Charming wooden booths serving hot wine, fresh crepes, and mouthwatering raclette; colorful strings of lights hung across streets and on lampposts; illuminated Ferris wheels and decorative carousels amongst swarms of people; short days, long nights, and crisp wind that bites the cheeks…winter has arrived, and with it: the Christmas season, or more specifically, the Christmas markets (read: les Marchés de Noël).
These markets are brand new to me. I don’t know if they exist in the United States, but if they do, I’ve never seen or heard of them before. Of course we have the tree at Rockefeller Center, but what goes on in almost every European city is an entirely different story. This phenomenon, in which European cities turn themselves into what you might find inside a festively decorated snow globe, occurs everywhere from the major metropolises to the tiny villages, and each has at least one – if not more – Marché de Noël. They all share the same basic qualities: endless booths built like log cabins with snow-covered roofs that sell steaming cups of wine, apple cider, and hot chocolate, seasonal trinkets, and regional food/desserts including, but not limited to, cheeses, charcuterie, crêpes, waffles, churros, nougat, dried fruits, and têtes de choco. Still, each one is also slightly unique. For example, in Lille, where the holiday of Saint Nicholas is particularly important, you will find booths selling pain d’épices. Alternatively, you’d go to the Marché de Noël in Bruges for gaufres and frites.
I’ve been to four different marchés de Noël, and while I realize how similar they all are, I honestly can’t get enough of them. Strolling through the market in Bruges today, I was taking my time to see every single booth, while some of my friends decided they had seen enough; they were sick of these markets and wanted to move on. In Paris, I have been to the enormous marché de Noël lining the Champs-Élysées and the slightly smaller, but still sufficient, one at La Défense. This weekend, I traveled with Erasmus to Lille and Bruges to visit their famous Christmas markets. Erasmus is a European student exchange program, which also plans trips for foreign students studying abroad. It’s a cool way to meet people from all over the world, as the trip this weekend included around 60 students from 25 different countries, everyone speaking a different level of French. Saturday morning, we drove to Lille, a city in the north of France and the second most popular destination in France for exchange students, after Paris of course. There, we had the afternoon to walk through the Christmas markets and explore the old city of Lille.
While I can’t argue that Lille isn’t beautiful, I prefer Bruges. We arrived in Bruges this morning, and I found there to be something magical about the medieval city, as if it had been reconstructed for a film and we were walking through the set. I’d been here twice before, but that didn’t stop me from being just as much in awe of the beautiful red brick buildings and picturesque canals half a century old. Are you starting to think I’m “the girl who cried magic” because I seem to call everything I experience here magical? Okay, I don’t blame you! But for someone who comes from a town where hardly any of the buildings are more than 100 years old, it’s almost hard to believe that such a place could be real. I was enchanted by this city whose history was visible in every bridge, passageway, and building façade, some of which even displayed the date they were built. Every sight looked like a postcard picture or as if it should be painted by a master on a grand canvas. Even in the rain, the city was incredible; in fact, maybe it was the rain that made the panoramic view from the top of the 366 steps of the Belfort Cathedral even more surreal.
However, these Christmas markets aren’t the only part of the holiday season; since I go to school just one street away from Boulevard Haussmann, every day I pass the decorated windows of Paris’ most famous department stores, Printemps and Galeries Lafayette: in the morning when neither the tourists nor the sun have woken up yet, in the afternoon when I have to weave my way through the sea of people, and in the evening when the sun has set and the Christmas lights on the buildings’ facades illuminate the sky.
Now all I’m waiting for is some snow…I can’t even imagine how much more magical Paris will be covered in a blanket of white.
vocabulaire quotidien: patinage/patinoire – ice skating/ice skating rink; I ice skated at the Marché de Noël des Champs-Élysées, and many of the other Christmas markets have ice skating rinks, as well. Also, every single one I’ve seen has a carousel and Ferris wheel.