One of the best ways to feel instantly immersed in Provence life is to wander round a flea market on a Sunday morning. Even if you plan to keep your wallet firmly in your pocket, it’s worth going for the sights: tables piled high with antique linens, silverware and glasses, giant spools of colourful thread, curious garden and farming tools, memorabilia of a bygone age, and a mysterious number of huge iron locks and keys that surely belong to a nearby chateau…
A popular find is the linen – heavy, hand-embroidered and frequently monogrammed. You just may be in luck and find your initials. Also fun to take home are old French school posters and encyclopaedias – charming reminders of pre-internet schooling. Other good souvenirs are vintage promotional items from classic French brands such as Pastis 54 and Citroen, while metal advertising plaques are still easy to find.
Doorknobs, handles and boxes of chandelier crystals are plentiful; old iron cots, weathered shutters and elaborate mirrors whisper of their past.
Some of our favourite finds have been shoe lasts and heavy flat irons (they make great door stops), industrial lamps, delicate glass perfume bottles and intriguing faded postcards.
Brocante is the key word here – it means bric-a-brac – such a part of the culture that it’s also a verb!
Brocanting in Provence
Here’s our quick guide to help you get the best from your brocanting in Provence…
At the top of the hierarchy is the antiques market, the marché d’antiquités – it might be also be called a foire or salon. Many of these have a bric-a-brac element to them, so don’t be put off – it won’t just be high-ticket items.
Next along is the brocante – often advertised as ‘belle brocante’ – this is the classic flea market selling everything from vintage lace to bits of old farming equipment. This may also be called a ‘marché aux puces’ (the literal translation for flea market).
The vide grenier in Maubec, Provence. At a vide grenier there is a lot of junk, and the odd gem. You just have to look…
Lowest down on the pecking order, but just as much fun is the vide grenier, which translates as ‘empty the attic’ and is the equivalent of a jumble sale or car boot sale. This will be mostly locals selling their own unwanted things, with a few professional dealers too. It’s quite easy to spot the difference: the non-dealer will have great quantities of tat with the odd gem that will catch your eye, while the dealer will have more ordered and themed, appealing items, with correspondingly higher prices. The vide grenier is a key part of village life in Provence, often an entire family will have a big clear-out and sell everything from old comics to the lawnmower.
You may also spot a vide placard or vide dressing (empty the wardrobe) or vide poussette (empty the pram). If you’re after vintage clothes there are often dealers at these events with a good selection of vintage designer clothes. If you’re on holiday in Provence with young kids our top tip is to track down a vide poussette (or vide grenier) where you can usually pick up a box of mixed toys for a few euros – certainly enough to keep them entertained for a couple of weeks.
Though less frequent in the winter months, you’ll be able to satisfy your brocanting urge year-round. Most of the regular markets in Provence happen on the weekend and villages take turn to host the vide grenier. Look out for temporary signs in and around where you are staying or if you want to be more organised, go online to find out exactly what is happening and where. One of the best sites is brocabrac.fr . Simply tap on the map for the department you are in, for example 84 for Vaucluse, and on the right you’ll see a list of towns and villages hosting markets by date.
Brocanting at the Isle-sur-la-Sorgue Sunday market in Provence.
A special mention here for the markets of L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue – a small and lovely Provence town that also happens to be France’s antiques capital with more than 500 traders grouped around pretty courtyards and indoor markets. It hosts an outdoor market every Sunday morning and a huge antiques fair twice a year (Easter and August). Prices will be a little higher than at other markets, but it’s a beautiful place to wander and as a two-for-one bonus l’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue has an adjoining Sunday food and flower market along the river. The permanent traders are also open Friday and Saturday. This is a very popular market and it can get very busy in peak season. However we reckon it’s worth getting out of bed early for – if you aim to arrive by 8am you can have a relaxed morning coffee and croissant in the charming Cafe de la France opposite the church while the stall holders put the finishing touches to their displays. If you can’t get up in time, well, just turn up in mid-morning like everyone else. There is always parking, but the later you leave it the further you will be from the centre.
You are not really expected to pay the price you are quoted. Professional dealers will be harder to break down, but if you pull the amount you want to pay out of your pocket and indicate that it’s all you have, this can help fix the price. At a vide grenier it is much easier to get a discount on the asking price. If something is priced at 10 euros and you offer 7 you will have yourself a deal. At a vide grenier, the reason people are selling everything is to get rid of it: the last thing they want to do is take it back home, so they will always be prepared to haggle. If you go towards the end of the day the price will come down even more, especially for heavy items!
And plan your next stay in Provence by browsing our hand-picked Provence holiday rentals.