Carnivals in Provence

Carnivals in Provence

Let’s head to the South of France to find out more about three iconic events in Provence: Nice Carnival, Menton Lemon Festival and Mandelieu Mimosa Festival. The annual celebrations are packed with history, parades, local flavours and zesty colours basking under the warm winter sun on the Med. 

Get dressed up, have fun and dive into an ocean of flowers and fruit beneath the bright blue sky. This is your final boarding call for the Côte d’Azur, a go-to among French as a foreign language students from all over the world!

Nice Carnival: a sight for sore eyes

History of the UNESCO World Heritage Nice Carnival

1294: The Nice Carnival was first mentioned in writing by Charles d’Anjou, Count of Provence, who detailed his visit to Nice to celebrate the “joyful days of the Carnival”. 

The festivities were heavily regulated in the 15th century and based on social class: Nice celebrated with 4 balls (noblemen, merchants, tradesmen and workers) presided over by the fool’s abbots or “abbés des fous”. 

1830: The Nice Carnival became what we know it as today. The city was named the “winter holiday capital” and Nice noblemen were in charge of the festivities. 

A “festival committee” was founded in 1873 and the carnival pulled out all the stops! Float processions, ymagiers or illustrators, ticketed stands, epic displays by Alexis Mossa and more. The Nice Carnival has always known how to put on a good show. Plaster confetti or Italian confetti rained down on the parade floor. The poet and gardener Alphonse Karr inspired the first flower battles which appeared in 1876.

A carnival with a language of its own

Classic characters

The Nice Carnival has a group of characters that come back every year in different guises to suit the theme. The King, Queen and dolphin mascot open proceedings with a procession worthy of royalty. 

One of the carnival’s iconic characters is Lou Paillassou (“the straw man”): a huge puppet filled with straw that flies through the sky on a taut line. It has been interpreted in lots of different ways but the most popular is that the straw man is filled with all the pain and worry of the past year. So when he’s dipping and diving through the air, he lets go of all our troubles so we can face the future with a free spirit. How about that for a spring clean?!

And caricatures!

They’re part of the folklore surrounding the carnival and make it what it is: the floats are meant to make people smile and have a laugh at some of the world’s biggest names in sport, politics and fashion. Everyone from Jacques Chirac and Karl Lagerfeld to Trump and Depardieu have been turned into instantly recognisable big heads crafted by ymagiers and carnival masters.

Carnival highlights

The opening ceremony is a show-stopper uniting the carnival’s stars, floral floats, heralds, flagbearers, bands, dancers and a sound and light show. These processions are traditionally called “corsos” and parade down the Promenade des Anglais and the entire city. The Tourist Board chooses the amazing floats from hundreds of designs and puts them on show near Place Masséna so you can feast your eyes on them before the parade.

Nice buzzes with street art and performance for all ages for days: it’s the heart and soul of the Nice Carnival. Local and international performers bring the festival and corsos to life and perform all over the city to the delight of children and adults.

The carnival ends on a high with the traditional burning of the Carnival king!

Have you heard the expression “go through fire and water”? Well, that’s what the carnival does with the traditional Carnival Bath when brave souls dive into the Baie des Anges with a bracing average temperature of 12 degrees in February…

Flower Battle

The Flower Battle is the most spell-binding and heart-warming moment of the Nice Carnival. It’s magical no matter your age. The one-of-a-kind procession of floats covered in flowers celebrates local species as 80% of the flowers are grown in the region. Performers in eye-catching outfits throw armfuls of mimosas, daisies and lilies into the audience! Visitors pick up the flowers later and put together their own bouquets to remember the carnival by! 

Menton Lemon Festival: When life gives you lemons…

The history of the Lemon Festival

Why does the pretty town of Menton celebrate citrus? Because it’s the European capital of lemons! It’s a surprisingly popular event: over 200,000 people take to the streets of Menton every year to be part of the unique festival.

It all began in 1875 when Menton’s hotels were looking for a new festival to entertain and attract more people to spend their winter holiday on the Côte d’Azur. Mission accomplished! Processions, costumes, masks, music and dance: the very first carnival won over locals and wealthy winter holidaymakers. Princes, artists and even kings flocked to Menton’s palaces and coastline!

