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PLACES TO VISIT

CHRISTMAS MARKETS IN FRANCE

Christmas time in France is a joyous event celebrated in cities, towns and villages with sparkling

decorations, festive food, concerts, festivals, parades and Christmas markets. There are hundreds

of Christmas markets in France taking place between late November and early January, mostly in

the larger towns or cities, with Paris, Lille, Strasbourg and Avignon amongst the most famous.

The first Christmas market to emerge in France was Strasbourg, in 1570.

Top French Christmas Markets are:

Strasbourg

Alsace is home to over 35 Christmas markets with the most spectacular Christkindelsmärik taking place in Strasbourg outside its landmark gothic cathedral. The stalls sell Bredele (festive Alsatian biscuits), other local produce, Christmas decorations and local crafts. The market has not only an Alsatian influence, but Germanic too; this makes it a very special place to visit at Christmas time. Marked by the scents of gingerbread, sweets, roasted chestnuts, cinnamon and mulled wine, the market is very atmospheric.

Paris

The capital city plays host to various markets around Christmas time:

Champs-Elysées
Parvis de la Défense
Place Saint Germain des Prés
Jardins du Trocadéro
Parvis de la Gare Montparnasse
Disney

Lille

The Christmas market on Place Rihour is open every day, except Christmas

day. Chalets selling decorations, gifts and food, including regional specialities,

ensure Christmas shopping is a joy! Explore the 80 or so chalets under

strings of fairy lights before moving on to the Grand Place to see the 18m

Christmas tree and take a turn on the big wheel, offering views over the city,

and dwarfing the Christmas tree at an impressive 50m high! Away from the

market and its surrounding winter wonderland, Lille also has a shopping centre, in addition to department stores and designer boutiques – something for everyone.

Avignon

The Christmas market in Avignon takes place on the Place de l’Horloge, in the heart of the city. Over 60 chalets sell gifts, decorations and food to celebrate Christmas and New Year. Father Christmas has his own house with santons (traditional animated figures). Entertainment and parades take place throughout the Christmas period to accompany the market and the town is adorned in twinkling lights and dazzling decorations.

Bordeaux

Under the illuminated trees of Les Allées de Tourny square, in the city centre, Bordeaux Christmas market takes place with a vast array of log cabins. Free sleigh rides and a visit to Father Christmas are just some of the events that children can look forward to. With the sound of Christmas carols and laughing children, Bordeaux city centre becomes a magical fairy tale.

Toulouse

The Christmas market is held in December in the very heart of Toulouse at the famous Place du Capitole. Chalets will provide visitors young and old with a feast for the eyes and taste-buds. Father Christmas can be found among the chalets, handing out sweets and other treats to children – the lucky ones will even get a chance to have their photo taken with him. Visitors can also admire a traditional Provençal nativity scene, marvel at the fairylike decorations in Henri IV’s courtyard and take a stroll through the streets of Toulouse under the Christmas lights.

Laon

The medieval hilltop town of Laon, which was the ancient capital of France between the seventh and eleventh centuries, is a magical setting for its Christmas market which takes place each year outside the Notre Dame cathedral. Its annual Christmas market includes a winter braderie with 40 different stalls offering food, drink, local delicacies and arts and crafts. For children the fun at the Laon Christmas Market includes a merry-go-round, a sledge set up in the cathedral square and a Father Christmas.

Mulhouse

Tradition plays a big part in Mulhouse’s celebrations. Each year, its Printed Fabric Museum produces an original fabric inspired by its collection and this is used in Christmas decorations throughout the town. It’s also used to make and embellish gifts at the market, so you can take some home as a souvenir for yourself too. As well as a Christmas market (an experience not complete without mulled wine and some authentic bredele bisuits!), Mulhouse also stages its own illuminations – more eco-friendly than in previous years, as many of the old bulbs have been swapped for the energy saving variety – and plays host to all manner of concerts and workshops.

