Having licked your lips in the antique galleries of Saint-Germain-de-Prés and the Louvre de Antiquaires, move onto the brocantes (second hand shops) and marchés aux puces (flea markets named for the pest ridden mattresses once sold there). There’s about 15 markets out of at least a 100 worth bashing the pavements for and any bald leaflet guide to Paris will give you times, dates and the nearest Metro station for established and occasional gatherings citywide.
If you can dedicate just an afternoon, take Metro line 4, North to the 18th arrondissement, and the Marché aux Puces St-Ouen de Clignancourt. The largest flea market in the world, this pulsating community of a dozen different markets, embraces vibrant stalls of fascinating tat and treasure around the Rue de Rosiers to the labyrinth of pedestrian alleys in the interconnected, enclosed antique ‘villages’ studded with classy antique galleries. At seven hectares and with over 3,000 traders, it’s a nerve tingling, foot throbbing treat but like any heaving, breathing market it does stage everything from the glories of Art Deco to truly indefensible rubbish.
Within a few metres you’ll enjoy crates of single chandelier pieces, rusty reclamation (vieux metaux) and Napoleonic four posters. Wealthy Japanese and Americans inhale Louis XV furniture by the container load in the gilded boutiques of the Marché Biron while modest vintage hunters triumph under the tented stalls of household clearance and unrestored curiosities in the Marché Lecuyer.
You don’t have to buy more than a turn of the century postcard and still have a wonderful afternoon of human theatre. The outer edges of Clignancourt at the West end of the motorway are rougher, cheaper and irresistible. Goods are sold from yards, suitcases and the backs of cars, and there are plenty of affordable antiques in furniture and fabrics. If you are committed to an investment buy, shipping of larger aged objects can be organised by the most reputable sellers on-site.
Dealers are ready to chat and won’t sneer unduly if you just look rather than purchase. The pastry scented air is likely to go to your head, so keep your standard vintage buying wits intact. Reproduction, damaged and outright fakes are sprinkled through genuine antiques. Don’t snatch up something and rave, as once your hand is on something, you will be regarded as committed to buy. Stoic appraisal, followed by a polite ‘quel est le prix?’ (how much) will display enough primitive French to have the dealer break into English out of sheer pity. Be prepared to bargain. It’s expected.
When visiting Puces St-Ouen, ensure you establish a meeting point. In an unfamiliar setting with your senses on fire, it’s easy to get lost. Keep your hand on your purse as pick pocketing is rife. Pace yourself, and collapse for a café crème every couple of hours. Visitor numbers are at their height on Saturday and Sunday (180,000 in the summer). Try Monday if you can, as dealers are idling and more likely to compromise. Go early, and get off the Metro at the Garibaldi Metro, which is less hectic but a bit of a walk, or at Porte de-St-Ouen following the map-wielding crowds past the market of cheap goods at the unprepossessing fringes of the main markets. Press on, trust me, it’s worth it.
Ryanair flights to Paris Beauvais one-way start at €35. www.ryanair.com.