People are increasingly treating travel like medicine – expecting a holiday to fix them – or their relationship. But travel is geography and ultimately you still end up with yourself. Travel industry has reacted to the demand. Spas have morphed into retreats, a place you can cloister yourself from the world and get your mind, body and spirit back in alignment. Many retreats are enclosed - away from the urban, usually within a rural setting, with a manufactured sense of calm (incense, candles, calming music) rather than an authentic one. Culture is an immense part of the authenticity. Some cultures are naturally embracing, others cooler and this will always come across in the staff however tightly they have been trained. And dare you venture out, you will see what the real world is like –aggressive, judgemental and unfair. But there is a country where even the cities are retreats in themselves. I visited the city of Quebec in eastern Canada to take in the progressive vibe.
When I was young I wanted to be a nun. I watched the film The Nun’s Story with Audrey Hepburn and was fascinated by the discipline and serenity of living in a monastic world, where I would also travel, and save on all the heart-ache and hassle in getting into a relationship with a realman. The fact I wasn’t Catholic was a minor inconvenience, but as yoga is on trend and the world seems to be in need of a global Omm, I was intrigued by the idea of retreating into a monastery, where nuns still live, and where the alternative practice of yoga, tai chi, qi gong and a collection of alternative practices are offered to guests who are in seek of a retreat. Le Monastere des Augustines is situated in the heart of Old Quebec City, and is part of one of the oldest heritage sites in Canada. Dating from the 17thcentury, old by North American standards, two and a half years ago, the monastery was transformed into a sixty-five bedroom contemporary retreat, offering value for money one to seven day packages.
There’s a fascinating museum telling you about the history of the place, as well as showing over 40,000 exhibits including the 13 layers the nuns use to dress in (all dolls to show them how they should look at the end of it). Sort of instruction nuns.
The yoga and meditation classes, which are included in all of the one to seven day packages, are excellent and for all levels. Held daily at 7am, midday and 5.30pm, breakfast is at eight, and you eat in silence. With most of the packages breakfast is included but check first as the different packages offer different meals inclusive of price. The instructors speak English and French and use yoga, mediation, tai chi and qi gong as well as other relaxation techniques, which are highly effective. Classes are held in the vaults which are well lit and create a very good space. As you may imagine, the energy is very calm and the instructors teach from the heart and are very knowledgeable and authentic. The room is well lit although there are headless angels looking down over you which is slightly disconcerting but I felt there was a benevolent spirit looking down on me rather than a malevolent one. Massage, facials and other therapies are available but the best value packages are those where meals are included as are these thrice-daily sessions.
Having had the guided tour of the museum, I felt the Augustine nuns were very progressive to the point of being positively cool – if nuns can be cool, these were seriously cool nuns. The Augustines practiced yoga long before it became on trend in the world. There’s still twelve living at the monastery, in a part separated only by a door, and you will see them occasionally. Many of the nuns specialised in certain areas and Augustines specialised in medicine. These nuns were nurses. During the Seven Year War (which the French won), they not only cared for the wounded soldiers, but also trained the doctors. These nuns were the original feminists. They were highly skilled and its fascinating reading about their work, how medicine developed, seeing the equipment they used from the operating table to the ventilator made out of a pig’s stomach.
They also worked with the First Nation Indians and learnt and used local herbs and roots in their medicines. I highly recommend having the guided tour although you can go round it by yourself, but you’ll learn some interesting and unusual facts which aren’t in the brochure. One of them, which I found amusing, was the sewage system was very advanced and shared with the local Ursuline nuns (who were the teachers, and the Jesuits, who all came over on the same boat). When archeologists were excavating to find out more about the history of the place and about how the nuns lived, they find out a lot about looking through the ‘shit’ (a bit like our tabloids do now), but they found very little in the sewage system of the monastery, claiming that ‘the holy shit was literally clean’. Now you know.
The bedrooms are either contemporary or the rooms the nuns would sleep in (simpler but still lovely), and although it is tempting to stay inside all the time – there is a chapel with service each day, I recommend venturing out into Old Quebec, which is literally on your doorstep. Quebec is a city you should walk around. Forget the taxis. Walk up towards the Fairmont Chateau Fontrenac (five to ten minutes walk) and look over the St Laurence River. This is no estuary. Quebec is the inuit word for ‘where the river narrows’ and the force with which the water flows through creates a very powerful and positive vibe in the city. Artists flock here from around the world, not just because of the light, which is bright in the summer months, and silver bright in the winter. Famous for its winter Carnavale, the city is blanketed in snow for five months - and the nurturing spirit rather than the commerciality of Christmas last with it. Travel down on the funicular railway and you’ll see the Old city, with its galleries, restaurants and cobbled squares.
The only time to take a car is when travelling to the Falls. Hire a guide with a car to take you to the Montmorecy Falls, which still flow but not as powerfully as they do in the Spring, and then onto the Island, connected by a bridge now (but use to be connected to the mainland by an ice bridge), and visit the local artists and artisans. Its agricultural, so if you like food markets, you’ll love this place. There is a blackcurrant farm, where the owner is Picasso meets Gordon Ramsey. A huge bronze statue of naked man greets you as you enter the farm’s shop which makes you remember the visit, if not buy some of the produce, which ranges from the jams, blueberry honey and coulis to the more unusual blueberry mustard and foie gras. Its particularly famed for its cassis. My guide, Michelle, who has been living in Quebec all her life, and has two daughters, one a homeopath, the other a yoga instructor, is typical of those you meet. If you want to eat vegan and vegetarian, as you can in the monastery, it is also possible to do so in restaurants, and unlike in France, I did not see anyone smoking during my stay – either in or out of buildings. Not one person “In the 90s, everyone stopped smoking here,” Michelle tells me. “People just realised it wasn’t doing them or their city any good.”