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Quebec's 400th-birthday bash

Quebec City is throwing the biggest city birthday party on the continent ... make that, in the world. Celebrating 400 years of vibrant life on the St. Lawrence River, Quebec City is the big kid on the block when it comes to the founding cities of European settlement in North America.
Image: Fireworks light up the sky at midnight as 400th anniversary celebration of Quebec
Fireworks light up the sky at midnight on Dec. 31, 2007 as the 400th anniversary celebration of Quebec 2008 opens in Quebec City. Clement Allard / AP file
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Quebec City is throwing the biggest city birthday party on the continent ... make that, in the world. Celebrating 400 years of vibrant life on the St. Lawrence River, Quebec City is the big kid on the block when it comes to the founding cities of European settlement in North America.

There are quibblers. Some say Saint Augustine, Florida, is older than Quebec, and others note that Santa Fe, New Mexico, goes back as far. Some Canadians claim that St. John's, in Newfoundland, is older. And the Jamestown settlement, established in 1607 in present-day Virginia, predated all these cities, but it never became a real center of population and industry, eventually fading into the dirt from which it was built.

Quebec City is different. Founded by Samuel de Champlain in 1608, the little enclave of French farmers and fur traders overcame its early trials, and today the city sits astride the St. Lawrence as one of North America's most important cities. Energy courses through the city even when there isn't a municipal celebration, but Quebec City really comes to life whenever the citizens throw a big party. And this birthday bash is definitely going to be a big party — the world's biggest. In fact, the citizens of Quebec plan to party for most of 2008.

The festivities kicked off on New Year's Day with fireworks and a multimedia event for a crowd of more than a half-million people — amazing, considering temperatures did not top 20 degrees Fahrenheit. The celebration will conclude in the brilliant colors of autumn with the convocation of the Summit of French-Speaking Countries on October 19. Between now and then, Quebec City will be rocking with a series of festivities.

This month, the highlight is the city's always-wonderful Winter Carnival, the world's largest, which this year runs from Feb. 1 to Feb. 17, gracing the entire city with giant ice sculptures, classical and rock music, art gallery exhibitions, dramatic performances, dogsled races, parades with floats and bands, and a daring canoe race across the frozen seaway. The theme this year is, naturally, the city's big birthday.

The parades and the canoe race are epic events, traditions going back several decades. The parades wind through town on the second and third weekends of February, featuring scores of floats that dramatize the history of Quebec. More than 1,200 people participate, and throngs of Quebecois celebrate in the streets as the parade rolls by. The canoe race pits teams against each for a race across the half-frozen St. Lawrence Seaway, splashing from ice floe to ice floe. The teams clamber across the ice dragging their large canoes when necessary and then launch their vessels again to head for another floating chunk of ice. The man-against-frozen-nature spectacle is astonishing and the only race of its kind in the world.

Of course, winter visitors to Quebec City can always take advantage of the much tamer and fashionable sports of downhill skiing and snowboarding in the nearby resorts of Le Massif, Mont-Sainte-Anne and Stoneham. Snowmobilers rumble down snowy trails, cross-country skiers kick and glide through the forests, and ice climbers challenge themselves on a frozen waterfall — all within an easy drive of the city center.

The birthday party continues on into spring and summer. Mahler's "Symphony of a Thousand" will be performed by the Quebec Symphony Orchestra with 150 musicians and 850 vocalists on March 15, and the World Hockey Championship packs ice rinks during the first three weeks of May.

Starting in early June, giant citywide exhibitions will portray the history and the lives of Quebecois over the last 400 years. The towering grain elevators that serve the harbor will become massive screens for the world's largest multimedia presentation, "Image Mill," which will depict four eras of Quebec City history. The actual city birthday, July 3, will be celebrated with a high Mass and a "Freedom of the City" celebration on the Plains of Abraham, an historic battlefield atop the old city walls.

Concerts, fireworks competitions, multimedia presentations and light shows will all take place along the waterfront from June through September. The International Eucharist Conference spiritually convenes in late June. Celine Dion serenades the city in August, and the world-famous Cirque du Soleil is masterminding what it promises will be a unique grand finale during the Congress of French-Speaking Countries on October 19.

The story of the Canadian Native Americans will be told with a series of programs planned for late July that will draw members of 40 tribes to the city. Organizers are also planning to create a colossal floating dance floor, large enough for 2,500 dancers, on the St. Lawrence Seaway in August to commemorate the close link between Quebec City and the St. Lawrence River.

These people know how to party.

This birthday party is more than a one-time good time. In fact, Quebec City will receive a wonderful present after the merriment ceases: A huge portion of Quebec's waterfront, long cut off from the hustle and bustle of the city center by a highway, is being reunited with the city and turned into an arts-and-festival park and recreation area for the citizens. The new zone, called "Espace 400e," will set the beat for the anniversary parties during 2008. After the revelry, the trails, parks, gardens and performance venues will remain as municipal parkland.

But you don't need a party in the park to enjoy this beautiful, fairy-tale city. It retains an Old World feel — remember, French is the main language spoken here — and it is a place where visitors can get lost on winding lamp-lit streets, marvel at intricate stained-glass windows, study art at scores of world-class galleries, stop for a coffee at a sidewalk café, savor moules et frites as a quick lunch, and shop for Europe's latest clothing and accessory fashions. All this, without ever crossing the Atlantic.

The birthday bash only adds to the enjoyment of Quebec City and cranks the already strong party pulse of this city up to a festive frenzy.

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