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Women on the Road

7 Flea Markets I've Loved
and Floating Markets and Antique Markets and Fish Markets...

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What is it about flea markets, with their mounds of goods that some discard and others covet? And markets in general, their crowded colorful stalls, smells so strong they can choke, the jostling, rubbing, thieving - the unbelievable choice, the excitement of a bargain or the discovery of a tarnished gem. They attract us, bewilder and bewitch us with their playful shapes and textures, a throwback to childhood perhaps, to hanging mobiles and big plastic toys and rummaging through boxes that seemed huge to us. 

Rocking horse at Lyon flea marketEven discarded animals from an old merry-go-round find a home at the flea market in Lyon, France. Photo: Anne Sterck

To women traveling solo, a market is often a place of comfort, a familiar sight filled with... many other women just like us. We can often feel we belong, and that's a wonderful feeling when we're out in the world on our own.

First though - what exactly is a flea market? There are at least two theories about the origin of the term. The first refers to the now-defunct Fly Market in New York, from the Dutch word vlie or vly - pronounced flea. The second (and in my opinion most likely) is from the French term for flea market, marché aux puces, possibly because of the fleas that might be found in second-hand clothing. 

Originally a flea market was designed for people to sell things, either their own (so second-hand) or cheap goods they bought elsewhere. Over time they expanded to include more upmarket goods and some sell valuable antiques and everything from vegetables to jewelry and clothing.

Flea or otherwise, whenever I arrive in a new town I always head for the market (right after taking a ride on the public bus, that is). It is a microcosm of the city, a reflection of its working class and business class, its costumes and customs, its noises and anger and courtesy, its goods and its economy. Few small towns don't have some kind of market and in an ideal world I'd visit them all. Instead I've been shamelessly subjective in choosing my top seven: each is large enough to merit a visit, each has its own charm, and each is, in its own way, unique.

1. Marche aux Puces de St-Ouen, Paris

Without a doubt St-Ouen is one of the world's best markets if you're a fan of antiques. This warren of alleys, warehouses, boutiques and tiny streets in northern Paris will keep you busy for hours, even days. The world's largest flea market is actually a series of antique markets, each dedicated to a period or style, ranging from pure luxurious glamor to unadulterated junk. There's even a market for clothes but to me that's a waste of precious St-Ouen shopping time although the jewelry offerings are worth a look.

Stop off in one of the noisy restaurants (make your reservation in the morning) and hear merchants discuss the latest shipment from 'les provinces' over a cool glass of blanc. If you're in a rush take a quick tour and see the highlights.

Two other favorites in France are the Puces du Canal in Lyon (much smaller but great if you're in the city on a weekend) and the brocante (the more popular French word for flea market or bric-a-brac) in Isle-sur-la-Sorgue, the 'Venice of Provence.' They would have both made my top seven but having three markets in France seemed a bit excessive, even though I live here.

Saint-Ouen flea market in ParisJan Van Gool, one of many antique shops in the Marché St Ouen in Paris

2. Ismaylovo Market, Moscow

I love this market, partly because it brings back memories of getting lost in the Moscow subway for over an hour. In the early post-Soviet days many souvenirs on sale here were authentic but these days the replicas have taken over. You might still come across a real antique but please beware: rules are stringent and anything either 50 or 100 years old (it depends on what type of antique and on whom you speak to) can't be taken out of the country without an export certificate, which you can't always get. The sellers can be in cahoots with the authorities so if you buy something of questionable origin, don't be surprised if you're singled out for a luggage search when you leave the country.

You can still find plenty of treasures at Ismaylovo, especially more traditional Russian crafts like woodcarvings or matryoshka (Russian) dolls. Head for the back of the market if you're looking for Soviet memorabilia - fur hats, deactivated munitions... Of course you'll find plenty of junk too but listening to a merchant try to sell you a tacky machine-made rug for thousands of rubles is part of the fun. And I love my little Lenin busts, which sit proudly near my desk.

Icon replicas, often found in flea marketsAuthentic icons are antiques, so off-limits for most purchases. You can get good replicas though

3. Istanbul's Grand Bazaar, Turkey

The Grand Bazaar is not a flea market but it is, to me, one of the great markets of the world. You'll find everything from antiques to jewelry to spices and of course Turkish carpets. Just step into a shop to admire them even if you're not buying. Manufacturers are proud of their creations and will ply you with plenty of delicious sweet mint tea in an effort to get you to practice the art of haggling. Just enjoy the experience because it's unlike any other. You'll feel like you've stepped into the Aladdin or Arabian Nights movie set.

Getting lost in the Grand Bazaar is an adventure - and there's every chance you will get lost in this Byzantine labyrinth. It has nearly 5000 shops and close to half a million people walk up and down its alleys each day. It is more than 500 years old and probably hasn't changed much (except for an earthquake or two) since the Sultans ruled the Ottoman Empire.

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Lanterns for sale at Istanbul Grand BazaarThe Grand Bazaar - definitely one of the worlds best markets!

4. Rüdesheim Winter Market, Germany

As I write this in November, with Christmas in sight and the first snows on the mountains, I'm reminded that nearly every Central or Northern European town (the markets originally started in German-speaking Europe) seems to have its own Christmas Market - Berlin, Cologne, Lille, Prague, Vienna, Copenhagen, Nuremberg, Brussels, Dresden, Tallinn... Every one is worth a visit but my favorite is a smaller (120 stalls) unprepossessing but endearingly authentic one called Weihnachtsmarkt der Nationen, or the Christmas Market of the Nations. You'll find everything in this adorable German market from tree decorations to a giant mulled wine hut, all displayed in tiny wooden huts held together by pleasant winding medieval streets. If you're lucky it will snow, giving the market a wonderfully seasonal fairy-tale atmosphere. And if this is a special time of year for you, have a look at these unusual or endearing Christmas holiday traditions around the world.