Montbéliard

The town and its Christmas market are lit up at this time of the year, creating a really festive ambiance. Craftsmen set up their chalet style stalls around St Martin’s church, the oldest protestant church in France (1601). Here you can stock up on gifts for family and friends in a happy environment rich in scent and flavour – a far cry from the last minute dash around the shops back home. The wooden chalets are crammed with tasty produce and lovely craft products including Christmas decorations, figurines, wooden toys, candles, fine lace, jewels, soft fabrics and much more. Plus, performances from musicians and street artists.

Oradour sur Glane in Limousin

Oradour sur Glane is located in the Haute-Vienne department of the Limousin & is one of the

most memorable locations connected with the history of World War II.

It was here on Saturday, 10th June, 1944 that the soldiers of the Der Führer Regiment of the

2nd Waffen SS Panzer Division Das Reich surrounded the town, massacred the 642 inhabitants

before looting & then burning the village. It is still not clear why the Germans took this action

but it is thought that it was done as a reprisal for resistance raids that were on the increase

in the wake of the D-Day landings & Oradour was chosen as it was in a place midway between

two known areas where the French resistance were operating. After surrounding the village,

the SS rounded up all the villagers in the village square before separating the men from the

women & children -- the men where split into several groups & taken to various barns around

the village whilst the women & children were taken to the church. At about 4pm the soldiers

began simultaneously shooting the men at the various locations in the village whilst at the

same time other soldiers were looting the shops & houses. After killing all the male occupants,

the Germans then brought a poisonous gas cylinder into the church where the women & children were being held, this was then ignited & the church doors locked. The gas started to choke the people in the church & when they tried to escape through the windows the soldiers machine gunned them -- all of the occupants of the church died apart from one woman who managed to escape through a window.

Having killed all the villagers & looted the property, the shops & houses were set on fire. The soldiers remained in the village for two days preventing anyone entering until the fire had destroyed the evidence of the massacre.

The village as it is today is more or less unchanged since the day of the massacre, wreckage of cars & other personal effects lie rusting in the buildings, whilst the tram lines & power cables are still visible. The French Government made the decision to keep the village in this condition as a memorial to the victims & a new village was constructed just outside Oradour where there is also a Centre of Memory which now forms the entrance to the ruined village. There is a permanent exhibition in the centre that tells the story of the massacre as well as providing background information on the events leading up to this tragic event, this exhibition is in the form of numerous images as well as a short film (in French with English sub-titles). A recorded commentary is available in English to accompany your visit. The village of Oradour sur Glane has provided a purpose built aire de services about 1/2km north of the new village (well signposted "Aire de Repos") where there are 20 spaces together with toilets, picnic tables, a play area & a barbeque. When we visited the aire in July, 2008, it was already full but there are several other free car parks around the town which were being used as overnight parking by motorhomes -- these were in fact more convenient for visiting Oradour as well as being closer to the shops & eating places in the new village. Entry to the Centre de la Memoire & the ruined village is 7.5€ (2008) for an adult. The excellent aire at Uzerche also makes a good base for visiting Oradour, as it is within one hours travelling time of the village.

 

STOPOVERS AT TOURIST ATTRACTIONS

Many of Frances major tourist attractions have noticed the popularity of motorhomes & have responded to this trend by providing dedicated overnight parking, and in some cases service points. Those that don't offer accommodation often have a campsite or an aire within a short distance that can offer the opportunity of a stopover.

01 AIN

Parc des Oiseaux in Villars les Dombes in the Ain department of the Rhone-Alpes has one of the world's largest collections

of wild birds, brought together in a carefully created environment, using many exotic plants to recreate the bird's natural

environment. As an overnight stopover, the Parc has provided an aire in a pleasant location next to a large lake in the

nature reserve with parking on grass (accessed by a tarmac road) overlooking the lake & with a little shade from small

trees. The Parc has restaurant facilities, play area & picnic areas.

