Chestnuts roasting on an open fire? Jack Frost nipping at your nose?… all lovely words but with the current economic climate, the romance of a cuddly Christmas of plenty seems so far away. Or is it?
Actually, it could be just a 26 miles away. In these times of crunched credit, finding that elusive bargain is not only a joy but a necessity. And with Christmas looming on the horizon, popping across the Channel for a boozy bargain or a Gallic infused delicacy, could be just the uplift we need.
Though the £1-Euro exchange rate is not as attractive as it was last year (in 2007 1 euro cost 69p, today it costs 80p), the differentials in duty levied in France are still high enough to offer Brits discounted shopping. As our Gallic cousins are also feeling the pinch, especially in Calais and Boulogne where coveted British custom has slumped to record low levels, prices in general have been tagged lower than last year in order to boost sales.
In Carrefour Hypermarket in Cite Europe Shopping Centre, Calais, for instance, the lights may be bright, but in-store optimism for capturing the British pound is waning. Manager Christophe Loir, laments "its a pity because our prices are 20%-30% less than Asda in the UK, and anyone can check this online." A quick browse along the aisles confirmed this. A 70cl, 12 years Glenlivet costs £19.38 in Carrefour and retails in Asda UK for £25.78. A bottle of Piper-Heidsieck Champagne was available for £20 and in Asda UK retails at £24.00. To add a sweetener, Carrefour are offering a 30 euro bribe if you spend 200 euros.
Elsewhere in Cite Europe, over a hundred shops are aching for your euros, from clothes, gifts, shoe shops as well as Tesco Drinks store. Regulars can find their favourite wines here for up to half price such as Montana Sauvignon at £3.74 and Casillero de Cabernet at £3.49 and still earn Tesco Club Card points on your shopping.
Plus, there are no limits (within reason) as to what you can bring back, so aunty Edna can get her cheeky tipple, uncle Jack his whiskey, and you can still throw your New Year's Eve party knowing you have stocked up with enough wine, beer and bubbly to take you and your possy into 2009.
So now you have your incentive when and where do you go, and most importantly, how best to instill a little oh la la into your cross Channel experience in a day.
At this time of year, probably the best time to travel is the weekend 12-14th December when the Calais Christmas market takes over the town centre with its gorgeous gothic theatre as its centre piece. There’s nothing like mingling with the locals, perhaps trying out your school French while the whiff of warm mulled wine adds a festive feel as you shop for local produce, arts and crafts. Look out for strings of smoked garlic, home-made honey, sauscissons (sausages) with herbs, olives or walnuts and of course, the unforgettable festive Christmas puddings. These may look ordinary enough, but brace yourself; the French add much more rum and serve it flambéd.
For cheese head for Maison du Fromage et du Vin, just off Place d’Armes, a fromagerie (cheese shop) owned by the Crespo family. Arnaud Crespo is also a highly acclaimed sommelier. His French wines are chosen to match superbly with the array of cheeses on display. So do ask for advice and feel free to indulge in some typically French degustation – try before you buy.
Calais is a coastal town and so if you love seafood, nip into Les Delices de la Mer in Boulevard la Fayette, a fishmonger selling the catch of the day. Or even more specialist is the 100-year-old family-run Emile Fournier et Fils in rue Mouron where shoals of smoked fish such as smoked salmon, herring, trout and halibut should be sought out.
For a truly Calaisien souvenir, don’t go home without something made from world famous Calaisien lace. The industry was originally smuggled to Calais in the early 1800’s but the locals took to it, improved upon it and made it their own. So visit to Royal Dentelle on 106 Boulevard Jacquard or Noyon Boutique Dentelle on 85 rue de Vic and you can choose a myriad of items from sexy lacey lingerie to loo rolls - these outlets know how to roll out the this noble artisanal craft.
If there’s time to dine out, you are in luck. Calais may not be chic but it is blessed with magnificent eating options. A personal favourite is Aqua’rail. It’s located on top of a block of flats with views over the Channel so you can enjoy a seafood platter and watch the ferries as they sail in and out of the harbour.
P&O Ferries have Dover to Calais crossings for £27 each way for a driver and as many passengers you can legally fit into your car.
Note: Have you considered going by coach? Most coach operators in London , East Anglia and the south east continue to offer Christmas shopping day trips to Calais and Cite Europe. You can find their details on www.coachtourismcouncil.co.uk
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