Market days in any town are always a little bit exciting, certainly much more exciting than taking umpteen shopping bags to the grocery store for boring searches up and down the aisles and standing in line at the register. As tourists, we see grocery stores in other countries almost like an attraction, and it is true that they give a small snapshot of how people live.
In France that snapshot can be so much more exciting than any ol’ brick-and-mortar building. The outdoor market culture is an absolute boulder in the foundation of French culture.
Traveler: use this to your greatest advantage!
For purposes of living in Normandy, and to help the reluctant traveler build itineraries outside of the norm, I did a lot of research into the markets of Basse- and Haute-Normandie and built a list of all the market towns each day of the week. The list is remarkably huge and a treasure trove for people like us who enjoy exploring in a way where we can be surprised by our environment, rather than pick it apart for the (tourist) things there are to see.
To prove my point, an example: you’re in Basse-Normandie to visit the war memorials but you want to see something a little different on the tourist trail, and you want to experience the area the way the locals do.
You might have heard of the relatively small city of Bayeux. There’s a UNESCO World Heritage item at the Musée de la Tapisserie de Bayeux: the famous Bayeux tapestry, a 270-foot magnificently embroidered cloth depicting scenes of the Norman conquest of England. In addition, there are quaint cobblestone streets and half-timber structures, an ancient waterwheel on the river Aure, an impressive cathedral, and a lengthy shopping street boasting restaurants with terraces to have an espresso or an Irish coffee.
On Saturdays there’s a lively market at the Bayeux town square. Locally, the market is referred to as un très bon marché. If you are in the neighborhood looking for something to do away from WWII history, I suggest you combine a little bit of tourist activity with some local color and flavors … It will make for an excellent vacation day!
Some tips about outdoor markets:
- When driving: follow the signs for Centre-Ville (the center of town) and also look for signs marking Parking Route. Market days have a huge impact on a town. There will be one-way traffic or traffic will be blocked on certain roads—especially if a town isn’t large enough to have an actual town square. In that case, the stalls will be set up and down the main road.
- Parking is a challenge in any town at any market day. This has nothing to do with tourism but everything to do with the locals flocking in droves to a good market.
- Shouting is normal: the market vendors try to sell their goods by praising them loudly.
- Fruits and veggies are always fresh and at the best possible prices.
- If you want to eat (for example) a melon today, tell the seller. She will select the melon for you, and it will be perfect to sink your spoon into.
- When a vendor says his product is good, trust him. Ask for a taste; he’ll be happy to accommodate to make the sale.
- Ils sont bien sucrees, Madame! You can trust that to mean the fruit is juicy and sweet.
- Avec ceci (the shopkeepers like to sing this aaavec ceciiiiiiiii) means they’re asking if you want anything else (with that).
- Déguster means to try or to taste.
- A lot of the products are homemade. You’ll see tiny stands with the smallest amount of goods like cheeses, cream, eggs, and butter. You can count on these things being made fresh from the cow’s or sheep’s teat and driven from the farm straight to market. The eggs will have dropped right out of the free-roaming chickens and into the vendors’ baskets. It simply doesn’t get any more fresh than that.
- Peruse the entire place before making any purchases—prices may vary, especially on clothing
- If you don’t like to purchase Made in China, check to make sure that gorgeous E10 purse is what you really want.
- Things are often sold by the kilo, even loaves of bread. So when you see a salacious, gigantic loaf of Pain de Campagne with nuts and seeds and dried fruit—don’t be scared. You can buy all of it or just a part of it.
- Preservatives are not preferred in this society. Everything is fresh and junk-free. So when things spoil faster than you’re used to, the reason is actually because it was healthier to begin with.
- Bring a large shopping basket or bag. While your purchases will be delivered to you in a plastic bag, you’ll want something to gather them in.
- If you’re making it a day trip, take a cooler. The French word for ice is glace, and a fish monger might be able to give you some if you don’t have ice packs. Another tip is to freeze numerous bottles of water. They’ll serve a good purpose while providing something to drink as they thaw.
- Don’t count on surrounding eating places to offer a cheap breakfast. Your wallet is much better off hitting the bakery for a croissant to eat on-the-go.
- Markets typically run from 8 a.m. to about 12:30 or 1 p.m., but no later than that. If you need to park, better to get there between 8 and 9 a.m. There may be evening markets in some towns but there may be less focus on groceries.
There are lots of travel tips I could come up with for visiting France. By far the best one, though, whether you stay in a boring hotel or you’ve rented a temporary home, is to visit nearby markets not just for awesome produce and affordable products, but as a way to explore the sights in and around the numerous market towns.
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