World's Greatest Flea Markets
Where: Spread over 23 different fields/locations in town
2009 Dates: May 12–17; July 14–19; Sept. 8–13; dawn until dusk.
Thrice yearly, the 18th-century hamlet of Brimfield is overwhelmed by a series of antiques shows set up in humongous open fields (and some covered sites) for a six-day stretch. Dealers have flocked here for decades, and virtually anything you collect, no matter how obscure (from taxidermy to taxi dancers’ outfits), will likely show up among the offerings of the 6,000-odd stalls. A word of warning: book your accommodations as far ahead as possible (vendors have been snagging the same hotel rooms for years); bring a flashlight (shows start before dawn); prepare for inclement weather—you’ll be out in the elements a long time; and perhaps most important, write down the location of booths you may want to return to. It’s very easy to get lost. (www.brimfieldshow.com)
Some people travel so they can climb to the top of the Eiffel Tower, or ski the Rockies, or feast on rare delicacies in Bangkok. Not me. I think of the world as a series of fabulous flea markets, displaying each culture’s best bibelots—many of which can be had for a paltry few pounds or yen, euros, or dollars. Who needs an ordinary souvenir when you can remember your vacation every time you use your turn-of-the-century Parisian canisters or wear those Art Deco bracelets, bought for a song in Buenos Aires?
My roster of what I consider to be the 11 greatest flea markets in the world depends upon a highly personal interpretation of “great.” Though some of my picks are vast and encompass thousands of vendors (the thrice-yearly Brimfield, MA, extravaganza, for example, has fully 6,000 dealers on hand!); others are great because, though small, they are consistently good—not to mention picturesque.
The market that sets up on Thursdays in front of the Gothic cathedral in Barcelona—quirky in itself since almost every other market is held on a weekend—is small enough to enjoy in the space of a leisurely morning, but the quality (high) and average price (low) make this worth adjusting your calendar in the hope of finding a vintage Spanish lace shawl.
If you, like me, travel thousands of miles just to watch the sun rise over tables of treasures, here are some of my top tips culled from a lifetime of “fleaing”:
- In lands where you don’t speak a word of the language, don’t leave the hotel without a pad and pen so you can bargain by writing down numbers and crossing them out (this came in very handy when I was attempting to get a good deal on an antique trinket box in Tokyo).
- Be prepared with rain gear and sturdy shoes—just because it’s dripping doesn’t mean markets are canceled.
- Pay attention to local opening hours—you don’t want to stroll over to Portobello Road at 3 p.m., just to find everyone is packing up.
- Bring cash! Credits cards and fleas usually don’t mix, you can’t write a check in Moroccan dirham, and the ATM may be far away.
And yes, size matters. Supposedly, there’s some way to get that 300-ton temple bell home to Cleveland, but for myself—after riding for seven hours with a four-foot-tall Victorian pixie doll on my lap (you don’t want to know)—I now confine my treasures to items smaller than a bread box (happily, that includes lots of vintage jewelry—recently a Victorian bracelet and a 1940s copy of British Vogue).
Another hard-earned lesson? Don't exhaust yourself. This is supposed to be fun! Make sure you have lunch and/or take a coffee break. Many of the world’s markets contain excellent bistros—you can enjoy a hearty onion soup in one of the many cafés that dot the Porte de Clignancourt market; have a steak sandwich—it’s the national dish—in view of the outdoor vendors at the San Telmo market in Buenos Aires; or enjoy a pub lunch in London while you contemplate potential purchases.
And one last thing: if you’re at a really massive market and spot something interesting but aren’t ready to make a purchase, write down the booth number. You don’t want to spend the rest of your life pining for the one that got away, just because after hours of searching, you couldn’t find your lost love again.