12 Feb 2011

Bonhomme

It's freezing cold. The days are short. And our main attraction is a wind-swept plain covered in meters of snow. Care to come visit?

It was a bit of a hard sell for the gestionnaires of Tourisme Québec to promote trips to their medieval jewel of a city in the cold season. Although doted with an excellent infrastructure to cope with the hoards of tourists (including many Americans looking for a taste of Europe) storming the town during the summer months, Québec traditionally hibernated in winter.

Enter Bonhomme. The jolly snowman with his beautiful ceinture fléchée and his red tuque was conceived in 1955, and has since been the mascot for Québec's winter carnaval, a series of family-oriented activities spanning two weeks at the end of January. From ice-sculpting to parades, snow castles to dogsled rides, and from giant ice slides to a festive ball, the schedule defies the low temperatures. For the very brave, there's even an opportunity to take a dip in the ice-cold waters of the St. Laurence river under the cheers of the fur-clad bystanders - and then warm up again in a sauna, and with a liquor affectionately known as Caribou.

And it works. Bonhomme laughs almost as hard as the local businesses, with visitor numbers climbing from 260'000 in 1964 to around a million today - including two Americans, two Ontarians and yours truly in 2011. Most of them choke up money not just for food, drink and accommodation, but also for the little Bonhomme effigy, which gives access to the inside of the major attractions. It's become big business, and today Bonhomme stands not just for the winter carnaval, but for Québec at large - and its business practices.

Maybe it was just my European high-mindedness, for my companions from this side of the Atlantic did not seem to mind the degree of commercialization associated with the event - every booth, attraction, parade, even sculpture was branded and sponsored by one company or another. Whereas comparable events in Europe, or even the Charivari in Montréal last year, seem to be community-organized and driven, this very clearly was a business venture. That being said, once I set my expectations straight, I had a fabulous time strolling between the Metro tent, the WestJet zipline, the Christies Kraft kids' village and of course the Bistro SAQ. The periods outside were just long enough to test the usefulness of all my heavy duty thermal clothing layers. After all, no need to become a snowman myself!

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