Lille Christmas Market festivities
Despite the recent prolificacy of seasonal markets across the UK and Europe (it seems you can't go anywhere in a city centre during December for fear of stumbling into a stall selling 'authentic' Christmas gifts), one visit to Lille and you'll be a convert to traditional Christmas markets.
The Christmas market in Lille is the largest in Northern France and has been a tradition for centuries. A trip like this is also a great opportunity to combine the fun of visiting somewhere you've always wanted to go with Christmas shopping and a little gastronomic indulgence.
I travelled across the channel from Dover to Dunkirk with DFDS Seaways, and from there it was a surprisingly quick hours' drive south to Lille. Parking in the city is incredibly convenient as well – we managed to park under the main Grand Place with the minimum of fuss.
Pretty much everything you'll want to see is contained in Lille's old city centre, which is very compact and can be easily explored on foot. Once the capital of Flanders, Lille has a fascinating history and cultural heritage, with Flemish, Burgundian, French, Dutch, German and Spanish influences all displayed along its pretty cobbled streets.
The Christmas Market
The Christmas stalls are located in the Place Rihour and the market is a fun reproduction of a snow-covered village, complete with a chapel and frozen pond to skate on. You'll find more than 80 colourful chalets here, selling reasonably-priced local arts, crafts and regional food specialities such as Maroilles cheese, chicory pâté, macaroons and waffles... stacks upon stacks of waffles.
When you tire of festive shopping, stroll next door to the Grand Place, officially named Place du Général-de-Gaulle after Lille's favourite son. This traditional meeting place is surrounded on all sides by some of the city's finest architecture, including the 17th-century Vieille Bourse, the old stock exchange built in a Flemish-Renaissance style, comprising 24 little houses around an arched courtyard.
It's also here that you'll find a 60-foot Christmas tree and Lille's famous, festive ferris wheel, surrounded by a picturesque snow-covered miniature village. Of course, you can't really miss it – this 164 foot-high wheel can be seen anywhere in Lille. The views of the city from the top are fantastic, but trust me... it feels a lot higher when you're on it and should not be attempted by those with any fear of heights.
Shopping in Lille
Shopping in the old town is a real treat, with shops to suit all tastes and budgets, from popular names in luxury goods, fashion and design to antique shops. If your budget doesn't stretch very far, the Euralille shopping centre, designed by Jean Nouvel, offers excellent value for money. Only a couple of minutes walk from the old town, it houses over 120 shops, restaurants and a hypermarket beneath its futuristic lines – perfect for stocking up for the seasonal festivities.
For the visitor, Lille is a very relaxed and entertaining destination. There's a real natural bonhomie and festive atmosphere here, the authenticity broken only by the occasional British Christmas pop song playing out around the square that should by rights be restricted to the office party dance floor.
For anyone tired of the relentless commercialisation of Christmas, Lille's market offers a welcome respite and return to traditional festivities. And to top it all off, not a fat bloke dressed in an ill-fitting Santa outfit in sight as well... a welcome relief for everyone.
DFDS Seaways sails from Dover to Dunkirk with crossings from £29 each way for a car and up to four passengers. DFDS Seaways operates 44 crossings per day between Dover and France including Dover to Calais and Dover to Dunkirk.
Lille Christmas Market is open November 21-December 30 (closed December 25). In Lille, most shops are closed on Sunday.