About five years ago Ray and I started talking about wanting to spend Christmas in another country. I love Christmas – the decorations, lights, foods, traditions – but we both knew that our traditions were limited by our cultures as well. Here in North America we have the benefit of some many great traditions, and the draw back of increasing commercialism. So we wanted a chance to see what this would look like somewhere other than home. So we decided to head across the Atlantic to Europe. We would be in Rome for Christmas day, but with stop overs in Paris on the way in and out – which gave us the chance to see some pre-Christmas traditions in Paris as well.
One of the things that I have always wanted to experience is the Christmas markets in Europe – and Paris has a few! We visited 3 markets – one across the street from Notre Dame, the one on the Champs Elysees, and one at La Defence.
We arrived at Charles deGaulle just after 8:30 in the morning. By the time we were through customs and had claimed our luggage it was closer to 10. We had chosen a hotel next to the airport because our flight to Rome was the next day, and it was easier – really glad we did. We stayed at the Novotel right next to the airport shuttle, so we were 5 minutes from our terminal. Also the hotel had an incredible breakfast, hot showers and a good cappuccino – so we were happy with this choice. After getting rid of our luggage we caught the RER for the one hour ride into the centre of Paris, getting off close to Notre Dame. The first market we visited was across the river from Notre Dame, in the park right next to Shakespeare and Company. only 20 stalls or so, we had the option to buy scarves, ornaments, or various cheeses – including a Pesto one that Ray was drawn to. Paris didn’t seem to have the same obsession with decorations, sales or consumerism, even though the markets were up. In fact, many of the items being sold could be found a street markets all year round – like lavender soaps, essential oils, scarves, candles and watches. The difference it, it seemed, between Christmas and the rest of the year was the food. There was no where this was more evident than Market 2 – the Champs Elysees.
The Champs contains the largest Christmas market within Paris, with 300+ stalls lined up and down the famous street, over half of which are selling various foods – both French, Alsatian, or Yuletide. Typical crepe stands, mulled wine, and roasts chestnuts are popular items as you stroll the street. Many of the stands selling items are also on repeat, with a new scarf, soap or oil shop every 50-100 feet. So you don’t need to talk all 300 stalls to see them all.
Up at La Defence it was a little difference. Concentrated in a square opposed to living a street, this market was complete with everything including the petting zoo. Of the 300 stands there were many food stalls as well, but it felt less tourist driven. More traditional Christmas breads, small batch raspberry liquors, and hand carved wooden toys for the kids. I wish I would have gone here first, and that I could have experienced it after dark.
However, jet lag was not our friend, so we knew by dinner we would be tripping over our own feet. And we were right – I fell asleep on the RER back to our hotel, for an intended early dinner, and good nights sleep. Except, Paris being Paris, the restaurant didn’t open until 7:00 PM – so we attempted to caffeinate ourselves, make it through a very good meal, and then enough 10 hours of well earned slumber before our departure to Rome.
While I loved the markets and the charm, strolling Paris any time of year is enjoyable, and Christmas didn’t make it more so. I appreciated that it was less hectic and chaotic than North American streets, and was glad to skip out on Walmart runs and last minute Christmas chaos that comes with the season here. In Paris the gifts were less, the time with family was more, the food was awesome, and the decorations simple. If anything, Christmas felt easier to savour, as you watch the sun go down and stroll the promenade with a loved one a cup of something warm (wine, not coffee…this is Paris after all).