By Sacha Jackson
Even though I’ve lived in Québec for the better part of a decade, I don’t always have the time to fully experience what the province has to offer. Take the Carnaval de Québec, for example. I’ve seen a few ice canoe races, cheered Bonhomme (the cuddly mascot) along the parade route and marveled at the snow sculptures, but I’ve never had the opportunity to totally immerse myself in the annual celebration. So this past weekend I packed up the rental car and battled a winter storm to make the opening of the festival.
Every January for the past 58 years, Québec City has transformed itself into a winter wonderland. The Carnaval de Québec is a two-week long celebration that helps fight the mid-winter blues by partying in the outdoors. (Honest. The “eat, drink and be merry” tradition stretches back to the early days of New France, though originally it was linked to Lent.)
When you arrive in Québec City, there are two dead giveaways that the festival is in full swing:
1) An inordinate amount of adults in snow pants
2) Kids and adults toting around long, red trumpets (more on that in a minute).
The key to having a good time at Carnaval is to dress appropriately. It may have been a sunny five degrees (Celsius) when I visited, but that didn’t stop me from layering up. Once I’d secured my scarf, it was time to sort out just where to start.
A number of events take place all over the city (and in the case of the Ice Canoe race, on the St-Lawrence River) but the Carnaval Village, complete with Bonhomme’s home, the Ice Palace, is located on the historic Plains of Abraham. This huge public park stretches north from the old city walls and has been transformed into the ideal family day out with a ton of activities including ice slides, snow sculpture competitions, snow tubing and rafting, skating—there’s even a section dedicated to arctic spas.
Wanting to catch the end of the Snow Petahalon (a 10 kilometer race in snowshoes!), I entered the Village from the north and soon got a glimpse of the huge outdoor skating track. Smooth and glistening in the sun, the track was full of locals and tourists making the most of the beautiful weather—it made me wish I’d brought my skates. From there I wandered down to the heart of village where a number of family-friendly activities were going on—kids making miniature snow-sculptures, bouncing on trampolines and waddling through obstacle courses—but one activity particular stood out for me: human table hockey. Kids and adults were lined up for a chance to get strapped to a bar with two other people, moving together from side to side to stop the other team from getting a goal. What great, silly fun.
After a couple of runs down the ice slide (just try to resist it), I left the Village and headed just inside the city walls to join the crowds watching the Dog Sled race. It was barely mid-afternoon, but the scene was wild. The crowd was hooting, clapping and blowing through their bright red trumpets as the teams raced by at impressive speeds. Though it looks like the vuvuzela, the noisemaker that was made famous for making too much noise at the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, the sound made by the Carnaval trumpet is thankfully, less shrill.
Between the sledding race and the official opening party, I took some time out at the Village to indulge in a tir sur la neige (maple syrup taffy) and a glass of Caribou, the official Carnaval drink. Consisting of red wine, whiskey and maple syrup, it’s almost unbearably sweet, but it does wonders for warming you up when the sun goes down.
It was the perfect little pause before the fireworks display, which illuminated the sky and commemorated opening night. When the fireworks were over, it was time for some adult fun. The crowd congregated in front of the Ice Palace to dance the cold away, with music by rap group d’Alaclair Ensemble and the electronic sounds of Qualite Motel, but it was Montreal producer Lunice, who stole the show and closed the night with an awesome set.
With the music over it was time to head back home for the night alongside other tourists and locals, everyone warmed from the Caribou, and occasionally trumpeting their way through the streets.
Sacha Jackson is the author of Moon Montréal and Québec City . She lives in Montréal and is currently the arts editor at the Montreal Mirror.
Photo © Sacha Jackson