06 ALPES-MARITIMES

Marineland at Antibes, PACA is a major marine based theme park with such attractions as a Killer Whale show, dolphin

displays, sea lions, seals & a 30m long tunnel under the shark tank. Antibes itself does not offer any aires for motorhomes

but heading towards Nice you come to St Laurent du Var where there is an aire about 1km north of the town. The parking

is bordered by shrubs, has a little shade at one end & adjacent street lighting with spaces for upto 5 vehicles.

10 AUBE

Nigloland at Dolancourt is found in the centre of the Foret d'Orient, a major theme park that attracts over half a million visitors per year with over 35 attractions for children from the age of 6 years old. Attractions includes "Grizzli", Train de la Mine, Bobsleigh, Rivière Canadienne, Spatiale Experience & Pirate Galleon. The aire is located in the large tarmac car park of this theme park, about 2kms west of Dolancourt, where there are ample spaces, a restaurant as well as picnic areas. The overnight tariff includes electric & services.

13 BOUCHES-DU-RHONE

OK Corral is a western inspired theme park located east of Cuges-les-Pins whose attractions include wild west displays & rides such as Le Sabre, Rising Sun, Grand Canyon & Indian canoe. The park also operates its own campsite "Teepee world" with spaces for campervans including ehu, toilets & services. There is also a nice municipal aire in Cuges with upto 20 motorhomes spaces.

14 CALVADOS

Souterroscope in Caumont l'Evente, Normandy is an old underground slate quarry that has been redeveloped into a tourist attraction with tours of the old workings, light shows & various displays- it is open all year round apart from the month of January. The park has provided an aire which has 5 spaces reserved for motorhomes in a tarmac parking area & about 20 spaces for other vehicles, a nice spot surrounded by open farmland. Parking is next to a grass area that has picnic tables, a small playground & toilets are accessible in the park.

17 CHARENTE-MARITIME

Aquarium in La Rochelle is located in the town centre, near to the railway station is one of the largest

aquariums in France with such attractions as the Shark Tank, Caribbean room, Atlantic Hall & the Indo-Pacific

room. There is free parking within 300m of the aquarium but overnight stays are not allowed, the best

alternative for a stay is the large Visitors' car park (600 spaces) on the edge of town with a free shuttle

bus into the centre. Access is via automatic barriers, which are closed between 2100 -- 0600 & all day Sunday.

There is an office in the car park where you pay the parking fee & get your shuttle tickets -- the bus also

picks up from here.

Zoo at La Palmyre is located in the heart of a forest of maritime pines, very close to the fine sand Atlantic

beaches of the town, it has become the most popular private zoo in France, attracting almost 800,000

visitors a year & having a collection of over 1,600 animals. Overnight accommodation is found at the

municipal aire in La Palmyre - a very large tarmac car park with some shade in places under pine trees, on

the western outskirts of the village, about 300m to the beach & 600m to the village centre.

26 DROME

La Ferme des Crocodiles near Montelimar is unique in Europe, a huge tropical greenhouse of 8,000 square metres where you can observe, more than 400 crocodiles belonging to the rarest species and a magnificent group of giant tortoises from the Seychelle islands. Fortunately there is no possibility of staying the night with the crocs, but an overnight stopover is available at nearby Montelimar; a modern municipal aire in a 17 space parking place next to a wooded area about 500m from the centre of town. Also near Clansayes there is the private "Aire de Toronne", where there is a small pool, paddling pool & tennis court set in a pleasant, quiet spot  with WiFi Internet access together with a snack bar.

29 FINISTERE

Oceanopolis at Brest is an Ocean Discovery Park with three thematic pavilions -- Polar, Tropical & Temperate with 50 aquariums ranging from 50 to 1 million litres of seawater, exhibits, films and shows. An overnight stopover is possible in Car Park P3 at the park (bornes are located in town) or alternatively at the nearby aires of Landerneau, Camaret-sur-Mer & Plougonvelin.

