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Thursday, January 2, 2014


Christmas Market in Carcassonne, France
OUR FIRST NOEL--Our holiday season began with the funky little Marche de Noel in Cordes-sur-Ciel, which we told you about in our last travelogue. The following week we went to Ferriere-Larcon (see photo), about an hour south of Tours and about a six-hour drive from Arzac, to share Thanksgiving with our friends David and Pauline. It’s funny how their village, which seemed so small to us before, looks quite cosmopolitan to us now. Turns out our own village is not a village at all, but a hamlet…

Back at home, we headed to nearby Albi for the first day of their Christmas market. Except the website was wrong, or our translation was -- there was only an ice skating rink set up next to the cathedral. The nice lady at the tourist office told us the Marche de Noel didn’t start until the following weekend, so we decided to enjoy the beautiful sunny day and explore part of the old town, with its covered market and UNESCO World Heritage cathedral. Albi is the bureaucratic center of the Prefecture we live in, so it helps to know our way around it.

We accidentally ran across Gaillac’s Christmas market on one of our regular grocery shopping trips… a small, tented affair in the town square, with some very good vin chaud (hot spiced wine), a few commercial booths and a crafting area for kids. While waiting for the vin chaud to get properly done, we wandered around the area and found some booths in a nearby square where they were promoting the local museum. We missed the organic wines exhibit, but we did take the opportunity to visit the cathedral on the Tarn river.

Our next attempt at Christmas marketing was in Carcassonne, a couple of hours to the south. We took the scenic route down from our hills, across the valleys, up over the Black Mountains and down to the lowlands stretching toward the Mediterranean, where Carcassonne sits on the river Aude. On our way, we stopped at the remains of the village of Hautpoul, now just a few stone houses clinging to the side of the mountain, site of a massacre during the religious wars.

Carcassonne, with the citadel grandly overlooking a more modern town on one side and the remains of a bastide on the other, was a marvelous place to visit. Except for the Christmas markets, which were located on several squares in the new town and consisted almost entirely of carnival rides. There were only a couple of market booths and very little food except for sweets -- we tried the vin chaud and a lovely dark chocolate-covered sugar glazed clementine (like a little tangerine). There were a few lights and decorations (see photo), but no Christmas music, and very few people even late on a Friday afternoon.

Walking back over the river toward the citadel made us forget our disappointment, however. Lit up by a full moon and floodlights, the walled city really makes an impact (see photo). Climbing the long, switchback approach to the city gates was like walking back in time. Our hotel was inside the old city walls, next to a basilica church, very comfortable and just around the corner from Comte Roger, where we had an amazingly delicious, leisurely dinner.

The next morning we explored the citadel, bought ourselves a few treats, and headed for home along a different route. We encountered a bit of a traffic jam in the little town of Villefranche, which turned out to be caused by a Basque man leading a team of oxen down the main street. Talk about going back in time! A bit later, as we passed through the town of Lavaur, we saw a busy Christmas market centered around the local Rotary hall and stopped for a taste of their vin chaud. They had live entertainment -- a young woman who mostly talked about singing in Los Angeles -- and a huitres (fresh oysters) stand, as well as lots of local crafts, a charity draw and a small flea market.

Our next Christmas market -- we were determined to make a thorough job of this -- was in our own Cahuzac-sur-Vere, the center of the commune we live in. It was a busy, one-day affair, held in the salle de fetes, or community center, a feature of nearly every town in this country. Tables were set up on the main floor, and there was a play area for kids on the stage, as well as a chair for Santa. It was almost entirely local people, selling mostly handmade goods, but had none of the food, music or atmosphere of a Christmas market.

We decided to take the train in to Toulouse to see the biggest Marche de Noel in the area. Riding the train gave us the chance check out the major public transportation in our area, while avoiding city traffic and parking hassles -- and it was fun. The market itself, however… are you sensing a theme, here? It was big, in a large square overlooked by the major government building, and there were lots of market booths and food stands and plenty of vin chaud (see photo). Half of it was a flea market, and there were lots of people there on a sunny Thursday afternoon, with more people sitting at the sidewalk cafes located on the square. We had a tasty sausage sandwich, and good vin chaud, but there was no Christmas music and the atmosphere was quite businesslike.

The really striking thing about the Toulouse market was at the entry to it. A nice park led to a passageway through the huge 18th-century Capitole building toward the Capitole Square where the market was held. In the passageway, arranged around a small central courtyard, were a dozen or so scenes -- bizarre little rooms with creepy half-human/half-animal occupants, signposted with explanations of the themes, all under the heading of “Les Irreals” (see photos).  Surreal they were, and about as unChristmas-y as you could get, with titles like “mender of broken hearts” and “keeper of mysteries.” There was a room made of underwear, a big rabbit-man intently pulling heads off little dolls, and a creepy guy bashing weird animals with a stick. Beautifully done, but the stuff of nightmares!

Last of all, we finally made it back to Albi, to be greeted by a small market on a busy square with a petting zoo set-up scattered among the chalet-style market and food booths (see photo). There were very friendly people manning the booths, and live music provided by two men in semi-medieval costume, and we finally started to feel like Christmas, despite the mild, sunny weather. On our way back to the car, we wandered the old city streets, discovering a wonderful hidden cloister and medieval church, doing a bit of shopping and enjoying the holiday crowds.

The upshot of our tale is this: While there are many, many reasons to visit France, and Southern France in particular, Christmas markets are not among them (though they do tell us Alsace is better). Please don’t think we’re complaining. Our own holidays, just the two of us in our cosy home in France, have been wonderful, and we’re looking forward to an adventurous year ahead… including a Christmas market trip to Germany in 2014.

Christmas Market in Albi, France

Tourists fall in line behind Basque oxen

Picturesque Ferriere Larcon in Central France

La Cite, the citadel in Carcassonne

Scene from Les Irreals in Toulouse

Character from Les Irreals

Christmas Market in Toulouse, France
Google Map showing the triangle of Albi, Carcassonne and Toulouse.

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