Charlevoix: gospel of hills, seas and artistry

This Indian will not forget the music of your maple trees.

By Niharika Mookerjee

QUEBEC (CANADA): If you are as drawn to the palette of bright paints, the sparkle of wine and champagne, and trifling sketches of street-side artists with their flair for French, as I am, the peerless beauty of the Charlevoix region in Quebec, Canada is bound to steal your heart.

Seascape of mountains and hills. Photo by Niharika Mookerjee.
Seascape of mountains and hills. Photo by Niharika Mookerjee.

Only a couple of hours north of Quebec City by road – if you take Route 138 – the iridescently green shoreline skirts the bright blue of the St. Lawrence River, cutting through the Laurentian Mountains of the Canadian Shield, revealing a dramatic terrain of rolling landscape, jagged fjords, headlands and bays.

The 2,400 square miles of Charlevoix, extending along the north shore of the St. Lawrence from east of Quebec City to the Saguenay, has been designated a World Biosphere Reserve by UNESCO, in recognition of the splendor of its rugged landscape and charming architecture built in seamless harmony into the scenery.

Sculptured by the sky, waterfalls, the seas and the mountains, it is redolent of paradise, intersected by a thriving artistic and creative culture in existence here for generations. Colonized in 1678, it is named after the French Jesuit priest, Francois Xavier de Charlevoix, whose subsequent explorations in the early 18th century made it the chosen jewel of Quebec.

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However, the pastoral blends of grazing horses, the curlew of seagulls, the flocks of snow geese and bleating sheep in towns such as Baie-Sainte-Paul and La Malbaie soften the edge of artistry in a way that makes it a mix of compassion and melancholy, far removed from the harsh lights of commercial beauty. Thus, this is not the land for the aesthete or the ultra-sophisticate, although the ever-friendly and gregarious, French Canadians proudly peddle it to be their bit of South of France. But, frankly, shielded from the hot traffic of the tourists, it appears to be far more mellow and gentle, where goodness fuses effortlessly with beauty.

Some 350 million years ago, a colossal meteorite struck the area with such force that even today, the repercussions are still visible at Mont des E`boulements. As one descends en route from the pilgrim town of Mont-Sainte-Anne to the scenic town of Baie Saint-Paul, the base of the meteoric crater is apparent.  In one of nature’s many paradoxes, from out of roaring destruction, arose the Aphrodite of natural scenery over the slumbering centuries.

The winding roads, swinging along the whispering sounds of the serpentine river, open into chasms of small towns with rose-hued houses, overshadowed by the fountains, statues and gardens of lyrical churches, dotting the landscape. Each house unfailingly displays a porch, lined with pots of flowers on the steps or hanging from the rails. Some even have sashes of purple and green ribbon strewn across the fence.

Although not notably wealthy in economy, relatively free as it is from industrial development, the lamp-posts and street corners are luminous with floral baskets, drooping low with petunia to the ground. The sight of abandoned houses and stone mills festooned with ivy only adds to a layer of poignant charm.

Tiny art studios, boutiques and colorful galleries with musical names like Christobel and Chiasson speckle the rippling meadows with paintings inspired by light, nature and fleeting emotion. Most of the towns have long necklaces of boulevards along the sea, and a night time walk around the surrounding scape of crisp, cold air, fragrant with flowers, with twinkling lights in the distance is a reminder that life was meant to be such: free and easy.

Some of the best produces of bread, cheese, cream, lamb, chorizo, chocolate tortes, lemon pies and macaroons are found in bountiful among the restaurants and boulangerie (French style bakery) that line the main streets.

Charlevoix is also the distinguished gem of gastronomy, not only of Canada but of North America.  The trick is to follow the inside scenic roads along the way to the flamboyantly painted town of Tadoussac.  Soft, glimmering summer nights with long feasts outside, overlooking the moon-drenched bay and wooded glens at one of the terraced restaurants in Sainte-Irene evokes all the phantom delights of a passing dream. On a clear spring day in May, a view from up a hill in Sainte- Catherine may even yield the magical sight of thousands of white Beluga whales sifting, frolicking, and cavorting around the deep blue bay.

Or, if you have a fetish for antiquing, there are shops situated in the vicinity of the 16th century church of Sainte-Anne that sell antiquarian pieces at affordable prices. The dealer, Claude Pierre, took me around his miniature-sized shop, exclaiming with all the exuberance of an eager collector, “You walking through the big promenade of the world. This trilogy (pointing to three garish paintings), my masterpiece. Now, tell, who resist?”

Yes, it is certainly an experience to be in a country just across the US border, where English is not understood or spoken at all by natives. Bonjour, bon appetite, s’il vous  plait were all that we managed, although my daughters, perhaps, knew a few more. But never mind. The poverty of words did not stand in the way. The people were ready for a laugh at any time; happiness brimmed in artless gestures. Strangers to the razzle-dazzle of the city, their lives were woven into the mist and clouds, the sun and snow rolling into the St. Lawrence Bay. A testament to the truth that man does not need plenty to be happy.

Oui, Quebec.  Je me Souviens.  This Indian will not forget the music of your maple trees.

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