Come prepared – Open markets in Paris
Continuing our attempts of providing you some info of the actual practical value, apart from the ramblings on art and our perpetual discontent with it, we give you our overview of the open market scene of Paris. This is a very important aspect of the city – if you live in Paris, or if you intend to do so (or would just like to feel as a local for a while) you absolutely must get acquainted with some or all of these.
First off, why go to a market ? Apart from the traditional value of Parisian markets (some date from the medieval period), and a social aspect of it, there is a very simple practical reason – the offer is much better and vider than what you can find in the supermarket, the produce is of better quality and in most cases, it is considerably cheaper. Sometimes even up to three to four times. We don’t exarate (much) when we say that there are no reasons whatsoever (apart from the occasional emergency) to buy fruit and vegetables at your local supermarket. This goes for all of the classes of the produce you are interested, from locally grown organic to the nameless, originless and label-less fruits and vegetables. On the downside, most open markets, the ones where you get great produce and even better deals, are not always open. In most cases it would be two days of the week, like Wednesday-Saturday or Thursday-Sunday. Also, they are largely only open in the morning and the early afternoon, and after 13h30 in most cases all the vendors have already left. Off course, depending on the market.
Now before we get into the list of the actual venues that we picked for you, we need to agree on general terms of what we consider to be a legit Parisian market. First, it has to be an open one, not a roofed market. The difference is that roofed markets are mostly open daily and they tent to be more expensive. This plays an important role and is a segway into further explaining what we consider a proper Parisian market. Now, coming from abroad and having a somewhat idealised image of the city of Paris, you might think that it’s something very scenic and cutesy – mustachioed merry French men gently and lovingly presenting their cheese, wine and chocolate. As you can imagine, this image is far from reality. There are (sort of) such markets, and we’ll get to that, but that is very far from authentic.
So what is a market for us ? A place that is filled with ethnically diverse people screaming their lungs out as they invite you to taste our buy their merchandise. Cries and howls of ‘Yala yala yala’ (after 10+ years of listening to that at least once a week, we still don’t know what it means) and “Un euro” and “Alleeeeez, c’est cadeaux, c’est gratuit”; suffocating, agoraphobia inducing crowds of people; customers trying to bargain down the (already surprisingly low) prices with the mega-annoyed salesmen; general impression of disarray and the high likelihood of entire place exploding in 4,3,2,1… seconds. The proper Parisian market is frenetic with energy. It’s electrifying, not always in a good way, and can be an exhausting experience – sometimes quite literally, because you have to push your way through the crowd. Your irritation is likely to peek when a wheel of a carry-all, being dragged by an ancient-looking lady rolls over your foot after being dragged through the quagmire, ooze like substance of indistinct origin (that is generously spread in a form of a film over the pavement where the market is being held). You get the idea. This is an authentic and sublimated Parisian experience in more than one way – you get to feel the tension, the anxiety, the frustration, and an overwhelming sensory aggression that is living in this city in a nutshell. It does however have a cathartic effect, as you can honestly feel – emerging from the sticky ooze of trampled fruits and vegetables, fish and meat tripes and other things we dare not think about – cleansed of anxiety and malaise, you suddenly appreciate freedom and personal space like you never have before. Or we just like rationalizing (and ritualizing – there is an idea to ponder) very unpleasant experiences that are our quotidian.
So, that is the proper Parisian market. It is not a place where you generally get the time to get friendly with the vendor of the produce, as he is very busy selling and screaming his heart out (and out-screaming his neighbor and competitor, with which he seems to be a good friend), there are a lot of people and you generally just want to get out of there as soon as possible. Given the optics, here are our picks for the most interesting Parisian markets.
