Bonjour from Provence! This morning our Luberon Experience group had a wonderful visit to the Sunday morning market at L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue, so it seemed a good time to write a blog post about this very special aspect of Provençal culture.
We love shopping at the outdoor markets in Provence. We love the busy, social environment; the interaction with sellers we’ve come to know; the colors, smells and sounds. We love buying fresh seasonal produce and other food to incorporate into our menus for the next few days. We love buying special things to take home, for ourselves and for our friends and family. And we love how the markets change as the seasons and the year progresses. It seems there is always something new and unexpected. We especially relish the opportunity to occasionally find a good deal!
There are more than 100 markets in Provence. During our Luberon Experience week we visit three markets, each very different. Our week begins with the large and very famous Sunday morning market at L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue. On Tuesday we visit the beautiful hilltop village of Gordes, our stop coinciding with their market day. And to wrap up the week, on Friday morning we enjoy the smaller market in our own village of Bonnieux. Even people who aren’t big shoppers enjoy the environment in a Provençal village or town on market day.
What to Expect
Most markets in Provence are temporary outdoor markets—kind of traveling shopping malls on the same day each week. Big markets take over the center of town, sprawling in all directions. Small markets are based in the village square. Some sellers have extensive and elaborate booths and displays, some have stores set up inside refrigerated trucks, and sometimes there’s just a folding table. In the town of Uzès (where there’s a large Saturday market) we once saw a wizened elderly woman standing in a doorway selling brussel sprouts from an oversized basket, probably picked the afternoon before from her garden. Often you are buying from the actual farmer, seamstress or artist or members of their family. Typically, sellers have a weekly schedule they follow, rotating to a different market every day. We enjoy seeing sellers we know at different markets. For example, Kim sells colorful, reasonably-priced scarves at Apt on Saturday, L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue on Sunday, Gordes on Tuesday, St. Remy on Wednesday, Roussillon on Thursday and Lourmarin on Friday. I love bringing the women in my groups to shop with her in Gordes.
Although tourists are drawn to the markets and many stands sell primarily to visitors, the markets are extremely important to locals. The French use mostly fresh food and produce in their cooking, and many people shop for food every day or two. The markets provide easy access to fresh produce, often locally-grown. The markets are also important social centers, a place where residents gather not just for shopping but to see their friends and get caught up on local news.
Types of Markets
Some markets are enormous with hundreds of sellers, sprawling out across the town. These markets typically cater to both locals and tourists. Other markets are very small—just a few sellers providing fresh and convenient food to local residents on a weekly basis.
A few markets are designated as a “marché paysan,” usually held only during the main growing season. These are farmers or peasant markets, specializing in locally-grown produce sold by the producer. The evening market at Velleron (near L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue) is one of the most famous. We visited one July evening to find well over 50 sellers, most selling freshly-picked produce and farm products, mostly sold in bulk. The prices were excellent.
Some markets have an emphasis on “brocante.” Others have a special flower market. There is often a separate section of the market set up for these specialties. Brocante can be anything from junk to antiques, but is typically old objects that might be found in someone’s attic or estate sale. One of the top brocante markets in Provence is the Sunday market at L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue, where there are also more than 300 antique and secondhand shops. L’Isle sur la Sorgue also hosts huge antiques’ fairs at Easter and in mid-August with hundreds of sellers. Every year there are also special pottery markets in various villages in Provence. The Easter weekend pottery market in Bonnieux involves about 50 potters from all over France.
November through March there are special truffle markets in some towns and villages. The truffle is a black lumpy-looking tuber that grows underground in certain parts of Europe, usually found only with the help of trained dogs or even pigs. These are prized delicacies and very expensive. The biggest truffle market in France is held in Richerenches on Saturday mornings during truffle season.
Where to Go
Almost every town and village in Provence has a market. Although some big towns and cities have a market several times a week or even daily, most villages and towns have a weekly market, always on the same day of the week and usually in the morning.
If you’re visiting for a few days or a full week, we suggest visiting two or three markets, depending on how much you enjoy the experience and like to shop. One market should be very large, someplace like L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue, Apt, Vaison-la-Romaine or Aix-en-Provence. These markets have hundreds of sellers as well as many permanent shops. You can easily spend an entire morning at these markets and will likely wish you had more timeFor a contrast, you should also visit a smaller village market. This trip may take only 30 minutes. If you’re staying in or near a village, plan to visit the market in your village.
Keep in mind that these smaller markets may be primarily for the local residents, especially in the off-season. They come each week to get their fish, cheese, fresh produce and flowers, avoiding a trip to a larger town that may be 30 minutes away. At these small markets there may be very few (or perhaps no) sellers focused on selling to tourists.When you visit the small local market, you have the experience of being a local. You might even see your next door neighbor.
We also enjoy several mid-sized markets that have 50 to 100 sellers. It’s easier to shop and find your way, and they’re typically less crowded. The market in Gordes (Tuesday) has lots of crafts and artwork, in addition to more-typical market offerings. The market in Lourmarin (Friday) is another mid-sized market we enjoy. Lourmarin has several wonderful cafes and restaurants for lunch after the market.
