For many of us, France is a summer destination, and those of us who do venture across the Channel in the winter, go predominantly to ski. Nothing could be better, however, in the run up to Christmas than a few days in one of the many French towns which host a Christmas market.
Traditionally, French housewives spent the weeks before Christmas baking and cooking traditional dishes for the festive season, and this was the genesis of the Christmas market which stocked all the special ingredients they would need. The markets now are full of local produce, including organic poultry and regional specialities, such as honey and olive oil, many of which make ideal Christmas presents for gourmets! The French are expert in wrapping sweets and chocolates as though creating a work of art, so if you have someone with a sweet tooth to buy for, this is your chance to impress.
Unusual traditional decorations for the Christmas tree are also widely available, as are all sorts of local crafts, often very reasonably priced. Father Christmas is much in evidence in the markets and if you are lucky enough to be in Arras on Dec 6th each year (St Nicholas day), you will see him descend the face of the town hall before distributing sweets to the children.
One of the biggest and oldest Christmas markets in France is in Strasbourg, held in front of the Cathedral of Notre Dame. As well as being able to buy all sorts of Alsatian specialities, there is also a giant tree and open air ice rink. If you would rather spectate than skate, you might like to warm yourself up with a glass or two of mulled wine, accompanied by traditional spiced biscuits.
Lyon hosts not only the Christmas market, but also the famous Festival of Light held annually for the four days around Dec 8th. The main sites and monuments in the city are floodlit and the residents place little candle lamps in their windows. Thousands flock to the festival, so if you are looking for spectacular lights on a smaller scale, you might like to visit the beautifully illuminated twelfth-century Vaucelles Abbey near Cambrai in the Pas de Calais.
Whether you want the fairground rides in Calais, the big wheel in Lille or the traditional carol singers in Mulhouse, there is something for everyone in addition to some really different shopping opportunities. Many owners of properties on the Rentals France website are quite happy to rent for less than a full week at this time of year. Alternatively, the markets in Calais or Lille are both ideal for day trips.