The famous Barbès is an ongoing urban legend of Paris and a perpetual cult market, miraculously untainted by its fame and decidedly untouristy. This however may change as the 18th arrondissement where it’s situated, especially the near vicinity of the metro station after which the market was named, is going through a very intense process of gentrification. But let’s keep our fingers crossed that it stays the way it is. This is a golden middle between the more touristy (and somewhat fake) markets and the true grit of what you can find on the outskirts of the city and especially in the suburban projects. It is considerably cheaper than most markets (and off course, the super markets), so interesting on that account as well; also, which is a must de rigeur for a market, you can equally find organic produce as well as the possible results of a radioactive fallout in a form of a fruit. Meaning, the span of quality covers all categories. You also have a section with cheap home utilities and a part where the nearly/already expired goods from the supermarkets are being sold. Even if it’s just for touristy reasons, you should visit it and witness the frenzy. Also, it looks like this after it’s done – as a proper Parisian market should.
In the most guides of Paris you will read about Barbès being the cheapest market – this is far from being so. The absolute champion on that account, the very bottom of the cheapness barrel is the lovely Marché Joinville. Aptly situated in the most derelict and “populaire” (meaning poor) arrondissement of Paris, the 19th, this market is right next to the canal St Martin, a great part of Paris we shall write about soon. This is the embodiment of what an open market is (and what it’s supposed to be) – furious, anxious, energetic, dirt cheap and very unsanitary. Not that that’s bad though – quite the contrary, you can get some of the finest bread, nuts and fruit in the whole of Paris. The part of the market extending to the rue de Joinville is filled with very high quality produce, fruit, vegetables and especially pies, tartines and cakes. The part closest to the canal is the cheaper area. Also, the section with home appliances and awful clothes is considerably larger than the one on Barbès.
If you are adventurous by nature and don’t mind getting your hands (and feet) dirty, metaphorically and factually speaking, this market is a treasure chest, as you can find not only really great produce but also the dirt cheap ones as well. Great deals are to be made here. You can back come home with a batch of half rotten pineapples that you got for a single euro – or a sac full of frost bitten mangos (not sure how or why this happens), or some mold consumed litchis. However, once you’ve learned your way around, you can find excellent things for outrageously small amounts of money. While bargaining is an art and a very important part of the communication in many cultures, we would feel (more so than usually) morally challenged to do it here as everything already seems to be on sales. It is quite obvious that we have a soft spot in our (cheap by nature) hearts for this particular market.
Much like Barbès, a favorite of many Paris guides and possibly as well known. Marché Aligre has that awesome advantage over most other markets by being open daily. Also, it is half a market and half a brocante, a French expression for a flee market where you can look for vintage oddities and everything old, broken and bizarre. Quality wise, it is more balanced than the amplitude-prone Marché Joinville – also, somewhat more expensive. This would be a gentrified version of Barbès and Joinville- instead of really cheap and horrible new and old clothes (honestly low quality new clothes are more depressive than the no-quality or uknown quality old clothes) here you can rummage through the vintage records and books. Strictly food wise and atmosphere wise, it is also more balanced and reasonable. it doesn’t have that insane vibe of these first two markets, but then again that is perhaps exactly what you are trying to avoid if you’re not interested in anthropological aspects of markets and are just there for some quiet grocery shopping. If you are situated anywhere near Bastille, make this your market, as it is well worth the visit. It is a market, much like the previous one, where you are likely to meet one or more members of the Paris in person staff.
This market is a great representation of the arrondissement it is situated in. Quiet, calm, proper, uneventful (again, this might be what you are looking for) somewhat snobby and slightly more expensive than what you’d expect. It is indeed the perfect depiction of the 15th arrondissement. The quality of the produce is good, the salesmen will not scream and yell, everything is polite and mannerly. But where is the heart in that, we ask of you ? On the up side, you need not rummage trough the piles of half rotten fruit so that you could claim that one perfect pineapple. You are likely to get the good stuff here. The range is somewhat on the upper side, so expect local grown and organic rather than the jack-in-the-box import of surprising (in every sense of the term, both good and bad) quality. There is an air of middle age and middle class and middle everything about this market. But than again, as we said, if that’s your thing that this is the place for you.
