October 10, 2013

To Market, To Market (In Provence)

If you've ever visited France, then you may already know about its famous markets. Aix is no exception - in fact, its markets are exceptional. As a local, I see them as a place to buy cheep clothes and good food. I also get to peruse cool stuff. It's a whole lot of fun.

But lately, when I bring visiting friends into Aix, I've begun to see them in a new light. I've begun to notice just how unique they are. How wonderful they are. And I've begun to worry about the fact my friends find them so foreign; aren't local markets a commonplace fixture in the world?
You get your fruit and veg fresh from the farmer. The cheese right from the goat. The raviolis hand made. Everything is local. You can ask any detail about the food you are going to eat.

So why are they disappearing? That's a topic for another day. Today, I'll just give you the "grand tour" of Aix en Provence's market.

The first thing you need to know is that when we say "market", we don't just mean a building with stalls in it. Nope. In Aix, we have a total of five markets, spread out across the town center. Most french cities mark out their town center by what's inside their "periferique" or "ring road". This has, for the most part, been placed around the exterior of the fortress walls that used to stand around the town in the middle ages. The road basically replaces the moat (where there were moats). In some places, you can still see the structures. For the most part, this town center is much older than anything outside of the ring road, and will have a more confusing layout, almost haphazard.

I recommend starting at the bottom of market n*1: the textile market. This stretched the length of the "Cours Mirabeau", the city's main street, if you will. The Rotonde roundabout is the perfect place to set off on this journey. It's pretty easy to spot: it's one huge fountain.

On this market, you'll find table clothes for a reasonable price, you'll find heavy duty fabric, you'll find shoes, clothes, even underwear, all really cheep. Make sure you check every stall, because some are pricier than others. Many try to be trendy, so you'll find a few knock off brands. Sometimes you'll get well known brands setting up stalls. This morning I saw a silk/cashmere shop that was selling 30 euro sweaters. Impressive stuff!

You'll then pass through the passage Agard (a tunnel through buildings, lined with shops) to Market n*2, the knick knack market. There you can find practically anything. Jewelry, for example, including this guy who twists forks into bracelets and rings. Pure silver, so they look really, really cool. You also have your tourist shops, selling the traditional sculpted cicada (some even "sing") and more table cloths. You also get the more modern shops, selling kitchen gadgets - which you really do need in france. These are everyday kitchen supplies, not ultra modern, ultra sleek contraptions. Mostly wine related. 

Then you have your soap stalls. These are made following traditional methods, locally, and there is such a great variety! Don't forget to say hi to the local stall dogs.


Then comes the best part: the antiques. You can get anything from 100 year old books to second hand DVDs and records. Plus, cool old french stuff. A lot of antique silverware sets, too.  There's a guy who collects pages from encyclopedias from the turn of the century and sells them a euro a piece. There'a also a man who sells coins and stamps, as well as war medals and medallions. Here's a glimpse at what I found today:

Next, make your way to the third market, the food market. This is just a wonderful place. You find fresh produce and fresh baked goods. Spices, cheeses, saucisson (french salami or dry sausage), grilled chicken, pastas, herbs, lavender... All the most wonderful things.

Cross the street and march up to the hotel de ville. There you'll find another food market, which has the added stalls of fish, and honey, along with more fruits, veg, cheeses, etc. You can feed a family of four for less than 10 euros just by grabbing veg, saucisson, cheese, and a fresh baguette. Many a night we would enjoy such a great, fresh meal.

You also learn things from the locals, who, once you get to know them, will amaze you with knowledge about cheese tasting, can recommend a wine for you meal, can give you inside knowledge about the best times to buy (because there really is) and when to avoid certain foods. They're wonderful people.

Finally, the last market: the flower market. Most of french weddings take place at the town hall, so what better place to establish a flower market? There's such a colorful variety, it's nice to stroll up and down the aisles of stalls to take it all in. Bouquets are made on the spot and are absolutely gorgeous.

I am always surprised about the number of tourists I see when i'm out shopping. Today I met a sweet American couple who were trying to find unscented soaps at the soap market (Almost forgot to pay for the soaps I was buying because I got distracted) and a few women trying to find the best lavender they could. I hear English everywhere. It's... well, it's crazy!

So now I have some fun gifts for my incredible host family in the states, which I am sure they are going to love. Fresh Herbes de Provence, Lavender, soaps, and Kider eggs (banned in the US) and Carambars (best candy EVER) for the kids. It's great.

So if you want a nice half day of French culture, visit a local market. Make sure to remember that they close at 12*!


* Markets are not usually open every day of the week. Aix has markets on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays, but this varies from town to town. Just ask the locals or check at the office of tourism for your town's Market days.

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