Flea for all

Bargain hunter Kate Chappell grabbed an empty suitcase and headed for Europe’s largest and most exciting flea market, Lille’s Grande Braderie...

I’ve queued to board the Eurostar in London many times and it’s always exciting, but this was different. The buzz from those in front and behind, many wheeling huge empty suitcases and carrying, I can only guess, big wads of euros in their pocket, was infectious. Despite the early hour, there was an almost party atmosphere as the train emerged into the French sunshine, and as we approached Gare Lille Europe, a feeling I’ve only ever experienced before the start of the Grand National, descended on the throng. Any oblivious passengers heading to Lille for connections to other parts of Europe must have been thoroughly confused. I should explain. My husband Toby and I, along with thousands of others, were off to the Grande Braderie in Lille, Europe’s biggest flea market and for bargain hunters like myself, Xanadu. I’d read about the Braderie a few years before but found no-one who could tell me anything about it. So, on the pretence of a romantic weekend away, I dragged Toby, his camera and an empty wheely bag all the way to France to experience Braderie Fever’. Neither of us were prepared for what we found.Mammoth marketThe Grande Braderie is a Lille institution. Existing in some form or other since the Middle Ages, when the servants of the city were permitted to sell their employers’ unwanted possessions at the end of the summer season, the modernday event is vast, officially lasting 33 hours and taking over most of the city centre. At Lille Europe station, we were handed a Braderie guide, with a street map and some Braderie statistics: 100 kilometres of stalls, 10,000 exhibitors, one to two million visitors... it was so much bigger than I’d ever expected.I should point out at this point that I am the magpie in the marriage – Toby favours a more minimalist approach. So, once we’d digested the numbers, I was frog-marched to the wonderful Paul p�tisserie on Place du Th��tre for a strict briefing: One – no junk; two – nothing that is likely to end up under the bed; three – nothing that looks nice, but is likely to need fixing; and four – no junk.I wasn’t listening. Not only was my pain au chocolat the best I’d ever tasted, but there were scantily clad men running in their hundreds past the p�tisserie window.It turns out that Lille’s Braderie weekend begins on the Saturday morning with a half-marathon through the city streets. It’s a serious business, with around 5,000 participants beginning at the entrance to Boulevard de la Libert� and finishing 10,000 metres later on Rue de Paris in front of the H�tel de Ville. With huge crowds gathering for the official start of the flea market at 2pm, the runners were enjoying some hearty encouragement as they passed us.Scouting for allWith a few hours to go before the Braderie began (although I have since learned that professional antiques dealers and those in the know’ start scouting out bargains up to a week before the official start as stall-holders begin laying out their wares), we decided to explore a little. Dragging my case behind me, we headed west through the impressive Place du G�n�ral de Gaulle towards the Citadelle, taking the main roads so as not to spoil the surprise of the stalls in the Old Town. The Grande Braderie is as much about the high street and designer stores selling their summer collections at knock-down prices as it is about the antiques and the bric-�-brac, and all the shops were busy setting out stalls on the pavement as we passed.Crossing the Canal de la De�le, we sat down close to the Citadelle, enjoying the September sunshine. Couples canoodled, children dragged their parents to the zoo, the trees rustled and we enjoyed baguettes au jambon et fromage we’d bought at Paul. It was lovely. “The calm before the storm,” as Toby mumbled later.Back across the canal just after two o’clock and the Braderie was already in full swing. The esplanade in front of the Champ de Mars thronged with people as music came from every caf� and the smell of frites grew thick in the air. The esplanade is traditionally the area where many of the antiques dealers lay out their stalls, and I was hooked. From toy bears to accordians, beautiful rustic furniture to fine porcelain, old movie posters to ornate rococo mirrors, the collection of stuff ’ was endless, with stalls stretching as far as the eye could see. Stall holders sat laconically, waiting for their wares to be snapped up – there was no hard sell or snooty looks here as anyone could be on the look-out for that something special.Luckily for Toby, there was just so much that any thoughts of buying anything vanished. It was overwhelming and I was really happy just to explore, poking into a box of old toys here or rifling through some antique prints there.From the canal we dived into the Old Town which, with its narrow streets and towering medieval buildings on each side, was even busier. The maze of alleys was lined with small stalls run by Lille families selling their possessions alongside those set up by the smart, designer shops, with a seething mass of shoppers in between. The mood was great and music from buskers on street level mixed with music playing from the open windows above kept everyone buoyant. It was hard to believe that even after nearly three hours of browsing, we had still only covered a fraction of Lille’s Braderie stalls.As the afternoon escaped