The City of Holiday Light
Joyeux Noël à Paris!
Daily temperatures below 10°C, gray skies with bits of cold raindrops spluttering down, blasts of icy winds attacking you down every avenue you turn; yup, it's wintertime in the northern continental region of France. But luckily, being in Paris, that also means the arrival of buckets of Holiday Cheer, and thousands of sparkling lights, marchés de Noël and holiday window displays to warm your soul. In fact, there are over 130 quartiers draped with holiday lights; 12 marchés de Noël set up around the city, 5 patinoires (ice skating rinks) set up from la Tour Eiffel to the l'hôtel de Ville, 3 grands magasins with elaborately themed windows, and one grand boulevard, the Champs Elysées, considered by some to be 'The Most Beautiful Boulevard in the World', festively decked out, leading to the most spectacular display of lights this time of year in Paris. Last week, Audrey Tautou made it official. The actress and 'ambassadrice de l'élégance' of Paris presided over the annual lighting of the Champs Elysées and with a flip of her finger, the entire boulevard was illuminated with thousands of twinkling lights from Arc de Triomphe to Place de la Concorde: neon blue and pink Jetson-esque rings adorning every Plane tree on the Grand Boulevard, snowscapes draped over every fountain, and the grand finale at the end of the boulevard at Concorde, La Grande Roue of Paris. It's truly a beautiful time to be in the city, gray and raining or not.
The last time I was in the city for the holidays, it was for the grand New Years 2000 celebration with my sister. It was that night that le Tour Eiffel was illuminated for the first time with thousands of LED lights. Some Parisians detest the sight, but I adore it. Watching the tower sparkle like a thousand Swarovski crystals filled me with a sense of magic that only Paris can posses. Even now, when I see it glittering across the Seine it reminds me of that truly spectacular New Years Eve where we drank Champagne at the foot of the sparkling tower with a group of crazy Italians then partied on the fantastically dream-like stage of the Champs Elysées until dawn. The Parisians certainly know how to celebrate the holidays, and so this time of year is fantastically magical.
The marchés du Noël are especially charming, like little county fairs that pop up along the narrow streets of the quartiers and in the taxi drop-off zones of train stations. At Gare de l'Est, the theme of the market is Alsatian gastronomy, as this is the station that serves the Alsatian region of France and cities such as Strasbourg and Vienna. Alsatian wine, foie gras, pain d'épice, Stöllen and the cured meats and sausages of the border towns are available for tasting and purchase. Up on Montmartre, it's a more traditional Christmas market, serving vin chad and chocolat l'ancienne (with Chantilly) at the foot of Sacre Coeur, with face painting, handmade crafts, carnival rides for the kiddies and an appearance of Père Noël himself.
Down on the Champs Elysées, the largest with 170 decorated chalets and welcoming over 12 million visitors throughout the season, they have even brought in a zoo to add to the other staples of petit trains, toboggans, barbe à papa (cotton candy) and beignet stands, roasted chestnut vendors, knitted goods and French gastronomic delicacies. And of course, there's the Grande Roue. 10€ for the trip, but the views from the top of the grand wheel of the whole of Paris are astounding and quite worth the price of admission. And from that height, there's no doubt you will be able to see the glittering lights of the Galleries Layfayette, Printemps and Au Bon Marche, beacons of light calling all the little shopping moths to their holiday windows and into their stores. But make no mistake: the most enjoyable, completely free evening I spent in Paris recently was to walk south from the 18éme through the various decorated quartiers of Montmartre to the 9émé, where the Grands Boulevards of Haussmann, LaFayette and Capucines all meet at the Opéra Garnier, and where you can find the grands magasins of Galleries Layfayette and Printemps, both with outstanding window displays.
Galleries LaFayette's theme of "Un Noël Rock-N-Roll!" features the intricately-crafted Andrew Yang couture rag dolls, 'The Kouklitas' going on tour in Europe as the rock band, 'The K-Stars'. Mobilized by marionette strings, the dolls - and these amazing little pieces of fashion design - come to life. These dolls, quite limited and rare, are available inside for a mere 150€, a steal when you consider one of his dolls can sell for $8,000 or even $12,000. The life-size puppet dolls sporting LaFayette ready-to-wear (ou, prêt-à-porter) and shiny Gretsch guitars had me pressing my nose and mittened fingers against the glass, just like Randy in The Christmas Story.
Hold on though - just next door is Printemps, whose theme, "Noël Rêves d'Évasion" designed by Karl Lagerfield, is an ode to Chanel across the globe and throughout the decades. Utilizing puppetry again, as well as elaborately visualized windows with traditional mannequins showcasing the historic couture, the Maison du Chanel story came alive as each window pulled you in and transported you to exotic locales such as Barritz, Cap d'Antibes, Venice, Shanghai, Moscow, the Byzantine Empire, and of course, Paris. Paris might have been the most adorable with a window full of little Karl Lagerfield puppets in silver ponytails and black sunglasses snapping photos around the city's famous landmarks. I was transfixed again with the detail and elegance that is hallmark of the Chanel designs. Sigh.
But on my way across the street to ponder more lasting and historical art and design at the steps of the Opéra Garnier, I turned to take in the spectacular glittering façades that adorned both of the grand shopping arcades in Paris. That sight, and a 2€ cone of marron chaud from a little Indian fellow on the corner to munch on while sitting at the foot of the Opéra, taking in all the lights and sounds and smells of Paris on this cold, clear December night, was much more than could ever be purchased on the other side of those windows.
Happy holidays, and joyeux Noël!