Guest Notes for Episode 263: Christmas Markets of Northern France and Belgium

Categories: Christmas in France, Hauts-de-France

Discussed in this Episode

  • A quick stop in Beauvais [04:48]
  • Staying in Amiens [08:11]
  • Visiting the Amiens Christmas Market on a Sunday [10:27]
  • Macarons d'Amiens [11:24]
  • They don't sell a lot of Christmas ornaments at French Christmas Markets [12:57]
  • A stop at the Medieval town of Saint-Valery-sur-Somme [14:53]
  • The WW1 military cemetery at Etaples [15:03]
  • The festive Christmas Market of Arras [15:51]
  • Belgian and Flemish architecture in Arras [17:11]
  • Looking for local handmade items [18:04]
  • Mulled wine and regional foods [20:44]
  • Saint Leu district in Amiens [22:18]
  • Light show at the Amiens Cathedral [22:46]
  • The Christmas Market at Lille [26:09]
  • The Lochnagar Mine Memorial [26:36]
  • The Christmas Market in Bruges Belgium [29:21]
  • The Basilica of the Holy Blood in Bruges [30:34]
  • A night in Ghent [32:33]
  • The Ghent Alterpiece in Ghent [33:05]
  • Enjoying Belgian Waffles [35:49]
  • The Reims Christmas Market [38:58]
  • The Reims Cathedral and light show [40:46]
  • What was your favorite Christmas Market of all these towns? [43:48]
  • Comparing Christmas Markets in Europe [45:31]

Christmas markets of Northern France & Belgium

Our goal for this trip was to combine several of our travel loves into one trip – French Gothic cathedrals, Christmas markets, and exploring new areas of Europe.  The trip consisted of myself, my mother and step-father.  After having driven in France previously we decided that was the best way to allow us to move around to all of the towns we wanted to visit.  I did listen to the driving in France episode to refresh myself on what to expect, as well as the episodes with Elyse on Lille and Reims.  Driving ended up being a good decision as the major transportation strike hit in the later part of our trip.

1.   Amiens

A.      Day-by-day

i.            Day 1 (Sunday) – Arrival, Beauvais and parking in Amiens: After arriving at CDG in the morning, we picked up our rental car directly at the airport and started our drive towards Amiens.  The drive is approximately 1.5 hours, though for a short break to stretch our legs we stopped in Beauvais with the intention of exploring the cathedral.  The town felt practically deserted and the cathedral appeared to be locked up.  We tried several doors but not all – which ended up being a mistake.  Its extremely impressive in size being the tallest vaulted Gothic cathedral though there appears to be some competition with Amiens who claims the tallest vaulted “completed” cathedral.  Most restaurants also appeared to be closed for the day right near the cathedral.  So after a brief walk around the exterior we decided to continue on our way, though as we drove past the cathedral we noticed an open door – so try them all.

When we arrived in Amiens, our hotel did not have any dedicated guest parking, which is normal, though they said you can typically find free street parking, though only some streets are free.  We never did succeed with that.  Instead I ended up driving around town for over an hour trying to find street parking, or a parking garage.  Being a weekend during the markets, parking was limited.  Ahead of our trip I had used Google Maps to find parking lots and garages for each of our cities and flagged them, but unfortunately several ended up being closed or full.  The hotel owner ended up being able to help us find a parking location which was reasonable and only a 5 minute walk.  We used the rest of the day to relax and settle into our hotel.

ii.            Day 2 (Monday) – Road trip to St. Valery-sur-Somme, Etaples Military Cemetary & Arras: Initially we had planned to drive towards the coast and explore markets in Calais, Dunkirk, Boulogne-sur-Mer, and Le Touquet but prior to our trip found that they would not be open during our dates in Amiens.  But we still wanted to explore the area.  We headed out for St-Valery-sur-Somme which is a cute, medieval town on the bay where the Somme meets the sea.  We have read this is very popular during summery, but in winter is deserted.  We were able to walk the streets and boardwalk with only a handful of other people.  We could definitely tell it was a place we would like to explore when things are open, but we really enjoyed our peaceful walk around town and even found an open bakery with wonderful chocolate eclairs.  We continued up the coast using the departmental roads rather than the major highways.  This slowed us down but also allowed us to find hidden gems such as the military cemetary at Etaples.  This is the resting place of over 11,000 British commonwealth soldiers from WW1 and a couple hundred from WW2. It was quite moving to see all of the white headstones.  With the slow driving, it was getting late in the afternoon and we decided to head back to Amiens, but made a final stop to explore the Christmas market in Arras.  This is one that was mentioned in all of our pre-trip research and our hotel host also recommended it, and it did not disappoint.  The architecture of the town leans towards more Flemish and the market was held in the central Grand Place, where there was an underground car park.  It’s a small market of only about 50 booths plus some rides, but it was uncrowded and there was a good selection of handmade, not mass market items.  Restaurants in town were limited being a Monday, so we just took advantage of the market and ate there – sandwiches, burgers, chicken fingers, hot wine, hot chocolate.

