A Very Northern Christmas: Explore the Prettiest and Quirkiest Marchés de Noël
Big, bright and beautiful, Arras hosts one of the most popular Christmas markets in France. The cobbled Grand’Place, with its backdrop of fabulous Flemish baroque façades, is covered with a festive red carpet while a German-style winter bar (boasting the tallest tower of its kind in Europe) takes pride of place in its centre. Lit up and rotating, it’s a magnet for revellers. The scent of hot Glühwein makes cheeks rosy in anticipation – and even rosier once it’s been consumed.
Each year, no fewer than 140 beautifully decorated wooden chalets fill the square with seasonal sweets, olives and tapenade from Provence, cheeses of every kind, Corsican charcuterie, wines, liqueurs and cider, nougat and scrummy cakes. Chefs come from all over France to whip up delicious fare, while some artisans travel from even further afield to sell their hand-crafted wooden toys, decorations and other confections. There is jewellery of the highest calibre, scarves and hats, gloves and slippers, all made with love and flair. In all, there are thousands of gifts and recipes here to help shoppers prepare for the festive season. A Ferris wheel offers fabulous views over twinkling Arras – a veritable feast for the eyes.
There’s an ice rink and a long, long toboggan run for kids. Selfie stations are festooned with polar bears (not real ones of course), elves and giant sweets to make people laugh as they pose. A carousel turns while festive music plays.
Around the corner, in the centre of Place des Héros, Father Christmas’s enchanting cottage entices little munchkins, their eyes bright with excitement as they peep through the windows awaiting their turn. Inside everything is exactly how you’d imagine the front room of the world’s most beloved character to look – charming, quirky and the epitome of ‘vintage Christmas’!
Take a break from the sights and enjoy the fabulous array of gastronomic delights on offer: a steaming glass of mulled wine, savoury Savoyard tarts, traditional roasted chestnuts, fluffy Flemish waffles, crunchy pretzels, strawberries dipped in molten chocolate, and a whole lot more. Arras is a lovely town to visit any time of year but at Christmas it’s just that little bit more special.
Takes place from November 24 – December 30. For more information, visit www.explorearras.com
LAVISH LE TOUQUET
The main road into the small seaside town of Le Touquet-Paris-Plage takes you over a pink granite bridge and past pine forests dotted with smart villas and thatched cottages. It’s a serene, swanky sort of place – and home to Emmanuel Macron when he’s not busy running the country from Paris.
At Christmas time though, there’s no hint of the usual tranquillity that characterises the popular resort. Le Touquet turns into a living fairy-tale town as thousands of sparkling lights festoon the trees, buildings and streets, and the pretty Parc des Pins transforms into an enchanted forest.
That this town knows how to really turn on the glitz and glamour is no surprise – it has always attracted the rich and famous thanks to its wonderful Art Deco architecture, chic shopping and gorgeous Opal Coast beaches. Le Touquet has always been hip, and international celebrities from Marlene Dietrich to Sean Connery have fallen under its spell. In fact, Connery signed his first James Bond film contract here. (Yes, James Bond was born in Le Touquet!) And Ian Fleming’s Casino Royale was apparently inspired by Le Touquet’s casino.
The Christmas market is held in the listed Art Deco covered market, where the stalls are piled high with all manner of gourmet products. There’s also an ice-skating rink, pony rides and horse and carriage rides through the town. Plenty of fabulous food shops will tempt you to buy some very special French delicacies – chocolate (do look out for Au Chat Bleu), marshmallow from Arts Gourmand, cheese, cakes, wine (Le Touquet-Vins is superb) and local beers.
There are great gift shops and Paris-style clothes shops (often with Paris-style prices to match) lining the streets. Take a bracing walk along the sea front, sip hot chocolate, mulled wine or bubbles in one of the many bars. Enjoy a delicious meal at any of the wide choice of restaurants, from the Michelin-starred Pavillon at the fabulous Westminster Hotel to the oyster bar and fish dishes at Perard, a local favourite.
Christmas really is merry in Le Touquet!
Christmas Market: December 9 – 10. Lights and Christmas Village: November 25 – December 31. For more information, visit www.letouquet.com
This is a Christmas market that’s very different from the rest. The town of Licques is located 22km from Calais and known locally as “Turkey Town” thanks to its quirky, and truly unique, festival dedicated to the humble bird. Turkeys (dindes in French), were introduced to the area in the 17th century by monks at the Abbey of Licques, and the Licques turkey is almost as popular for the festive main course in the north of France as it is in the UK.
Every December, for one weekend, the townsfolk of this sleepy rural town gear up for thousands of visitors who come from far and wide for the gourmet festive food market, a grand tea dance and a rather weird and wonderful homage to the turkey.
In an enormous marquee in the centre of the town you’ll find a Christmas market where you can stock up on cheese, beer, champagne, chocolate, and all sorts of goodies, local and from further afield. The tasting bars are very popular and there are wines on sale from all over France.
But it’s the Sunday turkey parade that really pulls the punters in. In the Place du Général de Gaulle, a giant cauldron is heated and cups of hot licquoise, the local tipple – poured by a man up a ladder who leans into the boiling pot to reach it – are handed out to warm the visitors. Musicians tune up, instructions are given through a loud speaker warning everyone to get ready and, at about 10.30am, it all kicks off.
Classified in the 100 Plus Belles Fêtes de France, the festival sees the release of around 100 turkeys to rampage through the town’s main street, accompanied by Brotherhoods of various produce – the Noble Dames and Knights of the Turkey, of course, as well as those of potatoes, leeks and all vegetables. With all dressed in their finery, the bizarre procession makes its stately way through the town, followed by an enthusiastic band, majorettes braving the cold and tossing sticks that the wind is likely to carry away, and the mayor with his chain of office. Luckily for the turkeys, they’re spared to live another day.
The crowds then head to the gourmet stalls for a spot of shopping, enjoy lunch in the marquee before the traditional tea dance. With its Fête de la Dinde, it is perhaps the most authentic and certainly the most eccentric Christmas market of all…
Christmas Market: December 9 – 10 Turkey Parade: December 10. For more information, visit www.paysdopale-tourisme.fr
MORE CHRISTMAS MARKETS
If you take shopping seriously then Lille is the place to go. Each of the city’s districts has its own special features. Head to Vieux Lille for luxury goods, antiques and contemporary design shops. You’ll find department stores and international brands in the centre and in Euralille.
Bargain hunters make a beeline for to the Wazemmes district, with its discount shops and Sunday morning market. Lille’s Christmas market is entrancing, with a medley of twinkling wooden huts selling arts and crafts plus regional food specialities such as Maroilles cheese, delicious biscuits, sweet macarons and bonbons. Take a ride on the Ferris wheel and enjoy the views over the flamboyant Grand’Place and the Christmas village.
Christmas Market: November 17 – December 27. For more information, visit en.lilletourisme.com
The small, historic town of Béthune in the region of Artois hosts a traditional and hugely popular Marché de Noël each winter – and certainly gives its grander neighbours of Lille and Arras a run for their money.
A more modest Christmas market perhaps, it is nonetheless a magical local event and takes over the picturesque town’s large, cobbled central square. Alongside the shops, cafés and narrow houses with their beautiful façades, and in the shadow of the famous UNESCO-listed belfry, the pretty chalets proffer seasonal gifts and produce, including the local speciality: Fort de Béthune, a potted cheese mixed with spice and wine that was once a staple food for the miners who lived and worked in the area.
Christmas Market: November 27 – December 31. For more information, visit www.tourisme-bethune-bruay.fr
From France Today magazine
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By Janine Marsh
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