Marché Maubert is the place where you will likely meet all of the guided tours of Paris that doing degustations, locavore cuisine and alike. The very simple reason for this is not necessarily the high end quality of the produce, as you can in all honesty find equal or better even in marché Joinville. It is the history behind the market and its charming location. Much like many things situated near or on the boulevard Saint Germain, this one is cute, overpriced and overhyped. Basically coming here you are paying for the aesthetic experience, the surroundings and the atmosphere. As much as that is possible, this is the Parisian market that your travel agent sold you, the image of Paris that is being carefully cultivated to attract the toursists. If you are into the Woody Allen’s vision of the city from the movie “Midnight in Paris”, this is where you go to. You will find a lot of equally minded people with same sensibilites. Not a place an average Parisian would ever go to shop though, as it falls into a crevice of a paradox – if you are wealthy enough to live in that neighborhood (after your student days), and consider that your local market, and you can afford its prices, you are not doing your own shopping. Someone else is doing it for you.
So, is it an an eye candy, yes it is. Is there an interesting story behind it, yes there is. Is it a Parisian market in any sense of the word? No, it isn’t.
We include this little curiosity of a market because of how intensely different it is from anything else we’ve seen in Paris. Situated in the very fancy and exclusive 16th district, you would expect the snobbery level to go through the roof. Strangely, that is not the case – the previously mentioned market excels at that discipline, not this one. Also surprisingly, this market is not that expensive given its surroundings. So, we’ve briefly covered what it isn’t, but what is it? Well, for once, strangely small. Only a dozen-ish stalls, blink and you’ll miss it – this market is really tiny. Not a lot of variety, not a lot of choice, but as you can already guess what you get there will be of good (if not excellent quality). Still, that almost goes without saying.
The main feature of this market is its local character. We don’t mean that in a visual manner – it is not scenic, and is actually set in a somewhat average looking part of the 16th, very close to a highway and the edge of the city. It is the fact that the people who buy and the people who sell have personal connections and know each other quite well. This would be a classical, many times experienced situation taking place on marché Molitor – a member of our staff who used to live in the 16th would be coming back from a run in the nearby Bois de Bologne parc and would feel like getting some fruit. There is a very small line at the stall, three (octogenarian) people, so it should go fast. Wrong. It does not. You soon realize that the salesman or a saleswoman is engaged in a lively conversation about the family, health, business prospects, holiday plans and everything else that has happened in the last three days that they haven’t seen each other.
Once the eloquent customer has left, you might hope that it’s going to go faster now. Wrong again, as the next customer is much in the same mood and they seem to be even better friends. And so you wait, obliged to do so because in the micro-community of that line you would feel very awkward to ruin their fun by leaving. Your patience is somewhat rewarded as the vendor sometimes gives you a small gift over what you’ve bought, like a kiwi fruit or an apple. It is the exact opposite of the frenzy of a usual Parisian market – but there is something touching about the way it is and the general atmosphere it exudes that it is almost hard to be cynical about it.
So, that would be our pick of the crop. Needless to say, these are not all the markets of Paris, as there are many more (hundred-ish). These are just the most impressive ones, even when they stand out by their blandness, like the Marché Grenelle. Hope you find this info usefull! And by all means, when in Paris, go to a market – it is well worth the effort.
Useful tips – come prepared :
- Don’t carry any valuables. The crowds in these markets are overwhelming and you can easily lose something.
- Credit cards are not accepted. Carry cash. Also, mind the time of the busy vendors and come with small notes or even better coins.
- Check the change that is given back to you – sometimes it will be in coins that resemble euros but are not.
- Don’t wear nice shoes to a market, as you are likely getting trampled. Wear something you don’t care much about.
- If you’re looking to save some money, come by the end of the working hours of the market (which is generally around 13h00 even if it says that they are open until 14h30) – the prices will considerably drop as the vendors will rather sell their goods half-price than haul it back.
- If you’re looking to avoid the crowds, come early in the morning, before 09h00.
- Ponder the effects colonialism has had on the French society (and vice versa) while you buy cheap groceries from various ethnicities mostly from former French colonies.