PUBLISHED: 15:56 07 August 2012 | UPDATED: 12:34 22 August 2012
Located just an hour from the Calais ferry port, Lille is the perfect choice for a shopping break in France as Alison Weeks discovers
We all love a bargain but if, like me, you have a penchant for classy antiques, then those bargains can be few and far between. Yet, despite the champagne taste and beer budget, I was determined to give our home some more character and upgrade from my husband’s vast dowry of Ikea furnishings. We couldn’t afford to refurnish the whole house, but I hoped to find a few quality pieces. After scouring the internet and a few local antique stores, it was clear to me that we needed a bigger plan; this called for a trip to France.
Lille offered the perfect solution: with its wide variety of high street chains and fashionable boutiques, I have always found the northern city to be great for shopping. And since we were able to time our visit around the Grande Braderie de Lille, I knew we would be sure to find some good deals.
The biggest flea market in Europe, the annual braderie is held in the first weekend of September. The event is thought to have originated in the Middle Ages, when the servant classes of Lille were allowed to sell their employers’ unwanted belongings and keep the profits. Originally the selling only lasted from dusk until dawn on one day, but over the years, the tradition has grown into a 48-hour festival of buying, selling and general partying. For locals, it’s a time to celebrate, with music and food.
We rolled off the ferry at Calais early on Saturday morning and headed straight down to Lille. Traffic was already at a standstill when we arrived, so we parked the car far from the city centre and headed off on foot. The Saturday morning of the braderie is dedicated to setting up and no transactions are allowed until 2pm. This allows everyone enough time to check out the goods, which cover nearly every pavement around the city centre. After having a good look around, we came up with a plan for the day.
Towards Wazemmes, I found a steal of a deal in a little table basse coffee table. The sage green paint was flaking off in some places, but it was just the shabby chic look I was hoping for and at €20, I could afford to repaint it if needed. As we were carrying it to the car, I stumbled upon a hoard of picture frames in all shapes and sizes which were going for next to nothing. We promptly purchased as many as we could pile on to the table and continued on our way. Before the day was over, we made several more trips to the car, managing to squeeze in an antique writing desk and chair, an elegant lamp and an assortment of bric-a-brac.
So far the braderie had been a success, but after a full day of shopping and haggling, we were keen to take a break for an evening meal. The regional speciality of moules frites is synonymous with the braderie and it wasn’t difficult to find a place that was serving the dish, as almost every brasserie had a mound of mussel shells piled on the pavement at the front (there’s actually a competition to see who can create the tallest mound over the course of the weekend). After perusing the options, we settled on the aptly named Aux Moules on Rue Béthune. Over a delicious dinner of moules marinières and pommes frites, we reflected on the day’s purchases. In the evening, the atmosphere escalated to Mardi Gras proportions. Music boomed from almost every corner and there were live concerts around the city.
On Sunday, we had to resist the urge to buy anything substantial, as our poor car was already groaning under the weight of the previous day’s treasures. But the ambience was still enjoyable, even though we weren’t actively buying any more. Things began wrapping up at midnight, when a brigade of street cleaners and rubbish collectors took to the streets. Some hard-core bargain hunters were there at the very end, sifting through the leftovers under the faint light of streetlamps.
We decided to stay on an extra day after the braderie to enjoy a normal day of shopping in Lille. This city can be a shopper’s paradise anytime of the year, if you know where to look. Vieux Lille, the city’s oldest and chicest quartier, boasts a variety of small, stylish boutiques and a several shops unique to Lille, as well as luxury brands including Hermès and Louis Vuitton. Some smaller shops are tucked away on the quiet backstreets, where there are also several antique dealers and art galleries to be found.
On Rue Esquermoise, I popped inside the Comptoir de Famille, a rustic French home store, where I found some beautiful table linens and a lovely lampshade to match my purchase from Saturday. Down the same street, we stopped off for a treat at Meert. A local institution, this historic pâtisserie is famous for its delicious gaufres and extravagant décor.
Further down Rue Esquermoise, we had a look in Factory Design, a funky novelty shop, where my husband found an Eiffel Tower shaped cheese grater that he just couldn’t live without. To go with it, we picked up a selection of local cheese from the Fromagerie Philippe Olivier on Rue Curé Saint-Etienne. Here you will find regional specialities such as the pungent Vieux Lille and maroilles.
Venturing beyond Vieux Lille, we looked at a few clothing stores on Rue Neuve and Rue de Béthune, which are mostly dedicated to French and international chains. We then headed back towards the city centre, where we stopped off at the Vieille Bourse, the old stock exchange, where booksellers and florists set up shop in the courtyard every afternoon (except Mondays). At one of the bouquinistes stalls, I found some vintage postcards and prints for only a few euros – just the thing for my new frames from the braderie.
We enjoyed a café en terrace at the Grand Place, where there were only minimal signs of carnage from the weekend’s festivities, then returned to the car by way of a boulangerie to pick up a baguette for dinner at home. The car felt a little sluggish under the load of our new-found riches, but we were satisfied with our choices and eager to see it all in place in our house and to have a bit of France in every room.