Por Margarita de los Ríos
Fotos: Javier Pinzón
Saint-Augustin-de-Desmaures lies at the end of the King’s Highway, 160 miles from Montreal and just fifteen minutes from Quebec City. This maple forest is alive with luminescent yellows and electric reds. The forest faces Saint Augustine Lake, which reflects the quaint colorful houses of Quebec on the other side.
On this autumn evening, a setting sun conspires with this orgy of color to bring even more luster to this watercolor vision. The view at the end of the road is our reward for three days zigzagging along the old Chemin du Roy (King’s Road or Highway), a scenic route that offers tourists a historical journey through villages with beautiful architecture, ancient churches, and shops selling traditional arts and crafts. The journey from Montreal to Quebec City follows the “back roads,” unlike the major highway that runs swiftly between the two cities.
The road was one of the first overland routes built in America. Early ground travel, as well as the first mail coaches and public transport, took place on this road. It was built in 1737 to link the villages, which at times were isolated by the capricious river. Traveling it today, three centuries after the road’s lavish inauguration, it is surprising to discover that so many churches, civic buildings, and residences have survived the ravages of time. And amazingly enough, many local customs continue: cheese is still made in the traditional way and desserts are prepared according to the teachings of French grandparents.
The route winds along the St. Lawrence River, which flows out of Lake Ontario and into the Atlantic after bathing the shores of Quebec City, creating the world’s largest estuary. The St. Lawrence River was the route by which the French were able to realize their dream of a New France in America and all villages were therefore designed around this body of water. Some feature beautiful terraces, piers, and walkways, while others are built on cliffs.
The first westerner to recognize these territories was the Frenchman Jacques Cartier during his second voyage to Canada in 1535, calling it “Great River of Hochelaga.” Years later, Samuel de Champlain, founder of Montreal, began referring to the river as “the great river of Saint Lawrence,” and the name stuck.
And although the river made it possible to penetrate the region, it was nevertheless rife with pitfalls; navigation was difficult most of the year and impossible in winter. Detailed maps were drawn up to assist ship captains, but the fear of an English invasion prevented them from setting up buoys or lighthouses. Instead, experienced pilots were trained in the “practical” style used nowadays. In 1671, the Jesuit College of Quebec offered the first specialized training course for pilots navigating this river. But the harsh conditions didn’t grow easier in winter, and in 1706 the government of New France decided to build a road that would facilitate movement between cities. The task was entrusted to the Grand Voyeur (head surveyor), Eustache Lanouiller of Boisclerc, who performed the work under the terms of the “corvées du Roy,” a statute governing locally supplied labor forces.
The work began in 1731 and ended in 1737. The road was twenty-five feet wide, 155 miles long, and crossed through thirty-seven private estates. It was the longest overland route north of the Rio Grande and was in service for many years before the first roads were built in the United States. For a century and a half, the Chemin du Roy transported travelers in horse-drawn wagons in summer, and sleighs in winter. It allowed for freight transport, mail, and stagecoaches, using a system of twenty-nine stations or stages.
Today, Canada’s Route 138 largely follows the old road, from Saint-Augustin-de-Desmaures to Repentigny, passing through Trois-Rivières. This is the route we decide to take to reach our goal: Quebec City, hoping for a close look at some of the most famous stations. We leave Montreal early and make our first stop around noon in Repentigny. The town was officially founded in 1670, although members of the New France fleet had occupied the territory since 1647, which makes the site the region’s oldest settlement.
Autumn is still holding fast here, as apparent in the colors of the picturesque vegetable markets that match those of the colorful maple trees and, in turn, contrast with the huge stone church walls and the limited range of grays, whites, and blacks among the wooden houses. The first thing you’ll want to visit here is the facade of the Church of the Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary in Repentigny –the oldest in the Montreal diocese– and the old mills standing along the wayside.
This first settlement is just a sample of what we experience next: a series of villages frozen in time, resembling watercolors hung in an exhibition along the St. Lawrence River. This is a long, unending museum presenting the step-by-step history of an idea conceived in France, gradually brought to America, subjected repeatedly to the English boot, and finally brought to fruition, here in this corner of France that lives on triumphantly in Canada.