Menton became Europe’s biggest lemon producer in the 1920s. 1936 saw the first citrus fruit and flower exhibition in the Jardins Biovès before lemons and oranges adorned corso floats at the major February festival. 

Visitors from all over the world still come to experience the Menton Lemon Festival which was listed as Intangible French Cultural Heritage in 2019.

Lemon Festival highlights

It has classic corsos and show-stopping processions just like the Nice Carnival, but Menton’s are bright and zesty because they’re covered in citrus fruit! The parades take place on Thursdays, Sundays and at night: the corsos are illuminated and joined by brass bands and traditional dancers. The floats are painstakingly and expertly decorated with a creative spin on the year’s theme. 

The Golden Fruit Corso is the most famous parade and the one that everyone looks forward to. It’s a Lemon Festival institution that captures Provence’s citrus fruit in all its zesty glory. Visitors have over 2 weeks to feast their eyes on the fruity creations at parades or the zingy structures on display at the Jardins Biovès.

Last but not least: the Mimosa Festival in Mandelieu

The Côte d’Azur is bursting with colour and aroma all February long. The region’s most precious winter gem takes centre stage in Mandelieu: mimosas! The fluffy yellow little balls imbue the winter air with their soft and soothing scent… 

The Mimosa Festival is a local institution held in mid-February: a corso (parade) covers 1.2km in the Le Capitou and La Napoule districts along the coast. Show-stopping processions and floral parades light up every street, market and square in town to turn Mandelieu into mimosa land. We always recommend our visitors go on a hiking trail to Tanneron, the biggest mimosa forest in Europe. 

Institut des Frères Lumière à Lyon<br />

Have you got a February holiday in Provence on the brain now? These floral, zesty or Nice events are a great way to experience the wonder of local produce and the idyllic Mediterranean coast. 

It’s warm here in late winter, making a language stay and French course extra special. You can even pick up the lovely Southern French accent! 

For us, it’s a golden opportunity to put together exciting breaks exploring nature and culture for our visitors and French as a foreign language students: museum and gallery tours, seaside and inland trips, cookery and perfumery classes and more.

New Year in France: traditional celebrations or something special? 

New Year in France: traditional celebrations or something special? 

Every culture and every country around the world has its own way of celebrating New Year’s Eve.
Why do the French call it Saint-Sylvestre?
What are their traditions?
Do they do New Year’s Eve differently in French-speaking countries?
There are two things to remember when it comes to celebrating and soaking up French customs: get your glad rags on and ring in the New Year!

The history of New Year’s Eve

Celebrating New Year’s Eve: it all began in World War I

1915: French soldiers were stuck in the trenches during WWI so the general staff decided to boost their morale. They gave out a bottle of fizz to every four soldiers on the Meuse front with one instruction: to open it at midnight! Alongside the bottle, every soldier was given a hamper with 100g of ham, 75g of jam, an orange, two apples and a cigar. It became an annual event covering the entire western front after that. 

1918: The soldiers took the tradition of celebrating the New Year home with them at the end of the war.

January 1st: a date fit for an emperor!

Why do we celebrate the New Year on January 1st? Because Julius Caesar said so! 

The Roman emperor established the date as the start of the New Year because of its association with Janus, the god of transitions, in Roman culture. 

Ancient Romans celebrated the Saturnalia in the lead-up to New Year’s Day. The celebrations took place during the winter solstice (around December 24th) and people gave each other money and wished each other well! 

The French had to wait until King Charles IX came to the throne for January 1st to become New Year’s Day, after hundreds of years of the Celtic New Year being in April in Europe.

Who is “Saint Sylvestre”?

The French call December 31st “Saint Sylvestre”. Saint Sylvester was the 33rd pope. Catholics believe that the Roman citizen made his name by protecting Timothy, a Christian from Antioch who died a martyr’s death for his faith. Sylvester was made pope in 314 and Christianity was recognised as a religion by the Roman Empire during his reign when Emperor Constantine I converted to it.

New Year’s Eve traditions

“Se mettre sur son 31”

This French idiom goes hand in hand with December 31st: “Se mettre sur son 31” means get your glad rags on, get dressed up. Where the 31 comes from isn’t quite as clear-cut. It may be a deformation of the medieval word “trentain”, a lavish cloth made of three lots of one hundred threads and used to make the finest clothes. Since only wealthy people wore trentain, the rest of the population didn’t know much about the fabric and may have understood it as trente-et-un. “Se mettre sur son 31” or “put on your glad rags” became a common saying to mean you were getting ready for a special occasion.