iii.            Day 3 (Tuesday) – Exploring Amiens: For our final day in Amiens, we explored the city.  Similar to other cities, we did find that areas that are typically filled with tourists were closed up for the winter, including the St. Leu District which is a neighborhood of colorful buildings that have been renovated.  They were the mills and former homes of weavers, dyers.  The main attraction in the city is the cathedral, which is a Gothic style cathedral.  There are tours of the treasury and towers at set times, but we did not take either of these.  At night during the summer and also during the Christmas markets, there is a light show on the façade of the cathedral.  The winter shows are at 7:00 pm daily.  Being a weekday, there was not an extremely large crowd.  Absolutely beautiful and definitely not to be missed.

The Christmas market in Amiens is a good size, but is very spread out.  A lot of the booths appeared to be more mass market products.  My favorite finds in Amiens were food booths with raclette and ham sandwiches and hot poire (pear) drinks.  Also make sure to try the local specialty of macaron d’Amiens.

B.      Hotel – Une Maison En Ville (Chambre d’Hote) with breakfast provided.

Rooms were a good size and comfortable.  There is no elevator which was something I found in all but big chain hotels.

C.       Restaurants – Via Pizza which was very quick and efficient, La Croustille café which had a large selection of different hot chocolates and desserts and pastries for a quick snack

D.      Shopping – Jean Trogneux, a chocolatier which specializes in the local specialty of macaron d’Amiens made from apple and almond.  This treat resembles a coconut macaroon.  The company is owned by the family of France’s First Lady Brigitte Macron.

2.   Lille

  1. Day-by-day

    1. Day 4 (Wednesday) – WW1 Memorials and Lille: We left Amiens mid-morning and decided on a route that took us through some of the departmental roads and then connected to the highway for the last part of the drive. Overall its only an hour and a half drive.  Along the drive we stopped at a couple of smaller WW1 cemetaries and memorials, including the Lochnagar Mine memorial which was part of the tunneling and detonating explosives underneath the opposition’s trenches during WW1 and a large crater was formed.  After arriving in Lille and checking into our hotel, we headed out to explore the market. Its fairly small.  The market is located on Place Rihour and the ferris wheel is on the Grand Place.  There wasn’t really anything unique.  There was security checking bags as people headed in and out of the market.

We decided to walk through some of the old town area to see the Flemish architecture, the Opera and the Bourse.  The architecture is unique and the buildings colorful.   We only stayed one night as we were heading further north but this could also be a day trip from Amiens or base here in Lille and do day trips to the coast, Amiens and up to Belgium.

  1. Hotel – Grand Hotel Bellevue – one block away from the markets, no parking but close parking garages
  2. Restaurants – L’Abbaye right between the two squares. Caters to tourist, but good food.
  3. Shopping – Meurrt Patisserie for a salted caramel Religieuse