Our second stop is the Saint Sulpice monastery, a religious community that was instrumental in the colonization of French Canada, and which continues to prosper. Located in the Lanaudière region, the monastery was a hub for colonization starting in 1680 as part of the Saint Sulpice Seignory.
After a frugal lunch, we arrive in Lavaltrie, a village founded in 1672 when the Intendant of New France distributed large portions of land to a group of lords, including Pierre-Paul Margane of Lavaltrie, who received this area. This is an example of the more feudal model chosen by the French to settle America (very different from the English system).
Our journey continues and around three in the afternoon we reach Lanoraie. By the sixteenth century, the Iroquois inhabited the region and called it “Agochanda,” meaning, “place to stop, eat, and rest.” The town kept up this important function during the days when Chemin du Roy was traveled by wagons and stagecoaches.
Because it’s October, inhabitants in these towns are preparing for Halloween, which coincides with the harvest of huge pumpkins that are available in markets and from street vendors. The colors of nature combine with seasonal decorations in the old mansions and the orange glow of sunset. It’s time to seek shelter. After consulting Quebec’s bed and breakfast guide (www.giteetaubergedupassant.com) we choose Le Murmure des Eaux Cachées, a beautiful house facing the river in Champlain, where the house’s owner is our host. The exquisite breakfast crepes remind us that we’re in a region where not only the French language, but also many ancestral traditions have been preserved.
On our second day, which begins in Batiscan, we meet a woman whose name I can’t find, no matter how many times I flip through my messy road journal. While admiring, awestruck, the facade of the Saint-François-Xavier church, a neighbor in the village tells us that if we want to know something of the history we should ask the old woman who is approaching, the daughter of a famous poet and a history teacher for more than fifty years. The elderly woman slowly accompanies us on our visit to the town’s most important monuments and afterwards invites us to her house, allowing us to get a close look at the almost two hundred-year old architecture in what reminds us of Hansel and Gretel’s gingerbread house. Our new friend tells us that it was in 1609 that Samuel de Champlain met the Indian leader Batiscan and gave his name to this region.
Real settlement of this area began in 1666 and developed according to New France’s seigneurial system, by which a lord was granted a piece of land —a long rectangle with an approximate ratio of one by ten, providing each settler with access to the river and the road— and a group of workers to develop it. Some of these lands were given to the Jesuits, who were responsible for evangelization prior to the arrival of the Sulpicians.
In just a few minutes we’re in Sainte-Anne-de-la-Perade, known as the Canadian Venice due to the number of islands, bridges, and channels along the St. Lawrence River in this area. In summer you can practice all kinds of water sports here, but autumn is a time for other activities. For example, you can taste the many beverages made from the strawberries, raspberries, and blueberries that abound in the region at this time of year. Or visit the Fromagerie F.X. Pichet, a shop that produces organic and artisanal cheeses. You can also visit the original manor and childhood home of Madeleine de Verchère, a legendary woman who, despite her young age, defended the colony from attacks by the Iroquois natives.
Cap-Santé (Cape Health) is our next stop. Apparently, the town got its name from a miracle cure that some soldiers discovered for an unknown disease that afflicted them. The village features two interesting sites: the church, built between 1754 and 1767, is a historical landmark that was one of the last buildings built under the French regime. It has two towers and a Baroque interior with neoclassical altarpieces and a presbytery (designed by architect Charles Baillairgé in 1849) with five dormer windows. And Vieux Chemin Street, which the Chemin du Roy crosses, has been hailed as one of the most beautiful streets in Canada by the Globe and Mail newspaper.
Finally, we’re once again standing where this story began, in Saint-Augustin-de-Desmaures, in front of St. Augustine Lake, at the gates to Quebec City. We’ll spend the next three days in this beautiful city, inside its walls, walking on cobblestones and visiting its lavish churches. And although we didn’t have very nice weather, we saw enough to know that the city deserves another chapter all its own.