The Festive Season in France

Following on from my trip to Morocco, I came back to France as the festive season was kicking off. Early November might feel a little early to be classified as the festive season but when you live somewhere like Alsace, as soon as the first hint of winter is in the air, thoughts turn to Christmas and particularly the Christmas markets. I definitely have lots to report on that front but also a few other exciting things I got up to on the run up to returning to Scotland for the holidays.

First up is not something remotely festive but it was something I was super excited about. Anyone that knows me will be aware that playing water polo is a significant part of my personality and I had to continue when I arrived in France. Something new this year is that I’ve been able to play some games! Last year I started with the elite women’s team but only lasted about 10 days before moving to the mixed under 65 team – much more my speed! I love the mixed ability and mixed people on this team and the more relaxed attitude. The one thing I was missing was playing matches as there is no mixed league and not enough women for our own team. This year, the club has created a new women’s team at the N1 level, just league below the elite one. It has a few of us from the U65 team, a few girls from the elite team including our coach, and some of the teen girls looking for more match time and experience. For most of my water polo ‘career’ I have played the pit defence position, right in front of the goal, defending usually one of the strongest players of the other team in a very physical and sometimes aggressive tête-à-tête. As part of this team I have been playing mostly in pit attack (en pointe in French), the position that I’m used to defending. It has been a challenge, a bit disorientating at times and very out of my comfort zone but I think that has been a good thing.

We have had two away weekends with two matches apiece, one in Saint Jean d’Angély near Bordeaux and one in Paris, and also two matches at home. We are yet to win a match but for me the important thing is taking part and having fun (no sarcasm) but also that with each game we’ve played we have improved. Our first weekend away in St Jean was tough, physically and mentally, though it was tempered by the fact that it was much warmer and sunnier than the Mulhouse we had left behind. Considering that it is quite literally on the opposite side of France, we flew to Bordeaux and then rented cars. We had a little time to explore St Jean’s centre ville when we arrived which was very cute. From a photo that I posted on Instagram, I found out that my water polo coach from Stirling has been to St Jean on holiday! What a serendipitous coincidence! Our first match that evening was against the hosts and it got off to a fast, intense start. I was part of the starting seven (out of the team of up to 13 players, there are seven in the water at once, including the goalkeeper), which is always a nice ego boost. We lost this first game 2-14 but bearing in mind it was our first game, that we’ve barely trained together and we have five players under sixteen, we did our best. There was definitely a lot to learn from the game which was good and this was basically just training for us. The next morning we had our second game against Paris Libellules (Dragonflies). This was the second game for both teams so definitely didn’t get off to as intense a start. We held our own a lot more, trading the lead back and forth for most of the game until it got away from us in the last three or four minutes. The final score was 9-12 (though it maybe should have been 10-12 due to some penalty confusion for us). Another loss but the improvement from the night before was incredible, we had already learnt a lot and were hopeful that we could beat Libellules when we played them again in a few weeks.

The second weekend of matches was only two weeks later in Paris. We got the train over this time as Paris is only three hours away although once we arrived, it took us two hours to navigate what should have been a 30 minutes journey on the metro to our hotel. The walk from our hotel to the pool took us over the Seine and in full view of the Eiffel Tower, which we would come back to later. Our first game was against Libellules and it was an exciting match! I had taken the opportunity of being in Paris to invite a few friends to come and watch – Anna, a fellow lectrice in Rouen who I know from my university French course, and Lizzie, one of my uni flatmates who is an au pair in Paris. I was glad I did because I scored two goals! We had a great second quarter in particular and were four goals up at one point! We started to lose it again in the final quarter though, especially because we had three players completely excluded from the match (if you commit a major foul, you get sent out for twenty seconds and if this happens three times in one match, you are excluded). In the end we lost 12-16 which was even more disappointing because we had played well and had been very close. It took a little more to lift our heads back up and get ready for the next match. In the evening we had dinner as a team and then went for a wander around the foot of the Eiffel Tower and back along the Seine. The next morning, after a beautiful sunrise walk to the pool, we had our second game against a new opponent, Choisy. We didn’t know what to expect but in the end it wasn’t as bad as I had expected. We kept up and again were even leading a few times, even though they had wickedly sharp nails and covered us all in scratches. In comparison to the day before we only had one total exclusion and our attitude was a lot better, even when we lost 10-20. I think we deserved a closer score based on how we played but they were fresher than us, having not played another game yet. The weekend was an overall positive because we saw so much improvement. Also because I got to go to the Marks and Spencer’s in Gare de l’Est before our train to stock up on, and introduce the team to, Percy Pigs and other British snacks!

