide a template allowing the creation of more character and charm than any canvas humans could provide.
This single staircase–with lots of resting places and overlooks–has 444 steps. Yup, I counted them. And yup, I climbed both up and down the beautiful and sometimes precariously perched stairs.
La Citadelle is the highest point of Quebec City’s fortification. It sits atop Cap Diamant (“Cape Diamond”), the greatest Medieval location for defending North America due to its great height and its perfect location at the confluence of numerous rivers and channels where the vast St Lawrence River suddenly narrows. Cape Diamond got its name from French explorer Jacques Cartier, who first visited the area in 1534. He found lots of quartz glittering in the cliff and thought that they were diamonds. To this day, “Faux comme un diamant du Canada” (fake as a Canadian diamond”) is a well-known Canadian proverb.
Now that you’ve done all that climbing, you’ve earned the right to sit down, relax, and enjoy one of Quebec City’s endless cafes, bistros and pubs
Quebec City combines all the best attributes of European cities into a one-square-kilometer area. Plus, many charms outside of Old Quebec await those willing to venture beyond  tourists’ boundaries.
Now that you’ve had a nice dinner and enjoyed watching the world go by for an hour or five, you’ve gained enough energy to for an evening stroll down one of several great pedestrian-only shopping streets.
You can always partake a ghost tour or guided walk through historic sites. The sheer number of nightly ghost tours simultaneously occurring throughout Old Quebec reminds me of the French Quarter in New Orleans.
At the end of a long and adventurous day, you can retire to any number of beautiful, hilly residential streets, where you’ll dream of having another perfect day like the one you just had. You’ll also wish that your visit was much longer than originally planned.
I could write a book on why Quebec City’s history is unsurpassed in North America. There are some obvious reasons for it, which almost no one growing up in the U.S. is ever taught.
This is a close-up of the Parliament Building, the seat of the government of the province of Quebec. While nearly all major capitals have beautiful symmetric main buildings with central clock towers, the unique quality of this building is its collection of 22 larger-than-life-sized statues that are placed in such a way to make the building resemble a fully opened advent calendar. I especially like the ghostly caped figure at the far left.


Until my next visit: sweet dreams, beautiful Quebec City!

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