02/12/2007
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Continental Christmas shopping in a motorhome

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I LOVE Christmas, and I love Christmas shopping, but I don’t enjoy queuing to enter dingy multi-storey car parks.

Nor do I like the aggressive crowds who have chiselled their elbows to ensure they get to where they’re going before you. I prefer to take things easier – and hop across the Channel.

Christmas gifts of every price and design that always make for presents with a difference can be purchased at French Christmas markets. Your relatives won’t have to put up with any more unimaginative socks or boring inscribed pens – and the bonus for you is that and you can enjoy the Continent’s festivities in the process of shopping.

It’s the atmosphere that really makes a Christmas market special. Every market varies, with some being nothing more than a few tables, while others even have an ice rink at their heart.

What nearly all feature are the small open-fronted garden sheds that protect stall owners from inclement weather. Christmas decorations are everywhere, and festive music booms from bad-quality speakers. But the quality doesn’t matter. It’s the atmosphere that counts.

Of course, each market has a flavour of the region you’re in, or even the country. Germany in particular is famed for its markets, but these are quite different from the Gallic ones, the latter being much more relaxed and laid back. Of course, French markets are also less of a trek from the UK, so you win all round.  One of my favourites, for instance, is situated just 20 minutes from Calais.

Gravelines
Gravelines is a great destination throughout the year due to its usefully situated Aire de Service – an overnight stopping area for motorhomes that is free, just seconds from a good restaurant and the beach. But in December it’s transformed. Roundabouts are bedecked in fairy lights and snow scenes, and all the shops are beautifully decked out. When you reach the centre you’ll find festive stalls are crammed into one of the main squares.

Gravelines’ Christmas market isn’t the largest by any means, but for character it’s a winner. The stalls are overlooked by a huge Father Christmas, and visitors of all ages join in the festive fun. Lots of special events occur throughout the day, including ice sculpting with huge chain saws that are used with a delicacy that belies their size and noise. In typically relaxed French fashion, children have a tendency to chase around the insubstantial barriers in order to get bombarded by the spray of ‘snow’ coming from the saw, but the adults are too busy taking it easy, munching on local produce and drinking wine, to care. Anyway, no-one gets hurt, and everyone has fun.

There are a large number of edible treats to choose from, with stalls selling everything from smoked foods and hand-made chocolates, to grilled cheese on jacket potatoes and numerous varieties of savoury and sweet cakes – all of which are washed down with a few glasses of local wine or beer. My poison is usually the hot chocolate laced with brandy, rum or some other potent liqueur.

The less edible merchandise includes wooden sculptures, photographs of local landmarks, paintings and clothing, including characterful hats, gloves and scarves which are most welcome in the bitter coastal wind.

Calais
Nearby in Calais there’s another market, but this is more of a fun fair than anything. An ice-skating rink is assembled in the centre of town, with this surrounded by other fairground rides. On the whole the ‘market’ is quiet during the day, but at night it comes alive with a whirr of spinning lights and music.

Dieppe
Again not too far from all the northern Channel ports is Dieppe. This coastal town has lines of small wooden chalets, along with some fairground rides aimed at all ages, stretching the length of the pleasure port.

You can even have your picture taken with Father Christmas - although during my visit he looked very cold and miserable so an extra blanket would probably be more appreciated than the obligatory fee. Along with the usual knick-nacks, I found here some very odd and unusual items for sale indeed including singing fish and flying cows - although the tartifilette (a cheese-covered potato dish) was totally traditional and, as always, delicious.

It’s best to visit Dieppe on a Saturday, as in the morning there’s also the weekly market to enjoy - although leave lots of time because the combination of the two draws quite a crowd. Dieppe’s market is one of my favourites, not least because there’s another Aire de Service here, just a few minutes walk from the centre of town and offering perfect sea views. 

Rouen
Just inland is the city of Rouen. All year round you’ll find an array of boutiques and speciality shops so if you have some serious shopping to do as well as some market trinkets to seek out this is the place to come. The entire city centre is beautifully decorated with lights and decorations, with many shops joining in the fun with their own displays. The Christmas Market surrounds the beautiful cathedral, where you’ll find the goods are mostly more ‘up-market’ than those for sale in the smaller village markets.

Glassware, craft goods, works of art and paintings, as well as other paraphernalia, are for sale here, and you can’t get away from the pervading odour of praline, hot mulled wine and roasting chestnuts – not that you’d want to. A little train runs from the market taking visitors on a tour around town, and there’s a more practical section to the market that sells general festive ingredients including glacéd and dried fruits for your Christmas cake.

There is only one downside to Rouen’s glorious markets: because it is on for around a month there are fewer people visiting at any one time so it loses out on atmosphere. But if your sole purpose is to buy presents this has its own advantages.

So this year, when you’re planning your annual Christmas shopping trip, think a little further afield than your local shopping mall. Not only will you enjoy your trip to France, but your relatives will appreciate gifts with a difference.

And if you stop in at the local supermarkets you could even make up the cost of your ferry fare on discounted Champagne and some decent wines that will really make your Christmas go with a sparkle!O&A

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