You have a choice. You can either shovel out a Ben Franklin or two for a seat at a Cirque du Soleil performance in Vegas or New York or one of the other hundreds of venues where the innovative circus arts company performs.
Or you can head to Quebec City and see an equally-impressive Cirque show for -- are you sitting down? -- absolutely free. Every summer for the last four years, Cirque du Soleil has created a complimentary show for the city that launched its success back in 1984.
Before the multimillion-dollar Cirque was booking sell-out shows in some 270 cities around the globe, it was a small ragtag theater troupe whose fire-breathing, accordion-playing creator was only able to keep the wolf from the door with unemployment insurance. After walking 56 miles on stilts from Baie-Saint-Paul to the Parliament in Quebec City, the gang of street performers convinced the Quebecois government to offer them a $1.3 million grant to tour the province for the celebration of the 450th anniversary of Jacques Cartier's discovery of Canada.
Let's just say it was one government investment that worked. Cirque du Soleil today rakes in a billion a year and owner Guy Laliberte, on unemployment insurance no longer, owns seven homes, an island and paid $35 million a few years ago to be the seventh non-astronaut in space.
As a thank you to the city that first took a chance on the avant-garde circus troop, Cirque du Soleil created "Les Chemins Invisibles," a five-chapter show performed outdoors under a highway overpass in the trendy Saint-Roch district. The free performance runs five nights a week throughout the summer.
Not that you need an excuse to visit this gorgeous, cobblestoned UNESCO World Heritage city. Summers in Quebec City amount to one big party with endless festivals, a lively café vibe and non-stop street performances.
One morning, as early as 8 a.m., I enjoyed a barrel-chested opera singer belting out Rigoletto's "Caro Nome" under the imposing statue of Samuel de Champlain on the wooden-planked terrace overlooking the Saint Lawrence River.
Champlain, the mapmaker who is credited with founding the city in 1608, was the reason I was visiting Quebec City. Every year, during the first week of August, Quebec City throws a New France Festival, a rousing five-day celebration of the city's 400-year-history. Like the one-day Renaissance Festivals so popular in the U.S., this festival features historic demonstrations, baroque ensembles and costumed performers. But unlike the U.S. wannabe's often held in vacant cornfields, Les Fetes de la Nouvelle-France, as they call it in this French-speaking city, is staged on cobblestone plazas within thick protective walls. It's about as authentic as you can get.
For five days, the historic streets of Old Quebec are filled with fascinating characters, everything from cart pullers to snobby-nosed noblemen, from stilt walkers to silversmiths, all nodding, curtsying, promenading and generally having a 17th century good time.
Even visitors can get in on the pageantry. Just because I wasn't one of the actors performing a vignette about say, sword making or shoe cobbling doesn't mean I couldn't dress up. Practically everyone does even if it means getting up an hour earlier to cinch yourself into your dress or your brocade waistcoat. Zippers and snaps, of course, weren't invented back then, so the costumes my daughter and I wore involved countless eyelets, strings and cinching that, much to a teenager's chagrin, can't be accomplished without assistance. Instructions and patterns for costumes are generously posted on the festival's website even though some overachievers, I'm told, budget more than a thousand dollars for each year's new rendition.
Needless to say, a bit of uncinching was in ordering at the public market where there were just too many tempting libations from smoked trout, French Canadian meat pies and grilled goat cheese to cups of just-picked blueberries and maple-flavored ice cream.
The festivities kick off each year with the Parade of the Giants, 12 giant marionettes, accompanied by hundreds of costumed revelers followed by concerts, dance performances, ghost tours, spectacular fireworks, archaeological digs and more than 1,000 other events. It's no wonder this festival was recently chosen by the Canadian Tourism Commission as one of the country's Signature Experiences.
Can someone say "Huzzah!!" Or better yet, "Tres Charmant."
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