It was a lovely spring weekend in the north of France, just perfect to indulge in the national French pastime of visiting a brocante…
France is famous for its second hand markets, bric-a-brac markets, marchés aux puces, braderies and vide greniers – flea markets are known by several names and they are held in all regions. They take place throughout the year but the majority are from March to October when better weather means stalls can be laid out in the streets of towns and villages. Some are small with just a few sellers and some are huge like the Lille Braderie with 10,000 stalls. They take place mostly on weekends but also on bank holidays and occasionally on week days.
Visiting a local flea market isn’t just about finding a bargain – it’s a chance to see the culture of a particular area, to meet with the locals and an opportunity for socialising. There is almost always a “buffet” of some sort, often involving a frite wagon (chips or French fries to you and me) delights such as local sausages, pancakes or a hog roast. Some flea markets are specialist and vendors sell antiques, stamps, military memorabilia or clothes. Other markets are full of local people who empty out their lofts, cellars or sell off unwanted farm machinery. You’ll usually find stalls specialising in old linen, china, religious relics, ex-hotel tableware and of course there is a lot of junk. I’m always amazed by the amount of people who sell jam jars, bottle tops and even corks – I supposed someone must buy them!
Each region issues a book of brocantes in the area with times, dates, addresses and an indication of the number of stalls and there are a couple of good websites that list brocantes throughout France. Some flea markets draw potential buyers from far and wide – the Lille Braderie for instance attracts over a million people from around the world when it is held on the first full weekend in September.
This weekend I visited a brocante at Le Crotoy, a little town on the edge of the Somme Bay, one of the most beautiful bays in the world, in Picardy. Le Crotoy is very charming and has a lively atmosphere and some grand villas.
The big draw here is the harbour, lined with restaurants whose tables sprawl onto the pavement, filled with diners indulging in fresh local fish and the ubiquitous dish of the north, moules and frites. I dined at the brasserie La Cote d’Opale which was really friendly and where you can get a tasty meal for about €10.
The town has several claims to fame, not least of all the fact that Joan of Arc was held in a chateau here (it has sadly long gone) prior to being taken to Rouen and her sad demise. There is a statue dedicated to her on the edge of the bay in Place Jeanne d’Arc with a lovely little walkway where boules is played and children scan the inlet for seals who bask here along the sandy beaches of about 10km. It is largely the French who visit this family friendly holiday resort and its a well-kept secret and absolutely worth a visit, and I’d recommend you take a trip on to the lovely town of St Valery-sur-Somme a short drive round the bay.
Le Crotoy is also where you can take a pleasure boat ride around the natural horseshoe shaped bay and watch fishermen bringing in their haul of the day on their bright little fishing boats. Nearby is the Le Crotoy Chemin de Fer railway station where from late spring to the end of summer you can catch a steam train and take a ride round the bay through picturesque countryside stopping off at the bigger towns like St Valery-sur-Somme.
In the town of Le Crotoy, there are some lovely little shops and, wonderful to see, local fishermen selling fresh seafood from outside their homes. I stopped at one house where a fisherman and his son had just come home with a box of shrimp. “Come back in 5 minutes when they’re cooked” he told me and I did. He had a table on the pavement under his front room window and did a roaring trade selling the still warm shrimp, they were so fresh and sweet. There’s also a fish market where you can buy prawns, langoustines, cockles, mussels and crab as well as herring, eels, plaice, dabs and other white fish.
Back at the brocante which ran along the sea front, about 300 stalls in all, the whole place was buzzing as the early morning mist cleared, the sky turned a deep blue and the warm sun made everyone feel happy, it was a great holiday atmosphere and I picked up a couple of lovely old metal trays circa 1950 which the seller told me came from a local café.
If you ever come across a brocante/flea market when you’re driving around France – stop and explore to get a real taste of French culture.
How to get to Le Crotoy – perfect off the beaten track day trip destination:
From Calais port it takes around 75 minutes to get to the town of Le Crotoy via the A16 auto route.
From Paris you can take a train to the nearby towns of Rue or Noyelles-sur-Mer then hop on the fabulous steam train which makes stops all round the Somme Bay including Le Crotoy, or jump on the bus. Services are frequent in summer, less so off peak. Check the Somme Tourist Office website for more details.