31 HAUTE-GARONNE

Cité de l'espace  in Toulouse is the only site that gives the public a chance to climb onboard a first generation Soyuz vessel as well as a breathtaking hour-long treasure hunt in search of a mysterious object that has hidden on the Moon by an astronaut. The theme park is well signposted from the city centre & signs on site direct campervans to a shaded parking area for an overnight stay.

37 INDRE-ET-LOIRE

MiniChateaux at Amboise is a collection of miniature reproduction chateaux, railways & scenery laid out amongst trees along a route stretching for 1.5 kms, allowing you to venture right into the historical heart of the Loire Valley. A private aire is available on an island in the Loire opposite the Chateau of Amboise & next to the municipal campsite L'Ile d'Or where there are 35 secure spaces.

41 LOIR-ET-CHER

ZooParc de Beauval at St Aignan has a wide variety of animals including white tigers, rhinoceros, giraffes, elephants & gorillas contained in an area of 22ha with a total of 5 restaurants -- open every day of the year. An overnight stay is possible within the zoo in a shaded parking area, alternatively there is a good municipal campsite, 2kms away at nearby Noyers-sur-Cher.

44 LOIRE-ATLANTIQUE

Planète Sauvage at Port Saint-Père is a Safari Park with 150 wild species from the 5 continents, offering a 10km safari trail through 16 animal parks that lets you get close to giraffes, elephants, bears, wolves, rhinoceros, hippopotami, lions, tigers & antelopes. No overnight accommodation is available but there are aires at Bourgneuf-en-Retz & St Philbert-de-Grand-Lieu.

50 MANCHE

La Cité de la Mer in Cherbourg is a vast scientific, cultural and fun centre devoted to the immense riches of the oceans and oceanographic exploration, located in the former Cherbourg trans-Atlantic passenger terminal - an Art Deco masterpiece. It houses the nuclear submarine Le Redoutable, the biggest submarine open to the public in the world, as well as a deep water aquarium. Overnight parking is available for 20 motorhomes in the centre's car park & there are also a few aires within 20mins drive of the centre.

62 PAS-DE-CALAIS

NAUSICAÄ, the National Sea Experience Centre at Boulogne-sur-Mer, is an interactive, educational and informative display on the sea with an exhibition dedicated to Madagascar and the Mozambique Canal as well as the Mediterranean & the North sea. There is no parking on site but there is a private aire (Les Fleur des Champs) owned by a local farm, close to Cap Gris Nez in an open grassy area with superb panoramic views. Pitches are on grass off a gravel track -- a bit exposed & without shade but they have glorious views to compensate. Services are available at the adjacent farm.

77 SEINE-et-MARNE

Disneyland Paris is situated to the west of Paris & is one of the largest amusement theme parks in Europe

with many various attractions & rides such as Space Mountain. EuroDisney provides a stopover for

motorhomes in the form of an aire located in a huge tarmac parking area just south of the park. The

parking is about a 1/2km walk from the Theme Park & is bordered on the west side by a railway line &

to the north by the D344 ring road. Showers, sinks & toilets are available to motorhomers in the coach

drivers rest building (in the car park) where there is also a service point.

85 VENDEE

Puy-du-Fou at Les Epesses is an historical theme park that stages shows & displays taking the visitor

from Roman times, thru the Viking age, medieval times, Renaissance, 18th Century & up to the modern

day. New attractions include the Cinescene with a water display, the Legend of Martin & the Puy du Fou

Odyssey. Overnight parking is available in the park for motorhomes with spaces on grass & having access to a service point, the park has 6 restaurants plus fast food outlets.

86 VIENNE

Futuroscope at Poitiers is a futuristic theme park with a large range of rides, shows & displays including Dances with Robots, Dinosaurs, Deep Sea 3D, Mystery of the Nile, an interactive safari & many more.The car park is open to motorhomes that wish to stay the night and includes a service area with waste water drainage (free), drinking water supply (4 €) and electricity hook-up (4 €).

