In my head, the Caribou candy canes were not so big. Oh, I’d heard about them; a cute Carnaval attraction, filled to the brim with ‘Caribou’, a kind of souped-up mulled wine, spiked with brandy or vodka or both. Perfect for keeping out the icy chill and keeping up the party spirits, I thought a small stripy pipe o’ booze would be just the ticket, but when I was handed what looked like a walking stick, rather than the compact little twig I’d anticipated, I realised I was out of my depth. I was swimming in French-Canadian waters now but it wasn’t like I hadn’t been warned… “They know how to party in Québec” everyone had said and oh boy, do they ever…
I’d been so excited about attending the Carnaval. For years I’d heard about the bikini-clad snow bathing, the ice sculptures and I’d dreamed of seeing people genuinely enjoying the cold weather rather than cowering away from it as we do in Britain. And it was everything I’d hoped that it would be; parents towed their red-cheeked, snowsuit-ed infants around in lightweight plastic sleds, couples held hands and ice-skated around the park, children shrieked with laughter as they played on the slides and begged to queue up to meet the star of the show, Bonhomme.
Ah, Bonhomme, the spokes-snowman of the Carnaval, who is idolised and adored in a positively Bieber-like fashion. Unlike most mascots, Bonhomme speaks (here he is meeting the Canadian PM), throughout Carnaval he has a hectic schedule gracing parties and doing his trademark high-kick dance at endless photos calls. I walked past a queue of some 100 people, waiting to get a photograph with him.
Even entry to the Carnival is with a cute little Bonhomme ‘effigy’, I tied it to my trusty Canada Goose and walked through the lyrically-named Plains of Abraham, straight into a winter wonderland. I’d been given a ceinture fléchée to wear, a sash with an arrowhead design, part of the traditional outfit of the French-Canadians in the 19th century. I tied it around my waist, its ends peeking out under my parka. This was my first clue that this wasn’t just a party, the Carnaval had its roots in a more interesting place. Over the speakers, traditional French folk songs played, everywhere, the heavily-accented Québecois French was spoken, make no mistake – when you are in Québec City, you are in the heart of French-speaking French-Canada. You really need to try to speak French. It’s their language and it’s who they are. Québec baffles and fascinates me in equal measure. It feels like another country and its winter celebrations, the wearing of the ceinture fléchée, the pride in its long historical culture and traditions are all part of cherishing that uniquely French side.
It was the last weekend of Carnival when I attended, I’d missed the ice canoe racing and snowboarding, but the ice sculptures from around the world still held their shape and Bonhomme’s Ice Palace continued to shine in the sun under the impossibly blue sky. They’ve built an ice palace each winter since the late 1800s, I stroked the glossy walls of the latest incarnation and thought about how lucky I was to have a warm centrally-heated hotel to go to later and gratefully wriggled my toes in my thermal socks.
The big event of the weekend was the bain de neige, one of our group, a Lonely Planet reporter, Regis, decided to take the plunge – it looked like so much fun! I cursed my sprained ankle… next time. Although my consolation prize was a sleigh ride, something I’d never have done if I wasn’t limping. The bells jingled, the ponies stamped and we were off; I burrowed under the fur throw as we trotted through the snow, up and around the park. I felt like I was in the most romantic of fairy tales, and yes – it was schmaltzy and cheesy and I absolutely loved it.
Later that night we watched the Carnaval parade, a whirl of lights and colour, dancing and music. The cold bit brutally at our fingers whenever we de-gloved to take photos. I was amazed to hear French versions of Mary Poppins songs as a float with a flying Poppins wheeled past, accompanied by a dozen dancing sweeps.
The final treat of the night was dancing at Bonhomme’s ice palace. Of course, dancing with a badly-sprained ankle is a terrible idea… but an irresistible one after a few Caribous. I’m still limping three weeks later. I can’t help thinking dancing in the snow, zipped up in my coat, having a blast in the minus-whatever-it-was temperature, the lights bouncing off the ice, the music so good and loud and the company so much fun probably has something to do with it… Oh, and that damn candy cane. The size of a hockey stick and full to the brim of hot, sweet, deceptively-strong Caribou… We shared it between us, waved the stick in the air to the music and by the time the hot drink was cold I somehow didn’t care so much about the sprain and the pain.
But I got it; when winter is so cold and harsh, when the weather beats you down every day with its intensity, you have to go out and embrace it. Celebrate being alive and enjoy all the good things that living in that climate can bring, connect with your inner snow-bathing, high-kick dancing Bonhomme.
I travelled as a guest of Tourism Quebec, however – as always – my views are 100% my own.
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I travelled as a guest of Québec Tourism and stayed at the Hilton.