On one trip to Paris–in fact, to celebrate the publication of Markets of Paris–the plane had no sooner landed and my husband and I dropped off our baggage that we headed to rue Cler. We hadn’t walked far when jet lag caught up with us, so we ducked into Le Petit Cler for a coffee and lunch. We noticed the couple at the next table. They were speaking English and as excited as we were to be in Paris. We got into conversation and discovered many overlapping interests, primarily a love of Paris and of food and markets. David Burns is a connoisseur of wines (he wrote a post on the Salon des Vins and will soon contribute another). And Debra Dout, when she’s not running a marathon, enjoys traveling to exotic places and exploring markets. We’re kindred spirits, in other words. We stayed in touch and have become friends. Debra was instrumental in luring me to California for a book talk at the glorious Omnivore Books in San Francisco. Debra and David frequently return to Paris, including an extended stay this holiday season. I asked Debra if she would like to write about her experience at a Christmas market, and she embraced the assignment with gusto. I’m thrilled to share her report with you. Enjoy her lovely description and photos below. ~Marjorie
The Christmas Market on the Champs-Élysées
Text & photos by Debra Dout
Have you ever fantasized about being in Paris at the holidays to visit the Christmas markets? If so, book your ticket. It’s not too late for this year, nor too early for next year. Christmas markets are an important part of the French holiday traditions. Les Marchés de Noël showcase regional cuisines, crafts, decorations and gifts. And yes, the French are refreshingly un-PC (politically correct) in calling them Christmas markets. Most agree that the best ones are in Strasbourg and other villages in eastern France where the tradition started. Paris has several (here’s a list) but, with over 200 chalets, Les Marché de Noël des Champs-Élysées bills itself as the Paris Village de Noël.
The marchés offer entertainment for kids of all ages: shopping, eating, games and rides. The shopping is in the French style of small presents. Think hostess gifts, gifts for friends, nieces, nephews, cousins, siblings, in-laws–and stocking stuffers. There’s jewelry, hats, gloves, scarves, slippers, Christmas ornaments, Crèche (Nativity) figures, candles and lots more. At the Village des Artisans d’Arts on the south side of the Champs-Élysées are 40 “maisons” with beautiful handmade items at reasonable prices.
As we start walking up the Champs-Élysées, our plan is to just look. Before we even walk a short distance, we buy a set of teas and gloves–and these are presents for ourselves! We also find great gifts for others: an Eiffel tower pocket watch necklace for a niece who visited Paris in high school and dreams about returning; a bar tool for making layered cocktails for another niece who loves cocktail parties; a spectacular turquoise scarf for my step-mother, and slabs of different flavored chocolates for our house sitter. So much for just looking.
Lest you think this is only about shopping for gifts, the marchés are as much about food and the special foods of France. Regional specialties include cheeses, hams, every kind of sausage (saucissons), foie gras, dried fruits, candies and pain d’epices (gingerbread, only better). The best part is that vendors want you to sample their products. In the Marché Gourmande, on the opposite side from the Village des Artisans, we sample figs stuffed with foie gras that we later serve to great acclaim at a dinner party. Breton oysters, champagne, cassoulet, and cheese-roasted potatoes are also popular. Farther up the same side (opposite the Sony store), we meet Jeffrey from the southwest of France who has wonderful Tomme cheeses, foie gras and an amazing chestnut liquor to serve with foie gras. He insists that we sample everything–and we plan to return another day for some of everything to take home with us.
In addition to the regional foods for purchase, there are also regional foods for eating on the spot: roasted chestnuts, grilled sausages, cabbage rolls stuffed with duck (yes, duck–this is France), cassoulet and the very popular crêpes bretonnes (Brittany crepes). In the cool air, the aroma of crêpes wafting down the street is seductive; be forewarned the Nutella topping makes them irresistible!
After all our sampling, we are surprised to find that we are hungry and, not too surprisingly, starting to get chilled. We decide to go “indoors” to La Terrasse, one of the restaurants set up in giant tents that provide much-appreciated warmth and relief from the cool temperatures. We start with a small order of moules frites (mussels with French fries) that are the best mussels we’ve ever eaten, so fresh and succulent they seem like they have just come out of the ocean. By the time we finish our “petit” order, we are almost too full for our “plates” (main courses) that, in spite of our not being very hungry, are also excellent. However, I recommend sticking with the moules.
