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DISCOVER FRANCE

Flying bells and giant omelettes: Eight ways the French celebrate Easter

Food, drink, family gatherings and egg hunts all feature at Easter in France - plus some more unusual traditions.

Flying bells and giant omelettes: Eight ways the French celebrate Easter
The Bessieres giant Easter omelette. Photo: AFP

Easter is of course a religious holiday marking the resurrection of Jesus, and many of France’s traditions during Pâques stem from old Catholic customs. 

Like many other historically Catholic countries, France is a big fan of Easter. All around the country, you’ll see shopfronts and bakeries decorated with chocolate rabbits, chickens, bells, and other signs of spring. 

The Easter Bunny isn’t quite as popular as he/she is in the UK or US, but the lapin de pâques or the lievre (hare) de pâques does make an appearance, especially in the east of the country, where traditionally he brought eggs to children at Easter.

Many other delightful and sometimes bizarre traditions mark the holiday in France. Here are a few of them.

Flying bells

Traditionally it is the cloches volantes, or “flying bells” that have brought treats for children.

READ ALSO How to have a traditional French Easter

French Catholic tradition says that on Good Friday (the Friday before Easter), all church bells in France sprout wings and fly down to the Vatican to be blessed by the Pope.

So no church bells ring between Friday and Easter Sunday morning, to commemorate the death of Jesus (and because they’re all in Rome, obviously).

After their getaway to Italy, the bells return to France laden with goodies for well-behaved children — namely chocolate eggs. And then during the church services of Easter Sunday, the bells go crazy once again in celebration of Jesus’ resurrection. 

A 15,000-egg omelette

It’s not everyday that you see an omelette large enough to feed an army. But in the town of Bessières in south west France, they certainly don’t do omelette half measures.

Every year on Easter Monday, around 10,000 people gather to make a giant omelette, made with 15,000 fresh eggs, a four-metre pan, 40 cooks, and extra long stirrers.

This rather bizarre tradition is in recognition of when Napoleon Bonaparte and his army once spent the night near the town. After eating (and evidently very much enjoying) an omelette made by a local innkeeper, Napoleon ordered the townspeople to gather all the eggs in the village to make a gigantic omelette for his army to eat the next day. 

Crucifixion reenactments

This religious ceremony on the island of Corsica entails a reenactment of the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. The evening begins with a candlelit procession through the town, led by a “penitent” wearing a hooded robe and a heavy cross and chain.

He completes a nearly two-kilometre tour of the city, during which he must fall three times during this journey, as Christ did.

The penitent’s identity is a mystery to everyone except the priest, and each year there is a long list of volunteers hoping to be chosen for the honour.

Egg battles

Although France loves its chocolate eggs, there are some traditional Easter games that involve the real kind. An old Easter custom in France is to hold an egg-rolling competition, in which raw eggs are rolled down a gentle slope.

The surviving egg is dubbed the “victory egg”, symbolising the stone being rolled away from the tomb of Christ.

Another Easter egg game consists of children tossing raw eggs into the air. The first to break his or her egg is a loser and must give some candy to another child. Although in some versions of the game, there is no such tragic penalty. 

Chasse aux oeufs

Children in many countries hunt for eggs on Easter Sunday, but some lucky little ones get to hunt for their treats in the gardens of a French castle. One of the most famous chasses aux oeufs in France takes place at the Chateaux Vaux le Vicomte near Paris.

As well as a huge number of chocolate eggs hidden around the gardens, one lucky hunter will find a one-meter tall chocolate sculpture. To mix things up, this tasty sculpture is not of a bunny or an egg as you might think, but instead a squirrel.

Alsatian Easter markets

In the eastern region of Alsace, they take Easter celebrations a step further with lively Easter markets and events.

In a region also famous for its expansive Christmas Markets, cities like Colmar celebrate the holiday and the beginning of spring with live music, art exhibitions, and sales of local artisan and gastronomic products. 

Chocolate art

France has some world-famous chocolatiers, and they certainly don’t hold back at Easter.

If you’re lucky enough to be in France at this time of year, keep an eye out in the chocolate shops for their magnificent creations. You’ll see beautifully detailed sculptures of eggs, fish, chickens, rabbits, and more. They’re almost too beautiful too eat… almost. 

Working on Good Friday

One Easter perk the French don’t have is a free day on Good Friday.

Workers in most other Christian nations don’t have to work on this day, which marks the crucifixion and death of Jesus. But even though the French still have plenty of other public holidays to mark Christian religious events, Good Friday is not one of them.

The exception is the lucky residents of Alsace, the only French people who get to stay home this day.

READ ALSO Why is Good Friday not a holiday in (most of) France? 

But, Easter Monday is a public holiday, so make the most of it. 

By Katie Warren

For members

TRAVEL NEWS

13 of France’s best hiking and cycling routes

There’s no better way to explore the great French countryside than on foot or on two wheels. Fortunately, walkers and cyclists are well-catered for - here are our recommendations for the best routes (one for each region).

13 of France’s best hiking and cycling routes

Grand Randonees, local walks and vélo routes – France is full of them. In fact, it is estimated that there are 100,000 kilometres of walking trails in France, crossing the country in all directions offering spectacular views, lungfuls of fresh air and a beauty-filled and accessible way to keep fit and healthy.

We’ve selected 13 walks and cycle routes, one from each region, ranging from the gentle and easy to the incredibly difficult. There’s even a donkey in one of them;

Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes

Chemin de Stevenson hiking trailThe GR70 is the unprepossessing official name of an epic route also known as The Stevenson Path, named in honour of the Scottish author Robert Louis Stevenson, who travelled along it in 1878 and wrote about it in his book Travels with a Donkey in the Cévennes (the donkey was called Modestine, by the way). 

