Chapter 6: Quebec City and the Eastern Townships

Over the last couple of weeks I’ve had thoughts that I’d like to write a beginner’s handbook for cycle touring. My first few tips will be;

1. Don’t aim to do what everyone else is doing.

2. Don’t be ashamed of public transport, if you aren’t enjoying a section then skip it!

3. Get used to the constant smell of roadkill.

We were feeling quite tired after New Brunswick and decided to take a bus to Quebec City, skipping about 600km and overtaking a couple of trans-Canada cyclists we knew were just a couple of days ahead of us. I was disappointed not to catch them by pedal power, but the decision to take the bus dominoed in to us having more mental and physical energy to really enjoy Quebec.

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Our lasting impressions of each province has mostly been influenced by the people we have met, and this was especially true for Quebec. Rather than describe our journey through this wonderful French-Canadian province by the places we went to, I’ll do so by the wonderful French-Canadians we met along the way.

Jonathan and Vanessa

We met Jonathan and Vanessa on the Cabot Trail and they’d told us to get in touch when we knew we’d be in Quebec City as they could give us a place to stay. Due to the decision to take the bus, we gave Jonathan 24 hours notice and he was still awesome enough to meet us off the bus and direct us to his apartment. We arrived deflated but relieved, and we were able to stay in Jonathan’s downtown Quebec City apartment for two nights, relaxing and doing laundry, and sharing dinner and rooftop beers with the two of them.

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Quebec is a French speaking province so we tried to mine our memories and practice our rusty high school French. The city itself is beautiful, clean and welcoming and expands from a fortified old town with wonderful architecture and delicious cafes. We wondered around for two days, taking in the Notre Dame, Chateau Frontenac, Plains d’Abraham and the farmers market where I’d have what at the time was the most delicious cake I’d ever had. More on that later.

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Francine and Jean

In our efforts to relax but explore, we decided to head to Ile d’Orleans in Quebec City harbour. The bridge over is just north east of the old town, so we arranged a warmshowers for near there. As they are not on a main cycle touring route, Francine and Jean only get one or two guests a year through warmshowers so our stay with them felt really special. They are a pair of geologists, and among other trips have spent 3 months cycling in Japan. They also have an amazing doglike cat called Hanzo who loved to sniff everything including my face in the middle of the night. We had a great evening with them and were spoilt with baguette, cheese, wine and BBQ’d chicken.

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They lived near the Montmorency waterfalls so we set off for there in the morning before heading to the island. Quebec City has great cycle paths and we were able to follow them all the way to the falls. We had originally planned for a little swim, but as we began to hear the falls from afar we realised this probably wasn’t a good idea.

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The bridge to Ile d’Orleans is impressive but quite terrifying to cross by bike even with no wind. There was construction going on which meant we had to walk over, and seeing the workmen hanging over the side really gave me the willies. We were hit by the smell of strawberries as soon as we crested the steep hill after the bridge, and knew we’d enjoy our two days here.

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We’d planned an overnight about halfway around the 66km island so took our time stopping at view points, chocolate shops and roadside strawberry stands. Ile d’Orleans is famous for it’s strawberries and once you taste them it’s easy to know why. I felt very fortunate to be there in the height of the season and relished in the cheap bulk buy.

Marc and Madeleine

We headed for St Jean and arrived with Marc and Madeleine in the late afternoon sun. We were gifted with a private corner of their garden and my favourite camp spot of the trip so far. We set up with a view over the St Lawrence river, dipped our legs in the water and spent the evening (and next morning) eating strawberries, reading and relaxing. It felt like a little slice of heaven.

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We set off feeling refreshed and cycled around the northeast of the island, which I thought was even more beautiful. We were surrounded by rolling farmland and had the Quebec hills in the background, just beautiful! We took our time, stopping at the cheese shop and enjoying the sunshine.

