Tuesday, March 18, 2008

My Trans-Canada Rail Journey – Part 4

My itinerary calls for me to double back to the east with a three-hour ride to Quebec City and early next morning finds me in the Montreal station gliding down a long escalator from the main hall to a lower-level platform where my train is already waiting.

We depart precisely on time and within minutes I’m presented with a breakfast menu. I opt for the omelet, which comes on a slice of Canadian bacon with some sautéed potatoes on the side. Essentially, this is “airline food,” but it’s reasonably good and it’s nicely presented along with fresh orange juice and coffee. I’ve just started on the omelet when the car attendant appears with a tray of fresh, warm croissants.

After quick stops at St-Hyasynthe and Drummondville, the train swings a bit more to the northeast toward Quebec City. We glide to a stop on a siding to wait for a westbound train to pass en route to Montreal. In a small parking lot outside my window, is a large white van, sparkling clean and proudly sporting a sign proclaiming it belongs to “E. Larocque et Fils, Fruites et Legumes en gros
(E. Lerocque and Son, Wholesale Fruits and Vegetables). Two men, who by their appearance could well be Monsieur Larocque and his son, are stacking crates of fresh produce in the back of the van.

In less than five minutes, we’re off again. The countryside we’re passing through is rural, dotted with family farms. Off in the distance to the left a tractor pulls a harrow across an undulating field. To the right, a truck loaded with bales of hay is backing slowly into the open door of a weathered red barn. There are neat stacks of firewood beside almost every house, testimony to the length and severity of the winters in these parts.

The train sweeps around a long curve, then slows a bit before clattering through a switch and emerging onto a bridge over a river swollen to the top of its banks with the Spring thaw. Two deer are grazing on tender new green shoots in an adjacent field, ignoring the train as it accelerates back to 100 mph.

In quick succession, we flash past a Christmas tree farm, a small barn with a dozen sheep standing in an attached pen, and a broad field, freshly plowed and empty save for one huge boulder, located so exactly in the middle it could be the farmer’s monument to some cause or person.

Clearly, the Canadians are making full use of today’s technology. VIA Rail provides wireless internet connection for passengers and signs on buildings we’re passing promote web addresses: laflamme.com and deco-rampe.com.

As we get closer to Quebec City, we run parallel to the St. Lawrence River with Quebec’s suburbs below us, tidy little houses with steeply sloped roofs. Up ahead, the old city is now clearly visible with the distinctive tower of the Chateau Frontenac dominating the skyline.

Thirty minutes later, a taxi drops me on the rue Ste-Ursule at the 210-year-old Maison Historique James Thompson, where I’ll stay for the next two days. On the recommendation of my host, Gregg Anderson, I go across the street for lunch at Le Saint Amour restaurant: Watercress soup, a delicate herb omelet, and a glass of white wine. Parfait!

In fact, after a stroll through the old city and an hour with a good book, I go back to Saint Amour for dinner. The restaurant was created in the 40- to 50-foot space between two houses, glassed over to create an atrium setting. Tonight there are several dozen people dining here, the men relaxed, the women stylish, all obviously enjoying their meals. Mine starts with a delightful chilled zucchini puree topped with a parmesan mousse, followed by a chicken broth with paper-thin slices of fois gras and tiny raviolis. Next comes a rack of lamb, with potatoes and assorted grilled vegetables. All accompanied by a half carafe of pinot noir. The final entry in my note pad for today says it all: “WOW!”

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