Winter in France is fabulous! But even better if brilliantly prepared with my travel packing tips!
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Joyeux Noel and Bonne année!
Currently I am sending you wishes for a gorgeous Chrissy from my home in the Aussie bush surrounded by the sounds of kookaburras in summer, with kangaroos joining us for our morning coffee and returning for apéro in the late arvo! A far cry from last year when I was in France on my wonderful Noël roadtrip through the French alps and the Alsace region.
I have a couple of tips for travelling in the type of weather that can be expected in France in December as it is winter! This is the time of mulled wine, big coats, warm open fires and rugging up with fabulously filling French comfort food!
Loulabelle’s top 5 tips for travelling during the Christmassy period in mountainous France:
1. Before leaving Australia I ordered some fur lined boots online. I didn’t want to waste time searching for them once I was already in the cold in France, nor take the risk that I wouldn’t find anything appropriate and be left with freezing tootsies! There were loads of cheap options online, but I decided to buy a pair from known established brand Sandler and from reliable Australian department store Myer, because the thought of a cheaply made pair of shoes falling apart on me in minus degrees was not appealing. This was absolutely the best travel purchase I’ve ever made, ever! I wore these boots every day. They had rubber soles so mostly non-slip, and they kept my feet warm and dry. They weren’t the most fashionable boots on the street, I mean they looked great but they weren’t hip and funky, but they kept me toastie through some freezing conditions!
2. I took my Ugg boots for wearing at night so my fur-lined day boots could dry out. I did see people wearing Ugg boots out and about during the day, but I don’t recommend that if you are going to be doing lots of walking. You might find yourself in slushy snow and also in the rain. Use Uggs for during your flight and indoors at night only!
3. My third tip is to take thermals! I wore non-bulky thermal leggings and tops made from merino wool as my first underneath layer of clothing. You will need them if going into the mountains in late December. It was minus 11 on the morning that we left Strasbourg to travel to Paris in the week leading up to Christmas, and had been minus 13 overnight, so that gives you an idea of the type of cold to expect!
4. My next tip is don’t pack too much. I have never been a light packer and I always, every single time regret how much I take away with me. But the next time I travel in France in December I will remember that the Airbnbs and hotels are all heated 24 hours a day so I found I could wash and dry overnight. I also found that once I had a combo of clothing that worked for keeping me warm outside but was also easy for stripping off every time we went into a warm café or store, I wanted to wear that combination all the time! I didn’t need the copious amount of clothing I had packed which I ended up having to drag around with me unworn. Lighter layers will be needed to wear over each other also instead of big bulky jumpers.
5. Now this next tip is important if you’re like me and use your phone a lot to take pictures. Gloves! Try to find gloves with a phone compatible patch on the finger tip so you don’t need to take the gloves on and off too much. I actually wore two pairs of gloves on many days! One pair with the finger phone patch first and then a lined fingerless pair over the top. For head gear I wore a heavy felt ear wrap under my beanie. I took various weights of beanies too as some days I needed a lined head covering whilst on other days that was too hot and a simple woolen beanie or felt beret was enough.
We collected our car in Lyon and heading about 30 minutes out to a little country Airbnb at a wine-growers near the Plus Beau Village of Oingt. We hadn’t had dinner so headed out to find somewhere and came across a village called Bully (pronounced “boollie”). We drove out in the dark through the little winding streets and when we came to the village it was like a magic fairy tale unfolding. We could see the gorgeous Christmas decorations in the town square with a huge sapin or Christmas tree in the centre of the village and beautiful big baubles hanging in the other trees all around. The lit up blue, white and gold huge balls were hanging like some sort of magic Noël fruit in the trees. The buildings were all of the beautiful local stone, and even though it was only about 7pm it was very dark with a full moon that shone on the stone giving it a divine golden hue. There was a sort of mystic quietness about the place. It seemed that everything was closed and I worried that we were too late for dinner as can happen in some small towns in Australia by 7pm, but in fact we were too early! Work hours are 10am-7pm in much of France, so the restaurant, the only one in town it seemed, was opening at 7.30. It had a terrific menu, wonderful drinks trolley with assorted cognacs and brandies, a great wine list and a jolly looking chef, which ma belle amie Sarah says is a good sign that the food will be good. And she was right! I can’t recall the name of it but if you head into Bully, it’s right in the main square opposite the church and the boulangerie.
Link: Info re Bully
The next day we explored further on the Routes de Vins which is the wine route around Lyon focusing on Beaujolais wines. I didn’t know a lot about Beaujolais before this trip, but I am an absolute convert!