The big markets are partly flea markets. You’ll be amazed at the wide variety of items for sale: shoes and slippers, kids’ pajamas, lingerie, bedding, shirts, blue jeans, socks, cooking pans, coats, kitchen utensils, knives, hardware, hats, books, videos, eyeglasses, scarves, make-up, toys, sometimes even grocery items. The markets in Aix and Apt have many of these types of sellers, and we’ve found some great deals. We like the people who attract a crowd of spectators with energetic demonstrations—an instrument for cracking nuts, a special pair of pruning shears, a magical frying pan, a unique scissors sharpener, a fancy wine bottle opener. Local crafts are often for sale: jewelry, pottery, prints of local scenery, photographs. We’ve seen a few sellers with assortments of products from Africa—drums and carved giraffes and animal skins.
We enjoy the street performers at larger markets, often including a group of drum-playing and noise-making Indians complete with feathered headdresses. A few untethered dogs usually move around the crowd, and there’s an occasional sad-looking beggar. Everyone has their shopping basket and a sense of energy and anticipation.
Do be careful with your purse or wallet. We’ve never had an incident with our groups, but the markets can be very crowded places. Keep a small amount of money handy so you don’t have to pull out your whole wallet when you’re paying a seller.
We warn our groups about two different sellers we encounter at most markets. The first involves a small cart with adorable baby animals (a baby pig or goat, perhaps a puppy or kitten). The people then try to sell you some sort of lozenge, perhaps creating the impression that you’re helping the baby animals. We are very skeptical about this! The second are cheese sellers with big wheels of mountain cheese, usually luring you in with delicious samples. Be very careful! If you buy a slice of the cheese, you are likely to spend 20 to 30 euro!
When to Go
Most markets are held in the morning, beginning around 9 am and wrapping up between noon and 1 pm. If you’re visiting one of the larger markets, get there as early as possible so you can locate parking reasonably close to the market and get started before the crowd really swells. The crowds can be overwhelming in July and August. Most people probably need a couple of hours to visit one of the big markets. In the larger towns, we suggest focusing on the temporary market stands in the morning as the permanent shops will be available after lunch and even on another day.
Part of the fun of market day is a wonderful lunch after the market. If you spot a place that interests you for lunch, we suggest stopping in earlier in the morning to make a reservation for 12 noon or 12:30 pm, especially if your group numbers several people. Lunch places fill up quickly at the end of market day, and you may find yourself trooping from place to place unable to get a table if you don’t have a reservation. If you have a reservation, your group can have an assigned meeting time and place, and can split up to pursue their own interests at the market.
Another lunch option is a picnic after the market, at some beautiful spot in the countryside or back at your rental home or B&B. There are usually several kinds of prepared foods for sale that are perfect a picnic.
We’ve been in Provence in every month of the year, visiting the markets first as tourists and later as residents. As residents we’ve come to the market looking for food, clothes, and varied necessities for our daily life, as well as gifts for friends and family. The markets definitely take on a different personality at different times of year. And we’ve found ourselves experiencing the markets in different ways when we’re shopping as residents vs. shopping as tourists.
Most of the big markets are still large and busy in the colder winter months, focusing mostly on the needs of local residents. The markets get bigger and much more crowded as the tourist season begins. The Apt market was crowded in mid-October and we noticed virtually no difference until about mid-March, when the weather got warmer and the restaurants and cafes set up their outdoor tables. An increasing number of shoppers were clearly tourists, and the size and focus of the market shifted accordingly. In the summer months the Apt market is so big that parking is offered at the old train station on the edge of town and shuttle buses transport people to the market area. Much of the market takes place in several large squares, but the narrow pedestrian streets are often packed with people.
The market in our village of Bonnieux changes much more dramatically during the year. From June into September, Bonnieux has maybe 70 sellers; the activity builds around the end of March and continues into October. During the warmer months, the market fills the shady Place Gambetta mid-way up the village and now extending around the new church at the base of the village. There’s a festive atmosphere, usually accentuated by a man and woman singing cabaret-type songs outside the café. People fill the outdoor terrace of Le Terrail, our favorite village cafe, drinking coffee, listening to the music, and enjoying the view across the valley.
But by early December the Bonnieux market had only six sellers in an almost-deserted market square: the fish truck, cheese man, flower man (who kept his flowers in his van because it was so cold), a man selling farm-raised chickens, a man selling organic bread, and the pizza truck. In the winter, the Bonnieux market is for the residents, making their lives a little more convenient.
(See our follow-up post, Shopping at the Markets of Provence, and learn what to buy and how to shop.)
Kathy and Charley Wood lead European Experiences, week-long “slow tours” in some of the most beautiful areas of Europe, including The Luberon Experience in Provence, France. National Geographic Traveler magazine named The Luberon Experience one of their top 50 tours in the world in 2012.
Kathy and Charley host Experience weeks in the Luberon, the Chianti region of Tuscany, Puglia, Alsace, the Dordogne, and the Cotswolds. They also offer two longer tours: The European Christmas Experience (12 days) and The Cornwall Experience in southwest England (10 days).
Kathy and Charley have been traveling in Europe for almost 30 years and love sharing their special places in Europe with other travelers. They've hosted 120 Experience groups since they launched in 2006. They have a second home in their beloved village of Bonnieux in the Luberon. Read more about Kathy and Charley here.
Slow Travel Tours is an affiliation of small-group tour operators who offer personalized trips in Italy, France and other European countries.