There’s a small book you can buy from the street stalls in France selling newspapers, magazines and confectionary that lists all the brocante markets scheduled in various cities, towns and villages over a three-month period. It’s always tricky to decipher the details but while Matt drove from Montpellier to Marseille during our first buying trip back in September 2011 I did my best to interpret department numbers, locations, hours and finally directions. Not the easiest thing to do if you’re also chief navigator and keep copping the blame for missing major turnoffs travelling at 145km an hour.
The listing for a Marseille brocante was odd – a tiny entry stating that the market was open 6 days a week 10am to 6pm. Strange hours for a brocante we thought but intriguing enough perhaps to pay a visit.
Whenever we go to Marseille we usually stay in a hotel around the Vieux Port – a bustling area with good restaurants, great views and a fish market every morning with all the smells and characters that that brings to the front of the harbour. Here the local fishermen make a little extra cash on top of any fish sales by selling the "Porte Bonheur Oeil de Sainte Lucie" or the Lucky Eye of Saint Lucia for 2€ a piece. They find these in shells that come up in their nets.
The Eye of Saint Lucia is the cap or operculum of a seashell found in the Mediterranean. The legend of these pieces of shell becoming lucky charms started in the IVth century with a Noble girl named Lucia from Syracusa. The girl's mother was terribly ill and the girl prayed repeatedly to the Virgin Mary. Legend has it that to ensure she stayed true to the task, the girl ripped out her own eyes and threw them into the sea so as not to abandon her faith nor be tempted by suitors.
The operculum of this particular shell, called 'Rough Turbo', is said to symbolise the eyes of Saint Lucia and wearing or carrying one is said to keep the evil eye away and favour luck.
But I digress. Off we head very early one morning looking for this small brocante and can I tell you at this point that Marseille has some pretty grungy areas. Most of France is unbelievably good looking, even deserted alleyways manage a certain charm. Miniscule villages way off the beaten tourist track seem to have wild geraniums in just the right nooks and crannies and could be easily photographed for the cover of any travel guide. But the outskirts of Marseille … perhaps not.
There are large impoverished areas and none more obvious than the spreading Roma gypsy camps dotted in the outer areas. I do my best to navigate with Matt constantly saying I must have got it wrong. Yep, our driving trips can be hot-tempered adventures at times; stressful stuff driving (usually at great speed) on the other side of the road in a diesel grunting manual with a bloke flailing his arms around. We should be at the right spot but all we can see under and beyond a concrete mangle of roads and bridges is a shanty market. Huge piles of old clothing and bedding and old furniture shrewn across the footpath. I’ve brought us all this way for this?
We then spot a massive unassuming shed and we drive toward it … I think this is the proper brocante we’ve been looking for and start to feel relieved before realising the whole thing looks deserted and shut. We park and much to the bewilderment of loitering gypsies we head over to check it out wondering what on earth we are doing and whether the car will be in one piece when we get back. We go up some stairs and realize someone is in there. “Bonjour Monsieur, est-ce que vous-etes ouvert?” “Bien sur et bienvenu!” And there begins one of our favourite dealer relationships.
The shed consists of perhaps 50-60 different dealer stalls all overseen by Richard and Roger - their names don’t sound overly French I agree but do the gutteral ‘R’ and imagine two slightly crazy-looking frenchmen and you’ve got the picture. Every time we visit we have to scour our way through a mishmash of pieces ranging from brilliant quirky wrought iron seats from the late 19th century to industrial pieces from the '80s. We usually start in the front right hand corner and it takes a couple of hours to do a full lap while taking notes of pieces that may be of interest if the price is right. We then get Richard or Roger in tow and we do another full lap asking prices. Very often they will write notes and must ring the relevant dealer to ask for the export price. More often than not they will also try to get us to spend longer in their own stall area singing the praises of pieces they have found and telling us long tales about where items have come from. All great fun and actually Matt and my idea of pure heaven.
Roger is particularly quirky with a great sense of style; he’s a good looking bloke in a disheveled kind of way with hair down to his shoulders and a wild look in his eye. Charming. I once saw a really wonderful framed set of locks and old keys in Roger’s stall on our third or fourth buying trip – it had no price and looked almost as if it had been purposely placed to one side. I asked Roger if it was for sale. He told me it was for prop hire only and that he had actually created it himself over quite some time after collecting all the old locks. He speaks no English whatsoever and speaks the fastest French I have ever heard but he speaks with such theatrics and emotion that it’s hard not to get swept up in his passion for unusual pieces. To him (and to me) it was a fabulous piece of art and one of the most wonderfully curious pieces I have seen in our brocante-buying days. My eye kept getting drawn back to it. Roger then said that he would be honoured if we bought it – he would only sell to someone who understood the piece and had said no to several people up until this point. Flattery gets you everywhere Roger and to this day I’m a little sorry that someone snapped it up in our old Northcote store so soon after we brought it back. Some pieces we are very sad to see go.
After the second lap getting an idea on prices we usually have to stop for a drink and something to eat. The first time we visited Richard said he would have to personally escort us to a small restaurant as the area can be very dangerous. First he asked if there were any valuables or suitcases on show in our car parked just outside. Just some brocante pieces we had bought at smaller markets along the way, we said. He said he better take a look as car windows will be smashed for even small things. He peered through the car window and saw our treasured zinc tubs, old timber trunks, a pair of vintage wooden skis, a couple of gorgeous blue enamel signs and summed it up with a “Phhhht, these people they do not want this”. Lovely. Rejected by possible thieves.
He walks us to a tiny bar/restaurant. It feels as though I’m the only woman who has walked through that door in a long time. Silence. Eyes. Uncomfortable. We sit, Richard suggests we try La Salade du Président. Then he leaves. No menu. We ask for la salade. It arrives. A plate of salad and in the middle of each of our plates a large entire wheel of warm Camembert. Chortling from the locals. We hoe in – delicious, rich, aged, oozing Camembert. Fifteen minutes in and we’re struggling to bring another forkful to our mouths. More chortling with an additional bit of elbowing between the locals and possibly even a few bets being paid out.
We stagger back to continue buying and never want to see any type of cheese ever again, at least not for a week or so. By this time Richard has all the prices in and so we do another lap and start to refine our list. It’s always disheartening to have to leave some pieces – sometimes the cost is prohibitive and the particular dealer won't move any further on the export price or sometimes we think certain pieces may not make the huge shipping distance to Australia intact. But many of the most wonderful pieces we have sold through our store over the past 5 years have been sourced in Marseille. It's a slightly grungy, dangerous, stinky old place but definitely one of France's most interesting and creative cities and certainly one of our favourites. And yes we do head back for La Salade du Président each time we visit Richard and Roger and yes the locals still chortle.
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