German Christmas marketWintertime in Europe isn't complete without a Christmas market visit: here, Rüdisheim. Photo Anne Sterck

5. Floating Markets of Bangkok, Thailand

Not all markets are on land and Bangkok has its share of floating markets, the most famous of which is the Damnoen Saduak, a couple of hours from the city (depending on the traffic). It's terribly touristy and the only reason I include it here is because I visited it during my first ever trip to Asia. It left a lasting impression and colored - favorably - my entire experience of Thailand, a country I loved and returned to live in for some years.

It's not somewhere I'd do my shopping but it is worth visiting at least once. So... if it's your first time in the region hire a boat and float along the water alleys, or khlongs, and take pictures to your heart's content, at least once. Then head off the beaten track to the Amphawan Floating Market, with fewer boats but more authenticity - and a late afternoon timetable. 

And if you happen to be in Bangkok on the weekend, one of my all-time favorites is Chatuchak. It's huge, with more than 8000 stalls - clothes, jewelry, sacred writings, antiques, pets (not a good idea), handicrafts... there's little you can't find here. In fact, it's overwhelming - but I love it.

Floating markets of BangkokBangkok's main floating market is crowded, noisy, often dirty - but if you've never been you need to see it at least once

6. Tsujiki Fish Market in Tokyo, Japan

This market shouldn't be here at all - mostly because I haven't actually been to it. I did set the alarm, and I woke up - and on my last day in Tokyo I fell back asleep and missed it! That was years ago and to this day I kick myself for that.

I love sushi, and this market is all about fresh, raw fish. If you get there early in the morning you can head for a sushi breakfast (that was the plan). It seems so many people want to visit the market that they've had to limit the number of tourists, especially where temperatures have to be kept cold, or when auctions are taking place.

So I'll try to recreate it in my mind and in my mouth: the smells, the cold, the colors... eating in one of the little restaurants surrounding the market, knowing my fish is so fresh I can still taste the sea on it. Ah well. Next time.

Tsujiki fish market in TokyoThe highest bidder rules at Tsujiki Fish Market

7. Merkato in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia

It's noisy and dirty and downright filled with poverty. It's a living market by Ethiopians for Ethiopians, doing a brisk trade in teff (the grain used to make the food staple, injera), woven goods and other staples. You'll find everything here from T-shirts to antiques to coffee and food. But if you've made it as far as Ethiopia, then go the extra mile and visit the Merkato - and take an Ethiopian friend along. It's all about the ambience.

My best purchases in a nearby shop were a set of Ethiopian silver crosses I bought as gifts but you'll find plenty of other goodies. This has a reputation as the largest market of its kind in Africa but unless you actually measure it... lets just say it's huge!

Merkato flea market in Addis AbabaEthiopia is heaven for shoppers - beautiful handicrafts at affordable prices

A few things you should know about going to the market

I love markets but they're not everyone's answer to the perfect shopping experience. Before you fall in love with that enormous gilded mirror or giant straw chair, think for a moment.

  • Consider the size. Is it something you can carry? And if not, can you afford to ship it home? I once drooled over a hardwood chair in Malawi only to find out the cost of shipping was twice the price of the chair. (That was before the hardwoods became endangered... probably because of all the intricately carved chairs.)
  • Consider the price. Markets aren't always a bargain. In my local market in France, hard goods and clothes can actually be more expensive than in some shops. In many countries bargaining is a useful skill (and is expected). Not everywhere though so ask around first.
  • That amazing painting you cannot take your eyes off is probably not a 'find' and certainly not a posthumous work of undiscovered art. If you're in love with it buy it for that reason - not because you think it will sell for millions someday.
  • Can you take it home? That lovely ivory carving is probably illegal (and you shouldn't be buying it anyway) and so is that Vuitton lookalike.
  • Is it safe? Whatever you buy from a stall won't have any kind of testing or approval process behind it - none that you can trace, anyway. You won't know who made it, or how. It doesn't matter for a porcelain bowl, but think twice about that child's toy you are taking back as a present.
Djemaa el Fna in MarrakeshDjemaa el Fnaa, as day gives way to dusk

And remember your safety.

Markets, like all crowded places, are a threat to your pocketbook (in more ways than one). Not only will you spend money - that's what you're there for, after all - but like most crowded places they are full of pickpockets. Watch out for people bumping into you or brushing against you. Keep your money safe by at least wearing a money belt, carrying a slashproof bag, or otherwise keeping the bulk of your funds well out of sight.

A final word of warning - beware of travel scams when you shop and keep your eye on your purchase. If it goes to the back room for packing, you'll never know what's in the package. And don't let your credit card out of your line of sight - ever. In fact, best to play it safe and use cash.

With all the irritation they can cause, I'll still head for a great market as soon as I get to town. There's something enjoyable about rummaging, arguing, chatting, haggling, and just pressing things between my fingers without a stern shopkeeper arching an eyebrow. I'll hang around, talk to the women, and start getting a sense of the city I'm about to explore.

Great flea markets

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