Flea market, garage sale, car boot sale … Magical words that usually come just after ‘food’ on my to-do list when travelling. As such, I’m steadily building up my international vocabulary and my eyes are now well-trained at spotting signs of upcoming flohmärkte, trödelmärkte, rastros, brocantes, marchés aux puces and vides greniers.
So, when I heard about the Grande Braderie de Lille and its fabled 100km of stalls and mountains of mussel shells, it’s not like I could say no. And what a good decision that was. Arriving on the early train from Ghent, you’re met with a flurry of neon lycra-clad half-marathoners and a palpable air of anticipation. Bin bags, tarpaulins, battered suitcases and dusty old holdalls litter the pavement from the moment you leave the train station. While this would normally be a fairly shabby sight, knowing that treasures may be lurking within makes it all ridiculously exciting.
Having left my bag with a fantastically friendly ‘airbnb’er for the day (you do not want to be laden before you start – your arms will be a foot longer by the end of the day anyway) I headed off in search of coffee. By this point it was about 8.20 a.m. and people were just setting up. I’d read that sales were supposed to begin after the marathon, so I strolled around attempting to look disinterested in the rapidly emerging goodies and bookmarking places to come back to. Within minutes, however, I’d witnessed the first trades of the day and began raking around in earnest. At that point, I wasn’t really processing that I had about 99.5 km and 18 hours to go before my 1.00 a.m. bus to London.
Miles and many hours later, with sore knees and close to passing out from lack of nourishment and over enthusiasm, I plonked myself down in a bistro and ordered the standard mussels and chips. Already being faint, this was a bad time to order wine. But that is a lesson I’ve not yet learnt.
Slightly sozzled, but somehow refreshed, I inspected my purchases (which were necessarily small – no double French bed or wall-length sideboard on this trip) and noted next year’s dates in the calendar (always the first weekend in September). Darkness fell, the wine continued, a second portion of mussels was eaten (!) and the torches came out as the market continued into the night. Heading to the bus stop at midnight, I discovered new streets that I’d somehow missed (although my legs felt like they’d walked each of the 100km), each with trading and partying in full swing. Definitely one to be repeated, if only for the atmosphere.
- You’ll be bending over and crouching down a lot to rake around in boxes etc. and walking long and hard, so I’d go with jeans and converse to avoid skinning your knees, laddering your tights or repeatedly re-adjusting your low-rise trousers every time you stand up. I might even recommend a sponge kneeling mat or one of the tiny fold-up seats if you know you’re going to be poring through books, photos, stamps etc.
- Eat and drink. There will always be ‘one more stall’ ahead that looks interesting, but you will run out of energy, or just pass out.
- Granny-style shopping carts are pure gold, although if you’re in the market for larger items, full-blown wagons and trailers were de rigeur.
- Use the loo when and where you can … If you get it wrong, you’ll spend half the day queuing with the other 1.0 million female visitors for the Ladies’.
- If you wander into the ‘wrong’ area, retrace your steps to an area that you liked and head off in a new direction from there. The ‘wrong’ area includes the old town-style centre with some of the more modern shops. With an extra 2 million visitors for the weekend, this area slows to a packed standstill and is not for the claustrophobic or panic-prone.
- Polish off your high-school French … English can be limited and you wouldn’t want that getting in the way of a good bargain. And, as with all flea markets, bargain hard and bring lots of small change.