Mistletoe, kissing and Celts.

Mistletoe is a New Year symbol. It’s a must-have decoration for the holiday season hanging over doors and tables. You kiss beneath the branches for good luck in the New Year. Celebrating New Year under the mistletoe is a Celtic tradition: druids believed the sacred plant had magical powers because it’s evergreen (so it never ages or fades?). It became a lucky charm that is supposed to make women fertile, protect people from evil, bring wealth and prosperity… We’re going to get some mistletoe!

What’s on the New Year’s Eve menu in France? 

For a long time, the blow-out feast over the holiday season was just at Christmas. The NYE banquet began as a light supper with company before midnight mass. People would have a heavier meat-based meal after midnight, making it a “jour gras” or “fat day”.

There may not be a traditional meal for December 31st nowadays but some dishes have become New Year’s Eve signatures. Champagne tends to be served before dinner or to ring in the New Year at midnight. Small pastries, foie gras, oysters, snails, scallops and smoked salmon are among France’s favourite dishes at NYE with the Yule log making a comeback for dessert. 

Institut des Frères Lumière à Lyon<br />

Don’t miss the deadline to wish people a Happy New Year by January 31st!

It’s customary in France to wish friends and family a Happy New Year from January 1st onwards to give them good luck. People used to go and visit their loved ones, workmates, the needy, homeless and sick in the first fortnight of the New Year. Some replaced the somewhat onerous custom with cards to send their best wishes rather than having to go around the houses. They got out of it without looking rude by leaving a card to say Happy New Year at the front desk. The invention of the stamp and spread of printing in Europe meant “carte de voeux” were sent by post.

Top 3 unique New Year’s Eve events in France

Celebrate like royalty at Vaux le Vicomte

Château de Vaux-le-Vicomte puts on a fairytale event for December 31st. An architectural sound and light projection lights up the castle walls in tribute to the château’s inauguration on August 17th 1661 which Nicolas Fouquet organised for the Sun King. Attendees of all ages play games in the French grounds, watch the animal ball in the Musée des Équipages and visit the beautifully decorated rooms. 

Swim in the Côte d’Azur

A dip in the sea is a tradition in Antibes! Locals have flocked to Plage de la Salis beach at 11am for over 20 years to wake them up from the last night’s shenanigans and start the New Year fresh-faced. The Day One d’Antibes association promotes the event and visitors to the region love it. After swimming in water that rarely gets above 15 degrees, the brave souls can warm up at the jazz concert and fireworks in the evening. 

Evening grape harvest in Gers

Now here’s a unique tradition in the Occitan region: a (very) late harvest that sees winemakers, locals and villagers pick the last of the sugary Pacherenc du Vic Bilh grapes in Viella village. The tradition dates back to 1991 when the spring frost meant winemakers had to wait a long time for the fruit to ripen on the vine… until New Year’s Eve! The unique harvest is followed by a communal meal at Château de Crouseilles. Guests pick twelve grapes off the last bunch when the clock strikes midnight!

Celebrating the New Year in France is an opportunity to discover the country in a relatively festive atmosphere, under the lights of Christmas. French New Year’s Eve is more a friendly or family celebration “at home”, but people are going out more and more, especially in cities, to celebrate the passage to the New Year in bars or in public squares… Champagne is always a must!

The Lyon Festival of Lights: the visitor guide

The Lyon Festival of Lights: the visitor guide

Millions of people flock to Lyon every year for the city’s popular Festival of Lights. The Capital of the Three Gauls lights up with thousands of candles to put on a magical show for visitors and locals alike on December 8th. It’s a golden opportunity to soak up the fairytale atmosphere as you explore the city at night. Here are some facts and top tips to help you squeeze every last drop out of the Lyon Festival of Lights, the 4th most popular festival in the world!

The Festival of Lights in figures

  • 20 kilometres:

That’s the distance between the first installation (usually Lyon Cathedral) and the last (often Hôpital Saint-Joseph Saint-Luc). You can feast your eyes on all the illuminations along the way but be warned, you certainly won’t be alone so keep a cool head! 