Moving away from water polo (‘Finally!’ I hear some of you cry), but sticking with the pool, in November I also experienced a classic activity in the area. If you pop across the border from Mulhouse into Germany, you will find many thermal baths including the well-known Cassiopeia Therme in Badenweiler. I went with my friend Aine, her boyfriend and her friend that was visiting from the US as it is much easier to get there by car than public transport, although that is possible as well. Found in the Black Forest about 30 km from Mulhouse, Badenweiler is mostly known for its thermal baths although it does have an 11th century castle overlooking the town and the ruins of the old Roman baths as well. You will find the Cassiopeia Thermes right in the centre of the town. As well as the thermal baths, you can also visit the saunas, the textile-free Roman-Irish baths and the spa. It was €11 for two hour’s access to the baths but only €16 for combined access to the baths and spa.

The modern thermes include 1000m² of pools, some indoor and some outdoor and at a range of temperatures. There is the Dome Bath that makes you feel like you are in a massive greenhouse (because of the architecture, not the temperature as it sits at 32º). Next to the Dome Bath is the exit to the Outdoor pool which is also at 32º. The air temperature was pretty cool when we were there, low single digits I would say but the contrast between the cool air on your face and the warm pool was lovely. There was also a little whirlpool which was great fun to zoom around in as well as powerful shower jets that could act as a massager if you didn’t get the combined pass to the spa! Back indoors you can find the Marble Bath, slightly warmer at 34º, next to the jacuzzi which is the warmest option at 36º. I really felt the difference in heat with these last two pools, although it might also be because there was a cold plunge pool (12º) next to them that we subjected ourselves to a couple of times before getting back into the welcoming warmth. To be honest, it wasn’t all that different from trying to swim in the Scottish sea at the height of summer!

By the time we left, we had worked up an appetite (from all our floating around) so we went to Aine’s favourite restaurant in Badenweiler (as the mind behind Une Bouchée A Day, she is to be trusted for all food related recommendations). Less than 200m away from the Cassiopeia is Markgräfler-Winzerstube, a wine bar that serves hearty, traditional German food. Aine, Kara and Julien all had the potato soup with carrots and krakauer (polish sausage) as a starter but I just enjoyed the homemade bread. For my main course I had a fried potato and sausage dish that was surprisingly spicy! There was also ragu and roast beef ordered and we split the black forest tiramisu and a Belgian waffle with apple sauce and ice cream between the four of us for dessert. Overall it was a lovely afternoon out and I see why visiting the thermal baths is such a popular pastime in this area.

For my first official festive event of the season, I was invited to Aine’s Thanksgiving potluck. Last year was my first time experiencing any kind of Thanksgiving celebration and was so much fun! (Although I did find out that pumpkin pie is really not my thing.) For my contribution I made some smashed parmesan potatoes and miso and honey glazed brussel sprouts (maybe the most delicious way to consume a sprout!). I went over a little early with our friend Sam because she couldn’t stay for long and we had some nice drinks and helped with final preparations. It was a lovely night, meeting lots of new people and getting to catch up with some friends that I hadn’t seen in a while. The spread of food was incredible as well!

I couldn’t spend the festive period in France, particularly in Alsace, without getting my fill of Christmas markets. My first visit was uncharacteristically early, around the end of November, to a local village hall in Didenheim, a suburb of Mulhouse. There were a lot of smaller, local artisans and sellers compared to the stalls at the main Mulhouse market who are often the same as those you will find in Strasbourg and Colmar. I bought some homemade onion chutney, rhubarb and ginger jam and some pineapple rum. I also returned to the Strasbourg market and of course, many more trips to Mulhouse’s own (more on those a little later).

The other new Christmas market that I visited this year was a little special. Ribeuvillé is a village 16 km north of Colmar at the foot of the Vosges mountains. The town is known for its mediaeval buildings as well as the three castles that sit on the hill above. For just two weekends in December, Ribeuvillé is also home to a mediaeval Christmas market! This is much more than the usual stalls bearing gift ideas or food options, though these are part of it. Everywhere you look, there are people dressed up in period costumes, trolls and devils on stilts, there were acrobats, jugglers and apparently there are fire eaters as well! There were some of the typical food and drink options like vin chaud, waffles, crepes and more but also lentil soup and a whole wild boar roasting on a spit! At one point I was surprised when we walked past some camels! Because the mediaeval Christmas market only happens for two weekends a year and it is one of the most popular smaller ones in the area, it means the town of Ribeauvillé is absolutely packed. I drove through with some friends and not only did we get caught up in traffic on the motorway but parking was also a nightmare. On the other hand, public transport takes twice as long as driving (when there’s no traffic). The whole ambience was very festive and interesting but on the whole, it was a little too crowded for me to fully enjoy it. A lot of the time I was either fighting the crowd or getting swept along with it so either way not able to stop when I might have wanted to. It was also a very cold day so we persevered until our frozen toes were protesting too much and we went home. I was glad I got to experience such a unique market but I think it is one to go to for the atmosphere and not to do any shopping. For that, you’re better off at one of the bigger markets.

