Flea to France: head to Europe’s largest vintage market this August

The Provençal village of L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue has the largest concentration of vintage stores outside Paris and twice a year hosts a giant open-air flea market

One of the many antique shops in the bustling town of L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue, which holds Europe’s largest flea market twice a year. Photograph: Getty Images

One of the many antique shops in the bustling town of L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue, which holds Europe’s largest flea market twice a year. Photograph: Getty Images

 

For a small place, L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue isn’t short of antiques shops. Filled with tiny, walkable quarters specialising in different types of vintage, this ancient Provençal village has the largest concentration of vintage stores outside Paris. These mini districts are reached by criss-crossing bridges that span the shallow, clear river Sorgue, creating a spot that, for a homewares lover, is irresistible.

Near the railway station is Le Village des Antiquaires de la Gare: a cluster of shops around a courtyard that sell industrial hardware, everything from yellow carpenter’s rulers, red “Danger de Mort” electric company signs, and ancient locks. In the back streets are stores such as Un Jour, which sells washed linen napkins and tableware, and along the river are pile-’em-high stores, where a morning’s rummage might well unearth a Provençal treasure or two. There are sleek emporiums – such as RBC Vintage, which stocks mid-century classic furniture – and there are hushed, musty shops full of antiques and presided over by elderly, tanned French folk. The town’s Sunday market (a food, flea and antiques market rolled into one) provides more second hand snaffling opportunities.

Vendors on the river Sorgue make their way to the floating food market in L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue
Vendors on the river Sorgue make their way to the floating food market in L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue

Twice a year, at Easter and in August, the town transforms into a giant, open-air flea market. It’s the biggest in Europe, dwarfing the Sunday market. Sellers come from across France and throughout Europe. Stalls line the streets, wares spilling out: vintage children’s scooters, sun-bleached benches, distressed pillar-box-red filing cabinets, and old school chairs. Sellers bring their choicest, rather than cheapest, wares but the sheer competition means there are plenty of bargains.

The best, and most affordable, place to rummage is the shady Parc Gautier, where smaller, less-polished bric-a-brac is sold on rickety trestle tables: plates, Ricard glasses and pitchers, Pernod ashtrays, Orangina jugs, coloured, etched wine glasses, children’s books, soda siphons, factory lights and enamel cookware. In less than half an hour, I bought a children’s educational poster for €10, an enamel sign saying Cabine Telephonique for €50, a yellow ceramic Orangina jug for €5 and a coffee tin for €4.

For larger items, almost all sellers are happy to ship around the world for around €200 per piece for furniture, but the more you buy, the cheaper the shipping costs.

Interior of one of the many antique shops in L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue
Interior of one of the many antique shops in L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue

If you tire of rummaging, L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue’s other attraction is an unusual collection of 15 historic, moss-covered water wheels dotted along the river, which powered the town’s wool, silk and paper factories in the 19th century. The river Sorgue has its bubbling source at Fontaine-de-Vaucluse, 8km away, at the foot of a steep cliff – it’s the largest spring in France and also worth a trip. The river divides just outside L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue; this “parting of the waters” is an attraction in itself.

We had a late afternoon drink every day at Café de France in the shady Place de la Liberté, off the main drag (it also serves simple French food; the croque-monsieur was delicious). And we ate – twice – at Le Jardin du Quai, dining on the terrace of a wonderful shady garden close to the antique stores by the station. Our bistro lunch (€37pp) including mushroom tart with a bottle of rosé was delicious (and they welcomed my toddler daughter), but dinner (€45pp) featuring rare beef fillet, followed by chocolate mousse, topped it.

Our simple-but-welcoming hotel, overlookingthe river, was the Hotel Cantosorgue (doubles from €63 room-only, breakfast €9pp), a 20-minute walk from the centre. Its small pool was a boon for us, travelling with a small child. During high season, when prices and temperatures rise, one of the nicest, and most affordable, places to stay is a campsite along the river: try La Coutelière (two-person pitch and vehicle from €18.20 a night, children €3.50 each), a quiet, family-friendly and naturally planted site between Fontaine-de-Vaucluse and L’Isle sur la Sorgue; or La Sorguette (two-person pitch and vehicle from €18.90 a night, children from €3.20) which, along with riverside camping pitches, has yurts, treehouses and wood-and-fabric Japanese-style “pods”. Just remember to pack an extra tent to store your vintage finds.

The next antiques fair runs from 11-15 August, antiquesartandyou.com

Homewares on sale in L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue
Homewares on sale in L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue

Other antique and flea markets worth visiting

The Foire de Chatou otherwise known as the Ham and Antiques Fair which takes place twice a year in Paris, foiredechatou.com, open to all. Next event: September 22nd-October 1st.

Avignon Antiques fair, open to professionals only. Next fair: September 18th, avignon-antiquites.com/enBrocante des Quinconces, Bordeaux, held twice a year. Next fair: 24th November 24th-December 10th.

Brocante de Mézilles in Burgundy area. Next event: August 12th-13th

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