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Flea markets in France are a cultural experience

Stall at a flea market in France - old leather suitcases, china and copperware

Here in the middle of nowhere in rural France where I live, the pace of life is slow and wonderfully tranquil most of the time. In the summer months though, it gets rather more lively.

Long sunny days are de rigeur, even in Pas de Calais at the tip of northern France. Southerners call it “the north pole of France.” And though it might be a bit of an exaggeration to give it that name, it’s true, it rarely reaches the toasty temperatures experienced in the south. A friend of mine who lives in the far south tells me that when it gets really hot there, the only way she can sleep is to soak her nightdress in water, keep it in the freezer all day and put it on frozen stiff just before she goes to bed. There’s none of that going on in the north I can tell you. But it is pleasantly warm.

When the sun is out here, there’s nowhere more lovely than the beautiful beaches of the Opal Coast, more relaxing than the glorious countryside – or more French that flea markets!

Flea market fanatics

French people are mad for flea markets. You’ll see signs advertising brocantes, marchés aux puces and vide greniers (literally it means empty your attic) all over the place. It’s a national obsession to browse stalls set out in the streets of villages and towns. Every year, literally thousands of weekend flea markets are held in my department. Some are tiny events, maybe 20 stalls, sometimes less. Others are huge. Lille, the regional capital, hosts the biggest flea market in Europe (first weekend in September) with a stonking 10,000 stalls. It goes on through the night and people take torches so they can continue to browse rather than stop to sleep and miss a bargain.

Antiques and vintage clothes. Household goods and farm machinery. Textiles, toys, home-made cakes, veg from the garden and furniture. All sorts of things are offered up for the scrutiny of sharp eyed shoppers, nosey parkers and those seeking an as yet undiscovered Renoir that has lain unseen in an attic for decades (it has happened). I never cease to be amazed at the amount of broken china, used tea towels, empty jam jars, metal bottle tops and used corks on offer.

Flea markets in France are a cultural experience

In the UK I never went to a boot sale. But in France it’s such a normal way of life to spend weekends wandering at flea markets that it rubs off. And my new found flea market fervour has paid dividends. Some of my favourite finds include a crazy cockerel called Kendo Nagasaki, a now much-loved cat no one wanted and a pair of vintage Dior opera gloves. It’s an opportunity to preserve, reuse and recycle, pre-loved things that no one else wants. And if you’re into antiques, you can often find treasure.

Flea market markets in France are a cultural experience. It’s a chance to meet with the locals on their home turf and have fun while you’re looking for the elixir of youth AKA locally produced snail slime face cream, royal jelly or donkey milk soap. There’s always street food on offer. Chips and saucisson, crêpes or rotisserie chickens with potatoes cooked in the juices, washed down with local wines, beers and ciders. Often there’s a band or an accordion player, and couples dance around the tables, enjoying the moment without a care.

Next time you’re in France, head to a flea market, roll up your sleeves to rummage for treasure (or tat!) and make like a local.

Here’s how to find out where a flea market is on anywhere in France

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