On the same day, just later that evening, my flat and I had decided to do a Christmas dinner together! To be honest, we did this only a few days into December but I was leaving for Scotland halfway through the month and this was one of the only evenings before then that the four of us were all free for. We did a little secret Santa which was a great success (thank you Lilly for my book recommendations, coveted apple cake recipe and gourmet parsley salt!). We had decided to each take charge of a course and cook something from our country, whether Christmassy or not. For starters we had Lilly’s kartoffelsalat from Germany, a delicious potato salad. Next up was a double whammy of French dishes from Alexis, escargot and then scallops. I was reminded that my favourite part of escargot (also known as snails) is the garlic butter but I am a big scallop fan. Alexis had wanted to make grenouilles (frog’s legs) but hadn’t been able to find them in time. Personally I would much rather have scallops anyway. Next up, Mahmoud with Tunisian tagine. The first time he made this, I was expecting something more like Moroccan tagine, a meat and vegetable stew. It turns out that Tunisian tagine is very different. Somewhere between a savoury cake and an omelette, Tunisian tagine has chicken, potatoes and lots of cheese inside – what’s not to like? Finally, it was my turn with dessert. The classic Scottish desserts that come to mind for me are Cranachan or tablet but a couple of my flatmates don’t drink so no whiskey for the Cranachan (and oats, cream and raspberries just isn’t the same) and I don’t trust my skills to make tablet well for what would be the first time. I settled on something a little simpler but still something that I haven’t made since home economics in high school, macaroons (not to be confused with the French staple macarons). They turned out ok but I didn’t quite master the chocolate application. Thankfully we also had some Christmas cookies that Lilly had made and some stollen that her parents had sent her. We finished the night with some board games.

Last up in my round up of pre-Christmas activities, I had my friend Anna come to visit me! She has come to visit me already and I’ve visited her in Rouen but she loves Mulhouse and just can’t seem to stay away! She was keen to come and experience Alsace at Christmas and who can blame her! She actually arrived on the day of my department meeting so entertained herself while I was stuck there for FIVE HOURS. She did get to crash the department meal though and was a big hit with my colleagues.

The main event of the weekend was going to Strasbourg on Saturday. This was my first time at the markets there this year and actually my first time there in a while. My flatmate Lilly came with us and we fought the hordes to get onto the train. We started in Place Kléber, one of the main areas of the market that also has most of the food options as well. We decided that divide and conquer was the best strategy so I went off and got currywurst and spaetzle while the others found their lunch of choice. From Place Kléber we walked towards the cathedral, another hot spot for Christmas market activity. It was an incredibly cold day so by this point we were all beginning to lose some feeling in our fingers and toes so we started trying to find somewhere to sit inside for a warm drink. The problem was that the Strasbourg markets are so busy and everyone else had the same idea! We eventually found space in an ice cream parlour (ironically) and defrosted with some hot chocolates. One more lap of the stalls and we slowly started heading back to the train station. When we got back to Mulhouse, Anna and I went to Gambrinus for some tarte flambées for dinner and then settled in at home to watch the England vs France football match (at Anna’s request and very much against my objections but at the end of the day I’m a good host).

We had been tempted to hit up the Christmas markets in Colmar the next day before Anna’s train home in the evening but after our very cold trip the day before, we decided to have more of a chill day in Mulhouse. We wandered around the Christmas markets and shops that actually happened to be open despite it being a Sunday because it was on the run up to Christmas. I took her to one of my favourite book shops in town which I actually usually avoid because I am incapable of not buying books. Case in point, I walked out with two new ones that day! We stopped for a coffee and a cake in Le Temps d’une Pause before going back to my flat to pick up Anna’s stuff. We walked back through centre ville to the train station and by this time it was dark so she got to see all the lights! It was a lovely weekend, a good mix of activities and chilling, and I look forward to returning the favour with another trip to Rouen in the springtime!

And that’s it for now! I’m slowly starting to catch up with a bit of a backlog of blogs though we’re not quite up to date. Hopefully I can sort that out in the next few weeks. I’m not going to reveal too much about what’s coming next but I will say that there are some posts that are a bit different in the works and then some more travel posts as well which I always love writing. I hope you love reading them too!

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