From the grunge of Montreuil to the chic antiques of Saint-Ouen, Paris has flea markets to suit every taste and budget. Even if you're not buying, their atmosphere is infectious
Paris is the City of Light. It's the city of romance. And it's also the city of great flea markets.The flea markets, or marchés de puces, go back to the 19th century, when huge second-hand goods markets grew up not in the centre of Paris, where property was too expensive, but outside the city gates. To reach any of them (with one exception) is a good long ride on the Metro – but it's worth it.
The one exception, the market that grew up intra muros (inside the walls) is the Marché d'Aligre, near the Ledru Rollin metro station. It's open from Tuesday to Saturday all day, and on Sunday mornings, and provides not only a flea market, but plenty of stalls selling fresh produce.
While the market is open all week, the weekend is when the brocanteurs come out – the antiques and second-hand merchants. You may well get the best bargains late on Sunday morning, as closing time approaches and the stallholders have to work out whether they're better taking a low price, or taking the stock back home. However it's Saturday lunchtime that the market is at its busiest and most interesting.
The ethnic mix of the area contributes a number of Asian and North African businesses – if you like couscous or Vietnamese food, head off to one of the local restaurants afterwards.
The flea market at Vanves (Porte de Vanves metro) is a weekend-only affair. For reasons I've never been able to work out, stalls in one part of the market are only open in the morning, and close at one in the afternoon, while the rest of it keeps going till five.
Vanves is a great place for curios. Some of the things you see are unrecognisable – though over time, I've learned to identify such staples of old French country life as vinegar pots (you tip your old wine in at the top and it comes out as vinegar through the tap at the bottom). We have a lovely herb chopper at home, a semicircular steel blade with two ancient wood handles worn to a polish by generations of cooks' hands; that came from Vanves. You'll also find stalls selling music, and some very good antique jewellery.
Vanves is quite smart. Montreuil on the other hand is at the grunge end of the flea market spectrum. It's like a huge car boot sale, only not as high class. (Porte de Montreuil metro, open Saturday to Monday.) Here you can find old car parts (useful if you own a vintage Citroen, which we do), old prams, and computers so old they should be in a museum. But if you look hard you can also find some great bric a brac, particularly branded glasses, jugs and ashtrays from bars that have gone bust or re-equipped. I've managed to buy chunky half-litre Hoegaarden beer glasses, a nice pastis jug, and a couple of delightful earthenware calvados bottles. Prices at Montreuil are extremely negotiable, particularly on Mondays.
The grungiest bit of the market is where guys just spread their stuff out on the pavement to sell it. Unlike the stallholders, these vendors don't have a market licence – if les flics arrive, watch them bundle their belongings up and scarper!
The most famous of the Paris flea markets is a huge affair, taking place on the streets and in a dozen or more covered markets – the Puces de Saint-Ouen. You can tell its prestige by the way it's often known just as 'Les Puces' – the flea market.
Like Montreuil, it's open Saturday to Monday. But that's the only thing it has in common with the grungier market. The covered markets in particular can be incredibly upmarket, with specialised antique shops and relatively high prices. One shop specialises in picture frames, another in industrial glassware – alembics, stills, strange pharmaceutical and chemical vessels. Another sells only lava lamps. Old cameras, vintage fountain pens – whatever your interest, there's a stall somewhere waiting for you.
Different covered markets have different specialities. The Marché Biron is where you need to go for antique furniture, from Empire style chaises longues to ornate long-case clocks; Marché Malik, on the other hand, is where to go if you're interested in vintage clothing. The selection is amazing – from starched white petticoats to taffeta ballgowns.
Saint-Ouen starts later than the other markets. When I've got there early in the day, I've seen stallholders drifting in at 10 o'clock in the morning – only half the stalls are open any earlier. If you want to find out where they all are, drop into one of the cafes or bars for a coffee and a croissant.
There is also a downmarket end to the Puces. There are a couple of streets with guys selling absolute junk – old mobile phones, Nintendo cartridges, even single shoes (useful if you only have one leg, I suppose). And there's a big market selling clothes, African carvings, and accessories, stretching along a tree-lined road. But it's the antique stalls that are the real draw of this market.
The Paul Bert market is my favourite. That's where the industrial glass stall is. It's also where, one summer Sunday, I saw an entire three piece suite made out of antlers with green velvet seats – tasteless in the extreme. Besides, there's a lovely little brasserie next to the market where you can get a cup of coffee, or extra-special hot chocolate with a croissant or a cake. Antique shopping, Parisian-style – a lazy wander round the market, and a cup of coffee washed down with a quick shot of calvados or armagnac.