Poking around les Puces de Paris is one of my favourite things to do. And we all love to have a poke around a good flea market once in a while, don’t we? Do you? Paris certainly satisfies any inclinations to rummage with its profusion of puces or ‘fleas’ dotted about the city, but Les Puces de Saint-Ouen, not far from our ‘home’ here in Montmartre, is probably the most fun.
Sprawling over some seven hectares, it’s the largest of Paris’ markets, and apparently the largest market in Europe. It’s also the city’s oldest, officially starting in 1885 when the authorities decided to clean up the area and give order to the chaos that had previously reigned there.
However, a temporary market had operated on the spot for far longer by ‘rag-and-bones men’ who rummaged through piles of rubbish at night for anything worth salvaging which they’d sell from their makeshift stalls set up in this dingy area outside the city walls.
Les Puces does in fact consist of many markets, including Marché Antica and Marché Cambo (antiques, paintings, mirrors, porcelain); Marché Biron (everything from gilded Louis XV pieces to rustic wooden country furniture); Marché Dauphine (all sorts of stuff, from second-hand clothes to carpets); Marché Serpette (furniture, mirrors, paintings, second-hand clothes, kitchen gear, etc); Marché Paul Bert (the place for retro finds from the 1950s and 60s); and Marché Jules Vallée (plenty of junk bric-a-brac, with more of a thrift-store vibe than the other markets).
Our favourite market is Marché Vernaison, which is actually the first market you’ll come to when you arrive at the corner of the Rue des Rosiers, the main thoroughfare. We like Marché Vernaison for its laidback atmosphere as much as for its eclectic offering of antique and bric-a-brac shops. Here the owners break out the wine and picnic baskets and lunch together in their shops or on tables set up in the laneways. A few were so well set-up we actually thought it was an atmospheric café when we first spotted them and were terribly disappointed it wasn’t.
As you wander the quiet, winding lanes you’ll come across a wide array of shops, specialising in everything from antique maps, old airline posters and retro magazines (#9) to fantastic printer’s lead type (#103), which can be used to create funky signage or arty cryptic messages for your walls.
A visit to our favourite shop (#92), however, is as much about enjoying the aesthetics of collecting as it is browsing the collections of kitsch that fill the wooden boxes in this dimly-lit store: everything from miniature plastic pink baby dolls to tiny religious trinkets that are perfect for charm bracelets! On the walls above the boxes the owner has charmingly displayed his finds in symmetrical patterns that make you want to purchase dozens of these delightful little bits and pieces and replicate the artful display back home. Ah, but if only we had a home…
• How to get there: from Porte de Clignancourt Metro station, follow the crowds through the cheap clothes market (selling everything from Indian hippy clothes to fake Ed Hardy t-shirts), and head under the concrete overpass to Rue des Rosiers, from where you can access all the markets.
• When to go: the markets are on from 9am-6pm Saturday, 10am-6pm Sunday, and 11am-5pm Monday, but the earlier you go the better to catch the owners in a bright mood (remember, everything is negotiable), and to avoid the crowds. The markets can get very crowded so if you’re claustrophobic, best to avoid them altogether in favour of smaller neighbourhood flea markets
• What to take: very little! Hide your wallet in an inside jacket pocket or bury your purse deep in your handbag as the area is notorious for pickpockets. You don’t need to take lots of money, as many dealers accept credit cards, although obviously they prefer cash.