Why not take the family for a winter break in Montpellier, and add some French flair to your Christmas shopping at the "marche de noel"? You'll find lots of other child friendly things to do here too
A Christmas market with a difference
Montpellier Christmas Market 4th December - 3rd January 2010 in the Place de la Comedie
Gluhwein, bratwurst and snow covered chalets may be an essential part of Christmas markets in northern Europe, but in the southern French city of Montpellier, they do things a little differently.
Instead of chalets, "cabanes de gardians" have appeared in the beautiful Place de la Comedie. These quaint little huts represent the simple dwellings of the Camargue cowboys. Spreading out beyond the flower market, they form a wide walk-way, running the length of the Esplanade Charles de Gaulle. And not a pine tree in sight either, as blue and silver lights pulse through the branches of the massive plane trees that line the boulevard.
I love to walk along this special Christmas shopping street, tempted by the tasteful wooden toys, hand made lace, jewellery and leather work that are on display. There are novel crafted Christmas cards; scented candles, olive wood artefacts and hand knitted jumpers. And of course stalls selling gourmet food and wines: foie gras and pates; local cheeses such as Roquefort; Cartagene, a local aperitif like bottled rubies; and special honey from the garrigue. Oh the cornucopia of it all!
But if the mild weather doesn't feel quite right, don't be disappointed. Montpellier has thought of everything. Walk on a little further and you will hear the sound of blades cutting through ice and the swish of skaters, as they swerve away from the walls of the temporary ice rink or "patinoire" ahead of you. It's open to everyone. Why not hire some skates? Or, if you're feeling even more intrepid, have a go on the mini ski piste close by. And watch out for snow balls! If you've got the kids with you, they are sure to dip into that large pile of snow that is renewed each day for just such a purpose.
Other not-to-be-missed activities during the winter event include dog sled demos led by a professional musher, arts and crafts workshops, carol singers and a Pere Noel Parade providing the opportunity to meet the man himself. Pop into the tourist office just opposite the flower market for details of times.
Like all good Christmas markets, you need never go hungry. In addition to traditional treats like mulled wine and roasted chestnuts, there are French delicacies such as crepes, and aligote, a potato and cheese mix that stretches like a piece of elastic...the kids will love it.
You are not far from the restaurants and cafes that surround the Place de la Comedie, so if you are looking for a more substantial meal you may like to try:
Piazza Papa (13, Place de la Comedie). This is a bright and cheerful place to eat, ideal for families. An average pizza costs 10 Euro, but if you arrive during Happy Hour (5pm - 6.30pm), there's 30 per cent off everything.
The Brasserire du Theatre (22 Boulevard Victor Hugo; 0467588880) offers more traditional menus (from 25 Euro) in a beautiful "fin de siecle" building, literally two steps from the opera house. Like all French restaurants, children are not only welcome but are assumed to prefer real food. No baked beans or chips in sight! This place offers a real taste of France.
Every Friday and Saturday evening a large musical extravaganza will be held until 11pm in the centre of the square. Places are free, and people come and go, but if you want a front seat get there early.
More exciting things to do all year round
When you have exhausted all the delights of the Christmas market, Montpellier has much to entertain an energetic family.
The Carousel at the other end of the Place de la Comedie, is a beautiful sight, its fairground horses turning in elegant, incessant circles.
Childrens Musicland Playpark -Just off the Esplanade is a permanent children's playground. Close to the Corum, this reflects the city's love of music in its quirky slides and climbing frames, each one resembling musical notes or instruments. Your kids can work off their excess energy here, and all for free!
Pony Rides - Close by you will find a small group of ponies willing to carry small children around the adjacent park with its duck ponds and gardens.
Taking a ride on one of the city's two tram lines is fun in its own right. Take the blue tram to its terminus however, and it gets even better. The Odysseum is Montpellier's newest development area, where you will find a planetarium, a permanent ice rink, or "patinoire", and one of France's largest aquariums.
Mare Nostrum Aquarium - This place really is exciting and informative. I guarantee you will feel nervous when you experience " The Roaring Forties", a simulated storm in an ocean going trawler. The sharks are scary too but the penguins are fun (admission: 12.50/9.00 Euro. Children under three free; www.aquariummarenostrum.fr).
Planetarium - You can consult the website for times and further details. This is visually thrilling, although knowledge of French is helpful (admission 6.30/5.30 Euro; www.planetarium-galilee.com).
Ice Rink - I prefer the outdoor rink for sheer romanticism (see above), but if you are not around in December then you may well enjoy this giant rink and toboggan run (admission 4.70/3.80 Euro).
Where to stay
Kyriad Montpellier Centre Antigone (890 Avenue Jean Mermoz) is my favourite budget hotel close to the beautiful Antigone area in the city centre. It is quiet and stylishly simple. The hotel manageress speaks perfect English. Double/twin room from 53 Euro.
Suitehotel Montpellier (45 Avenue du Piree) offers a simple self catering option with microwave and coffee maker. You'll need your own plates/cutlery though. A family suite (2+1) costs from 125 Euro, but if you accept certain booking conditions, this can reduce to as little as 75 Euro, or 63 Euro for a couple.
Both hotels are within walking distance or an easy tram ride from the historic centre.