Hunting and gathering


Scouring the flea markets for hidden treasures is a weekend pastime in France and they are the perfect place to pick up bargain finds to create an individual look in your home, says Anna McKittrick

In the last few years second-hand shopping, whether it’s for furniture, clothing or bric-a-brac, has experienced something of a renaissance, and France offers a particularly good hunting ground for those looking to create a unique look for less.

Easter to October is flea market season across the Channel, with events taking place in towns and villages across France on Saturdays and Sundays during the spring and summer. In France the fairs are called foire � tout, vide greniers or brocantes and you’ll often see handwritten signs or posters advertising forthcoming events as you drive through the countryside.

France has become renowned for its bumper selection of fairs and people travel not only across the Channel, but from as far away as the United States and Australia, to scour the French markets. The brocantes often vary dramatically in size, from tiny village affairs with only a smattering of stalls, to vast events in larger towns and cities such as Lille and Bordeaux. The best way to find out when and where events are taking place is by logging on to or which both have listings for every department.

For many, the flea market bug starts with a move to France and when faced with a vast property to furnish, the brocantes are often the first port of call. For Sharon Santoni her passion for second hand began when she moved from Kent to Normandy more than 20 years ago. “My husband and I bought a lovely big old house and it needed to be furnished. It would have been a shame to go to Ikea especially as here in Normandy there are so many of the fairs around every weekend as soon as the weather gets nice and it’s such a fun way to buy stuff,” enthuses Sharon who writes the blog My French Country Home where she documents her flea market finds.

Jane Gratton, who splits her time between Cheltenham and Sa�ne-et-Loire in Burgundy, is another flea-market fanatic and says one of the reasons why France has such a thriving brocante scene is that the French don’t move house very often and tend to stockpile furniture and bric-a-brac.

“The French are a nation that never throws anything away so when somebody dies their whole life is still in the attic,” says Jane who runs Burgundy Brocante with her husband David. And it’s the old treasures that are discovered in these attics that can be found on sale at the markets.

“The last generation of houses are being emptied and there are still some around with untouched attics and barns. There’s already less stuff than there was 10 years ago and once this generation has emptied the barns and attics then I suppose it will start coming full cycle,” says Sharon. If you speak French you can chat to the sellers and often find out the stories behind the items says Jane: “The nice thing about the French markets is that you do meet people who can tell you the story of the item that belonged to their family. We buy a lot of grain sacks and we’ll go to a farmer and he’ll relate the history of his grandfather’s mill which is lovely.” Shoppers can expect to find all manner of items for sale from china to glassware, linens to furniture and pretty much everything in between. Part of the charm is that you never know what you’re going to come across. “You can’t go with a shopping list, it’s the luck of the draw and you might get there two minutes after someone just got the item you would’ve liked to have bought, or maybe you will be lucky and get the thing that someone really wants,” advises Sharon, who says the etiquette is that if someone has their hand on an item it’s off limits and vice versa. So it’s vital to make quick decisions, especially if you’re only in France for a weekend.

Having spent many years visiting the fleas and now running brocante tours in Normandy, Sharon is an experienced second-hand shopper and says that haggling is acceptable in France: “First of all smile and be polite. If you want to barter well you have to be prepared to walk away until you get the prices you want, but never barter to a point that’s insulting to the seller.” The prices vary depending on what you are looking to buy and where you buy it. For example the Parisian flea markets, known as les march�s aux puces, such as Les Puces de Saint-Ouen and Port de Vanves, command higher prices than the foires � tout which are much more competitively priced with bargains to be found.

Sharon says location also makes a difference as to what you will find: “If it’s a fair in a lovely village with lots of old houses and farm buildings you have a lot more chance of finding good stuff than if it’s taking place in a new-build area of a town.”

One of Sharon’s top tips is to make sure you leave space in your car for transporting items home, as there’s nothing more disappointing than finding something you love and not being able to take it with you. Smaller items can easily be posted and Sharon says the French post offices sell flat-rate pre-paid boxes with tracking. But for larger items the best solution is to have them shipped or, if you can arrange storage, return on another trip with an empty car.

Once you’ve got your flea market finds home, working them into your existing decor is part of the fun. Liz Bauwens, interior stylist and author of Thrifty Chic and Flea Market Chic, goes over to France twice every summer to scour the markets for interesting pieces with her favourite being in Villefranche-sur-Mer.

As a stylist and flea market shopper herself, Liz is no stranger to incorporating second-hand items into her home and says the easiest way to do so is to find a running theme, whether it’s a colour you like, a collection of vintage fabrics, or floral china to create an individual look: “I love the eclectic look of new mixed with old, and the markets and boot sales have some amazing finds,” adds Liz.

For Monika Danielak, who moved from Worcestershire to Auvergne in 2006, displaying her flea market treasures is part of the fun: “The main criteria around any purchase is that it must either have a function or be beautiful, yet quirky. Nothing we buy is tucked away in a cupboard; it all ends up on display in one way or another.”

While going to the markets on Sundays is a hobby for Monika and her husband Brendan, it’s their other interests that often influence what they buy: “I enjoy sewing so am always on the lookout for old bobbins, buttons and material. My husband has a 2CV so he keeps an eye out for parts, tools and any memorabilia.”

Once you get the bug, brocante shopping is addictive and the thrill of the find is something that never wears off. After more than two decades in France Sharon still gets excited by going to the flea markets, often getting up at the crack of dawn to trawl the fairs. But it’s worthwhile as there’s nothing more satisfying than finding something you love to re-home.

So next time you’re driving over to France leave a little extra room, and when you see a sign for a vide grenier make sure to stop, as you never know what you might find.

Image � Sharon Santoni

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