One of the most stirring sights anywhere in the world is the graceful eruption from the Plains of Abraham of North America's only walled city. Don't just take my word for it: Charles Dickens described Quebec City's 'giddy heights, its citadel suspended . . . its picturesque steep streets and frowning gateways'.

My first impression appeared to support his view, but I was unable to catch more than an occasional glimpse of the unfolding miracle. The reason was the argument taking place, in mediocre French, with the bus driver. I could not understand how much he wanted for the fare, and possessed no local currency. In turn, he could not comprehend why a tourist was uttering a sequence of elided vowels, nor where I wanted to get off. This impasse was not entirely because I speak French in the manner of Edward Heath; Quebecois French is an incomprehensible pastiche of a beautiful language. It sounds like an entire nation struggling for a pass at GCSE.

I wanted the driver to drop me at Old Quebec, so I tackled the word 'vieux'. It emerged as a 'vyuh', which sounded plausibly close to the way my French teacher had taught us. But the locals call the ancient walled city, perched proudly somewhere in the heavens, 'voo' Quebec. Imagine a French person with a shaky grasp of English having to negotiate a hick town in a remote corner of Texas, and you have an idea of the problem facing the visitor to Quebec.

The bus dispute was settled with a few US dollars (accepted happily everywhere in Canada) and much map- pointing. I was bundled off at the Theatre Capitole - the first pleasant surprise. A doddery turn-of-the-century auditorium on the edge of the old town has been refurbished as the provincial palace of culture. But Quebec, you soon discover, nurtures ambitions beyond its status as a province. While Canada's other provinces arrange their affairs in local legislatures, Quebec has a National Assembly - a fine building which speaks grandiosely, if prematurely, of independence.

The official tourist guide to Quebec includes a painfully phonetic list of useful phrases. Address the population, it insists, as kay-bay-kwaw. Probably the only Quebecois you have ever heard of is a singer whose despair slashed a thousand wrists. But Leonard Cohen (and the odd bus driver) apart, the province exudes a thoroughly European joie de vivre. British visitors are welcomed warmly, despite the language barrier and the separatist intentions of the locals.

Were the province to split from Canada, and were it to include Labrador (on which it has territorial designs), it would form an autonomous region 10 times the size of the UK, with lakes and waterways containing one-sixth of the world's fresh water. The capital would be Quebec City, presiding over a new France.

'New France' was a reality for a few centuries. Jacques Cartier, the Breton explorer, stumbled upon Quebec in 1534. A fur-trading post was established in 1608, and French orphan girls were shipped out to balance the genders and facilitate procreation. Quebec City became an elegant colonial backwater which survived until New France was dragged into the Seven Years War between France and Britain.

The colonies were convenient battlegrounds for empire-builders. A short, sharp and bloody battle took place on 13 September 1759. The location was the Plains of Abraham, the idle fields which surround - yet shrink away from - the dynamic bulk of Quebec City. The British forces, led by General Wolfe, attacked the Marquis de Montcalm's troops. Both commanders died in the battle, but the British triumphed and seized control.

Quebec has been trying to break free ever since. The most obvious assertion of its fierce cultural independence from Canada's other provinces is language. Anywhere else in the Americas, from Alaska to Tierra del Fuego, you can see signs in English advertising beer or burgers; in Quebec it is illegal to display signs in any language other than French. Some see this as a commendable assertion of culture; others regard it as verging on linguistic fascism.

Crossing the threshold into Old Quebec, you stop worrying about nationalism and start wondering at how so exquisite a place can have survived the ravages of time and commerce. An energetically three-dimensional tangle of streets is draped haphazardly over the slopes. This delightful muddle demands gentle exploration, the sort of walk where every corner reveals a rewarding detail of architectural extravagance or a pleasing new perspective on the ensemble.

You may stumble upon the peaceful retreat of the 17th-century Ursuline convent where the Marquis de Montcalm's body was laid after the disastrous battle. Three more substantial sights - a chateau, a citadel, and a promenade - provide points of reference for your wanderings.

The Citadel marks the southern fringe of Quebec. The ramparts bear down upon the St Lawrence River as it is pinched to its narrowest point in the province. The original Algonquin Indian name, Kebec, means 'where the river narrows', yet even here the St Lawrence is still nearly half a mile across. The cargo vessels passing below are heading for Lake Superior, 1,000 miles inland.

