Bonne Année!

Place Jaude in Clermont-Ferrand

Bonne Année, everyone!  It is a new year, and I guess one of my resolutions should be posting on this blog more often, since it has been a month since my last post.  Oops.  I have been busy traveling, and my family came to visit for Christmas, which was wonderful!  I am glad they got to experience the splendor that is France at Christmastime! (According to my spell check, that is actually one word. Awesome.)  I know I already wrote about my favorite little spot in Le Puy and how it is taking part in the Christmas festivities, but I think France goes so all out for Christmas that it merits another post. This is the first year I have been able to literally deck the halls with boughs of holly, since they sell it at the market, and everywhere else in the country is decorated to the extreme.  When Americans are busy making turkey, cranberry sauce, and pumpkin pie, France is already getting out the cranes and trucks to haul the first Christmas light displays into town.  And I say France, not the French, because it is usually the city that puts up lights, not individuals.  I wouldn’t mind paying a few extra tax dollars for that!

These weird Santa decorations were everywhere!

Every town I’ve been to that has more than 15 people in it has lights on street lamps, hanging between buildings in streets, and in the squares.  Le Puy, Clermont-Ferrand, Paris, Beaune, Grenoble, even the tiny towns we drove through on the way up the mountain to the ski stations!  It is lovely.  Windows of stores are decorated, Christmas trees are set up in town squares and on light posts, and even the ceiling of the Galeries Lafayette had special decorations for the holidays (as if they needed to add anything to an already impressive stained glass dome with ornate gold moulding).  In Le Puy, the lights are still up on every street and our Hôtel de Ville is sparkling with lights covering the facade.  The tiny little mall is decorated for the holidays with a quite impressive display of snow-covered woodland animals and animatronic polar bears, and there are speakers planted in the streets downtown that play Christmas carols at night for the whole town to hear.

Another Christmas tradition that apparently all Europeans know about but Americans are behind on is Christmas markets.  They started in Germany, and now have spread all over Europe.  They even had a tiny one in Le Puy!  From my observations, a French Christmas market is basically just a town square filled with little huts that look like wood cabins and they sell stuff.  There is usually Santa, hot spiced wine, and lots of food.  After traveling a bit, a learned that not all Christmas markets are the same, and not all are good.  (This is one of those things I’ve learned that makes me feel really European, like figuring out that just because a bakery makes a good baguette, it does not mean they also make a good croissant.)  The first Christmas market I went to was in Clermont-Ferrand, and it was filled with aggressive sellers who would try to trick you into buying ridiculously expensive cheese by giving you a sample.  If I wanted to pay $12 for a slice of cheese I would have stayed in the US.  There were also a lot of artisan dried sausages and cheese, hand made (I think) purses, hats, soaps, etc, and  the typical carnival foods like crepes, waffles, and cotton candy.  I was a little disappointed because the only thing Christmasy about it was the Santa and the spiced wine, and maybe a couple people selling ornaments.  Oh and the huts were red.  If it wasn’t Christmasy, then I thought at least maybe it would have local products.  That’s what the lady at the supermarket in Le Puy told me about Christmas markets.  But it wasn’t that either.  All the vendors had come to Clermont from the Pays Basque in the southwest of France.  On the brighter side, we discovered a new holiday treat – chocolate heads!  They’re basically flavored marshmallowy stuff inside a shell of chocolate on a waffle cookie base. So delicious!  And the spiced wine was amazing, and only a euro a cup!

Igor enjoying a cup of vin chaud

Then I went to Paris and my family walked through the Christmas market on the Champs Elysées.  More carnival food, more sausages and cheeses and random booths (or shall I call them huts?) selling everything from wool slippers to wood puzzles to soap to candles in the shape of turtles in psychedelic colors, and many many many more people.  In some ways, it was kind of obnoxious, since it was obviously just another excuse to overcharge people for a street crepe, most of it was neither local nor Christmasy, and it was really crowded, but there were a few wonderful Christmasy things that you can only really find at Christmas markets.  Like hot spiced wine.  It is SO good.  And roasted chestnuts.  And bière de Noël (Christmas beer), which I believe I am now a connoisseur of.  The beautiful light displays also helped add to the holiday atmosphere.

lights on the Champs Elysée

By the time we left Paris 3 days later, we had seen Christmas markets by the Sacré Coeur, the Eiffel Tower, and at least 2 or 3 smaller squares around the city.  It got kind of old.  By the last day, I think I was not alone in thinking ‘oh great, not another Christmas market’ every time we saw one, because they kind of just take up space on the sidewalk and make it harder to get to wherever you’re going.  Our next stop was Grenoble, and at first I wasn’t that excited to see that they had at least two Christmas markets.

They had a ring of fake snow at the Christmas market near the Eiffel Tower so kids could go snowshoeing. Hilarious.

I am happy to report that the Christmas market in Place Victor Hugo in Grenoble put an end to my developing Christmas market cynicism.  It was wonderful!  Both Christmasy and filled with local products!  Maybe it was better just because Grenoble has better local products, being right at the base of the alps and all.  They had Chartreuse (local liquor, delicious in hot chocolate), raclette (awesome cheese that you melt on potatoes and meats), country soup in bread bowls, huge sausages cooked in beer and onions, locally made chocolate, and a cute little Christmas village in the middle of the square where the fountain usually is.  Strangely, it was also the only market we saw with fresh seafood, even though Grenoble is not really near the sea.  And, of course, they had hot wine, chestnuts, and a huge selection of chocolate heads!

Raclette
Chocolate heads!

So, to sum things up, Christmas in Europe is magical, Grenoble wins the prize for best Christmas market, France spends a lot of money on Christmas decorations but it’s totally worth it, and Jennifer is always happy if she can stand outside and eat local food and drink Christmas beer or hot wine.  Here’s to another year filled with holiday cheer!

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