A VISIT TO REIMS

There are not many places in the world where you can visit four UNESCO World Heritage sites,

all within walking distance of each other & for this reason alone, Reims certainly merits a visit

if you are within striking distance -- not to mention the fact that it is also the premier centre of

champagne production in France.

My choice for a weekend stopover in Reims was at the municipal aire which is located in a

small shaded parking area belonging to the CIS Youth Hostel in the city which is found behind

the theatre "La Comedie", about 800m from the city centre. It is a secure location backing onto

a small park & accessed by a security barrier (to gain access you have to obtain the security code

from reception); there are well sized parking spaces & a good motorhome service area here as

well as toilets & a cafeteria in the hostel, the hostel itself having a friendly multi-national

atmosphere. Whilst it is a pleasant location, being only a hundred yards from the River Vesle,

it is unfortunately a similar distance from the A4 Autoroute that cuts across the city - and being a sensitive soul, I had to resort to my trusty Boots ear plugs, enabling me to have two fairly undisturbed nights. The hostel also offers cycle hire for the weekend, a good idea as the majority of the sites are a fair walk from the aire.

The first UNESCO site visited was the Palais du Tau, a former Archbishop's Palace dating from 1690 -- this is the place that the French princes would stay prior to their coronation & where the following celebration banquet would be held. The palace now houses an impressive array of statues & tapestries, and it is also possible to visit the 13th century chapel. If you are an art lover, then whilst in this part of the city it is worth paying a visit to the Museum of Fine Arts in nearby Rue Chanzy - set in a part of the former Abbey of St Denis you will find works of art from Renaissance to the 20th century.

After a light lunch, it was decided to move on (or cycle on) to the second UNESCO site on our list; and what a sight; the Notre-Dame Cathedral -- a stunning masterpiece of 13th century gothic art. The cathedral was the site of many historic events, from the baptism of Clovis, to over 30 coronations of French kings -- the most famous was probably that of Charles VII, brought to the cathedral by Joan of Arc in 1429. The cathedral contains a statue to Saint Joan as well as being adorned with over 2,300 other statues, including the only figures of angels with open wings and the famous Smiling Angel -- the symbol of the city.

            Feeling quite UNESCO'ed for one day, we returned to the Centre International de Sejour & the relative calm of our van although we did venture into the hostel for dinner where meals are available from a reasonable price. There is also a games room with pool, table tennis & table football if the choice of programmes on the French TV is not to your liking.

            The next day saw us in the third UNESCO site on our list - Saint-Remi Basilica, a Romanesque Benedictine abbey church containing the tomb (in the choir) of Saint Remi & a collection of 12th century stain-glass windows. The basilica also stages a music and light show inside the basilica every Saturday from July to September.

            The final World Heritage site on the list is only 100 yards away from the basilica; the Abbey Museum of St-Remi, housing a display of weapons, tapestries depicting Saint Remi's life & other archaeological items as well as a 12th /13th century chapter room. Entry here is free on the first Sunday of each month or you can purchase a ticket that allows you to visit all the museums for just 3€ per person. Whilst on the subject of passes, if you purchase the Reims City Card from the tourism office then you get a visit to the cathedral (including audio guide), a trip on the city's tourist train & entry to one of the champagne cellars

(tasting included) -- quite good value.

            Although we were unaware of the "city card", one cannot visit the city

of Reims without a champagne cellar tour & one of the best is the

Taittinger cellar at Place Saint-Nicaise. These cellars, the oldest parts of

which are located on the site of Gallo-Roman chalk mines dug in the

4th century & then enlarged in the 13th century by the Saint Nicaise Abbey

monks, provide a store for the Champagne which needs to be kept at

9/10° C. The multi-lingual tour lasts exactly one hour & demonstrates all

parts of the production of champagne -- finishing off with a tasting & a visit to the wine shop.

            Although we were only here for a weekend, a visit to the city could easily be extended to 3 or 4 days, as apart from the UNESCO sites, museums & cellars there is an excellent shopping centre, lively night life & various roman remains to enjoy.

Places to Visit continued