One of the largest flea markets in the world, the Marché aux Puces, in the northern suburb of Saint-Ouen, is the perfect place to seek out everything from vintage clothing and old vinyl to antique furniture – but, to find the very best treasures, you need to know where to go. Here, in the first of a two-part article, we bring you our essential guide…
Words: Caroline Harrap
It’s hard to think of a better way to spend a Sunday afternoon than a leisurely stroll around the stalls of the Marché aux Puces at Saint-Ouen. As the largest flea market in Europe, whatever it is you are looking for, you’re sure to find it here – be it a vintage Chanel bag, an Art Deco lamp or industrial office furniture. However, with 14 individual markets spanning some 750,000 square feet, it’s fair to say that it can all feel a little daunting when you visit for the first time – which is why we decided to put together this handy guide.
“With so many of our clients moving into their new homes in Paris, and in search of signature pieces of furniture, we’re often asked about the flea market at St Ouen,” says Susie Hollands, founder and CEO of VINGT Paris. “Rather than a conventional flea market, it’s actually a whole series of markets with 1,700 merchants of which 1,400 deal in antiques, and there’s no doubt that it’s one of the best places in Paris for second-hand treasures. In fact, it’s even designated a ‘Zone for the Protection of Architectural, Urban, and Landscape Heritage (ZPPAUP)’, thanks to its unusual ambiance and atmosphere. That said, it is also very expansive, with a fair few red herrings for the unseasoned shopper, so it’s important to know which are the best places to go.”
The first thing to say is that if, like most people, you’re arriving via the No.4 Métro line at Porte Clignancourt, just outside the Périphérique (outer ring road), then you need to keep walking. That’s right – do not be fooled by the open-air market stalls between the Métro station and the ring road into thinking this is the Marché aux Puces. Unless you’re in search of Nike knock-offs, tacky T-shirts and Eiffel Tower lighters, just keep walking north until you run into rue des Rosiers (yes, another rue des Rosiers) where it all really begins.
The story goes that between 1880 and 1900, the visitor who left Paris via the Porte de Clignancourt would travel past the ‘glacis of the fortress, the hovels of the rag-and-bone men and the makeshift market stalls set up in the middle of the fields and market gardens’. It was against this colourful background, along the ‘passageway’ separating the capital from the town of Saint-Ouen, that the flea market sprang up. To read more about the “biffins”, “chiftires”, “crocheteurs” and “pêcheurs de lune“, the rag-and-bone men who travelled through the city by night, searching for old objects that had been thrown out with the rubbish, visit the official website (in English).
Today, the Marché aux Puces is the world’s largest antiques market with as many as 200,000 visitors every weekend who come in the hope of finding rare and treasured objects. It’s also a popular haunt for everyone from film directors (such as Guillermo del Toro, to name but one) to magazine stylists (there really is no better place to find unusual props) and even the odd international celeb (the likes of Madonna, Kendall Jenner and Cameron Diaz have all been spotted shopping here). But with so many different markets from which to choose, ranging from old reclaimed furniture right through to the most beautiful Louis VIV chandeliers, how do you know where to start?
“Each market has its own particular flavour and style, and with a brief tour, it doesn’t take long to recognise which are the right style of furnishings and right price range for you,” continues Susie. “We usually start at the Vernaison Market, the first you come to off at rue des Rosiers, where we have found many a treasure over the years. To give just one example, on our latest visit, within moments we had found a beautiful secretaire at a decent price.
“Just down the street on the left, the Paul Bert market tends to have more French country and provincial-style furnishings. Again, on our last visit, we quickly discovered twin night stands that we fell in love with – each with three drawers, hand-painted flowers and motifs on a mottled yellow background, both light and delicate. A perfect find!”
Our top tips
Before you set out on your own search, however, there are a few things to bear in mind. Firstly, be sure to bring cash, as many stallholders don’t accept credit cards and the nearest available ATM always has a long queue of people. Also, to bag the best bargains, wrap up warm and head there on a cold, rainy Monday when the traders are less busy and may be more open to haggling. Conversely, another good time for bargain-hunting can be August, the traditional holiday time in France. Although about half the merchants are closed, those that are open are often willing to make a sale at an off-season price. Finally, if back-street bartering all sounds a bit daunting, there is a simple solution.
“Here at VINGT Paris, we offer a full interior-design service, and our team will happily source items at the market for you,” says Susie. “Alternatively, we can arrange for one of our design specialists to accompany you. That way, you can be sure of seeing all the best places and they can handle any haggling on your behalf.”
Finally, when it comes to finding a bite to eat, there’s no shortage of good addresses at les Puces. To push the boat out, book a table at to Ma Cocotte, the restaurant of famous French designer, Philippe Starck, which is based on a chic canteen concept. Or, for some live music with your lunch, head to the popular ‘guinguette’, Chez Louisette. Founded in 1915, this place is as authentic as it gets, but if you haven’t booked, be sure to get there early. We’re also a fan of the rather excellent café, Le Recyclerie, which is housed in an old railway station, and where the weekend brunch is a big draw.
So, there you have it! Now you’re all set to make like a local and go on a shopping expedition for old French favourites. Happy treasure-hunting!
Need to know:
Where: Le Marché aux Puces at Saint-Ouen
(between the Porte de St-Ouen and Porte de Clignancourt, just outside 18th arrondissement)
How: Porte de Clignancourt (line 4), Porte de St-Ouen (line 13)
When: Open Saturday, 9am-6pm; Sunday, 10am-6pm; Monday, 11am-5pm
More details: http://www.marcheauxpuces-saintouen.com/1.aspx