The Magical Christmas Markets of Brittany...
If the thought of swarming shopping centres, garish high street decorations and tacky Santa-and-Rudolph-themed gifts fills you with dread (as it does me), then I can recommend an uplifting festive alternative on offer, just across the Channel. When it comes to setting out a good market, the French demonstrate unrivalled know-how, whatever the season. But at Christmastime, when the squares are packed with attractive stalls and sparkling lights, French markets really do shine. You'll find a good one in most towns, usually during the three weeks leading up to the festivities, and sometimes for a week or two beyond.
To whet your appetite I've picked a few of my favourite festive locations in Brittany, a region where the locals always do things just that little bit differently - Christmas being a case in point. Nedeleg laouen! - the Breton Christmas greeting sums up this singular spirit, and if you make the trip across to Brittany this Christmas, you're assured a warm Celtic welcome, oodles of atmosphere, and a more refined and relaxed environment in which to tick off your Christmas shopping list - all while you soak up some family-friendly, festive fun.
And it's not just the setting which makes such a pleasant contrast to Christmas shopping at home, but also the sheer range of gifts and produce on offer. Browse the stalls and you'll find no end of distinctive present ideas - things that you just won't find in Britain. Look out for local Breton crafts, pottery, handcrafted decorations and tableware, toys, cakes and sweets. And while you're at it, don't forget to stock up the kitchen cupboard in time for the festive season - you'll find local wines, beers, cheeses, pates, jams and honey by the boot-load.
Of course, no visit to a marché de Noël is complete without a handful of roasted chestnuts and a fortifying mugful of vin chaud. But make sure you sample the local specialities too. These include crêpes, galettes (pancakes made with buckwheat), fars (mouth-watering Breton flans made with milk and eggs), and Kouign-Amann - a traditional cake made using almost entirely local butter - and unashamedly so. You really need to taste it to see what I mean. Oh, but whatever your chosen delicacy, don't forget to wash it down with a glass or two of the fine local cidre!
A pick of the best:
10 minutes' walk from our port of St Malo
The town's robust ramparts make a spectacular backdrop to St Malo's Christmas festivities, where you're assured a memorable Christmas experience. Around thirty stallholders will set up shop, plus the town will lay on a colourful range of entertainment including bands, craft workshops, and storytelling. A dreamlike snow garden will provide for perfect festive photo opportunities, and if you're lucky, you might just bump into Father Christmas himself. And if you fancy yet more Christmas magic, either head into the enchanting walled town, or alternatively drive to one of the neighbouring Christmas markets at Saint-Servan, Paramé, and Rocabey.
When: 20th-23rd December 2013. Find out more here
2 hours' drive from St Malo
There's something about the lofty City walls, quaint cobbled streets, and pristinely preserved timbered buildings that makes Vannes seem as if it was somehow just made for celebrating Christmas. Add to that the tasteful lights strung across the streets, the festive market stalls filling the squares, and a rich and diverse programme of seasonal family entertainment - and you'll know that you're indulging in an authentic chocolate box of Breton Christmas treats.
When: From 15th December 2013. Find out more here
An hour's drive from St Malo, or just under two hours from Caen
The famed Fête Foraine in the Breton capital has something for everyone, with a giant fairground for the kids and copious amounts of retail therapy for mum and dad. The Christmas craft fair is a hive of creativity and a great place for some inspired shopping. Expect carefully crafted clothes and leather goods, table and home wares, unique artwork, pottery and jewellery for plenty of present inspiration.
When: 7th December 2013 - 5th January 2014. Find out more here
Around two-and-a-half hours' drive from St Malo, or an hour from Roscoff
Venturing into Finistère will pay festive dividends aplenty, with Brest's reputation for throwing a Christmas market renowned throughout France. Pay a visit and you'll soon see why. Vibrant decorations, melodious bands, giant puppets - plus around 40 chalets selling local produce and delicacies - the Christmas spirit certainly knows how to find its way to western Brittany. There's also children's face painting, balloon modelling and a giant ferris wheel. To top it all off there's even a special Christmas train for the little ones - carrying the man in red himself, of course. And while you're in town, don't miss the chance to visit the 16th-century castle which dominates the historic port, and today houses France's remarkable National Naval Museum.
When: 29th November - 24th December 2013. Find out more here
Whichever market you choose, I promise you won't leave disappointed, but full of Christmas cheer - and perhaps a few too many Breton crêpes! And don't worry if you don't get around to seeing absolutely everything that's on offer - there's always next year! And if you discover a market I haven't mentioned, please leave your comments below - I'd love to hear how you got on. Happy Christmas, and Nedeleg laouen!