I once bought a three-foot-high red elf at Alfies Antique Market in London and had to hold him on my lap for seven hours on the flight home; a miniature haberdashery store?meant for dolls who have nothing to wear??found in Paris, necessitated purchasing an extra suitcase from a tourist trap on the Rue de Rivoli and paying the $100 extra baggage fee. So when it comes to traveling abroad in search of crumbly old things you just can?t find at home, I am some kind of twisted expert.
Which means I am remarkably well situated to share with you a highly personal, hopelessly biased, completely non-exhaustive guide to the best flea markets of Europe. Not just March? aux Puces de Saint-Ouen and Portobello Road (though I love them both dearly) but also less well-known places worth serious consideration?that is, if your idea of a perfect souvenir is a lightly chipped mid-century lamp that requires rewiring, or an odiferous but gorgeous 1920s dress crying out for the dry cleaner and the tailor.
Some fashion types swear the vast Portobello Road market is best on Friday, when vintage clothes are the specialty, but I prefer the mixed delights of Saturday, and the earlier the better, before the hordes descend. The best arcades for fine antique jewelry (alas, not cheap) are the Crown Arcade and the Central Gallery; upstairs at Rogers Antiques Gallery, the offerings are interesting, and cheaper. And don?t ignore the guys set up in the middle of the road selling Edwardian prints, crockery sporting Queen Victoria?s portrait, and other site-specific souvenirs.
Jubilee Market at Covent Garden
Antiques market is Monday morning only. Lots of people will tell you this weekly event is nothing but worthless trash, not worth the tube ride, etc. Don?t you believe them. This small market is full of bargains (hand-painted 1920s plates for ?10; eighteenth-century boxes for ?50) and those very Portobello dealers who urged you not to come can be found elbowing you away from the showcases.
March? aux Puces de Saint-Ouen
Really a series of markets, open Saturday, Sunday, and Monday, and so huge you should set aside an entire day. Make sure you do not veer off into blue-jean land on your walk from the M?tro?keep going until you see the Rue des Rosiers on the left. Make a right into the Vernaison market, reasonably priced (usually), and charming, for everything from vintage Herm?s wallets to Victorian night dresses to nineteenth-century chaises. But don?t neglect the other markets strung along Rue des Rosiers either. There are lots of caf?s to stop into for lunch, but good luck getting a table at Philippe Starck?s new outpost, Ma Cocotte?I have seen people waiting in line outside this place in the snow.
March? aux Puces de la Porte de Vanves
The stuff my dreams are made of: On Saturdays and Sundays from around 9:00 a.m. until noon, a few hundred dealers set up a block from the Porte de Vanves M?tro station, with tables bearing the barely curated detritus of French attics (including, on one noted occasion, the aforementioned haberdashery cabinet.)
Foire Nationale ? la Brocante et aux Jambons
Twice yearly, around October and March, this dream world of 600-odd dealers, whose name roughly translated is ?Antiques and Ham,? (a combination you probably have to be French to understand) sets up on the island of Chatou on the Seine. Though, alas, the prices remain big-city (you?re not that far from Paris), the artisanal food and the vast selection of goods are irresistible.
Bonus tip! Every week there are outdoor pop-up antique markets all over Paris, but how to know where and when? Go to the exhaustive listings on the Vide Greniers website, which should be decipherable even to those who failed French I.
?You are schlepping back to Barcelona for those four tables of junk?? my friend K asked me incredulously when I revealed plans to revisit that city on a Thursday?chiefly to go to the small (but excellent, I swear) Mercat G?tic in front of the Barcelona Cathedral. Unless you are, like me, insane, don?t make a special Thursday trip (for some incomprehensible reason, that?s the only day this little flea sets up) but if you are in town, good costume jewelry, vintage photos, 1920s Spanish fashion magazines, and other reasonably priced treasures await.
On the other hand, the entire town of Tongeren is worth a special journey, which it will also require, as it is up by the Dutch border, an hour or so from either Antwerp or Brussels, and there is really no other reason to go there except for the market. But on Sundays, the entire town becomes a humongous flea, stretching for what seems like miles along a Roman wall and encompassing several vast garage-like spaces. Though, like all of the above, it is best in nice weather, I was there in the dead of January and still managed to nab an alligator satchel embossed ?Louise Fontaine Bruxelles? (a vintage rival of Delvaux) that is not only incomparably chic, it was a cinch to get home.