Rumour has it that 150,000 lights make up the Christmas decorations on Champs-Élysées. Glitzy department stores compete for the most original window display. But to get that real Christmas feeling, skip the boulevards and head to the small streets of Saint-Germain-des-Prés, le Marais and Montmartre. There, independent shops deck their doorways with holly and pine. Fairy lights twinkle from elegant windows and seafood stalls pop up outside the brasseries and bars.
This weekend in Paris, temperatures dropped below zero. Good for business—it was almost impossible to resist the brightly lit shops and cosy corner cafes. At the butcher’s, pâtés cased in golden pastry crusts, decorated with herbs and berries, tempt hungry shoppers. Patisserie shelves groan with glazed tarts, chocolate truffles and gem-coloured macaroons. Champagne, in limited edition Christmas bottles, takes pride of place in the wine shop windows. But the happiest merchant of all must be the fishmonger. Christmas food in France is all about the sea: oysters, crab, langoustines, lobster—anything that can be prised out of a shell.
I was eager to check out the Christmas market that stretches up Champs Élysées from Place de la Concorde, but my advice having done so would be to steer clear. There is not much that is Christmassy about market stalls touting Eiffel Tower key rings, made-in-China soft toys and giant bags of pick ‘n’ mix sweets. Instead, walk across the river from the Marais to Saint-Germain-des-Prés, meandering through the streets as you go. Along the way you will discover lots of little specialist shops selling everything from silk scarves to sugared nuts: these make for much more personal and interesting gifts than anything to be found on the Grands Boulevards. Here, instead of jostling for space, shoppers huddle together under patio heaters for warmth, sometimes sipping wine and slurping on those oysters.
On Saturday night we attended a concert at La Sainte Chapelle, a beautiful medieval chapel in the courtyard of the royal palace on the Île de la Cité. Vivaldi’s Four Seasons resonated through the stained glass chapel (look it up, it truly is breathtaking and the photos I took don’t do it justice). It was an unforgettable experience and recommended to anyone who visits Paris at this time of year (Christmas concerts are held throughout the season).
After the concert we zipped accross town to le Clown Bar on Rue Amelot for dinner. There’s nothing particularly Christmassy about this place but it has to be mentioned because it we enjoyed it just as much as the concert. You’ll have a tough time deciding which dishes to share because each one sounds (and is) as delicious as the next. The chefs are Japonese working with mostly French ingredients. They serve up a scrumptious fusion of the two cuisines to a foodie crowd.
Paris can be beautiful at this time of year. Stay away from the crowds, shop in specialist shops, eat at interesting local restaurants and have yourself a wonderful Christmas time.