Toads in the road and a moose on the loose

By | Category: Travel destinations

© Eric Saint-Pierre

I knew I was in a French-speaking area as soon as I wheeled my suitcase through the airport and saw several men, sweaters tossed on their backs and with the sleeves knotted casually, yet elegantly below their necks. People talk about French women and how they dress – but French men have that same flair. If you want to experience French culture and be immersed in the language like perhaps nowhere else, try Canada’s Quebec City and its environs. Tout le monde (that means EVERYONE) speaks French and unlike in Paris, many REALLY don’t speak English.

Best of all, you can now visit by cycling the province’s new 4000-kilometer-long Route Verte, internationally inaugurated on August 10, 2007, after over twelve years of planning, design and construction, with the involvement of nearly 1000 organizations and businesses and a total cost of over £100 million.

The Route Verte is the only one of its kind in North America – the most extensive, longest, connected bike route with services and mapping. This well-marked, diverse route connects all regions of Quebec – some vast and rural, some landlocked and others fronting water, some hilly and challenging, some urban and lively.

What it will be like in Autumn

I recently experienced what felt much like a glorious one-week journey to France. And in that week, I learned more and used more French than in three previous trips to France itself. Exploring the Route Verte is a delightful, unique way to know Quebec – its countryside, its cities and its people. And, in a place where you’ll find croissants, fromage and crème brulee to rival any in Paris, you’ll appreciate the no-guilt response – after all, you’re cycling!

Quebec, affectionately known as ‘la belle province’ (the beautiful province,) is Canada’s largest province by area, as well as the second-most populated. Most Quebecers live along or close to the banks of the St. Lawrence River. The official language of Quebec is French and it is the only Canadian province where English is not an official language and the population is overwhelmingly French Canadian.
Quebec is a bicyclists’ oasis, with over 61 percent of adults owning a bicycle, and a third of the population cycling at least once a week.

There are any number of agencies and cycle hire companies which will make all sorts of bicycles available to the visitor.
I started my own foray on the Route Verte in Granby, a large town in the Cantons de L’Est (Eastern Townships,) an area I must describe as ‘charming’ even though that is a no-no word for travel writing. This region heartily welcomes bicyclists. In fact, it boasts the largest number in Quebec of accommodations with a Bienvenue Cyclistes (Welcome Cyclists) certification. This designation offers specific bicycling amenities such as locked shelters, basic tools, bicycle tourism information, etc.

The 140-mile (225-km) Veloroute des Cantons, (bike route of the Townships) is part of the Route Verte, running from Farnham to Danville, providing cyclists with access to travel by bike between Montreal and Quebec City and this was the route I chose.
A saddle bag held my fancy box lunch, replete with various gourmet goodies, as well as my trusty French-English dictionary, the must-have Route Verte itinerary and map book and a bottle of sunscreen. At the end of July, it was hot and sunny enough for shorts, but still, a few of the maples were just starting to be tinged with the brilliant reds they’d be showing off in just a few weeks.

Riding alongside Lake Granby, my saddle bag started to rub against my tire, making a whirring noise. To the left of me, a man pushing his elderly father in a wheelchair called ‘Madame!” and motioned for me to stop. (While I hate being called “Ma’am,” in English, I just love being called “Madame” in French!) In halting English, he asked to help me to adjust the bag and was very excited to hear I was from far away Colorado. Called Yvon, he handed me his business card and begged me to write to him when I was all done with my journey. He was the first of countless amiable, helpful Quebecers I met on my trip.

some of the views are amazing

This area was first settled by British loyalists during the Revolution, and the architecture is replete with colonial homes and austere churches along with incredible English gardens. The French Canadians later moved to the area in large numbers, so that nowadays, while some towns still have large English-speaking populations, French is certainly predominant. The region hosts maple sugar tapping, wineries, farms with round barns and hay bales, lakeside resort towns, babbling brooks and raging rivers, apple orchards, lush forests, foothills of the Appalachian Mountains, ski resorts and some of the prettiest and best-run auberges, or inns, in which I’ve ever stayed.

