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I love going to Quebec’s annual winter carnival. Carnaval du Québec, as it is known, has been going for 62 years and is an epic Canadian event not to be missed. This year it runs from January 29 to February 14th.
While mountains of snow and polar temperatures turn some of us into cringing shut-ins, Quebecers head boldly outdoors. Traffic is barely affected in blowing snow conditions, all night dance parties take place in sub-zero temperatures, and ice bars offer fortifying beverages to pedestrians on many main streets.
When I was in the walled city last year for Carnaval du Québec, the biggest of its kind in the world, the main man was Bonhomme. A jolly bilingual snowman who seemed to be at just about every event, Bonhomme, my guide Patrick told me, is an ambassador not a mascot. What’s the difference? “Well, for one, he can talk,” said Patrick. Rumors are there is more than one, but Patrick shook his head. “They just speed him around town in a special minivan with dark windows,” he explained.
I met Bonhomme at his Ice Palace, across from the Parliament Buildings. He was mobbed like a rock star. Quebec kids love him more than Santa Claus. Why? “He’s real,” a little girl told me. His home was impressive. More than 300 tons of ice bricks were used in the construction and it took three weeks. In the old days the ice came from the St. Lawrence, but with global warming and ice breakers, that’s not possible any more. Instead, very clear ice bricks (made with–reverse osmosis–distilled water) weighing 300 pounds each got shipped in from Montreal. Then 12 people work night and day to get it ready for opening day.
Inside there was a kitchen, complete with ice stove, dining room, pantry (think ice cream), bedroom and ice shower (brrrrr). Everything a Bonhomme could want! In the dining room there were pictures of the big guy with Princess Grace of Monaco who attended Carnaval du Québec in 1969. In the kitchen there was a calendar listing his upcoming activities, including cold yoga.
The event was packed with activities. On the Plains of Abraham, I watched kids ice fish for brook trout (there was a grill they could cook their fish on afterwards), took a Ferris wheel ride, cheered the human foosball game players, and ate maple taffy cooled on the snow.
What I liked best about the event was how it has opened up to all areas of the city. There were eight street business improvement associations that signed up to present activities. On Rue Petit Champlain, just below Chateau Frontenac, I spied almost 30 magnificent ice sculptures and took a trip down memory lane at Ti-Pere’s. Ti-Pere was the pub owner who invented the high-octane drink called Caribou. A delicious mix of wine, brandy and spices, it was served hot in a small theatre space dedicated to this Carnaval pioneer who passed away a few years ago.
Further afield, on 3rd Ave there were curling rinks for kids, a lumberjack axe-throwing contest, hot waffles and an amazing array of steam punk-style street performers who sang, danced and interacted with the crowd.
At the end of the day there was a giant snowball fight. Who called the two teams of around 1,000 each to begin? Bonhomme! Men in kilts fired military-looking rifles to finally let them know it was over. Who won? Nobody seemed to care. They just all took off for hot chocolate and a shot of Caribou.
Carnaval du Québec puts the win back into winter. I loved it. And I was dressed warmly, which helped. Go if you can. It will melt your fears of the cold in a nanosecond.
GET IN ON THE ACTION
Here’s a list of some of this year’s activities. For more information, go to http://carnaval.qc.ca.
- CMQ Canoe Races
- International Snow Sculpture Competition
- Charlesbourg Night Parade
- Upper Town Night Parade
- Qualinet Snow Bath
- Floor Hockey
- Uniprix Ice Slide
- Hydro-Québec Slides
- Restaurant Partners’ Cocktail Dinner
- Bulles, Whiskey & Cie
- Bonhomme’s Brunch
- Mr. Christie’s Giant Bowling
62 YEARS OF ICY FUN
- 1954 Birth of the official Carnaval de Québec and Bonhomme, its snowman mascot.
- 1958 Ice canoe race takes place under the worst conditions in event’s history; only 4 of 21 teams finish.
- 1964 Voûtes Chez ti-Père, home of the Caribou drink, opens on rue Sainte- thérèse.
- 1970 A new tradition is born — event closes with fireworks display.
- 1980 new Carnaval sites are created — Place des enfants (first winter play- ground dedicated to children) and Place du manège (for Carnaval get-togethers).