The region of Beaujolais was first cultivated by the Romans who planted the areas along its trading route up the Saône Valley. It is in the northern part of the Rhône region, but apparently actually sits mainly in Burgundy, although the Beaujolais variety is distinctly its own. From the 7th century through to the Middle Ages, most of the winemaking of Beaujolais was done by Benedictine monks. The Beaujolais appellation (which is the appellation d’origine contrôlée (AOC) the official mark that identifies an agricultural product like wines, olive oils, cheeses, even some meats, that are made in a defined geographical area and made using recognised and traditional know-how) the Beaujolais AOC officially came into being in 1937, and more recently in the 1980s it celebrated a revival which then saw more grapes planted a couple of decades ago which we are reaping the rewards from today!
90% of Beaujolais wines are a gorgeous red but there are also rosé and white varieties. I stuck mainly to the reds and I was not disappointed. Beaujolais is the result of a cross between pinot noir and gouais, which produces a wonderfully fresh and fruity wine. If like me you like your wines and trying new varieties, I recommend a few days enjoying the route de vin north of Lyon. It has some incredibly beautiful countryside and villages.
Link: Beaujolais Wine Route
I had researched two different Plus Beaux Villages to visit in the Beaujolais route de vin region. Les-plus-beaux-villages-de-france is an official list of villages rated as amongst the most beautiful in France. It is important to note that there are many villages not on the Plus Beaux Villages list, that are absolutely just as magical as some Plus Beaux Villages I have been to. The Plus Beaux Villages requirements are very strict, so there will be many quaint, cute and fascinating villages which don’t meet the criteria as they may be too small, slightly too large in population, or not have had an historical event occur for example. So it is well worth meandering through villages regardless of their Plus Beaux Villages status. That being said the Plus Beaux Villages website is a great place to start when planning where you’re going to go, so I planned to drive to the medieval village of Oingt. I kept calling it “oinked” at the start which Sarah found quite funny but I got the hang of the pronunciation eventually, pronounced “oweainn”.
We drove right through the village from end to end in about 30 seconds! There seemed to be quite a few cars in outlying carparks, so we picked one and wandered back into the cute, winding streets. As we walked we noticed that every house and shop had a “creche” display out the front, a nativity scene. Every year, the Amies de Vieux Village d’Oingt organise the “Oingt en Crèches” event with nativity scenes made and exhibited by the residents in the petit ruelles of the village. We found them everywhere: in windows, in mailboxes, in wheelbarrows, in little cave like dugouts. They’re made so creatively too. We saw one sculpted from wrought iron, another made entirely of sea urchins! There were traditional looking scenes and one even made from plant pots! It makes for a beautifully warm Christmas atmosphere. There are concerts and choir events through December which unfortunately we weren’t there for, but we did get the benefit of the mulled wine and warm waffle cart.
Link: Oingt info
The second Plus Beaux Villages on my list to visit was Pérouges. It has an amazing l’eglise fortresse and a quaint looking village but we didn’t get to see much of it as there were squillions of people wandering through the village for the Christmas market on that day. The Marche de Noël was fabulous with more authentic artisans than in some of the other markets I had seen, but with the weather turning rainy and loads of bodies crammed in, it wasn’t much fun. I will definitely return to enjoy Pérouges in all her splendor another time!
We headed then to our next stop for a few days in Annecy.
Annecy is on a spectacular lake and the old part of the town is exquisite. We stayed in an Airbnb overlooking the canal that leads to the lake which was the perfect position to wander into the many Christmas markets but also into the little alley ways and ruelles which had such wonderful shops to wile away our time and warm up. I made a few, what I like to call “life-time” purchases there. Things that will never be found anywhere else and will never be a regret!
Annecy was also the first place that I experienced a Tartiflette. It was unbelievably scrumptious and so filling. I actually struggled to finish it all! The cheesy layer of reblochon on top hid the creamy potato and lardons underneath.
But apart from the gorgeous boutiques the quaint restaurants, the beautiful buildings of old Annecy, by far the most stunning attribute for all of Annecy is the lake. It is very close to the Swiss border and the mountains right next to the lake are amazing. Being so close to Switzerland, some of the buildings out of old Annecy have a little chalet look to them. In summer it is one of the most flower filled towns in France but even in winter it has a wonderful charm. We were lucky enough to wake up there to the first snow of the season which had me squealing with delight until I realised I had to move luggage through the slushy streets, clear the car and drive through it. The romance of the white dusting was replaced by reality fairly quickly, but all those hassles were easily overcome and it was an extraordinary experience for a Melbourne girl like me where we’ve never lived through daily snow!