  • 2 million people

That’s how many people usually descend on the city for the 4-day event. The Council puts the figure at between 1.8 and 2 million with half from the Rhône region and 100,000 overseas visitors. That makes an average of 500,000 people exploring the streets of Lyon per day. 

  • Millions of tealights

The Festival of Lights is a record-breaker every year: 8 million tealights were sold in the Grand Lyon area in 2014, 12 million were used for a single installation in 2022 called Les Lumignons du Coeur! 

  • The world’s 4th most popular festival

The Festival of Lights is currently the 4th most loved event among its visitors and won the Best Public Event award in 2007!

The history behind the Festival of Lights

A 19th century tradition.

It all began in the 17th century when the plague reached the South of France. On September 8th 1643, Lyon Council began to pray to the Virgin Mary statue at Fourvière Church to spare Lyon from the epidemic. Their prayers were answered and there’s still a pilgrimage on September 8th to remember the event.

The Council was meant to unveil a statue by the sculptor Joseph Fabisch at the top of Fourvière during the pilgrimage on September 8th 1852. But the Saône flooded and delayed the inauguration until… December 8th. The weather had a mind of its own again on that day and put a damper on events. But things brightened up and the locals put candles in their windows to celebrate. The Church did the same and kept Fourvière lit up all night as the locals gazed in wonder. Flares, fireworks and candles: that’s the story behind the Festival of Lights.

A tradition rooted in Lyon’s cultural heritage

The Festival of Lights became Lyon’s official festival in a sign of faith. The custom of putting candles on your windowsill on the night of December 8th spread among families and religions from 1852 onwards.

The city’s mayor, Michel Noir, sparked (pun intended!) the tradition of illuminating Lyon’s landmarks and bringing the city to life with art installations in 1989. The festival has lasted 4 days since 1999 and is devoted entirely to the festivities and hosting millions of visitors.

Lyon and light: they go way back!

This event was meant to happen in Lyon! It ties in perfectly to the city’s history. Lights, sounds, colours… Does cinema come to mind? What about Auguste and Louis Lumière? The brothers who invented cinematography in 1896 in Lyon? Actually, Auguste also invented autochrome, the first colour film development process. 

Let’s not forget André-Marie Ampère, another bright spark from Lyon who became famous for his experiments with the electrical telegraph. A unit of electric current is even named after him: ampere.

Institut des Frères Lumière à Lyon<br />

An international festival

There are lots of reasons to describe the Festival of Lights as an international festival. 

Firstly, it celebrates artists from Lyon and overseas (11 foreign artists out of 37 in 2022) who hail mainly from Europe. 

It’s world famous and millions of visitors from all over the globe flock here to gaze at the interactive installations. 

Last but not least, the artistic sound and light creations go around the planet. The Festival of Light is a real laboratory and fantastic showcase for all the avant-garde, innovative and creative artists involved in illuminations and performance. Other cities have followed in Lyon’s footsteps and established their own Festival of Lights, including Dubai, Turin, Montreal and Rio de Janeiro.

Foreign visitors: here’s your Festival of Lights guide

Local lingo: what’s a lumignon?

They make the magic happen. They’re tealights in holders that the locals call lumignons or lampions. As soon as November comes around, the shops stockpile bags of these iconic ribbed tealights and glass holders. Locals and visitors light the candles and place them on their windowsills or on public squares on the night of December 8th

Wrap up warm

It’s cold in Lyon in winter, plus the Saône and Rhône riverbanks make it feel damp. So it’s best to wear the right clothing. Remember that Lyon is near the mountain so you can wear a ski suit… or a chunky jumper… or a flashy puffer to stay warm and toasty as you wander around the city all night!

Enjoy a mulled wine

It’s the festival’s go-to drink to warm your cockles (please drink responsibly). Hot and sweet red wine infused with oranges, ginger, cinnamon, vanilla and star anise. The sweet scent of spices is irresistible! Pick up a bretzel or praline brioche bun to go with it to boost your energy and keep you cosy!

Festival of Lights key sites

The Capital of the Three Gauls (find out more about Lyon’s history) plays host to 4 days jam-packed with installations and sights. Feast your eyes on the artwork and soak up the fairytale atmosphere with streets illuminated by millions of tealights on a 20km route through the city between the Saône and Rhône (with shortcuts in and out of the Pentes de la Croix-Rousse neighbourhood). 

