Dispatch from Quebec City: Celebrating 401 Years

Waterfront grain silos become the biggest movie screen in the world. Photo credit: Nicola-Frank Vachon

Quebec City’s 401st birthday may not be quite as sweet as last year’s 400th but, added to Quebec’s usual summertime charms, a number of the events that made the big anniversary so special are back. The Image Mill (Le Moulin à Images, en français) is the biggest—in every sense of the word. Broadcast onto a series of waterfront grain silos, 600 metres wide and 30 metres high (or the size of 25 IMAX screens), the show, created by internationally acclaimed playwright, director and producer Robert Lepage, retraces four centuries of Quebec history. Avant garde yet accessible, the show relies on a constantly changing panoply of images and evocative music to tell the story—the silos serve as piano keys, cigarettes and candles, smoke pours forth from a steam engine and a major fire, the music shifts with the mood—from serious to swingin’ to playful to heavy and ominous. I was expecting something akin to a Quebec version of those patriotic films that often accompany the national anthem when television stations sign off for the night (Behold the multicultural mosaic that is Canada!), but the Image Mill isn’t like that at all—it’s beautiful and interesting and even moving. And it is actually better than last year—a good amount of the music and visual content is either new or improved. While younger kids won’t understand what’s going on, it can serve as a great entry point for a good discussion on Quebec history and culture with your tweens and teens. The Image Mill will run, free of charge, five nights a week until September 13.

International entertainment juggernaut Cirque du Soleil is also returning this year, presenting a series of street performances known collectively as Les Chemins Invisibles (en anglais, The invisible Paths). Beginning at sunset, dozens of artists transform the urban streets of downtown Quebec into a place of whimsy and wonder—five nights a week until September 6. And back by popular demand (more than 300,000 went through last year), visitors are again invited by Parks Canada to explore under the famous Dufferin Terrace (the wooden boardwalk overlooking the St. Lawrence, next to the Chateau Frontenac). Painstakingly excavated over the course of three summers, you can walk among the ruins of the forts and chateaux that occupied the site from 1620 to 1834.

Quebec’s annual Summer Festival, bolstered by the 400th celebrations, entertained more than 1.7 million concertgoers last year. The 2009 edition will feature 300 shows (including rock, pop, jazz, folk, funk, hip-hop and reggae) over 11 days. A mere $45 gets you into all the performances, which this year run the gamut from Sting to Plácido Domingo to KISS (with dozens of smaller acts in between). While there aren’t many performances targeted directly at kids, there are plenty of fun, open air, daytime concerts, and parents routinely take their little ones along, pushing strollers from show to show.

So if you missed the big event last year, don’t fret—Quebec City has plenty to offer for their 401st, too.

— Tim, CF‘s contributing editor 

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