Links: Our Annecy Airbnb
Driving in France
We had a long day of driving from Annecy through snow, sleet and eventually black ice as well to get to Colmar. We decided to take a longer route which wasn’t so mountainous because of the conditions and just took it slowly. The first time I went on a roadtrip there over a decade ago, I took a load of detailed maps but some hire cars have smart phone connectivity, and if you get a mobile phone sim with data, then Google maps will work just fine. The good thing about Google maps especially when driving in some sleet, icy or snowy conditions, Google will direct you away from the most dangerous roads and gives various options to choose from if you prefer driving away from large trucks for example. Also, it is crucial when hiring a car to drive in the Alsace region that you ensure you get snow tyres. We did and I was so grateful for it as there was an unseasonal cold snap whilst we were there.
Colmar is a much bigger town than I realised, it’s actually a small city with a population of around 70,000. We stayed in a very traditional Alsatian apartment which was absolutely what we needed at this stage of the trip. It was so homely. It had terrific big king sized beds, wonderful heating and was the perfect place to recharge after the long days we knew we’d have visiting all the sights around the area. Our Airbnb hosts Jean-Marie and Agnes were by far the most helpful and lovely Airbnb hosts I have ever had anywhere ever! Jean-Marie gave us tips on where to go and Agnes made us a traditional cinnamon cake to eat called a Kugelhopf, Jean-Marie even cleared the snow off our car on our last morning there and helped with our luggage. If heading to Colmar, he is definitely your man!
Link: Our Colmar Airbnb
I planned this part of the roadtrip around Colmar whilst we had a car and chose our apartment with parking accordingly. We stayed a few days and checked out the old town of Colmar on a couple of occasions with its colourful half-timbered houses on the canals, which at Christmas time look just like the villages on the shortbread tins my grandmother had when I was a child. So beautiful.
Christmas Villages near Colmar
There are a number of very pretty Christmas villages around Colmar that are worth visiting. A couple are also not far from Strasbourg, so easily drivable from there too, except that having a car in Strasbourg is problematic at Christmas time so we did these visits from Colmar before dropping the car off on our arrival in Strasbourg. There are quite a number to choose from so below are my top three recommendations of the villages near Colmar to get your Frenchy Christmas vibes fluttering! :
1. Eguisheim. I adored this village. We visited it late in the day when it was already turning dark. The Christmas village was in full swing with wonderful Alsatian warm and filling market foods, mulled wine and a beautiful community atmosphere. Every building looked like a chocolate box, the people were lovely and warm to us, and the petite ruelles were magically enticing. I felt that Santa could have actually appeared around any corner at any moment! One thing that tipped this over into the number one spot for me, was that there was an open air show happening in the square as we arrived which took all the audience around the various parts of the village. It was a comedy with actors and the crowd was lapping up every word. Think Punch and Judy in a kind of historic setting like a Shakespeare play in the round, combined with some sort of hilarious act from the Edinburgh comedy festival! I loved it! I got the gist even though most of it was in French but mostly I loved the sense of festive togetherness it brought to the whole village. People weren’t there just to buy stuff at a market. They were immersing in a celebration of Noël spirit! It was also easy to get around this village as it wasn’t jam packed. I would actually recommend staying in this village of Eguisheim even for one or two nights as there were a couple of gorgeous looking hotels with parking available, that were also exquisitely decorated.
Link: Eguisheim info
2. Kaysersberg. This is a village with meandering streets which we actually drove into the centre of by accident. There is limited parking so best to go to one of the carparks on the outskirts and wander on in. I was completely beguiled and bewitched by the cute and quaint village under a layer of snow! The shop windows were all looking like something from a Grimms fairytale. I saw a shoe shop which looked like elves had been working in it all night! Out the front of one of the churches in Kaysersberg was a wonderfully impressive crèche or nativity scene. The church bells tolled as I stood there marveling at the workmanship required to build that crèche to withstand all sorts of weather through the Christmas period. I absolutely love that the whole community goes to such lengths to celebrate Noël in this way. One of my favourite things here was the surprise view around every corner of the quaint tiny streets with crooked little coloured houses, chimney pots with smoke streaming from them, holly and decorations in each window and hanging from every door. I felt like our car must have been a time machine and I had stepped back centuries. I’m sure the snow added to that romance, but nevertheless it is a memory I will treasure.
