Light up your heart

The city of Montpellier has a special sparkle in the run-up to Christmas, when night falls early and festive decorations light up the streets in the heart of the city.

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I wrote about my visit to the Christmas market in Montpellier about this time last year.  This year I have a different treat in store for you:  for three days at the beginning of December, the city centre’s landmark buildings served as canvases for the most wonderful light shows!  There were nine locations in all, and I managed to see the shows at five of them.  I started with the Arc de Triomphe, which was lit up spectacularly before the show:

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I shot videos of all the sites I visited, so here are two of the Arc de Triomphe – if you receive this blog by e-mail, you may have to visit the blog page, in order to watch the videos.  The amazing light show turned the building into a futuristic spaceship, which took off for a flight through space!

Next, I stopped at the Prefecture, a very imposing building by day, and really funky looking that night:

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The theme for the show at this building was a magical circus, with strong men pushing pieces of a giant puzzle into place.  Have a look!

At the church of Notre Dame des Tables the students of the Montpellier School of Art and the Montpellier School of Computer Graphic Animation and Visual Effects had been given free hand.  Their work was varied and highly entertaining.

Here are two videos:

Not far away was the Musee Fabre, where the show drew inspiration from some of the great paintings which are on display in the museum.

The show made you believe at times that the building was really moving!

As it was getting later, it became time for something to eat!!  My companions found a Lebanese restaurant in one of the side streets near the railway station.  The place was buzzing and warm, and we had a wonderful meal!  Meze to start with, followed by a large grill platter – very tasty and plentiful!!  The restaurant is called Al Manara, and you can find their website here.

The meze dishes were tabbouleh, hummus, aubergine caviar, cucumber with yoghurt, and beans with tomatoes.

On the grill platter we had grilled chicken breast (marinated beforehand, tender and juicy!), lamb kafta (minced lamb with onion and parsley), chawarma (a kind of kebab, with a wonderful sauce), as well as tasty rice and some salad.  There wasn’t room for dessert!!

But there was time for one last light show, at the Eglise St-Roch!

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The facade of this church transformed into a kind of factory before our very eyes!

As this is the last post for this year, I’d like to take this opportunity to wish you all a very peaceful and happy festive season!!  See you next year, I hope!

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A German Christmas

Yes, I admit – I was not in France for Christmas!!  For the first time in several years, I spent the holidays in Bavaria with my family.  I travelled early enough to be able to catch some of the Christmas markets which close well ahead of Christmas, and to have as much time to spend with family and friends as possible.  The first stop on my Christmas market marathon was Schloss Tuessling, a small Renaissance castle, where the Christmas market takes place over four December weekends each year.  The stalls are varied with a good mix of crafts and food/drinks, and spread around the grounds of the castle, and through some of the outbuildings.  There was still snow on the ground to make it all look lovely and wintry, and I was glad to have brought a hat and gloves!  A walk through former grain silos (I think 12 in total) took me on an adventure in Christmas decoration, and at the end was a staircase up into the granary, where there were stalls under the most amazing roof construction!  The walk continued through a wing which had formerly been staff accommodation and then an old people’s home, and which had a kind of “Marie Celeste” feeling to it.  The stalls in that section had been carefully chosen to fit in with the ambience and sold a mixture of old and new, and some beautiful jewellery.  And then there was the stall with the cinnamon stars – imagine fresh doughnuts but in the shape of a star, and rolled in cinnamon sugar.  They got eaten so quickly that I never did manage to get a photograph!

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My second Christmas market that day was at Burg Burghausen – the longest castle in the world.  I’ve often visited the castle over the years, but never for a Christmas market, so I was very excited to see the halls which were used to house the artists and craftspeople selling their wares.  Out in the courtyard were the food stalls, and some artisans such as the blacksmith and the wood-carver.  A bonus was that a visit to the State Gallery in part of the castle was included in the admission to the market.  The rooms are magnificent as are most of the paintings exhibited, but the highlight was the viewing platform on the roof.  Not for the faint hearted, I warn you, as the drop is vertiginous (but the railings solid) – but oh what a view!!  On the way in was another stall selling cinnamon stars, so that was number 2 and a little bit better than the one I’d had earlier that day!

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A day trip to Munich was another opportunity to visit Christmas markets.  I don’t remember just how many there are, but I managed to visit three.  But first I went to visit Villa Stuck to see the Gunter Sachs exhibition, with wide variety of works, from Max Ernst to Andy Warhol.  Villa Stuck was the palatial home of Franz von Stuck, at his time a celebrated and successful artist.  Unfortunately the website seems to be only available in German.

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On to the Christmas markets though.  My first stop was at the mediaeval market at Wittelsbacher Platz.  The name implies the theme and it was very well done.  All the stallholders were in costume, and the booths were imaginatively built, each one different from the next.  There was some wonderful food here (wish I’d known in advance, I’d had a light lunch at Villa Stuck) and I had the best apple fritters I can remember eating.

