Where I live in the Nord-Pas de Calais region, we’re totally spoiled for choice when it comes to Christmas markets. I can’t really claim to be a Christmassy person; I’ve always found it a bit commercial though I do love a Christmas Party!
Being in the north of France though has changed me. It definitely isn’t commercial like it was in London where the shops started to promote before we were barely out of September. Here Christmas starts to raise an eyebrow at the end of November and really gets going around mid December.
We have a choice of small, medium or big Marchés de Noel. We have lots of strange customs (Christmas Eve dinner which starts at 10.00 pm and goes on for hours), some weird and wonderful festivals (Licques Turkey Festival which I go to every year) and we have Lille!
I’m a big fan of Lille which is in the Nord. I love the old town with its magnificent architecture, culture (so many museums), fabulous restaurants and bars, chocolate shops, boulangeries, little cobbled streets, tango classes under the stars in an ancient courtyard and hidden squares. Also, there are shops – lots of them, in fact almost 4000.
I went to the Lille Christmas market with my friends Annette and Kay for a day trip. We hopped on a train from our local “big” town and got off in the middle of the city with just a few minutes’ walk to the Grand Place (Eurostar Gare de Lille and the local Lille Flandres train station are next to each other).
I should have picked up a map from the tourist office in Place Rihour but we decided to wander instead. Good and bad. Bad in that I got us lost constantly, good in that we discovered loads of little shops, streets and sights that we might not have seen had we kept to our agenda. Yes, we did have an agenda – Galleries Lafayette, Printemps, Meert the chocolate shop, oysters and smoked salmon at l’Huitrière in rue des Chat Bossus (which translates as the road of the hunchback cats!), mussels and chips, the Christmas market… a whole long list! You don’t have to spend a fortune to have fun here though – we all love to window shop and there is a great choice of restaurants and bars for all budgets.
The Big Wheel was… big! All of us chickened out of going on it but I did love seeing it, so colourful and with an enormous funky glitter ball – with it’s backdrop of ancient buildings it looked glorious. I was disappointed not to be able to see the view over the town from the top but… too high for me!
We wandered around all day stopping off for hot chocolate or a glass of wine or something to eat. Into the old stock exchange building on the Grand Place where there is a beautiful second hand book market, into the swanky department stores to drool over the designer gear (not literally you understand!), looking in shop windows in the little streets around and dreaming of wearing some of the fabulous clothes on display. We ended with a visit to the Christmas market with its lovely smells of spiced cookies and mulled wine, it isn’t a huge Christmas market but it is pretty and has everything you need from Santons to Bretzels. The last stop was at Meert, one of the oldest chocolate shops in France (established 1761).
We left it to last because we wanted to take home some cakes and chocolate and had been worried about them getting mushed up if we carried them around all day.
The shop is in two parts – one side is dedicated to sweets and chocolate and looks like it should be in a dream film set, and the cake shop which is just beautiful. There’s also a restaurant which is very pretty but was full when we went – I’ll be back…
I bought some delicate little macarons – pistachio, lemon and coconut flavours; a gorgeous lemon meringue tart and a chocolate and millefeuille creation that looked like it had been made by Harry Potter – it was so special.
The woman in the shop boxed and wrapped them beautifully, tied them with a purple ribbon and gave them to me in a bag to keep the rain off.
We walked back to the station to get the train home. We were sitting there chatting away on a packed train when Annette said “have you got that box up the right way?”
I looked down and saw that I’d somehow managed to upturn the beautiful silver box with its immaculately tied bow. I turned it up the right way, opened it up and… all the cakes were squashed together. By now everyone on the train had turned to look, some people attempted to look sad for me but in the end we had to laugh – my oh la la day in Lille had a ho ho la la ending…
And yes, if you’re wondering… we did still manage to eat and enjoy the cakes – they were divine!
Details: Lille Tourist Office