Monday, January 28, 2008

Market Hopping

It seems hard to believe I have been in France only just over a week. In this time I have gone to eight markets. The clear winners are the two Sunday markets – the food and flower market in Nice; and the combination food, artisan, brocante, and miscellany market in Isle-sur-la-Sorgue.
I had heard and read that the Saturday market in Apt was large and great – well large it was, but not so great. Apt is a small city with a fairly limited old part that is not particularly remarkable, certainly not next to the likes of Avignon and Lourmarin. I suspect that in-season, the market has more to offer, but this time of year there was food, but only one tiny bio stand, and all the rest was filled with one stall after another selling plastic and polyester products not made in France. By combing every turn and back street, I did turn up one man selling herbs, essential oils and hydrosols from “sauvage” herbs (wild grown) – he was lovely but looked a little “sauvage” himself. I also found lavender honey being sold by a local beekeeper. That was the total sum of the really local products stalls. Since I had woken up at 5:30 to catch the bus to Apt for the market I was slightly disappointed. (The first picture on this post is Avignon in the morning, not the night!)
During Lavender season (June-August), Apt is the jumping off point for many of the “lavender routes” which run through the area highlighting lavender farms and distilleries. Alas, I was there on a frosty January morning – no beautiful lavender walks to be had.
All was not lost. The other sites I was looking for in Apt – of interest to painters and color enthusiasts - were two stores that sell natural ochre from the nearby famous ochre deposits in Roussillon, Rustrel and Gargas.
The Society of the Ochres of France is up the street about a third of a mile from the tourist office (526 av. Victor Hugo –, but alas they are closed Saturday mornings in the winter which even the woman at the tourist office did not realize until I told her when I returned to find out if the other store was open and where I might find it. She kindly called Ets. Chauvin, on Route de Viton, ( before I walked the 1km to find it. I was delighted that they were indeed open. Ets Chauvin is a small, funky warehouse-style store with sacks of natural and synthetic powdered colors lining the walls and displays. The woman was very nice, but did not speak English. I wanted the sampler of local, natural ochres which I managed to convey with my charade skills.
After walking non-stop for four hours in the frosty morning, I was happy to board the bus back to Avignon.
Since the Apt market had been a disappointment, I almost bagged my plans to head to Isle-sur-la-Sorgue for the Sunday morning market, assuming I would just see more of the same. Fortunately for this market lover, I decided to go anyway since nothing else would be going on in Avignon on Sunday morning. The bus left at a more reasonable time – 9:30 - and it was a much warmer day. The bus route was different than my last two excursions to Apt and Lourmarin, it took a northeasterly route through a clearly more wealthy area – the towns of Chateauneaf du Gadagne and Le Thor – dramatic old stone villages with Plane-Tree lined roads and even some speed bumps.
Isle-sur-la-Sorgue was beautiful – the old part of the village is surrounded by a little river hence the “Isle” part of the name. The market is held on both sides of the river with bridges crossing between the two sides about every 150 feet. Isle-sur-la-Sorgue is known for their year round antiques, second hand (brocantes) stores and market and they don’t disappoint.
The goods were all of a much higher quality than any I had seen in prior markets and all at fair prices for what they were selling. I did succumb and buy an old blue and white enamel house number sign since they had my number. I later learned that I had gotten a very good deal on it since they have become trendy in the UK and sell for quite a bit there.
I strolled happily for hours with the many others – local and foreign – enjoying all there was to see. Besides the quality brocantes, there were actually products made in France at this market as well as plentiful food. There were two stalls selling clothing made in Nepal with unusual clothing designs and providing good conditions for the Nepalese workers.
People were in cheery moods and the market was quite busy, so walking was more of a shuffle than a stride. The downside to any of these markets is that there are beggars and people trying to get you to give them money for their dogs. Pickpockets are also alive and well. I was stunned by how quiet people can be. I was sitting by the river eating my saut̩ed vegetables from one of the vendors and as I was turning to get up, I was startled by a young man who had sat down close to me, whom I had not heard or sensed at all. I checked my pockets as I walked away Рthankfully I have a lot of zippered pockets in my jacket which are very handy. So as not to call attention to myself I have tended to take pictures with my pocket camera instead of my larger SLR, which screams tourist.
The bus driver between Avigon and Isle-sur-la-Sorgue had on a radio station playing an eclectic selection of tunes from Bob Marley, Beatles, Bluegrass, French contemporary, and really bad English-spoken bubble gum music – the French seem to love that – what is with that?
After regrouping at my Hotel I went out to do what everyone else was doing on a sunny Sunday afternoon in Avignon – walking through the park. Old and young were out taking in the day, flowers were blooming and the cafes in the square were bustling.
French women live up to their reputation – even the not incredibly beautiful ones are beautiful – how do they do that? Is it the water or the wine? The only small consolation I took was that since all the French women are so beautiful, no one will hassle unglamorous old me schlepping around in my winter overcoat looking 15 pounds heavier than I am because of my full pockets, and with two pairs of glasses on – one pair on my eyes, the other sitting on my forehead ready to read something at a moments notice. Really – I am surprised no one has offered me money yet. ☺

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