from us in what seemed like minutes, we decided to take a breather. Heading back to the open space of Place du G�n�ral de Gaulle, we found a caf� selling galettes in a small alley off the square. We were under no illusions that the only reason we’d found a table was due to the strange time we’d chosen to eat, and we clung to our little piece of breathing space until we felt ready to plunge into the streets once again.I was very aware, and Toby was very surprised, that I hadn’t parted with any money yet, so we decided to pick something each that we would look for, just to keep things simple. For some reason I had always coveted an old record player, so that was my mission for the early evening. This time we headed towards the Mus�e des Beaux Arts (which is closed during the Braderie), stopping off to hear a string quartet from the university en route. Veterans’ as we now were, we knew to avoid the main drags as they were inevitably full of market stalls selling cheap clothes and toys, and headed instead for the side streets, where the real bric-�-brac gems could be found.It’s carnival timeThe fact that the evening was drawing in and the light was starting to fade hadn’t fazed the crowds one bit. The Braderie, in its 21st century incarnation, is as much a carnival as a flea market and when the sun goes down, the fun really begins. The sale carries on through the night, accompanied by music and food of every kind, not to mention impromptu nightclubs setting up on the streets. Die-hard Braderie fans are equipped with torches to sniff out bargains in the early hours and think nothing of staying up all night, shopping and partying. Of course, the fact that most of Lille’s hotels book up months ahead means that many of them don’t have any other choice.We ploughed on, stopping for a drink every now and again, and with only a few grumbles on my part about dragging a suitcase around with me wherever we went. And then I saw it – a beautiful 1960s portable record player in a burgundy leather case, sitting behind a stack of Ast�rix annuals. Ok, so it was never going to fit in the suitcase, and the French plug looked a little on the ropey side, but I’d searched the streets of Lille for this and I wasn’t going to let it out of my sight. Now, I’m not a naturally assertive person, but by all accounts haggling is the done thing at the Braderie and I’d been practising my bargaining skills in my head ever since we’d arrived. But when the friendly young man at the stall told me the record player was €15, I was so shocked at the low price that a short “Ooh merci!” was all I could manage.Overjoyed at my purchase and bitten by the buying bug I went into overdrive, searching out old records to play on my new pride and joy. Several �dith Piaf and Jacques Brel albums later and I felt sated, not to mention weighed down, by beautiful Braderie bargains.Buying frenzyAs darkness fell, my feet started to ache. Then we got stuck in an overcrowded street close to the Porte de Lille. Thousands of people surged through the narrow road, carrying us along with them as a man was lifted off his feet next to me and the sound of a piece of china crashing to the ground drifted over the sea of heads. It wasn’t very pleasant, and as we managed to escape down a side alley, we realised that perhaps we’d had enough. It had been a long day and even the hypnotic sound of African drums being played in the R�publique Beaux-Arts m�tro station wasn’t enough to summon extra energy.We had 90 minutes until our train departed at 9.30pm, so we headed off to tick the only box that had been left unticked. Lille is famous for its moules-frites at any time of year, but during the Grande Braderie the dish becomes an obsession – apparently over 500 tons of moules are consumed in total. You can buy and enjoy them everywhere, with each restaurant traditionally leaving their discarded shells in a pile outside in a bid to create the biggest moule mountain by the end of the weekend. I suspect health and safety may have had a hand in taming this competition, as we didn’t see too many piles of shells scattered around, but there were certainly mussels-a-plenty.Overwhelmed by the choice and keen to stay within dashing distance of the Eurostar, we opted for an impromptu dining room set up outside the Opera House by one of Lille’s most popular seafood restaurants. Steaming, garlicky plates of shells and great piles of chips were being handed out all around us and we tucked into ours with the hunger that only those who have spent a day at the Braderie can truly know. They were delicious.Partying into the nightLimping back to the Gare Lille Europe, record player in hand, records in plastic bag and suitcase, still empty, clacking along behind, we were almost sorry not to be staying around for the all-night fun. The singer Sharleen Spiteri was performing live next to the station and hundreds of people were still streaming off trains and into the city. But with the hint of rain in the air and the hint of blisters on the feet I’m not sure we could have carried on much longer.The Eurostar home was a sleepy train, full of satisfied customers who, in turn, were full of moules et frites. Arriving back at our quiet flat before 11pm, it seemed strange that only a few hours before we’d been surrounded by millions of people, with the sounds of a Samba band thudding in our heads. But I was so glad we’d done it. And I like to think Toby was too.Oh, and the record player? It didn’t work. It’s under my bed.