Magical markets

A tour of France’s festive markets gave Zoë McIntyre the chance to stock up on gifts with a Gallic twist

What do we look forward to about Christmas? For many, it’s the preparation: decorating the tree, setting log fires, singing carols and attending get-togethers. Then there are the less appealing aspects, such as shopping – the strain of packed shops, queues and manic high streets can sap the will of even the most enthusiastic Christmas lover. As an antidote to the mayhem, I swapped carrier bags for an empty suitcase to visit France’s festive markets.

Since spilling into Alsace from Germany in the Middle Ages, the marchés de Noël have attracted revellers from around the world keen to sample an atmosphere that evokes a sense of centuries past. From mid-November to late-December, markets spring up all over France, each one adapting the Alsatian blueprint to their regional character. With limited time and a lengthy shopping list, I recruited a shopping partner to try three fairs within easy reach of the UK. The trail would begin in Paris, then head west to the champagne city of Reims before ending in Strasbourg, site of France’s oldest Christmas market.

We found the City of Light at its most opulent, glittering under a cloak of festive finery. Department stores had glitzy window displays; glossy fir trees trimmed the pavements and children whirled around an open-air ice rink outside the Hôtel de Ville. As the afternoon light faded, illuminations threaded through pollarded tree branches guided us down the Champs-Élysées, while on the horizon, a Ferris wheel at Place de la Concorde lit up the dusky skies.

A little way along, the Christmas market came into view. Brightly lit wooden chalets lined both sides of the avenue. A delicious aroma of roasting chestnuts, blended with the fragrance of spiced vin chaud being served from metal cauldrons, tempted us to join a crowd of customers at a set of stalls. Good-humoured bargaining took place in a multitude of languages, but the goods were indisputably French, with towns and regions represented by their local wares – nativity figurines from Provence and rows of Marseille’s colourful perfumed soaps.

There were foodie delights in abundance. At a cheese stand, the vendor’s rosy cheeks were scarcely visible between slabs of Comté and wheels of Beaufort. His neighbour stocked every cut of charcuterie imaginable, from jambon de Bayonne in the Pays Basque to saucisse de Montbéliard from the Franche-Comté. “Taste, taste before you buy!” he encouraged, handing out samples. For those unable to venture further afield into France, this was the ideal venue to gather a wealth of seasonal souvenirs from all corners of the country.

Next stop was an inlet of artisan cabins. Amid the pottery, woodcarvings and black and white frames of Paris, I picked out four hand-painted tree decorations. The slow pace allowed us to chat to vendors and deliberate over each buy, and it was only the chilly evening air that finally impelled us to move on. Passing a gaggle of excited children choosing between Santa’s grotto and a mini ice-rink, we finally reached Place de la Concorde. A ride to the top of the 65-metre-high grande roue rewarded us with breathtaking views of the frost-fleeced cityscape.

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Garlanded chalets

The market on the Champs-Élysées is not the only one in town. The ultra-modern skyscrapers of La Défense, the business district to the west of Paris, provided a contrasting backdrop to the traditional Christmas village sheltering under the soaring rectangular structure of the Grande Arche. Fewer tourists were mingling among the rows of garlanded chalets and merry drinking holes, which made it an even more laid-back shopping experience.

An altogether more traditional setting was that of Place Saint-Germain-des-Prés, in the Latin Quarter. After perusing the arts and crafts of its 20 or so stalls, we were perfectly placed to hop across the street for a chocolat chaud in the celebrated Les Deux Magots café. Just opposite stands the Église de Saint-Germain-des-Prés, the oldest surviving church in Paris and the capital’s last vestige of Romanesque architecture. Enticed by the balmy scent of burning frankincense and the soaring acoustics of a rehearsing choir, we sat silently in the pews and marvelled at the stunning vaults and marble columns of the interior – a heavenly conclusion to an enjoyable day’s shopping.

Paris’s busy stream of market stalls had satisfied our appetite for iconic scenery; now we hungered for a slightly more intimate locale, so we took a 45-minute train ride from the Gare de l’Est to Reims in the heart of the Champagne-Ardenne region. The city has a strong historic connection to Christmas as it was here on 25 December in AD 496 that Clovis, the first Christian king of France, was baptised by Rémi, Archbishop of Reims.

The market was spread across Place Drouet-d’Erlon and the neighbouring Rues Condorcet and Théodore-Dubois. On the square, wooden chalets were rimmed by cafés where diners sheltered under outdoor heaters. At the halfway point, a gilded angel crowning the Subé fountain stood out against the snow-streaked sky.

