French style

Ten years ago, whilst staying up in Valence, Katy took me to what was my first French car-boot sale in a nearby village. She bought a crate of melons for a very good price in response to allowing the vendeur a glimpse of her own melons; I purchased an old photograph of a group of even older men outside some sort of small factory for one euro. Madame, who was selling the photo, demanded, ‘what does she want that for?’ ‘She’s English’, said Katy with that infamous French shrug. Madame was disdainful which makes me wonder why she had the photograph there in the first place. I gave my dad that photo and he had it on his desk for some years – an unusual souvenir.

I don’t even think that sale had a name.The French have since caught up and things have moved on, although now there’s nomenclature. Largely, the difference is between Brocantes, Vide Greniers and Marchés aux Puce. In translation, they all mean much the same – flea markets. The reality, however, doesn’t really reflect this.

I would say that a Marché des Puces falls at the bottom end of the scale and might well be avoided. In Avignon, for example, you can find a Marché des Puces almost any day of the week, especially in the square nearest to Les Halles. The goods on sale are of a poor quality, at ridiculous prices, just for the prestige of being slap bang in the centre of antiquity. I’ve never seen anything that I wanted to purchase and have moved on quickly to lunch.

On the other hand, the Brocantes are well worth a visit. These are more up-market and are the haunts of those UK programmes that centre on the benefits of buying abroad. However, the French have caught on. In my humble opinion, one of the most famous – Ilse sur la Sorgue – is to be avoided at all costs on a Sunday if you’re from the UK. There are permanent antique businesses here which predominately target Americans. They even arrange for goods to be shipped which says something about the price. Ok: the town is really pretty but it’s a crush. Far better, after church, to head on over to Carpentras. Settled just underneath the Ventoux, it means you have the opportunity to drive through vine-ridden villages and seek a more authentic venue for your Sunday lunch. Further, the sale doesn’t commence until 10am so there’s no anxiety-inducing need to get up at stupid-o-clock after Saturday night exertions.

Even so, the stall-holders in Carpentras are increasingly canny and you have to be prepared to barter; and for them to know the game. Along with a variety of friends, I’ve found good deals on things ranging from ostrich feather fans to model wooden horse-driven carts. But my very favourite Brocante is the Saturday morning show at Villeneuve-les-Avignon. The English programmes, such as French Collection, will tell you that this is the best in the South.

What makes it particularly interesting is the buvette in the far corner. A buvette is a small establishment, such as a shed or a caravan, selling liquid refreshment. Options are generally limited: tiny paper cups of the strongest expresso you’re ever likely to taste aimed, presumably, at the stall-holders who’ve arrived at une bonne heure; Pastis for the next stage; beer to keep them going and Orangina for the lightweight tourists. If you go to the counter to purchase a drink, etiquette is maintained and one is told brusquely to find a table and wait to be served. And photographs are frowned upon.

The other week, Elle and I came across a bunch of really interesting looking stuff laid out on the ground. A youth of indeterminate description sat in the back of a nearby truck studying his phone. ‘Monsieur’, I ventured, ‘how much for this?’ He looked up and tried to focus but, having forgotten how to speak, stumbled away to return with an older man in a very sad state of affairs. Stumbling is a good word. The new ‘monsieur’ was having trouble standing, although seemed adept at keeping his beer in the glass. He mentioned a price and I mentioned one lower. Evidently, he’d forgotten how the game works as he then gave an even lower price. Reader, this isn’t normal but who cares? We got some fine bargains and he seemed delighted. Much winking and shaking of hands ensued.

The brocante is done and dusted by 1pm in Villeneuve which enables us to wander up into the little town for lunch in the square. This isn’t a piece on where to eat – however, you could do worse than Aubergine which has tables inside and out, a clean toilet and great food at very reasonable prices. Just saying.

Vide Greniers have come a long way in the last ten years. There’s even a website to tell you when and where but, in practice, it’s easy to find them in the summer as advertising signs are placed on nearby roadsides. Inevitably, as in the UK, they’re held on a Sunday but, unlike the UK, they last all day. Close to the Bricomarché in Tarasçon, you’ll find a weekly one which is still quite unusual. Tarasçon is, unfairly, a much derided town. Sadly, I feel that part of the reason is the preponderance of Arabs… France is a pretty racist type of place. Up in Pierrelatte, there’s a predominately Arab market every Friday and it’s vibrant with colour, high quality material being prime stock in trade. I thoroughly recommend a jaunt north just for the experience.

However, Tarasçon on a Sunday isn’t a market: it’s a boot sale. Nonetheless, it’s interesting as all things Provençal are sold alongside old and new goods of Arab origin… a veritable mix of cultures. But if you want French goods, go to a village vide grenier. I’d say pick a wealthy village such as Mausanne but even the lesser known places have good finds. Don’t go for traditional stuff such as French lace or so-called ‘shabby-chic’ furniture because prices are extortionate; look for the things that the sellers haven’t yet cottoned on to. Happy bargain hunting.