Link: Kaysersberg info
3. Riquewihr. The day we visited Riquewihr the temperature had plummeted overnight and there was black ice on the roads and paths everywhere. We got to Riquewihr and there seemed to be a number of people being turned away from the main town gate to park elsewhere. We didn’t think much of this as the same thing had happened back in Oingt, Pérouges and even in Eguisheim. We found a spot to park on the side of the road in the middle of fields of vines on every side and got out to walk into the village. I stepped onto the tarmac and realised this was not going to be an easy task. I looked at how far was still to be covered to reach the village, only about 200 metres, but that took around 15 minutes! Once we reached the main street we managed to walk up to the gates of the old town by walking in the gutters as they had melted slightly and were a little less slippery with dropped foliage and debris to step on. Once through the gates of the Riquewihr old town though it was a whole different story. People were tumbling down all over the place. I had my rubber soled shoes on but still needed to concentrate to find the divets in between the cobblestones to step on, as the uneven surface there seemed to be easier to get a grip on. We made it as far as the first restaurant and headed straight inside for a magnificent traditional feed of a creamy veal and mushroom dish with spaetzles, which are a kind of little misshapen eggy pasta served on the side. Chatting to the other diners we worked out that the locals put their socks over their shoes to assist with the grip on the black ice, so with my fur-lined boots I decided to forgo the luxury of socks and popped them over the outside of my boots to help me return to the car!
Whilst Riquewihr is a certified Plus-Beau-Village and is known to have the reputation of being insanely fabulous when it comes to Chrissy things, we made the decision to return to Colmar without a broken hip and be grateful for a most amazing lunch there. Also a tip for walking on black ice, the socks over the boots actually works and if there is a vineyard near your car, walk between the vines as we did on the return to our parking spot rather than try to walk on the icy road!
Link: Riquewihr info
Strasbourg – history
The crescendo of our Tour de Noel de France, our little Christmas tour of the Alsace region… Strasbourg. Now
Strasbourg is the biggest city in Eastern France. It’s one of the four main capitals of the European Union alongside Brussels, Luxembourg and Frankfurt and is also the home of the European Parliament and a number of other significant European institutions. Strasbourg has a feel to it, like it has been through a lot and that is for good reason. This area of France has been taken over more times and seen more conflict than any other region. It was originally settled by Celtic tribes towards the end of the 3rd century BC with Julius Caesar conquering the region in 58 BC. Caesar brought with him the Roman culture, he built roads and imported vines for wine. The original Celtic tribes then drove out the Romans eventually. Centuries later the region became a Christian stronghold around the year 500. In the middle ages Alsace was part of the Germanic world, until in the 1600s the 30 years war broke out with the Catholic Habsburgs fighting the protestant princes. The French were not happy about either of those options so they got stuck into it as well. In 1648 a treaty was signed and Alsace was officially French from then on. That was until the Franco-Prussian war of 1870 and 71 when it flipped back to Germany and it then stayed German until the aftermath of the first world war was settled with Alsace going back to France. It was again heavily impacted by changing to Germany during WW2 when the French part of their culture was suppressed with the French language not even allowed to be spoken. The result is a region that is now neither German nor really truly French, but it is Alsace and it definitely wears its identity proudly. Over the 75 year period from 1870 until the end of the second world war, Alsace changed hands four times between France and Germany. It’s not surprising to me then that I felt a sense of the buildings in Strasbourg exuding a wisdom and telling a story. It is an extraordinary place.
Strasbourg – our experience
We stayed in a quirky Airbnb in the centre of the old town right next to the main Christmas market. This was absolutely sensational except for the fact we didn’t know that no cars are allowed at all in this part of town through the second half of November and all of December. Some reviews I had read suggested people could drive in to drop off luggage but that clearly wasn’t the case. The learning here is that it is important to communicate with your Airbnb host about your mode of transport and other arrival details and don’t rely just on reviews for your info!
Strasbourg has great transport links. The central island of old Strasbourg, the Grande Ile is the historic city centre and was classified a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1988. This is where now we find the Christmas markets. Over the four days we had there which included the weekend before Christmas, they were jam packed with tourists. But we found it very easy to navigate the markets, restaurants, stores, churches and all parts of Strasbourg despite the crowds. The Christmas decorations in comparison to all the villages we had been to, were next level and off the charts. There’s something really charming and warm about the decorations in a quaint village, but these were completely different. Every decoration in Strasbourg whether it be on a store, a church or a street decoration, makes a statement that is bold. Some were just breathtaking. The huge Christmas tree that is taller than the buildings around the main square can be seen from the tiny streets leading to the square. It kept changing colours too so just when I thought I had seen it and taken a pic, I turned to find it now covered in brilliant blue decorations or 30 seconds later in a gorgeous gold. There are not many French Christmas carols so bizarrely I was experiencing all of this with piped music blaring, in the small villages as well as Strasbourg, with the sounds of Bing Crosby, Michael Bublé and even Mariah Carey which I found both hilarious and a tad bizarre!
