Toronto Star, Sept 1, 2017: QUEBEC CITY-When you’re in Quebec City for Carnaval, you can’t help but think about snow days when you were a kid. Remember when you’d pull on your snow pants, haul on your boots, your mom would tie a scarf around your face and you’d rip out the door to frolic in the snow all day.
Carnaval is just like that, except it’s 17 fun-filled snow days (Jan. 26-Feb. 11 in 2018) in a row and, generally, you tie your own scarf — and it’s a red sash around your waist. “Tie it on the left and cover the knot,” our Carnaval coach and guide, Steeve Gaudreault, tells us. “Or you can wear it as a scarf or a turban. Use it as you wish. The main thing is just wear it!”
Wander around the 10 Carnaval sites in Quebec City — where you can ride a mechanical moose at Jos’ Camp, crawl inside a human-sized plastic bowling ball in the Grande Allée or strap yourself into a giant foosball game at Bonhomme’s World — and you’ll see thousands of men, women and children wearing the Carnaval uniform: red sash, snow gear and a big smile.
The sash evolved from fur traders who lifted the idea from First Nations people. Later, lumberjacks used the sash to help support their backs and stash their tools. These days, people often use the sash to tie on a little plastic Bonhomme that’s the ticket to the Carnaval sites. (Carnaval activities used to be held at the Plains of Abraham, but in 2017 the winter love started spreading around town).
Another Carnaval tradition (for grownups) is enjoying a drink or three of caribou. This, too, started with First Nations people. Hunters would sip the blood of the animal they had killed to say thank you. In the 1600s, to preserve barrels of red wine, the French would add brandy, creating a sweet drink “the colour of caribou blood,” says Gaudreault.
A few hundred years later, in 1955, Carnaval started and the festival’s mascot, Bonhomme, made his debut. You’ll see the big white snowman so often you might think he’s stalking you. But the “The King of Winter” is just posing for photos and telling everyone he meets: “Winter is short. Go enjoy it!”
Every Carnaval, Bonhomme’s Ice Palace is built across from Quebec’s Parliament Building. While it has a different theme each year, I suspect an annual joy is watching little kids in slippery snow pants slide off benches of ice.
You can also go on a bigger slide at 1884, a toboggan run named for the year people started hurtling themselves down the icy track at Dufferin Terrace, near the Château Frontenac. You haul your old-school wooden toboggan up the side and holler all the way down one of the three tracks. As thick black mats at the bottom stop your trajectory, you catch a faint whiff of burning rubber.
We take the swish swish of our snow gear for a walk through Petit Champlain, the pretty section below the Frontenac where festive lights stay up until March to celebrate winter and where tourists flock all year round.
Gaudreault takes us on a lesser-known stroll between the stone houses of St. Denis and the Plains of Abraham. We pause at the end and spot a couple of canoes amongst ice floes in the St. Lawrence River. If you miss the one day of Carnaval’s famed canoe races, you can get an idea of their chunky route by taking the ferry across to Lévis and back. Floes big enough for a dance party drift along and smaller chunks of ice do somersaults in the fast-moving water.
All that fresh air can work up an appetite for something hearty, and that’s where poutine comes in. “When it’s cold out in Quebec, we say it’s a poutine day,” says Gaudreault. You can get all fancy at Le Chic Shack with La Forestière, which consists of fries and cheese curds with wild mushroom ragout, parmesan, shallots and herbs. Or hit up Chez Ashton, beloved for its winter discount that’s tied to the temperature: If it’s -30C you get 30 per cent off. Gaudreault recommends I try the Galvaue poutine with chicken and peas and “fromage that squeaks between your teeth.”
He also suggests, wisely, ordering a mini. One must train before tackling the regular-sized portion of fries, gravy and all the fixins’. Even though my iPhone informs me I’ve walked 9,092 steps in my snow pants (and scored one goal at foosball) there’s no need to overdo the poutine. We undo our parkas, pull off our toques and tuck in, ignoring our messy hair. No one cares about hat head at Carnaval.