The Citadel is something of a permanent humiliation for the French. It was built after the British seized Quebec, and is the second official residence of Canada's Governor-General. When the Queen's representative (the current one is French Canadian) is not lording it over the Quebecois, you can visit the castle.

To the west is new Quebec. Compared with the poetic elegance of the old part, the modern sector is prosaic to the point of tedium. Where the walls end, a brash city sprawls outwards.

If Stalin, at the height of his skyscraper-building megalomania, had stolen the plans for the Palace of Versailles, he would have come up with the Chateau Frontenac, a mock-medieval folly. Turrets thrust skyward, dragging a sturdy red-brick fabric beneath them and dwarfing the rest of the city. It functions as a hotel, and seems to cater mainly for Americans disinclined to fly all the way to Paris to stay at the Hotel George V. If you are disinclined to pay up to pounds 90 a night for a room, you can enjoy the panorama free. Sneak into the chateau foyer and take the lift to the top floor to enjoy a corridor with a view.

The chateau forms one edge of the Place d'Armes, the heart of the city. Another side of this lively main square is the Terrasse Dufferine, a broad wooden promenade shared by buskers, jugglers and canoodling couples. Look down the sheer cliff to the ancient waterside quarter of Petit-Champlain, possibly the first European neighbourhood in North America. Here, in 1608, Samuel de Champlain first built a fort to protect settlers and their fur-trading colony. Descend the steep stairway from heaven - known as the escalier casse-cou or 'breakneck stairs' - and choose from the restaurants which huddle around the steps.

Eating out in Quebec is as pleasurable as in France. The city is on the same latitude as Lyon, and its cuisine is as appetising. Fish dishes predominate, such as delicate bouillabaisse. This being North America, portions are rather larger than the usual nouvelle cuisine bite-size. But Quebec's ambience is assertively un-American, and therefore out of step with the rest of Canada. Al Capone conjured up a neat put-down of the nation when he said: 'I don't even know what street Canada's on.'

The country would be an easier target still were it not for the province of Quebec. Mordecai Richler, the province's leading novelist, wrote: 'Without Quebec and Quebeckers, this Canada - this root cellar of a country - if not exactly an empty house, would certainly lack for a salon.'

I left at dawn, and thus had the supreme good fortune to witness the ghostly awakening of Quebec City at sunrise. The first slivers of light sparked from the turrets of the chateau, while the mist dissolved over the rooftops. The cab driver (by now I had given up buses as too stressful) asked if I liked the city. Fortunately, the official tourist-office pronunciation guide was to hand. I threw my accent to the chill breeze and read aloud exactly what was written: 'Jay bocoo emmay mo sayjoor.' It was true - I had greatly enjoyed my stay.

The driver smiled, but at least he understood. Mr Heath need never fear addressing les Quebecois.


Getting there: Air Canada (081-759 2636) flies from Heathrow, Manchester and Glasgow to Quebec City via Toronto or Montreal, but fares are high and conditions strict. The cheapest flight from London costs pounds 484 and requires a three-week advance purchase and a minimum one- week stay.

To save money, get a cheap transatlantic ticket - eg, pounds 198 from London to New York on Air India, through Nelsons Travel (081-951 5566). Take a flight from New York to Quebec City: Northwest Airlines (0293 561000) has a connection for around pounds 160. The airport is eight miles from the city; a taxi costs about pounds 15.

Accommodation: A wide range of places can be found within Old Quebec. I stayed at the modest-but-comfortable Manoir LaSalle at 18 rue St Ursule (0101 418 692 9953), where a room costs pounds 12 single/ pounds 19 double.

A room at the Chateau Frontenac (0101 418 692 3861) costs about pounds 70 single, pounds 90 double, but until the high season begins on 17 May rooms are available for pounds 50.

Outside the city you can stay in a gite, a holiday cottage modelled on the equivalent in France; ask Quebec Tourism (see below) for the Gites du Passant guide.

Reclaiming tax: National and provincial tax of 11.28 per cent is levied on just about everything, but it is easy to recover tax on goods and accommodation. Collect the receipts, fill in a form and claim an instant cash refund at a duty-free shop when you leave Canada.

Further information: Quebec Tourism, 59 Pall Mall, London SW1Y 5JH (071-930 8314); the 24-hour brochure request line is 071-930 9742.

(Photographs omitted)