AT THIS TIME OF THE YEAR the Marchés de Noël, or Christmas markets, spring up all over Paris and I have three of them within easy reach of me. To the west is the very large one at La Défense with its 350 châlets standing in the shadow of la Grande Arche, to the east is the most visited Christmas market in Paris stretching along the Champs Elysées and then, at the bottom of my little street, is the one closest to home.
The Christmas markets at La Défense and along the Champs Elysées are very big, mostly swamped with visitors and quite impersonal whereas my local Christmas market is tiny in comparison but what it lacks in size it more than makes up for in congeniality.
My local Christmas market is now open for business so I’ve been to have a look, to savour the atmosphere and to capture the sights and sounds.
Contrary to what you might think, the sounds in the big Christmas markets can often be quite bland but in my local Christmas market I enjoyed a sonic treat – two different bands, a street organ and singer, electronic music accompanying butterfly elves on stilts, a balloon sculptress with enormous boots and, of course, the sounds of lots of excited small children.
My local Christmas market in sound:
Alexandre l’Agodas: Le colporteur de rêves et son orgue de barbarie
(The pedlar of dreams and his barrel organ)
Les Elfes-papillons des pôles
(Butterfly elves on stilts)
Sculpture sur ballons avec Bibindum
Swing Connection – New Orleans Jazz
LA DÉFENSE IS A MAJOR business district in the far west of Paris. It lies at the extreme western end of the axis that begins at the Louvre and continues along the Champs Elysées beyond the Arc de Triomphe to La Défense.
At this time each year, La Défense is host to a large Christmas market built in front of La Grande Arche, one of François Mitterrand’s Grands Projets. Designed by Danish architect Johann Otto von Spreckelsen and Danish engineer Erik Reitzel, La Grande Arche was built as a monument to humanity and humanitarian ideals.
Standing in front of La Grande Arche last Saturday afternoon, I was struck by the contrast between the 350 tiny wooden châlets and the giant office blocks that surround them. I was also struck by the stark contrast of the traders in the châlets trying to sell their wares to ordinary punters like me with some of the madness associated with these giant buildings.
Take the building on the left for example, Coeur Défense. At the height of the financial madness in 2008, Coeur Défense became the most expensive piece of real estate on the planet when it was bought by Lehman Brothers for an astonishing €2.1bn. They bought it just as the property market peaked and we know what happened next. Property prices fell, Lehman Brothers went bankrupt and disposing of Coeur Défense become Europe’s largest distressed property sale.
I was also thinking about Société Générale, France’s second largest bank, whose offices are a short walk from the Christmas Market in La Défense. On January 24, 2008, the bank announced that a single futures trader had fraudulently lost the bank €4.9 billion, the largest such loss in history.
All this stands in stark contrast to the individual stallholders at the Christmas market trying to make a living and bringing some Christmas cheer in the process.
Music at the Christmas market:
Christmas markets in Paris are always enjoyable to visit even if you do tend to see the same stalls in more or less the same places each year selling more or less the same things. Each year, I set off to capture the sounds of the Christmas markets but, as each year passes, I find it more difficult to find something different to record. These musicians for example, good as they are, are always at the Christmas market in La Défense, in the same place and often playing the same music.
So this year, even though the sounds I found at La Défense were pretty much the same as every year, I’ve tried to capture a different emphasis by putting the individual stallholders centre stage as they go about selling their wares.
Consider it a poke in the eye to the ‘suits’ who plundered the pension funds of the unsuspecting public to the tune of billions!
La Défense Christmas Market – A Soundwalk:
IT’S DECEMBER AND SO it must be the Christmas market season and Paris seems to be awash with Christmas markets this year. During my travels this week I’ve seen four of the Christmas markets that Paris has to offer. I seldom travel without a microphone and sound recorder to hand and so I was able to catch snatches of sound at each of them.
This week I’ve seen the most glamorous Christmas market that Paris has to offer, along with the biggest, the most intimate (for me at any rate), and what I think might be the smallest.
Sounds from four Christmas markets in Paris:
With it’s white painted châlets stretching from the Rond-Point to the Place de la Concorde, Le Marché de Noël in the Champs Elysées has to be the most glamorous Christmas market in Paris.
With some fifteen million visitors each year this is the most visited Christmas market within the Paris city limits and, like most Christmas markets, it offers the usual fare of mulled wine, gingerbread, sausages and specialties from various regions of France together with countless gift items and more woolly hats than you could shake a stick at.
The largest Christmas market in the Ile de France is to be found on the Parvis of La Défense. With its three hundred and fifty châlets, I’ve watched this market being erected in late November every year for the last twelve years and I admit to a tinge of disappointment when it’s demolished every January.
For me, the Christmas market in La Défense sells the best food of any Christmas market in and around Paris.
Not surprisingly, the most intimate Christmas market for me is the one closest to home. Turn right at the bottom of my little street and voila, there it is. I always associate this market with two things; it’s very friendly, intimate atmosphere and the children. The market sits either side of an Ecole Maternelle, a primary school, and so as the school empties each day the children all drift towards the market on what always seems to me to be a wide-eyed, voyage of discovery. Their excited chatter says it all.
The smallest Christmas market I’ve seen so far I came across completely by chance. I emerged from the Metro at Nation at the Boulevard Voltaire exit to find the station entrance surrounded by a tiny market.
In some ways I found this market very different from the others I’d seen. The inflatable rubber Santa seemed to provide a compass point to the Christian festive season amid the stalls below, which served largely Arabic fare. A Christmas carol sung in Chinese added wonderfully to the multi-cultural dimension.
And, as a final note, I was reminded when I was in La Défense to post early for Christmas to avoid disappointment. Is it possible that Father Christmas, or Père Noël as he’s known here in France, really does exist? I like to think so!
LA DEFENSE, IN THE FAR WEST of Paris, is a high-rise business ghetto and home to many French and multi-national companies. It is quite unlike any other area of Paris.
In early November each year on the Parvis of La Défense, in front of La Grande Arche, construction of the annual Christmas market begins.
With its wooden châlets selling almost everything you can think of, this Christmas market looks quite surreal against the landscape that is La Défense.
This year the market opened for business on 24th November and it lasts until 27th December.
Of course, the Marché de Noël in La Défense is not the only show in town.
The huge Christmas market in the Champs Elysées, with its rows of white châlets lining both sides of the avenue from the Rond Point all the way down to Place de la Concorde, is expected to host around 15 million visitors this year. Although the Marché de Noël in La Défense is much smaller, it is also more intimate and, since it is just two Metro stops from my quartier, I prefer it.
Of all the wide variety of things on sale, my favourites are the wonderful food stalls of which there are many.
As well as being rich in delicious food, the Marché de Noël in La Défense is also rich in sound and this group of South Americans are well-known street musicians in Paris.
They can be found playing on the streets and in the Metro – and they are also an annual feature of the Marché de Noël in La Défense.
Not the Christmas fare that some of us would expect – but delicious nevertheless.