It’s easy to feel lost in the concrete, steel, and glass structures that make up a city. The big, impersonal buildings can sometimes start to feel claustrophobic. Living in New York, I often find myself needing a space to feel connected to nature again (luckily for me, Central Park is actually a pretty good place to escape the maze of buildings). An article on Berkeley.edu’s Greater Good Magazine provides good insight and links to scientific studies which found that spending time associating with nature is proven to make people happier, healthier, and more productive. The province of Quebec’s major cities found great ways to incorporate the environment that brought them into being in the first place. I want to talk about Montreal and Quebec City in specific because I was blown away by how the layout of the surrounding area was incorporated into the cities.
The city of Montreal is aptly named for the mountain is now surrounded by the sprawling metropolis. There are a few theories about where the exact origins of the name and current spelling lie, though the most commonly accepted is that the name is a variant of an old French spelling of Mount Royal (Mont Roiall according to the Canadian Encyclopedia). Originally the city developed on the banks of the St. Lawrence River to the east of the mountain, though in the past two centuries the city rapidly expanded and surrounded it. Luckily, the mountain remained mostly building free and became a park in the 1850s.
The park is open year-round and hosts a range of activities depending on the season. Since we visited in the winter, we encountered cross country skiers throughout our hike. At the foot of the mountain, we passed hikers attaching crampons to their boots which we realized would have been a great idea. Luckily for us though the stairs were pretty meticulously cleared so we didn’t have too much of a problem getting to the peak. The stairs cut almost straight up the mountainside but the trails weave curving paths through the trees and up to the summit which is perfect for long hikes and cross country skiing trips. Though the buildings are clear through the trees, you can’t help but feel connected to the nature surrounding you and see why the citizens of Montreal wanted to preserve it.
On the mountain, there is a large metal cross which indicates the location of the original wooden one placed there in 1643. A flood threatened the town and Paul de Chomedey, Sieur de Maisonneuve, the founder of Montreal prayed for the town to be saved and promised to carry a wooden cross to the top of the mountain if they were spared. The flood abated and de Chomedey made good on his promise. The spot is now occupied by a large metal cross which is outlined in lights and visible from far away at night. We didn’t realize the scale of the monument until we were standing below it. The cross is huge! Slightly lower on the mountainside a large terrace looks out over the city. The panoramic views from this point are breathtaking. The city of Montreal spans as far as the eye can see on either side and down to the St. Lawrence River. The view of the skyline is stunning from this spot and I highly recommend the hike.
The St. Lawrence River is another spot where the beauty of nature can still be witnessed even from within a city as large as Montreal. There are plenty of activities in Vieux Montreal (Old Montreal) from which you can see the river. The old port of Montreal is preserved as a park containing the science center, the giant Ferris wheel, and in the winter, ice skating and Igloofest. From the Ferris wheel, you can see both the mountain and the river, as well as the many parks and islands that line it. So much of the beauty of the natural features of Montreal are able to be seen from all over the city giving one a feeling of balance between both the natural, and the man-made.
The city of Quebec is built on and surrounding a large promontory where the St. Lawrence River narrows (the name actually comes from an old Algonquin word for “where the river narrows“). Much of the city was built up on top of the promontory because it provides a wonderful natural defense. The old ramparts of the city are still visible and maintained making Quebec City the only walled city in America north of Mexico. This was the spot where Samuel Champlain founded the fort that eventually grew into the city of Quebec based on a bustling port at the mouth of the St. Lawrence River.
Over the course of the 19th century, a boardwalk known as the Terrasse Dufferin was built, destroyed by fire, rebuilt, and expanded. The terrace provides wonderful views far down the river in both directions. It was quite spectacular to watch ice chunks float lazily (or very quickly depending on the tide at the time) past the buildings lining both sides of the river. The river looks just as lovely from the lower city. We spent a few hours at a spa just down the street that sits right on the banks. In the winter, you can sit in heated and steaming pools while you take in the views of the river as well as the park called the Plains of Abraham which sit behind you.
The Plains of Abraham is also a great place to feel a bit more connected with nature. This park actually has a very similar feel to Central Park with the winding paths and city views. The cool thing about this park though is that it sits on the edge of the promontory so you can look out over the river. This was the site of the battle between the British and Canadians as was thus preserved as a historic park. In the winter, there are trails here which are clearly marked for pedestrians as well as the cross country skiers which abound here.
Quebec City sits near the foothills of the Laurentian mountains which are visible from most parts of the old city. There are many places close in proximity to the city that are easily accessible by train, car, and bus which adds to the ability to connect to the surrounding nature including Montmorency Falls. Though these foothills and mountains aren’t part of the old city of Quebec, the ease of access (especially if you have a car) make them an easy day trip.
Montreal and Quebec City both offer many spots to be able to surround oneself with nature even within city limits. This is a quality I love about the Quebecois cities. For me personally, the ability to escape into nature is absolutely necessary and it’s safe to say that both provide that kind of escape. If you’re looking for cities to visit with easy access to beautiful views both inside and outside municipal limits, Montreal and Quebec have just what you’re looking for!