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Francine and Jean (again)

Unfortunately the heat got to my head a bit and although we were supposed to meet Pete from the Newfoundland ferry in the city, I called Francine and Jean to see if they minded hosting us again as I wasn’t feeling great. They kindly said they would so we headed back there and I had a nap with Hanzo while Kirsty went to meet Pete. Again we were spoilt with a delicious dinner and laughter, and we left the next day feeling like old friends.

Mario

We had a few options of where to go from Quebec and I was really keen to explore more than just the direct, obvious route to Montreal… especially as we’d taken the bus. Kirsty wasn’t keen on heading north as we’d have to double back on ourselves, so we decided to organise a workaway on a farm in southern Quebec and take 4 days to get there, taking in the Eastern townships on the way.

We planned to set off early, but the rain had other ideas. This was a blessing in disguise as Francine was able to take us to the supermarket to stock up on things and we had time to meet my uni friend Jillian for coffee who just so happened to be in Quebec City.

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The rain cleared around lunch time, so we took the short ferry over the St Lawrence and followed the cycle path towards Sainte Marie where we had (another) warmshowers organised. We met another cyclist on the way and as we got chatting realised that, as he was heading to New Brunswick, we were going the wrong way. So we turned back around, got a bit more lost, but eventually found ourselves out of suburbia and in quiet farmland heading in the right direction. The cycle path took us alongside a weaving river and the landscape was really pretty.

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After almost 80km we arrived in Sainte Marie in the early evening and again were warmly welcomed by Mario. He and his wife had cycled trans-Canada in 2013, and had since cycled both USA coasts as well as some Europe trips. He was so passionate about bike travel and it was so special to hear about his experiences and favourite places. As would be the theme with the rest of our hosts in Quebec, we were his second warmshowers guest and it made the stay feel like a real event.

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Mario cooked us a delicious BBQ and in the morning made fresh croissants. We loved hearing more stories of cycling mishaps, and were in tears of laughter as he told of the time he got caught in a cycle path barrier after arriving at speed thinking he’d fit through, but instead getting his rear panniers caught and going over the handlebars…While his bike stayed upright and his feet stayed clipped to the pedals.

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Francois and Aude

Mario joined us for the first 10km of our cycle and we both felt a bit sad saying goodbye. We’d planned our destination for the night based on another warmshowers location, so made our way south towards Thetford Mines. The cycle was mostly uneventful, quite hilly but mostly quiet and pretty. We had a couple of rain showers and headwind, but nothing we hadn’t encountered before. We were able to link up with some cycle paths here and there, and “admire” the asbestos mountains dominating the area.

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After around 80km we started to get quite tired, and the road to Francois and Aude’s felt never ending. We were following Google maps but as the road got hillier and windier and eventually became gravel, we were kind of exhausted. The pinnacle was having to push our bikes up a gravel hill one at a time! But as we turned in to Francois and Aude’s house, our feeling instantly changed. We were greeted by Aude’s mum and soon realised we had arrived to a family party to celebrate Aude’s sister’s imminent new baby.

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We were invited to sleep in the cabin in the woods at the bottom of their garden, and after an amazing swim in the river were invited to join them for dinner. We were surrounded by a French speaking family, but the love and laughter they shared kept us included and they all made a massive effort to talk to us in English…Again making us ashamed of our lack of French. We spent the evening eating, drinking and chatting by the fire… Perfection.

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I had my heart set on a mountain in the south east corner of Quebec, but it became apparent that we weren’t going to make it down there. So we decided to change our plans, do a shorter day heading in the direction of Sherbrooke and hang out at Aude and Francois’s for longer in the morning. We had a slow breakfast, visited the ceramics studio next door and soaked up as much of the atmosphere as we could before we set off.

Aude gave us a lift over the two worst hills on the gravel road, but the first 10km were still mostly uphill. We passed through some beautiful rural villages in the hills, and had awesome views over to the Appalachian mountains in the States. We stopped for lunch after about 30km and as we sat down to eat, the heavens opened and a massive thunderstorm arrived. We took our time, had a celebratory 2000km chocolate brownie and waited it out…Grateful about our impeccable timing.