The landmarks and squares set the scene for performances or video mapping, including Place Bellecour, Place des Terreaux, Place des Jacobins, Place de la République and Place des Célestins, Lyon Cathedral, Saint-Paul train station and Parc de la Tête d’or. From the Renaissance district to La Confluence, the entire city puts the spotlight on shows and installations that range from the traditional to the game-changing and unexpected. What’s the highlight of the Festival of Lights? Head up Fourvière hill to drink in views of Lyon from the church…

The work that the council, national and international artists and designers put into creating unique sights to showcase the city’s architecture is what makes the festival what it is. The views of the city at night are a sight for sore eyes for children and adults alike! The Festival of Lights is a unique event when visitors from all over the world can get together and literally invade the Capital of the Three Gauls! It may not be the quietest time to visit the city, but it is an international hotspot that provides a unique showcase for Lyon’s neighbourhoods and heritage! 

The Bouquinistes in Paris

The Bouquinistes in Paris

We love the Bouquinistes in Paris because these book stalls are a key part of the Seine banks’ landscape whether you’re on your way somewhere, relaxing on a stroll or visiting the city. The row of book stalls runs for hundreds of metres and people flock here to read, bargain hunt and chat to the managers of these coach green stands. Passersby stop here to find a specific tome or because a cover, vintage poster or unusual title has caught their eye. The Bouquinistes are Parisian landmarks in themselves, treasure chests and time capsules bursting with hidden gems if you take the time to look. 

Our visitors love them and they have had Intangible Cultural Heritage status in France since 2019, so let’s delve into the history of Bouquinistes.  

A few figures: 

  • 3km of book stalls 
  • +/- 230 booksellers in 2022 
  • 900-odd boxes
  • 300,000 antique or contemporary publications
  • 2019: Listed as Intangible Cultural Heritage in France 

Let’s speak “bouquiniste”

Root: “le boucquain”

Bouquiniste comes from the word bouquin, meaning book. It has been spelt this way since the 16th century. Its roots come from Flemish with the medieval Dutch word “boek” and its derivative “boeckin” meaning little book.

It first appeared in the Trévoux dictionary in 1752 which defined it as “sellers of old books, bouquins.”

The boîte: smart design and out of the box

Booksellers store all their merchandise in boîtes (the official technical term) rather than a bookshop or bookcase. The Town Hall allocates booksellers a box that is essentially like a safe. The boxes are specifically designed to melt into the Parisian landscape and match their surroundings. That means the boxes must be coach green to match the Wallace fountains and Morris columns, just like the very first métro. When open, the lid must not exceed 2.1m above ground level so as not to restrict the view for passersby. Most are in zinc-plated wood, patinated and even a little rusty from the fog and rain, but the boxes have withstood the elements. Some of them have been here for over 120 years!

Then it’s up to every bookseller to have their own signature, design and display style. A little red heart for must-read books, a cute gold peg to hang a new release on a string… It’s all about the boxes being in their element, whimsical and part of the Seine’s riverbanks. 

What does being a Bouquiniste involve?

If you want to be a Bouquiniste in Paris and have one or more boxes, you need to apply to the Town Hall for a 5-year tenancy contract. The outdoor booksellers don’t have to pay anything during the contract term: no rent or taxes but they must open their stall at least 4 days a week except in the event of bad weather. 

There are strict criteria regarding the items that a Bouquiniste can sell as a book stall “is and must fundamentally remain a book shop.” In other words, the stand is not the place for knick-knacks or souvenirs, despite the temptation to give into demand from tourists. That means a Bouquiniste can sell new or second-hand books, vintage newspapers and posters, etchings, postcards, vintage stamps, coins, medals, antiques and Paris souvenirs (the must-have Eiffel Tower keyring). 

Bouquiniste riverbank visitor trail

This open-air bookshop runs nearly 3km along the railings on both banks of the Seine. Here’s where to find them: 

  •  Right bank: between Pont Marie and Pont des Arts, Quai de l’Hôtel de Ville and Quai du Louvre
  •  Left bank: between Pont Sully and Pont Royal, Quai de la Tournelle and Quai Voltaire. 

The route is ideal for a stroll, browsing the green boxes and soaking up the architectural wonders along this part of the river: the Louvre, Institut de France, Hôtel de la Monnaie, île de la Cité, Notre-Dame, Conciergerie and more.