Christmas was already in full swing at a pop-up champagne kiosk thronged by revellers soaking up the atmosphere with a glass of bubbly. The delicate biscuit rose de Reims (a traditional dipping accompaniment to champagne, we soon learnt) was in demand at biscuiterie Maison Fossier’s stand, set among stalls offering other baked delicacies such as buttery sablés à l’ancienne shortbread and macarons à la vanille.

Passing up goods similar to those in Paris, we found a vendor offering the pain d’épice de Reims – the city’s own type of gingerbread, which uses flour from rye instead of wheat to give a darker colour. The bread was the delicacy of choice served to medieval kings arriving in Reims for their coronation and further honours came at the end of the 16th century when Henry IV recognised the local breadmakers as maîtres pains d’épiciers. Unable to resist a local sweet with a back story, I picked out a couple to take home.

Youngsters were well catered for, with many cabins selling edible treats and handcrafted toys. A short walk away in Place du Forum there was an ice-rink, Santa’s grotto and nativity crèche, while behind the Roman arches of Porte de Mars at Place de la République, a Ferris wheel and fairground provided further diversion. A busy schedule of seasonal entertainment accompanies the fair, with orchestral concerts, carol services and jazz performances taking place in venues across the city.

Façade transformed

Although our short visit prevented us from attending a full-length concert, we were able to witness the evening sound and light laser show. At 6pm, we stood outside the gargantuan Cathédrale de Notre-Dame to watch its intricate façade, adorned with more than 2,000 stone-carved figurines, transformed into a multi-coloured stone projection screen. Then, synchronised to music, vivid 3D projections danced across the stonework, playing out key episodes from Reims’s history. The display was inaugurated in 2011 to mark the cathedral’s 800th anniversary and is an unmissable treat for visitors during the festive season.

Our tour culminated in a visit to Strasbourg, capital of Alsace. The festive story begins in the Middle Ages when the Saint Klausenmarkt (Saint Nicholas Market) offered gifts to local children. However, in 1570, Protestants denounced the festivities as papist because it venerated a saint, so the city authorities came up with a replacement: the Christkindelsmärik (meaning market of Christ’s child in the Alsatian dialect). Nearly 450 years later, France’s oldest market has grown to huge proportions, taking over the historic centre and attracting around 1.7 million visitors each year.

We arrived in Strasbourg in the early evening. Aware that the market closed by 9pm, we flung down our belongings, piled on extra layers and careered out of the hotel like excitable children. Arriving at Place Kléber, we were wowed by a majestic Christmas tree standing 30 metres high and decked out in fairy lights. Around the square, market traders wearing obligatory ear muffs bundled up fronds of firs to decorate their stalls, their aromatic pine oil perfuming the winter air.

As we walked between the black and white timber-framed houses of Rue Mercière, the Cathédrale de Notre-Dame towered ahead of us, its sandstone façade glowing pink in the reflected lights decorating the scores of wooden stalls at its base. A carnival atmosphere prevailed in the central square, where a brass band played jingles to crowds warding off the cold with glühwein, or jus d’orange chaud au miel for the children. Here, more than anywhere else, we felt a sense of the true spirit of Christmas.

The selection of festive ware was impressive, with individually crafted gifts meticulously laid out. Decorations included wood-carved nativity scenes, clay figurines and painted bells to hang on trees. In no time, I amassed an impressive collection of stocking-fillers – a pair of beeswax candles, a set of hand-knitted scarf and gloves and an irresistible, smiling gingerbread man. Although the prices may have been higher than at home, the distinctiveness of the gifts set them apart.

Nearing dinnertime, our attention was drawn to the appetising array of local food. Two industrious women frying savoury and sweet crêpes on giant griddles were pitted against a nearby stall serving sweet scented gaufres, topped with melted chocolate and Chantilly cream. There were local savoury snacks too: slices of tarte flambée (Alsace’s version of pizza, topped with fromage blanc, onion and bacon), and pans of hearty baeckeoffe, a potato-topped meat stew. Those preferring to escape the cold piled into cosy winstubs – Alsace’s atmospheric, low-beamed taverns, serving generous helpings of traditional fare, along with local wine and good-humoured hospitality.

After the market stalls closed, we explored the town by night. In the Careé d’Or district, a web of elegant shopping boulevards rivalled one another for the most impressive set of decorations. Rue des Hallebardes was the undoubted champion – a gleaming corridor of glittering white branches, and chandeliers hanging from streamers overhead. Wandering down toward the River Ill, we reached the Petite France quarter, where Santas scaled the sides of wreathed, timber-framed houses. Finally, when our fingers were too cold to venture any further, we fell into a nearby beer hall to inspect our newly acquired treasures over a well-earned brew.

