The flea markets in Paris range from the intermittent “attic-emptying” neighbourhood street stalls, (les vides greniers), to regular bric-a-brac and collectibles markets, to high quality, high price established antique market boutiques. If you are keen to spend time on the weekend fossicking for cast-off treasures of times past your appetite will be well and truly satisfied with the various Marché aux Puces in Paris.
By far the largest is the Saint Ouen Marché aux Puces at Porte de Clignacourt. Its location just outside the city boundary of the 18th arrondissement is a significant point in the history of this market. At the time that Baron Haussman was re-designing and cleaning up central Paris in the mid 19th century the rag and bone men were essentially driven out. They set up and continued their trade just outside the city limit where they were exempt from Paris taxes. Amusingly, these rag and bone men were called “crocheteurs” in French; (pickers), they picked through other people’s rubbish and cast offs to sell again. (They were also called les pêcheurs de lune, moonlight fishermen, since they did their job picking through the rubbish at night.) The Marché aux Puces at St Ouen was officially recognised in 1885 and it’s going stronger than ever today.
There are now 1700 merchants clustered in 14 separate markets, it takes more than a day to see the lot. The merchants are open all day Saturday Sunday and Monday. We’ve been at least half a dozen times already (DB loves looking for a bargain) and still on our last visit, we found new alleys crammed full of artefacts. There are trendy cafes and bars, some with live music – gypsy jazz apparently – all well patronised. The promotional brochures and website tell you that 5 million people visit each year; tourists, locals, “even celebrities” they say. So you know what that means for the prices. Yep, it’s not cheap, but it is treasure. It is a wonderful lively place in which to lose yourself poking around in the past. There are all sorts of things; exotic objets d’art, remnants of ordinary lives, furniture fit for chateaux, and certainly pieces that capture your interest like these colourful enamel coffee pots, or this handsome butchers bench; its stained stone worktop worn down into two smooth hollows side by side.
On the outskirts of the city in the other direction at Porte de Vanves there is another regular Marché aux Puces, held every Saturday and Sunday from 7am till 2pm. This is smaller and low-key; the merchants simply set up tables on the footpath and display their wares. The day we were there some were starting to pack up soon after midday so best go early. Its more bric-a-brac and collectibles than antiques (but there’s a grey area in that distinction of course) and with presumably lower overheads the prices are cheaper. It is well worth a visit. The goods are quirky and interesting, everything from old pharmacy labels and packaging to cotton, thread, remnants of lace, postcards, silver cutlery and crockery, to second hand designer clothing. You might just be lucky enough to find a bargain and something to be treasured all over again.