 

 

Guillaume, Isabelle, Beatrice, Nora and Laurent

The rest of the cycle wasn’t super exciting and the roads got bigger and busier. We cooked dinner by the side of Marbleton Lake before going to meet another group of inspirational people. Guillaume, Isabelle and their 3 children spent ten months cycling from Sherbrooke to Mexico. At the time, the children were 9, 7 and 5 and the two eldest cycled the full 5000km themselves. I would never have thought such a thing be possible, and am utterly amazed by the total leap of faith the parents had. Although the kids did say that ten months was a bit long, I am sure they have gained so much from the trip and will themselves be able to push the boundaries of what we think is possible.

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We could have spent days with them, hearing stories of their trip and being charmed by the kids, but we felt like we should push on while we were feeling good. We decided to aim for Sherbrooke… National Geographic had listed the Eastern Townships as one of the top 50 places to go in Canada and one of the drawing cards was the cafés. A couple were recommended in Sherbrooke so our stomachs made a bee line for there.

Jonathan No.2

As we were making plans day by day, we did a quick search in the morning to see if we could find any warmshowers hosts that we could camp with for the night. Jonathan replied almost instantly so we set of knowing we had somewhere to aim for.

The café in Sherbrooke did not disappoint. It seems that a vege pâté/sandwich spread is unique to Quebec and my first taste of it here was divine. Topped off with a delicious coffee and friendly people…Very happy indeed. Google told us it was an easy 20km cycle with 30m of climbing to get to Jonathan’s so we were feeling great. Unfortunately, a music festival in the middle of town closing all the cycle paths had other ideas, so instead we got lost for 2 hours and arrived a bit more hot and bothered.

Jonathan’s house by the lake was a little bit amazing. He had a room inside for us and his garden was full of activity of two Bernese Mountain dogs, chickens and bee hives. He spoilt us with beer, a BBQ and homemade honey and we had another great evening of conversation and laughter. Jonathan told us that having us there and hearing our stories allows him to travel too, and I think that’s one of the fantastic things about warmshowers and I can’t wait to host when I get home.

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We were two hours “late” leaving in the morning as Jonathan offered to open up one of the bee hives and challenged us to search for a queen bee. It was great to learn some simple facts about bees and the way they work, and reinforced my desire to have a few of my own.

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We set off, reluctantly as always, and aimed for Dunham where we’d be stopping for a week at a workaway farm. More closed cycle paths meant we got lost initially, but we eventually found our way to the beautiful little town of Magog. I had an embarrassing crash in front of too many people thanks to a crack in the cycle path, but no harm done. We also stayed on the cycle path a little bit too long so veered off route a little… But this resulted in us finding a really cute little boutique to stop for lunch. We got chatting to the owner and ended up getting a tour of her (very clean!) soap making workshop.

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The Three Acres Farm

The cycle on from there wasn’t too eventful, although it was on nice quiet roads with a pretty landscape. We made our way slowly but surely towards Dunham and to Three Acres Farm. Amazingly we’ve already been here for a week, stacking wood, bottling wine, picking garlic, harvesting honey, throwing horseshoes, drinking beer, jumping in rivers and generally having a good time. All the while our bikes are in the local shopping receiving some overdue TLC.

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We’ve decided to stay at the farm for an extra couple of days, but I’m looking forward to getting back on the saddle again. We’ve got about 100km to Montreal then it’s off to Ottawa where we’ll be jumping on a bus to skip through most of Ontario.

We have received so much kindness and generosity on this trip, and are always blown away when all we expect is a little patch of grass to camp on and perhaps a warmshower. But, for me, there was something even more special about the people we met in Quebec. Everyone just seemed to have a little bit of magic.

I love wild places and exploring remote landscapes with no one else around, but as the great Alexander Supertramp said, “Happiness is only real when it’s shared.” A place really comes alive when you get to meet and laugh with the people who make the landscape their own.

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