In the light of the following day, we were able to work out the multiple facets of the market. With its 300 stalls spread out over 11 squares, every corner revealed a treasure trove of Christmas treats. Thankfully, most squares were arranged thematically. At Place d’Austerlitz, we dawdled at the bredele (biscuit) market, admiring a range of treats including nusshiffele (walnut biscuits) and spitzbuebe (butter biscuits separated by raspberry preserve). Rue de la Douane was given over to farmhouse foie gras from Strasbourg while Place des Meuniers was the place to find specialities from Alsace at large, such as muscat and riesling wines, and the ring-shaped cake kugelhopf. Meanwhile, Place Gutenburg played host to a guest country’s festive traditions (Croatia in 2013).

Puppet shows

The children’s village was at Place Saint-Thomas. Under a heated awning, youngsters were crafting decorations with stencils, paints and glitter under the guidance of volunteers. Next door, storytelling, theatre productions and puppet shows captivated the wide-eyed spectators. The rest of the family could take their pick of more than 50 concerts featuring orchestras, choirs and gospel groups in churches, chapels and the cathedral.

As our departure drew nearer, we regretfully took our leave of Strasbourg’s magical spectacle with many areas still unexplored: the book market, the Christmas cinema and an area dedicated to the three wise men. However, it makes a good excuse to return. Heavily laden with gifts, we had acquired an ample supply of Christmas cheer to share out with our friends and family back home.

FRANCOPHILE

GETTING THERE

Zoë travelled from London to Paris on the Eurostar, then took the TGV high-speed train to Reims and Strasbourg courtesy of Rail Europe.

Tel: 08448 484 064

www.raileurope.co.uk

WHERE TO STAY

Hôtel Azur

9 Rue des Ecrevées

51100 Reims

Tel: (Fr) 3 26 47 43 39

www.hotel-azur-reims.com

Doubles from €72, breakfast €8.40.

Hôtel Récamier

3bis Place Saint-Sulpice

75006 Paris

Tel: (Fr) 1 43 26 04 89

www.hotelrecamier.com

Doubles from €260, breakfast €20.

Best Western Monopole Métropole

16 Rue Kuhn

67000 Strasbourg

Tel: (Fr) 3 88 14 39 14

www.bw-monopole.com

Doubles from €75.20.

During the festive period, hotels and restaurants, particularly in Strasbourg, get booked up well in advance, so book early to avoid disappointment.

WHERE TO EAT

Café du Palais

12 Place Myron T. Herrick

51100 Reims

Tel: (Fr) 3 26 47 52 54

www.cafedupalais.fr

Mains from €20.

Chez Yvonne

10 Rue du Sanglier

67000 Strasbourg

Tel: (Fr) 3 88 32 84 15

www.restaurant-chez-yvonne.net

Mains from €13.

TOURIST INFORMATION

Marché de Noël de Paris

Tel: (Fr) 1 49 52 42 63

www.parisinfo.comChamps-Élysée market 21 November 2013 to 10 January 2014 (tbc).

Marché de Noël de Reims

Tel: (Fr) 3 26 77 45 00

www.reims-tourism.com

22 November to 29 December 2013 (tbc).

Marché de Noël de Strasbourg

Tel: (Fr) 3 88 52 28 28

www.noel.strasbourg.eu

30 November to 31 December 2013.

FESTIVE FAIRS IN THE SOUTH

Avignon: On Place de l’Horloge, 60 chalets offer Provençal specialities including linen, almond-flavoured calisson biscuits and hand-crafted Santons – small ceramic figurines native to Provence that are found in nativity crèches around the town (tel: (Fr) 4 32 74 32 74, www.avignon-tourisme.com).

Bordeaux: Along the elegant Allées de Tourny, little wooden huts offer a variety of gifts from the Aquitaine region: Bayonne chocolate, blown glass from Vianne and Bordeaux’s famed vintages. Concerts, children’s shows and appearances from Santa also feature (tel: (Fr) 5 56 00 66 01, www.marche-de-noel-bordeaux.com).

Lyon: At Place Carnot in the Vieux-Lyon district, 140 cabins offer the best of the Rhône-Alpes region’s gastronomy. The Fête des Lumières adds a wow factor as the city’s main buildings are illuminated in a blaze of coloured lights (tel: (Fr) 4 72 77 69 69, www.lyon-france.com)