Christmas markets in France are becoming more and more popular every year and yet when many people think of Christmas markets in Europe, France probably doesn’t even spring to mind. A quick internet search will throw up plenty of suggestions for Germany and Austria, maybe Belgium too but France doesn’t often feature. This is a serious shortcoming as there are many Christmas markets in France, in fact they’re all over, and they’re great. Think of how well France does regular weekly markets (all that fabulous fresh local food) and then add Christmas traditions, of which France has many, with plenty of regional varieties, and top it off with France’s joie de vivre and voilà, you’ve got a recipe for success!
Here I’m going to show you what to expect at a French Christmas market “marché de Noël” and where to find some of the best.
As I’ve mentioned in previous writings France doesn’t really get into Christmas until December so if you’re looking for festive cheer in November then your options are limited (notable exceptions are the always amazing Christmas decorations in les grand magasins in Paris, particularly Galeries Lafayette, which go up in late October). But come the month of December and every sizeable town will have a marché de Noël. The oldest and biggest in France with the grand title of “Capitale de Noël” is Strasbourg which has been going since 1570. Located just across the river from Germany, this market is perhaps the closest to a “typical” Germanic one, but with a French touch of course.
Paris has several, including along the Champs Elysées, at La Défense and in the Trocadero gardens. The market in Lille is well known for being festive and fun and then there are the southern markets. Personally I love those in Nice (see more photos here) and Aix-en-Provence. Once the Christmas season starts, France pulls out all the stops in terms of decorations. The illuminations in the big cities are classy (rarely tackily sponsored or gaudy), elegant, classic or innovative and always beautiful. Even small towns take pride in their decorations and sparkle throughout December.
Christmas markets in France can last anything from a day or two, to six weeks; as a rule of thumb, the bigger the place, the longer the market (and the more generic). But the smaller ones shouldn’t be overlooked, if you find yourself in rural France in December try and find out if there are any markets on (the mairie is a good place to start or websites like this one noel.org) The one day affairs are often very specific in theme and have a greater focus on local artisanal products rather than mass-produced trinkets found across the continent. A great example of this is the traditional market held every year in Le Rouret, near Grasse, in the Alpes-Maritimes.
At all Christmas markets in France you will be spoilt for choice with the variety of food on offer, either to snack on straight away or more importantly to buy as gifts. France’s reputation for gastronomy comes into its own during the festive period with an abundance of delicious seasonal fare laid out temptingly at every market. In Nice the local speciality socca is sold while in Alsace you’ll find plenty of sausages, flammekuche and pretzels. Nearly all markets will have crêpes, waffles, gingerbread and churros. Many will serve typical Alpine food such as raclette, or you might find a whole suckling pig roasting on a spit. There are often oyster and champagne bars and of course chocolate galore.
As you wander around a Christmas market you’ll be enveloped with wonderful perfumes as the heady, spicy aroma of vin chaud (and sometimes mulled cider) combines with the comforting wintery smell of roasted chestnuts. In my mind there’s nothing more festive than the smell of chestnuts and mulled wine! At some of the bigger markets you can add a few euros to the price of a vin chaud for a reusable plastic cup that you fill up at any stall selling the delicious warming drink. When you leave you can either keep it as a souvenir or return it to get your deposit back.
As for stands selling food products to take home you will always find a dizzying array of saucissons, cured meats and cheese. Ahhh the cheese! The choice is overwhelming at times. In the south you’ll find stalls selling olives, olive oils, olive pastes and tapenade. Spices, honey, lavender, candied and dried fruit, jams and pickles compete for space with truffles, artisanal sweets, marrons glacés (sweet preserved chestnuts), cookies, pastries, bread and the delicious Christmas French equivalent of gingerbread, pain d’épices.
And I haven’t even mentioned foie gras! No French Christmas is complete without foie gras, so there will almost definitely be somewhere to buy it. All food stalls will happily offer you a sample to taste and even if there isn’t a small plate or basket on show you can ask to try before you buy. Just remember to start the conversation with “bonjour” or “bonsoir” and you’ll be fine!
So apart from food, what’s on offer at a French Christmas market? Well, as I mentioned earlier the smaller ones are likely to be showcasing plenty of local and regional artisanal wares, such as jewellery, fabrics, festive wreaths, ceramics, wooden toys and crafts, trinkets and gifts. The larger markets will of course have generic Christmas things (decorations, Santa hats etc) but they also sell local products. In Strasbourg you’ll find wooden carved whistles and Alsatian pottery along with storks, the symbol of Alsace. In Aix-en-Provence and other southern markets there will be Provencal Santons (clay figurines), objects made from cork and olive wood, basket-ware, hand-made soap and lavender cosmetics, amongst other things…. What you won’t generally find is row upon row of plastic junk made in China.
Nearly all the bigger markets nowadays have a big wheel and a skating rink, and many (like Nice) have merry-go-rounds and fairground rides for children too. You’re likely to find a children’s area with facepainting and crafts at both big and small markets (best to check the programme for the market you’re after) and Santa is sure to make an appearance. The smaller markets often have live farm animals to pet and they nearly all have ambulant entertainment like musicians, stilt walkers etc.
While you won’t find snowy scenes in the southern markets you’re more than likely to be dry and if you visit in the daytime, benefit from sunshine and blue skies. It may not be the postcard classic image of a wintery Christmas market, but let me tell you it’s very (very) pleasant to visit in the sun (though don’t be fooled, the evenings can be chilly). Markets in the north and east such as Lille and Strasbourg can be snowy and are always cold, and Paris will definitely be cold but unlikely to have snow.
Wandering around a Christmas market as the twinkling lights come on and Christmas music plays, with delicious smells in the air and a mulled wine or hot chocolate keeping your hands warm and your tastebuds happy, children squealing with delight and happy families skating, what could be more festive?
What do you think? Will you be visiting a French Christmas market this year?
Photos of the Eiffel Tower and girl eating churros thanks to my blogging friend What Up, Swags!
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