Christmas shopping prospects on the Continent have been transformed thanks to the pound strengthening against the euro. Brits now enjoy a fifth more spending power than a couple of years ago so a trip promises a combination of festive fun and bargain buys.
Our continental cousins have a flair for maintaining thriving markets which really come into their own in the run-up to Christmas. P&O Ferries suggests a magnificent seven that are easy and inexpensive to reach from its routes to France, Belgium and Holland.
Arras, a little over an hour’s drive from the port at Calais, boasts one of the most highly rated Christmas markets in northern France. Staged from 30 November to Christmas Eve in the stunning Grand’ Place, it combines stalls of local produce, arts and crafts, with entertainment and fairground rides for a great festival atmosphere. www.visitarras.com
Bethune is a leisurely hour’s drive inland from Calais and is renowned for its Art Deco town square. Its Christmas market is highly regarded in the region and runs from 30 November to Christmas Eve. A visit to the Laloux family’s famous chocolaterie on rue du Pont ‘d’Etain never fails to impress. www.ville-bethune.fr
Calais is not just convenient, it also punches well above its weight with extravagant Christmas illuminations that are an attraction in their own right. The Place d’Armes is transformed into a winter village throughout December whilst the traditional Christmas market is further into town at Le Forum Gambetta from 15 - 22 December. A hidden gem for gourmet gifts is Arnaud Crespo’s delicatessen Maison du Fromage et des Vins on Rue Andre Gerschell. www.calais.fr
Bruges remains an incredibly compelling choice for a pre-Christmas visit. The medieval city embraces the festive season with magnificent illuminations and a Snow and Ice Sculpture Festival which runs from 23 November to 2 January. Bring back Belgian chocolates from Bruges and you’ll be in somebody’s good books this Christmas. www.visitflanders.co.uk
Ghent enjoys a lively rivalry with Bruges and is picture postcard pretty, laying claim to more buildings of historical importance than any other city in Belgium. The festive focal point at Ghent is the Sint-Baafsplein which is transformed into a Christmas village of stalls and entertainment, 7 – 30 December. www.visitgent.be
Valkenburg near Maastricht plays a couple of trumps cards for Christmas in the form of the Fluweelengrot and Gemeentegrot. These are huge cave systems where elaborate Christmas markets are staged from 16 November to 23 December. For a subterranean twist on the Christmas theme, Valkenberg takes some beating. www.kerstadvalkenburg.nl
Amsterdam takes on a festive feel throughout November and December with 26 neighbourhood markets on top of focal points in the city centre such as the Christmas Square at Museum Plein and the huge tree in Dam Square. The famous waterways come into their own on 15 December when an enchanting Christmas canal parade takes place. www.iamsterdam.com
To get there: fares with P&O Ferries for a car and passengers are from £24 return for days trips and £38 return for short breaks on the 90-minute Dover – Calais route. Two night minicruise fares on the Hull to Rotterdam and Zeebrugge routes are from £73 for two people, including cabin. More details at www.poferries.com or call 08716 646464.
Chris Laming, Brian Rees, Natalie Hardy, Michelle Ulyatt
Tel: +44(0)1304 863833 (24 hours)