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As Bonhomme waved thousands of French Canadians "ooohed," "ahhed" and cheered, their breath froze in clouds above the night parade at world's largest winter carnival. Bonhomme is a giant snowman with a figure to rival the Michelin man and is the key personality at the Québec Winter Carnival. He crops up everywhere you see him on posters and meet him at all the events where he has a friendly wave for all and cuddles for the children. At the night parade, in the Charlesbourg district, huge models of him appeared on many floats and his wintry grin popped up between The Pyramids, The Eiffel Tower, penguins and other bizarre creations. There were marching bands, stilt walkers and the whole shebang was beamed across the nation on television. Songs devoted to the event echoed around us "Carnaval, Mardi gras, Carnaval, A Québec, c'est tout un festival...." We were in sub zero temperatures so taking pictures involved briefly shedding a glove and poking a nose and an eye out between hat and scarf. It's an event for which you must wrap up well, wearing, if you can, red and black, the carnival colours.
The carnival, which begins on the 27th of January, runs until the 12th of February and the highlights include a splendid fancy dress party. Everyone loves dressing up and for those lucky enough to go to Bonhomme's Ball there are hundreds of inspired costumes available for hire. A friend of mine went as The Pope and had a great time consorting with 'Cat Woman, a flapper and a many feathered 'show girl.' Returning to our table he declared, " I'm saving fallen women." In unison the males responded "Save one for me - boom, boom!"
Yes the wine was good too.
Fun in the snow.
The next day the cool air quickly cleared the head as we joined the crowds lining the streets to watch the dogsled races. These are fast and furious and the dogs don't stop for anything.
You can take a more sedate ride on a horse drawn bus sledge. One driver is a colourful figure that who a full-length fur coat and raccoon hat with tail.
We rode up to the 'Plains of Abraham' where the roller-blading youngsters of summer had been replaced by families on cross country skis towing infants in sledges.
These well wrapped up bundles, stuffed into mini ski suits, looked as though they might grow up to be Michelin men or another Bonhomme.
Night of the Long Knives
Some kids were building snowmen, but further down, closer to the town, they had serious competition in the shape of some really 'cool art' at the International Sculpture of Snow Competition (L'International de Sculpture sur Neige.) I watched as the figure of St George and the Dragon emerged from twenty-eight tons of snow.
The competitors start with a huge block of snow five metres by four by four metres. They spent five days crafting it with saws, spades, knives, rasps and specially devised tools.
The final night was known as the 'night of the long knives' and it took a measure of courage to persist through the testing temperatures. The work was brilliantly illuminated throughout the "Night of the Long Knives" and the artists, thawed their fingers on the spot lights knowing that as it got darker the mercury would drop to an 'unbelievably cold,' minus 30 C. A competitot from China gave his reactions' reactions:
" From the first day it seemed really cold for us, I had never touched snow before; I thought it might be like building sand castles and I had to revise my thinking as to how fast I would have to work on it"
There is a worldwide circuit for snow and ice carving exhibitions. The sculptors come not only from countries that have lots of snow and cold temperatures, artists from Morocco, Africa and Singapore have tried their hand at the cool art form.
The Canoe Race
The Plains of Abraham appeared to be a gigantic winter playground for the whole family. (The 'Abraham' was not the one from the bible, but the designer of the park, the same guy who laid out Central Park in New York.) In the nearby 'Place de Jardin' we watched 'canoe racing' but there was no water to be seen. Some extremely fit competitors wearing wetsuits and spiked boots pushed hefty boats around a slippery snowbound circuit. This was the eliminating heat for the canoe race across the St Lawrence. There is a strong historic link. The Indians once made log boats by burning a tree out, but with the arrival of the settlers tools were used to make boats sturdy enough to cope with the fast flowing, icy river.
This was in the days before the icebreakers arrived, days when a third of the population of Leve, across the water from Québec, earned their living as canoe operators. Eventually steamboats took over the trade but as late as the 1940's the 'canoes' were still in use around the islands. It was a dangerous a job and in the Carnival one of the most exciting events is the Canoe Race with teams of five rowing over the St Lawrence and dragging their boats across on the ice floes.
To get a better understanding of just what they were tackling, the night before the I took the car ferry across to Leve. On the metal deck, we felt the vibrations rise through our feet as the ship forced its way through the ice. We were surrounded by a roaring and thunderous noise. The ice was not smooth stuff and we thudded through great lumps with mini icebergs the size of a car. I was somewhat in awe of the canoeists and what they were about to attempt. It was impressive, so too was the journey back in the moonlight towards the lights of the old city and the Québec's skyline which was dominated by Chateau Fortenac.
The next day from the terrace of that magnificent hotel, ( reputed to be the most photographed hotel in the world,) we watched the children whiz down Dufferin Terrace on a specially constructed toboggan run. You can even hire a sledge and have a go It certainly whetted our appetite for something beyond being a spectator.
Carnaval de Québec by Allan Rogers
A visit to the Québec Winter Carnival, provides also an excellent opportunity to fit in a holiday at Québec's ski resorts
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