History of the Bouquinistes: the ad-lib book trade

The dawn of the printing press in 1450 and boom in the book trade saw small booksellers appear on the banks of the Seine: colporteurs who carried a basket around their neck or shoulders and estaleurs with trestles and canvases selling second-hand books on the riverbanks. Their meeting point and favourite place to sell was Pont-Neuf, built in 1606. 

But not everyone liked this ad-lib and unregulated trade, especially bookshops, so they campaigned for booksellers on the Pont-Neuf to be banned in 1649! It helped reduce unfair competition and restrict the spread of certain satirical gazettes and political or religious pamphlets which were on open display at these little Pandora’s boxes.

The Bouquiniste didn’t become a recognised profession until the First Empire when the administration listed it on the Paris Trade Register. 

They almost disappeared during the reign of Napoleon III when Baron Haussmann tried to rid the riverbanks of them for his urban landscape projects. But the Bouquinistes stood firm: they got the right to sell and leave their goods overnight at the retail point as well as the council officially recognising their boîtes

Bouquinistes, cultural references and heritage

Bouquinistes and their book stalls appear in countless films and TV programmes, old and new, French and foreign. Just take the 1959 film The Magnificent Tramp starring Jean Gabin, Charade with Audrey Hepburn and Cary Grant walking along the riverbank, the daydreaming American Gil played by Owen Wilson in Midnight in Paris, Amélie and the cult series Emily in Paris.

The coach green boxes even inspired a Chanel catwalk show: Karl Lagerfeld brought the rows of book stalls to life, lining the catwalk for his 2018/2019 autumn-winter collection under the Grand Palais’ glass dome.

Watch the catwalk show

Paris, the only city in the world where a river
flows between two rows of books

Blaise Cendrars.

The Bouquinistes are part of Paris’ cultural and literary heritage: whether you’re a local, walker or visitor, it’s always worth stopping to chat to one of these passionate booksellers or dig around one of the boxes to unearth a souvenir, a unique copy of your favourite book, something to join your stamp or coin collection or a pretty souvenir from Paris. 

In recent developments, the 2024 Olympics and the Olympic torch parade through the streets of Paris have put the existence of Bouquinistes under threat. Their presence poses a safety risk and the rosy image this open-air bookshop has may well disappear. But remember, time after time, no matter the event or government, the booksellers have stood firm and managed to protect their stalls! 

So make the Bouquinistes a must-see sight as you explore the capital on your next language stay in Paris. 

Alsace visitor highlights in any seasons

Alsace visitor highlights in any seasons

Vacances Actives Linguistiques visited Alsace this summer and brings you its favourite things to see and do during a language stay in Alsace for our French students. Here’s a trip through both the region (north to south) and time as you travel back to the Middle Ages, Renaissance and Industrial Revolution. Autumn and its golden colours make Alsace one of our favourite destinations: half-timbered houses, fortresses standing on mountain roads and hillside vineyards, staggering views of the Ballons des Vosges and rib-sticking comfort food! 

1 : Craftsmanship and culture, Musée Lalique, Hochberg

You’re in for an exciting introduction to the art of glass and crystal at the Lalique Museum. The sheer variety of display pieces showcase the attention to detail and prestige of the work and expertise that go into making them.
The museum is named after a famous creative family and specifically René Lalique, the world-renowned glass designer who opened his glassworks on the Hochberg site in 1922. The museum displays fine jewellery, perfume bottles for luxury brands, chandeliers and beautifully crafted home accessories.
Get to grips with the extraordinary art of glass with films and sensory workshops where you can touch the material at each design stage.

2 : Strasbourg and flammekueche foodie workshop.

Strasbourg is a must-visit on this language stay in Alsace. The city and European district are worth spending a full week exploring (please see our first travel guide in Strasbourg).

After a walk around Petite France and a trip up the cathedral to say hello to the gargoyles, the students got stuck into a cookery workshop devoted to a local delicacy: flammekueche!

The wood-fired recipe has simple yet specific ingredients: smoked lardons, onion and cream. Once our aprons and worktops were completely covered in flour, the workshop turned into a tasting session to find out who had made the best flammekueche!

