Grab your basket and throw away your shopping list! We’re off to the markets of Paris.
The only thing governing your choices as you wander through the open-air markets of Paris should be the time of year and your senses. The crinkly feel of walnut shells between your fingers in the fall. The garnet red of plump cherries in the spring. The wafting smell of roast chicken any time of year. The raucous voices of vendors as they bellow out the day’s best bargains. Behold the belly of Paris.
For many centuries, Paris was the site of the world’s largest wholesale market. Known as Les Halles, from the verb aller (to go), this was where everyone went to stock up on fresh produce, fish, meat and cheese, haggle for the best price, mix and mingle, dine on hearty soups from steaming cauldrons, and generally get lost in the wondrous hustle and bustle of it all.
Today there are over 60 open-air markets scattered throughout Paris’ 20 arrondissements (see here for a complete list), and although nowadays you can find everything you need and more in the ubiquitous supermarket, the tradition of the market is alive and well. Indeed, it is a fundamental part of the local culture, and any Parisian household worth its name has a basket whose specific function is to carry home the treasured finds of the local market.
My own neighborhood boasts several markets, and the marché Barbès which sets up Wednesdays and Saturdays beneath the steel girders of a metro overpass will have you believing you have been transported to a Moroccan souk. Towering piles of fruit, vegetables and fresh herbs paint a continuous ribbon of color along the single central aisle, punctuated by burlap bags of powdered spices, buckets of olives and dates, and stands selling traditional North African khobs bread. Brace yourself as you delve into the swarm of people – this market’s notoriously low prices attract people from all around the city.
The marché Aligre in the 12th arrondissement is the only Paris market that combines a covered market, an open-air market and a flea market. It is also the only market open every day of the week (except Monday). Go on a Sunday, when bistros around the periphery of the market set up wooden wine barrels to serve shucked oysters and crisp white wine. The first historical mention of this market goes back to 1643, when it occupied a site owned by an abbey. The nuns from the abbey would distribute used clothing to the needy who hung around the market, thus beginning the tradition of the flea market that is still in full swing today.
Speaking of flea markets, if you visit Paris in the fall, be sure to experience one of the well-established brocantes (broke-ONT) that are held all around the city. These are, essentially, communal garage sales, where vendors display their once-cherished treasures for buyers to rummage through in an attempt to give new life to forgotten objects. You will find everything from dish-ware, furniture, used designer clothing and shoes, to old books, vinyl records, gramophones and children’s toys. For a directory of 2015 brocantes (in French), see here. Don’t be daunted by the language barrier; almost everyone has at least rudimentary knowledge of English, or, at the very least, English numbers. On a recent sunny Sunday morning, I weaved my way through the crowd of the Caulaincourt brocante with two friends on a self-proclaimed quest for the quirky. A frying pan-turned clock, a dressmaker’s dummy-turned lamp, and a pair of earrings made from the hands of a grandfather clock were among our favorite finds for the day. Exhausted from bargaining – a key ingredient to the true brocante experience – we admired our new-found treasures over café and croissants before heading home, but not before making a date for the next brocante.
Whatever market you visit – and I hope you visit many – be sure to indulge your senses and immerse yourself in the sheer pleasure of it all. And here’s a little tip: when it comes to the open-air markets of Paris, the early bird does not get the worm. Quite the opposite, in fact: latecomers like myself often go home with an extra apple or two thrown into their basket for good measure, or a bursting bouquet of gorgeous pink peonies, to which one can only smile and say merci!