Shopping at a Provençal Market

Aix-en-Provence market
The Saturday morning market in Aix-en-Provence.

The Provençal market is a feast for the senses and a chance to savor a lot of the best of the region. Whether you’d like to pick up some picnic treats, sample artisan jams & tapenades, or grab a few homemade sausages, there’s no place better than your local marché. You can even get outfitted with a straw hat (some funky, some chic), leather sandals, and some cool shades to perfect your Southern style. Here’s a few tips to keep in mind before you hit those gorgeous stalls.

1. Arrive at the market early.

Weekly markets, like the one I went to yesterday at Sanary-sur-Mer, tend to be huge, sprawling affairs which line the main boulevard of the town and can become quite crowded. If it’s a popular market, the general rule-of-thumb is to arrive early and preferably on foot, or if you’re sporty enough, via bicycle. Since Sanary is about 20 minutes from us by car, so I took my chances & thankfully found a parking spot about a 10-minute walk from the market. Unfortunately, I haven’t been so lucky at other markets, and since vacation time is always precious, it’s a good idea to set those alarm clocks for an early start.

2. Don’t be afraid to chat with the locals or market sellers.

The markets always have a fun & lively atmosphere where you can mingle with other shoppers and you’ll probably find a few fellow tourists to chat-up. I would also suggest taking a bit of a risk and start a conversation with the locals (I say risk because it can be quite difficult to “put yourself out there” in another language). Even when my French was terrible (not very long ago!) I found that vendors were more than happy to answer my questions. A few will even try to speak in English which I’ve always felt is a nice sign of goodwill. I once had a very lively conversation about US politics with a fruit vendor in Toulon – between 1/3 English, my limited French, and a lot of wild hand gestures, we had a very memorable exchange.

3. Check prices carefully and watch your measurements.

I have to say that I’ve never heard any haggling over prices at the market. That might be more the territory of the antiques world, and higher prices for some items definitely reflect quality or craftsmanship. I’m thinking particularly of the seasoned olives, confitures, and various spreads which usually start at about €4 or €5 per 100 grams. I bought a particularly amazing artichoke spread yesterday, but it was a little bit more than I wanted to spend, so it’s also a good idea to have an idea of European (metric) measurements or be prepared to say: un peu plus or un peu moins (a little more or a little less) s’il vous plait (please).

4. Bring (or purchase) a large straw bag or basket.

Yesterday was the first time I bought one of the big, straw bags to carry my purchases in. I wasn’t sure how much they would cost, because they all look so very well-made, so I was a bit nervous of approaching. Well, it turns out that these bags are a bargain. You can get a quality bag, in your choice of color, for starting at €8. There are slightly more expensive ones that are a bit sturdier, but not the best if you’re thinking of throwing them over your shoulder. They do make really great “baskets” & are ideal if you’re planning to buy a lot of fruits & vegetables. Plus, they’re just pretty to look at – a nice idea for souvenirs for the folks back home.

5. Leave time to soak up the atmosphere at a market-side café.

Since the weekly markets are usually in the center of the town, it can be great fun to take a break at a café for some good old-fashioned, people-watching. Usually, I’m feeling a bit tired at this point, and like to sit and have a chilled class of Rosé. You’ll find many people doing the same, and it’s a great way to really “make a whole day” out of your market experience. And of course, there’s always the lunch option too. In a seaside town like Sanary, a large order of moules-frites along the sunny port is a must-do.

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