As I cycled along the Route Verte, I was struck by the bikers I saw. Almost no one was in biking “uniform” – rather, I saw an oldster with polished loafers and his nice slacks stuffed into his thick grey socks, plump middle-aged women, schoolchildren zooming by with colorful backpacks, shirtless guys who, with their bulging bellies, wouldn’t have dared in the body-conscious U.S, and even several people who stopped by the side to have a smoke. Rollerbladers shared the path – again, I was surprised to see jiggly women in their 50’s and even 60’s, as well as the typical young hipsters with their well-toned legs bulging. Everyone seemed comfortable and completely at-ease – and no one was there to impress. Almost all gave me a cheery “Bonjour,” and I began to do the same. It started to feel like I belonged to their community – quite a pleasant feeling indeed.

I smelled delicious aromas of ripe apples from the trees, fragrant honeysuckle, fresh-mown grass and woodburning piles. Sometimes I’d take deep, deep breaths and revel in the joys of cycling alone, at my own pace with the freedom of stopping and going whenever I wanted to do so. Other times, I wished there was someone with whom to share all the beauty.

I arrived at the rest stop in Waterloo, a largish town and sat down to enjoy my picnic lunch. As I stepped off the bike onto the shoulder, I saw a strange lump in the road, and found that it was a little toad. Quite cute, I tried to pick it up but it dashed off into the grass. I assumed it was the first of many animals I would see. After all, I had passed many signs warning of moose and deer. However, as it turned out, moose are not exactly seeking human companionship so my hopes were dashed. I did see large numbers of deer, but not while cycling. I must admit – they were munching on grass outside of the Quebec airport when I drove there early on the last morning. The toad, a few chipmunks and squirrels were the only wildlife I did see other than birds and exotic insects. I’m assured by other cyclists that it is common to see moose and deer and even bears in Quebec.

I spent three days in the Townships, cycling to the delightful Magog, with its huge, blue lake and flower-bedecked little town center. It was heaven to swim in the refreshing (and not too cold!) lake after biking all day, and to stay in the friendly inns that awaited me each evening.

After my last night on the route, it was time for the Taxi-Velo to pick my bike and me up for the trip back to Granby, where I had left my rental car. Taxi-Velo is a service offered by three cab companies. All along the Eastern Townships section of the Route Verte, taxis equipped with racks will pick cyclists up within the hour. One can also book in advance, and service is offered every day at all hours.

Quebec's old town

Arriving in Quebec City, I wondered how different cycling in a city would compare to being in the country. Would the people be as friendly? Would the sights and smells be as interesting? My rental bike arrived at my hotel and I set off to explore Old Town. Riding through the cobbled lanes topped with geranium-filled window boxes, I felt thrilled, like I had entered another time zone. Again, passers-by nodded and smiled their ‘Bonjours’ to me, and I felt so welcome – not like a tourist at all.

After shopping and exploring Quebec City’s Old Town I bought a ticket to take my bike across the St. Lawrence to Levis, another town where the Route Verte runs in both directions of the river. The ferry is actually considered part of the Route Verte, and many other cyclists joined me in both directions. The Route in Levis was delightful, just slightly hilly with excellent views of the wide river as well as of residential neighborhoods, schools and everyday French-Canadian life. The spectacular skyline of Quebec City is completely visible from Levis, including the towering Montmorency Falls, which look like a wide white stripe from the other side of the river.

I can’t think of a place more perfect for cycling than diverse, friendly Quebec – with its new Route Verte, a cyclist’s dream. Next time, I plan to visit Montreal’s Canal LaChine, the most popular bike trail in Canada, running alongside an old canal with a restored and functioning lock system. I’d like to see the Abitibi-Temiscamingue area, with its deep lakes and wild wilderness and nights of floating northern lights. The Laurentians, north of Montreal, feature the 200-kilometer P’tit Train du Nord Trail, one of the finest touring routes in the province and considered a top resort area for Canadians. Most of all, as a water lover, I yearn to see the Gaspe Peninsula, a spit of land jutting out into the Atlantic. This windswept region, with its steep cliffs and salty mist, coastal villages and sea-battered coves, calls to me. It’ll be a challenge, as the Route Verte climbs a bit here, but offers a big reward at the end at Chaleur Bay, considered one of the most beautiful bays in the world.

Je me souviens is Quebec’s motto, one you’ll see on every license plate. It means, loosely, ‘I remember.’ How could anyone ever forget Quebec? It will remain engraved on my memories and in my heart – and I’ve just touched the surface of its many pleasures.

For more information about Quebec, click here.

For more information about Canada, click here.

images © TOURISME QUÉBEC unless stated.

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