3 : Château du Haut-Koenigsbourg, Alsace’s iconic medieval fortress

It was time to visit Château du Haut-Koenigsbourg and tackle one of Alsace’s best-preserved and most iconic medieval fortresses. Sitting on a rocky headland at an altitude of 750m, the château is a blast from the past. Its uneven walls hug the mountain with views of the rolling Vosges, Black Forest and even the Alps on a good day! An essential geography break to reset your compass north!

The fortress trip was a chance to introduce our group of students to medieval architecture terms in French: donjon, pont-levis, chemin de ronde, mâchicoulis and more. From the weapons rooms and keep to the beautifully furnished reception rooms, Château du Haut-Koenigsbourg captures medieval everyday life and how weapons and warcraft have evolved. 

4. Humanist Library in Sélestat

Say goodbye to the Middle Ages and hello to the Renaissance as we follow in the footsteps of the humanist Beatus Rhenanus. He left his fantastic book collection to the Alsatian town of Sélestat where he was born and it is now listed on the UNESCO Memory of the World Register. 

As you flick through the books, manuscripts, leaflets and numbered schoolbooks, you experience the lives of great humanists and travellers like Beatus Rhenanus and his famous friend Erasmus. Discovering uncharted territory, meeting new cultures, making progress in science and technology, considering man’s place in the universe and more, a trip to the Humanist Library certainly got our French students and budding travellers thinking. 

5 : The Eagle Park at Château de Kintzheim

Do birds of prey make your heart soar? Then head to the Eagle Park for a show you’ll never forget! We took our French students out on an educational and exciting trip to meet the tawny eagle, spectacled owl and snowy owl (which Harry Potter fans loved for its Hedwig vibes).

Admiration and wonder were the keywords. We met as many as 30 lively, smart and remarkable birds of prey here. Our trip included an educational workshop to find out how the eagles are born in captivity here and live in their natural habitat.

6 : Charming little Alsatian towns: introducing Colmar, Eguisheim and Ribeauvillé

We simply had to spend a day visiting Alsace’s beautiful villages with their signature personality and romance. These towns are popular during the holiday season with their magical Christmas markets, but they’re just as lovely on a trip to explore and sample local produce! Feast on cured meat, bretzels and classic choucroute galore on the Wine Route! 

Ribeauvillé is a fine example of Alsatian village architecture with bright and colourful half-timbered houses. Our students’ favourites were Auberge de l’Éléphant and Maison des Ménétriers (meaning the House of Musicians) at the top of the Grand-Rue with its beautiful frontage dating back to 1683. We kept our energy topped up with a trip to a family-run Alsatian chocolate shop!

We did a little scavenger hunt in Eguisheim: our young visitors explored the village with spiral lanes and met locals and tourists to answer as many questions as they could in the shortest time. Mission accomplished! Half-timbered houses, high-pitched roofs, sculpted lintels and secret fountains… there were hidden clues everywhere! This colourful village is a favourite among French people (just ask TV presenter Stéphane Bern!) with its pretty labyrinth ideal for having fun and enjoying views of the Alsatian hills. 

Last stop: Colmar, the most magical and peaceful of the trio. The so-called Little Venice is home to half-timbered houses lining the canals and cobbled lanes. Since the Christmas market and its many craftsmen and traders weren’t here, we focused on the Ecomusée d’Alsace: a traditional Alsatian village brought to life to showcase bygone buildings, trades and costumes. We met the blacksmith, cooper, wheelwright and schoolteacher who held a class about Alsace’s history in the classroom! Listen up!

7. La Cité du Train, SNCF heritage in Mulhouse

A journey within a journey… La Cité du Train in Mulhouse whisked us away to the world of train travel as we explored rolling stock, all the items used on board and how they’ve changed over time.

As our visitors moved from one area to the next, they got a glimpse of the railway world in all its glory whether it be exciting (the train and holidays, paid leave in 1936), geographical (the train and mountain, a technical challenge!) or political and dramatic (the train and world wars).

The students were fascinated by the genuine steam trains from the 1850s, imperial carriages and luxurious Compagnie des Wagons-Lits restaurants used on the iconic Orient Express.

Let’s not forget France’s high-speed rail service: the TGV! The students were eager to find out more about the modern trains and may even have found their calling!

Our language stays in Alsace bring together the cool mountain nature of the Vosges with the fantastic local history and culture. They are easy to pair with trips to major cities such as Paris or Lyon, available all year round and are even more magical over the holiday season.