Now not far from the cathedral which is noted as one of the most beautiful Gothic Cathedrals in France is a church which is much less imposing. But on a cold night something about this smaller church drew me in. The bells were tolling and I could hear it from a couple of streets away. I followed the sound and headed into the warm church. There were quite a number of people but lots of spare seats, so I took one and sat down. There was a piano solo taking place on the altar with Christmas Advent candles displayed in a wreath as well as Hanukkah candles. It was quiet, reverent and all at once I felt this place being inclusive of anyone of any religion, who needed to be there at that time. A beautiful feeling of tolerance and collectivism in a place that had in 2018 tragically been the site of a terror attack. There was no sense at all of a risk of that. The presence of police was everywhere but not intrusive.
Our first night in Strasbourg we looked up a restaurant to visit for dinner. We found a traditional little hideaway called S’Thomas Streubel decorated with classic Alsace motifs. It had a terrific traditional menu and the food coming out of the tiny kitchen was incredible. I tried a Fleischnacka which was sensational. Find a recipe down below in the blog. I chose the Fleischnacka with sauce avec cèpes, or mushrooms. We then had spaetzles on the side and a salad, although I think traditionally the salad would be overlooked. The wonderfully chatty waiter then convinced us to share profiteroles for dessert and I expected the pastry with cream or custard as we have in Australia, but it came with a home made vanilla icecream inside the huge profiterole case with a hot chocolate drizzly sauce. Oh my giddy aunt, thank goodness I had my stretchy Christmas pants on! We washed it all down with a gorgeous ceramic pitcher of the local Riesling to round out a terrific dinner. The atmosphere was loud and happy, the people so warm and inviting. It was a place full of locals which is always a good sign, but we would have walked right past it in the street.
Link: S’Thomas Struebel
Another Strasbourg restaurant I was fortunate enough to visit on this trip was one owned and run by Gabriel Gâté’s niece Charlotte. Gabriel recommended the Michelin starred restaurant “Les Plaisirs Gourmand” where Charlotte’s chef husband Guillaume Scheer is an amazing gourmet wizard! Charlotte is also a chef and manages the front of house and I reckon the husband and wife team make a fabulous combo.
I always like to have one treat that is a little bit sumptuous on every vacation. This lunch was exactly that, from the food, seven courses in all, the ambiance, the wonderful staff, even the bespoke soft leather wrapped tables, it was understated elegance. My fave dish was the mushroom ravioli with a truffle emulsion (it sounds very MasterChef and very flash, and that’s because it was very flash!) and shaved truffle on the top. I’m not even going to try to recreate it at home like I usually attempt as I just want to keep that memory as it is. Perfect. It is usually booked out in advance so book well ahead.
Link: Les Plaisirs Gourmand
The last travelling leg of this adventure was from Strasbourg to Paris by train. Immediately when we got to Paris, it was magical. I chatted to Emily Gaudichon @thereal_emilyinparis about her Christmas in Paris guide. I also caught up with Emily for a coffee in the Saint-Germain-des-Pres area and she gave me some more tips! There is so much to see in Paris in the week leading up to Christmas.
If going to Paris at Christmas, make a list of the top things you want to see and group them into geographical areas. Then leave extra time between each thing you’ve planned to visit, as the amount of tourists in Paris during this time is incredible. Especially in the more touristy places like Galeries Lafayette and Printemps or on the Champs Elysee, Place Vendome or Rue Cambon where you’ll find the Dior and Chanel Chrissy decorations. The lights and the decorated windows are amazing in all those places and so worth seeing. The whole ambiance in is electric. Then there are the uber touristy and popular cafes like Les Deux Magots and Café de Flore which I normally adore, but during this period they are crazy busy too with a queue out the front of lots of “Emily in Paris” fashionistas ready to take selfies. I found stepping back into the side streets to the lesser well known spots gave a more authentic Parisian Noël experience. Paris is decorated in almost every street. There is beauty and magic around every corner. Every moment, even though it was cold enough to freeze the pond in the Jardin de Luxembourg, was an absolute delight.