It runs roughly north-south for 272 km from Puy-en-Velay to Alès, crossing through the Haute-Loire, Ardèche, Lozère, and Gard departments, although obviously you don’t have to do the whole 272km in one go.

The Association Sur Le Chemin de Robert Louis Stevenson promotes the trail and maintains an accommodation list.

Brittany

Sentier des douaniers hiking trail  – A well-known route steeped in history, salt and sea spray. GR34 – to give it its official route name – starts from Mont-Saint-Michel and ends in Saint-Nazaire, following the stunning Brittany coastline out to Brest at the western tip and then back east.

It (mostly) follows old customs paths (hence the name which means customs officers’ path), in use up to the early 20th century, that allowed officers to patrol the coast from their guardhouses, which were at key observation points on the Brittany coast

Bourgogne-Franche-Comté

Voie des Vignes cycle pathFrom Beaune to Santenay to Nolay, the 22km Voie des Vignes (Way of the Vines) meanders its gentle way along vineyard paths, crossing the Unesco World Heritage-listed Climats of Burgundy.

Ideal for a family day out in the fresh air, or as a way of working up an appetite for some of Burgundy’s most famous produce.

Centre-Val de Loire

La Vallée du Loir cycle path – This 330 km cycle path (the V47) starts at the source of the river between Beauce and Perche and ends of the banks of Loire at Angers.

If you still have some energy left, however, you can keep going because at this point it joins up with the older La Loire à Velo cycle path.

Corsica

The GR20 hiking trailNot for the faint-hearted, this one. The GR20 – so hard it doesn’t even get a friendly name – is recognised as one of France and Europe’s most difficult hiking challenges, running 180km from Calenzana in the North to Conca in the South.

The full route takes about 16 days to walk, and features steep climbs and descents in the north and tricky exposed ridges further south. You do get to enjoy the gorgeous and dramatic landscape of Corsica while you do it, however.

Grand-Est

La Meuse à vélo cycle path – The Meuse Cycle Route – EuroVelo 19 – follows one of the most important rivers in Europe and welcomes cyclists of all levels. 

It runs from the plateau of Langres via Hoek van Holland to Rotterdam, offering ever-changing scenery, with charming towns and villages on both banks of the river. In total the path is 1,050km long and takes in France, Belgium and the Netherlands.

Hauts-de-France

Sentier du Littoral hiking trailIt’s officially known as the GR120, and its more prosaic name is no more inspired – Sentier du Littoral translates as Coastal Path – but this trail, which stretches along the Côte d’Opale, from the Belgian border to Berck-sur-Mer offers breathtaking views of the Baie de Somme.

Ile-de-France

La Seine à Vélo cycle pathThe 260km cycle route, connecting the capital to Le Havre in Normandy, takes in Claude Monet’s home and gardens in Giverny, the Museum of Impressionism, and Château de Malmaison, the former home of Napoleon Bonaparte and Empress Josephine.

Normandy

The Pays Tour de la Suisse Normande hiking trailFrance celebrates its village préféré, its celebrity préféré, it’s book préféré – and it’s hiking route préféré.

In 2023, this route, which runs through Calvados and Orne was voted France’s favourite hiking trail, beating the GR120 (you may remember that as the Hauts-de-France walk listed here) and the GR71C Tour de Larzac.

You’ll need to be reasonably fit to do some of the hillier sections, but the views – particularly Rochers de la Houle, the Pain de Sucre, the Roches d’Oêtre – are worth the effort.

Nouvelle Aquitaine

Le Canal de Garonne à vélo cycle pathAt 193km long, the Canal de Garonne à vélo – which runs from Bordeaux to Toulouse along the banks of the river after which it is named – is the longest greenway (voie verte) in France, and part of the Canal des 2 Mers route which connects the Atlantic and Mediterranean.

Occitanie

Passa Païs cycle path  – The Passa Païs is an 80km greenway that crosses through the heart of the Parc Naturel Régional du Haut-Languedoc, along the route of a former railway line, while enjoying a rich mosaic of landscapes.

Pays de la Loire

Île d’Yeu cycle path and hiking trail – Just off the Vendée coast, you’ll find the tiny Île d’Yeu. You’ll need to take a ferry to get there, but – once there – you’ll find it is perfect for cycling or walking pretty much all year round. 

You can bike to the beach, to the market in Port-Joinville or Saint-Sauveur. Or visit the Grand Phare or the Old Castle, enjoy a break at the small Port de la Meule, and admire the sunset at Pointe du But. Your choice.

Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur

Via Venaissia cycle route and hiking pathAn easy one to finish with. The short, family friendly Via Venaissia route follows, in part, the old railway line that linked Orange to Isle-sur-la-Sorgue, which was last in use in 1938.

The 14-kilometre greenway reserved for cyclists and walkers takes in the exceptional views of Mont Ventoux and the Dentelles de Montmirail massif.

And a bonus one  . . .

The famous Camino de Santiago ends in Santiago de Compostela in Spain, but one of the routes (Le Puy Camino) begins in France’s Auvergne area and meanders through the south west of the country before crossing the border into Spain.

You don’t have to go all the way to Spain, of course, there are lots of lovely sections in France, all well marked with the route’s logo of a shell. Some people just treat it as a hike, while others do it as a religious pilgrimage sometimes accompanied by a donkey, which explains why you’ll sometimes see a donkey tied up outside a supermarket, post office or tabac in south west France.

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