Museum L-A Executive Director Rachel Desgrosseilliers, right, and museum intern Catherine Picard look out over the canal and downtown Lewiston where they are putting together a local walking tour of Twin Cities’ Franco monuments, buildings and other historical sights. Sun Journal photo by Russ Dillingham

LEWISTON — In a meeting room at Museum L-A last week, representatives from several local organizations talked energetically about creating tourist trails in and through Lewiston and Auburn. Many of the participants were bilingual; sometimes the conversation was in French, sometimes English.

Catherine Picard, Museum L-A’s new intern from Montreal, has been looking around and seeing opportunity. She’s excited about the old mills, the river and the intriguing architecture all around. They’re ripe for tourism to her. At the table, she was bold in her vision.

“I’m here to promote tourism in Lewiston and Auburn,” she said confidently as she passed out a prototype map of what she’s been working on for the last month.

REGIONAL INITIATIVE

It’s called cultural or heritage tourism, a type of tourism that highlights the historic, cultural and linguistic features of an area to attract specific types of travelers. Like a river, French language and culture have flowed from Canada into Maine and New England for the last 400 years. Exploration, industry and migration have embedded it into the urban DNA of numerous cities. These places appeal to tourists interested in exploring the area’s deep Franco roots.

Rachel Desgrosseilliers, executive director of Museum L-A, in collaboration with the Gendron Franco Center, initially hired Picard to work on the Twin Cities’ portion of what’s being called the New England Franco Route. This tourist trail will connect the cities of Woonsocket, Rhode Island, Manchester, New Hampshire, Biddeford and Lewiston-Auburn in an itinerary targeted at the unique landmarks and monuments related to the region’s many French-speaking ancestors.

Bus tours from Quebec could potentially experience the unique flavor of each city.

Picard began her internship in March, and she and Desgrosseilliers immediately starting working on Lewiston-Auburn’s portion of the route. What Picard has developed is a two-hour walking tour highlighting six prominent sites — among them, Little Canada, the Great Falls and the footbridge connecting Simard-Payne and Bonney parks — as well as other significant locations in the Twin Cities. She’s calling it “The Franco Trail L-A” and it spans both of the cities’ bridges, cuts through the heart of the downtown area and stretches up Ash Street to the Basilica.

Making the endeavor even more exciting, the walking tour is not just a stroll around town; it’s a template for a bus tour, and that is exactly what will happen on May 24.

Picard and the project partners will host a test run of a bus tour using an enclosed trolley. The clients for the test run will have no connection to the project and will serve as observers and evaluators of the Franco Trail L-A. Following the daylong experience, clients will complete a survey on the quality and content. This information will be used to refine and improve the tour.

‘IT STRENGTHENS US’

Over the last few years, a number of Lewiston’s Franco-American organizations have discussed the natural alliances of this shared language and culture to create stronger tourist ties with our Canadian neighbors.

In 2015, the Gendron Franco Center joined the Network of Francophone and Francophile Cities of the Americas (Reseau des Villes Francophones et Francophiles d’Amerique). Le Reseau (le ray-zoo) is a partnership of cities that promote francophone heritage, develop economic and strategic alliances, and promote tourism, including conversations about a travel route.

With the guidance of Le Reseau, leaders of the Gendron Franco Center and Museum L-A have been meeting with the other cities on the route. Also providing support have been the Franco-American Collection at the University of Southern Maine, the Maine Franco-American Genealogical Society and the Lewiston Auburn Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce.

Work on the project accelerated in November 2018 when a delegation from Le Reseau visited all four cities on the Franco Route and provided feedback and recommendations for the project.

The Franco Trail L-A is a tangible outcome of this work. Desgrosseilliers considers the May 24 test run an important step in the larger, regional heritage tourism initiative.

The plan is to eventually invite bus tours from Canada and outside of the local area.

“We are doing our piece here so we are strong to connect with the New England Franco Route that is being developed,” she said recently. “And, we can stand alone with this. It strengthens us.”

Maps for the Franco Trail L-A will be available at various locations in the city later this year. There will also be a mobile app that will feature content and information about the sights and sounds along the walk.

Julie-Ann Baumer is a freelance writer who lives and works in Lisbon Falls.

Museum L-A Executive Director Rachel Desgrosseilliers, right, and new museum intern Catherine Picard walk through the Bates Mill in Lewiston. Sun Journal photo by Russ Dillingham


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