3.   Ghent

  1. Day-by-day

    1. Day 5 (Thursday) – Bruges: Bruges is only an hour drive north from Lille.  We found a parking garage near the city center and walked along Steenstraat.  There was a small market of about 15-20 huts in Simon.  The larger market of about 50-60 huts is based in the Markt square.  The Belfry and Provincial court are the main buildings on the square.  The overall architecture is well-preserved medieval style and seems to be straight out of a fairytale.  The town is known for its canals, lace and chocolate, which seems to be almost every other shop.  Stop in for the samples!  We then wandered through more of town to the canals and then to the Basilica of the Holy Blood which is an old chapel of the count’s palace.  It has a relic said to be a piece of cloth with Jesus’ blood, which is held in a vial and during certain times of the day you can go up to the altar and touch the vial.  It reminded me in some ways of Ste-Chapelle in Paris, in the small size and beautiful stained glass.  After we drove 45 minutes to Ghent where we checked into our hotel and dinner for the evening.
    2. Day 6 (Friday) – Ghent: We spent this day wandering around the old town area. We started at Gravensteen, which is also known as the Castle of the Counts of Flanders.  Its one of the only remaining castles with its moat and fortifications left in Flanders.  You can tour the gatehouse, ramparts, keep and residence.  They have a selection of torture equipment. From there we crossed the bridge towards the Korenmarkt up past St. Nicholas Church, the Belfry and then finally to St. Bavo’s Cathedral.  St. Bavo’s is also known as the home of the Ghent Altarpiece which is a world famous work of art by the Van Eyck brothers.  It has been sold, stolen and hidden over the years.  There is still one panel which has been stolen and never recovered, known as the Just Judges.  There are many theories of where the missing panel is and they still continue to search.  The cathedral is free to enter, but the altarpiece is in a separate room and is an additional cost of €4 which includes an audio guide. Panels received considerable damage while being stored in the salt mines during WW2 and are currently being restored in the local fine arts museum, MSK Gent, where you can watch them at work on the panels.  The plan is to have a new permanent exhibition space open in mid-2020. After lunch we then retraced our path through the old town as this was also the same path as the christmas market.  There was a large number of booths with leather, scarves, many chocolate shops and don’t miss the Belgian waffles with melted chocolate topping.  There are two types of Belgian waffles, try both and decide on your favorite.  The Ghent market is one of the later openings as it did not open until the Friday of the first full weekend of December.  This day was also St. Nicholas day and our hosts had left some crackers, an orange and a chocolate on our breakfast plate that morning.
  2. Hotel – Ganda Rooms & Suites – definitely our favorite hotel of the trip. Beautifully restored 18th century town house with friendly hosts.  No parking but close parking garages.
  3. Restaurants – Café de Gilde (Bruges) was a very popular place with locals. Salads, sandwiches, pasta, soup.

Bier Central (Ghent) has a menu of almost every beer made in Belgium. The wait staff was friendly and helpful. We tried the local Flemish stew made with beer.

Passion (Ghent) lunch café with delicious tomato soup, cheese croquettes and hot chocolate

Shazanna (Ghent) is an Italian restaurant in the more residential side of the city.  We were placed in a back room and didn’t get much attention from the server.

  1. Shopping – Chocolaterie Dumon (Bruges), The Bottle Shop for beer (Bruges), Callebert Design for miscellaneous gift items and décor (Bruges), Chocolou (Ghent), Christruffel (Aalbeke), Mille Fleurs Tapestries (Bruges), Tierenteyn-Verlent (Ghent for mustard

4.   Reims

  1. Day-by-day

    1. Day 7 (Saturday) – Reims: Our longest drive was from Ghent to Reims which is almost 3 hours. Upon our arrival the market was in full swing for the day and being the weekend was packed.  It took a little bit of extra time to get settled into our hotel because it was located right within the market area.  But after navigating those challenges we focused the rest of our day on the Cathedral and the market.  Reims Cathedral is another French Gothic cathedral and is most well known as the place where 33 kings of France were crowned. A lot of the stained glass windows are no longer original, but the rose windows still remain.  In addition, they have added some more modern windows and one chapel has a beautiful Marc Chagall creation.  Wandering the market proved to be difficult and we would have enjoyed it more on a non-weekend day.  It was very festive and there were some original booths with hand blown and painted glass ornaments.  Being champagne country, we stopped into one of the stores in the square and bought a bottle for the evening.  Similar to Amiens, there is a nightly light and sound show and we were lucky enough to have a room with a terrace that faced the cathedral.  We sat there to watch the show and enjoy our glass of champagne.
  2. Hotel – La Caserne Chanzy – Some rooms face the cathedral and have terraces for viewing the nightly light show without dealing with the crowds. However, entrance is in the market and you must park nearby and tote your luggage to the hotel through the crowds.  Hotel has some parking but it must be reserved in advance.
  3. Restaurants – Food truck called Mother Road Burgers for big burgers and fries
  4. Shopping – beautiful hand blown and painted glass ornaments in the market, champagne from stores within the main cathedral square

5.   Helpful hints & suggestions

·     Driving meant little impact from the strikes

·     Keep drives in shorter stretches so that you can explore along the way and not be stuck trying to just get to your destination.  Other than one transit day with a drive of 3 hours, all others were 1-1.5 hours.

·     Remember in winter the daylight hours are limited for driving.  The sun goes down around 4:30 pm.

·     Plan non-market activities (day trips, museums, etc) on Saturdays and possibly Sundays to avoid overcrowded markets

·     These are smaller towns so they typically have a single market for the town, unlike some of the larger towns in Germany and Austria

the lighshow projected on the Cathedral of Amiens

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Categories: Christmas in France, Hauts-de-France