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My next stop was the Christmas village in the Emperor’s court of the Residenz palace – a beautiful courtyard filled with a great variety of stalls with a focus on crafts.On the way there, across Odeonsplatz I spied a group of musicians just outside the Hofgarten.  They were playing beautiful classical music and must have been frozen.  I wonder how the instruments managed to stay in tune!  Outside the Residenz “Santa” had taken up residence with a small fair organ, entertaining the passers by.

Inside the courtyard, food and especially Gluehwein played a prominent place, and those stalls were busiest wherever I went at whatever time of day!  There was also an area for children, with animated displays and Christmas songs.

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To warm up a little I visited the Cuvillies theatre, the theatre of the Residence palace, a heady confection of white and gold roccoco.  If you are ever in Munich don’t miss this gem.

On to the market in front of Munich’s gothic town hall on Marienplatz.  This market had been changed around somewhat since I’d last visited and there were more food stalls and fewer stalls selling the beautiful decorations of a few years ago.  The market selling Christmas creches and nativity scenes had been moved from Rindermarkt to be strung out along Neuhauser Strasse and had lost much of its charm in the process.  Still, there were some nice decorations and a few very good stalls.  I finished the day by visiting a friend who lives in walking distance to the centre, before making my way back to my parents’ home.

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And then there was one final Christmas market, just a few days before Christmas, in Burgkirchen – a small market only on for a few days and very much designed to bring local people together.  They had fire baskets to keep warm, and lots of food and gluehwein.  This is where I had my third Cinnamon star, but the one in Burghausen remained the best of them all.

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In the run up to Christmas eve I kept busy, and even managed to build a gingerbread house.  Christmas eve afternoon I went for another visit to Burghausen and had the castle almost all to myself.  From the town below the sounds of a brass band playing Christmas carols drifted up, and as the sun started to set the lights began to twinkle in the distance.  A magical start to the festive season!

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I hope you’ve all had a wonderful Christmas too, and wishing you all the very best for 2013.

This is the sparkling season

I mean of course the season of sparkling lights, twinkling away in trees and elsewhere.  Here in France pretty much every village has its own Christmas lights, although in some of the smaller villages it might be just a couple of stars across the street – but still.

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Last week I ventured to Montpellier to visit Les Hivernales, the annual Christmas market.  This year a beautifully lit archway formed the entrance to the market, which is on Esplande Charles de Gaulle just off the Place de la Comedie, and there were about 100 stalls, selling everything from gifts to clothes to food!

As night fell the atmosphere became magical – there were stalls selling mulled wine and the smell of spices was wafting around.  One stand offered a kind of raclette – toasted cheese over either bread or cooked potatoes, whilst another was cooking Tartiflette, potatoes cooked with Reblochon cheese, and yet someone else was cooking Seiche a la Setoise, a well-known local speciality made with cuttlefish.  All of Montpellier was dressed up with beautiful lights, and the Christmas tree near the Opera Comedie was beautifully trimmed.

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Saint Chinian also has some nice Christmas lights, and the tree inside the Mairie is as ever very beautiful.

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At the recent Christmas market, the abbatiale was filled with stands which spilled out into the cloisters and out in front of the Mairie. It gave me a chance to get a good picture of the beautifully vaulted roof of the abbatiale, which was once the church of the abbey.

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The Polygone shopping centre in Béziers also trimmed itself up nicely for Christmas, although the fountains on the top floor dance all year round.

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At the Capestang christmas market there was a stall selling foie gras and ducks for making confit.  Those of you of a sensitive disposition don’t look too closely.  I was fascinated (and a little repulsed at the same time) by the way the butcher opened up the carcasses almost tenderly, to extract the fatty livers.

For those of you interested, I give you below a method of preparing foie gras as given to me by Monique, one of my neighbours in St Chinian.

Allow the livers to come to room temperature.  Separate the lobes and remove all veins with the help of the point of a sharp knife.  Take your time and be thorough, the end result will be better.  Put the livers in a bowl of cold salted water and leave approx. half an hour to disgorge any blood remaining.  Remove and pat dry carefully.  Season with 17g salt and 3g pepper per kilo of liver – this is best done in a roasting tin or bowl where the livers can be turned.  The pepper should be freshly and coarsely ground.  Mix with 1 – 2 tbsp Armagnac or Cognac and leave to marinate for 10 minutes.  During that time prepare your kilner jars.  Fill up the jars, fitting the pieces of liver so there are no gaps.  Clean the rims to remove any trace of grease and close the jars and put them in your sterilizing pan.  Fill to the top of the jars with lukewarm water, the bring the water slowly to a temperature of 75 degrees (use a thermometer) then keep at that temperature for 30 minutes.  Remove at the end of the cooking time and leave to cool.  Two tips from Monique:  smaller livers are better than very large ones, ideal weight is 450 to 500g;  the livers should be very fresh, as older livers have a tendency to render more fat as do larger livers.

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