If you’re looking for entertainment beyond shopping and eating, there are games, including what look like slot machines, and rides. The “Psychedelic” bills itself as a 70’s light show and is popular with “older” kids who wear their psychedelic glasses around the marchés. Little kids ride a kiddie roller coaster, the “Gare de Paris” train, and of course a carousel. The most popular non-shopping and non-eating activity is the patinoire (ice-skating rink). There are two patinoires, a main rink and a smaller kiddie rink with skating props. The littlest skaters hold onto a penguin; bigger ones graduate to a chair. If you’re not confident in your skating, come early in the day. At 3 pm on a week day, the kiddie rink is the place to be. In the evenings, the main action is in the big rink. Both are also popular with non-skaters, a.k.a. spectators like me.
What would the holidays be without Santa Claus? Make that “Père Noël” since the French have Father Christmas instead of Santa Claus. Père Noël arrives every evening starting at 6 pm. You’ll spot signs where he can be sighted “dans le ciel” (in the sky), and this is not to be missed. Père Noël travels the sky in a sleigh pulled by reindeer including who else but a red-nosed Rudolph. The kids are mesmerized as they watch Père Noël cross overhead. Heck, we all are! When his sleigh comes to a stop, Père Noël chats with the crowd, asks the kids if they’ve been good this year, and wishes everyone “Bonne Noël.” As Père Noël rides off into the night, the crowd sings a French carol. The experience of watching Père Noël is so uncommercial that it becomes genuinely touching.
If you’re wondering whether the Marchés de Noël are only for tourists, the answer is not at all. There are only a few items with Paris logos, and there are lots of families, parents, grandparents and small children. In the afternoon when schools let out, teenagers hang out with their friends. The macaron shop and chocolat artisan near the skating rink are especially popular with that crowd. One of our metrics when we travel is how much English we hear, and here the only English we heard was our own. If you don’t speak French, not to worry. The vendors speak enough English that there are no language barriers to making purchases.
Don’t be surprised when you hear the soundtrack of American Christmas carols. We heard “Silver Bells,” “White Christmas” and “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town.” If you’re wondering why American carols, it was explained to us that French carols are derived from religious music and the only secular carols are American.
The Village de Noël Christmas Market is on the Champs-Élysées between place de la Concorde and the rond-point des Champs-Élysées. Take the Métro to Concorde, Franklin D. Roosevelt or Champs-Élysées Clemanceau and you will be in the middle of the market. If you exit at Concorde, the market is in the opposite direction from the ferris wheel. At night, exit the Métro or RER at Charles de Gaulle Etoile, and you can enjoy the holiday lighting as you walk down the Champs-Élysées toward place de la Concorde.
The market is open daily from mid-November through early January (in 2015, it closes on January 4) from noon to midnight, and Friday and Saturday until 1AM.
If you’re in for a full day or evening of shopping, dress warmly. Bring a shopping bag (as the French do) and bring coins for the WC. There are multiple ones in the village, marked by “WC.” They have running water, are clean and best of all warm! Many vendors prefer cash. There are ATMs located throughout the marketplace.
If, like us, you want to buy food to bring home and your country has restrictions, well-wrapped hard cheeses and foie gras in tins are generally purchases you won’t regret. Many countries, including the U.S., will not let you bring in fresh (soft) cheeses, ham or sausages, so plan to eat your charcuterie in Paris or have a wonderful last meal on the plane.
Nights at the Village de Noël are especially beautiful with the holiday lighting. Day or night, the marchés are a wonderful way to celebrate the holidays. It can be quite chilly, and while you can buy hats, gloves, scarves and fleece at the marchés, the best defense against the cool, damp Paris air is the vin chaud (mulled or hot spiced wine) or chocolat chaud (the best hot chocolate you’ll ever have). Both are delicious and warming. Enjoy them with marrons chauds (roasted chestnuts) or pain d’epices and you’ll celebrate the holidays like a Parisian!
Debra Dout is an adventurous world traveler with a passion for Paris, the unusual and interesting, local cuisines and art. As an escapee from high tech, she has the luxury of indulging her passions and peruses markets around the world to find unique treasures. Fortunately, her husband shares her enthusiasm for travel and markets, and together they have shopped in souks in Morocco, from street vendors in Nepal, at flea markets in Shanghai, in vintage markets in Hungary and as often as they can at the markets of Paris. (The Markets of Paris is her bible for Paris!) Every trip and every market is an opportunity to find a perfect gift and bring home new foods and recipes to the delight of her friends and family.