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La belle brocante - seven tips for a successful day

La belle brocante - seven tips for a successful day

Every bargain hunter who has ever followed the paper trail of little orange signs directing them to a brocante will recognise it: that quickening of the pulse and that twitching of rummage-ready fingers at the first tantalising glimpse of stalls laden to the gunnels with…what? Heaps of useless junk, or hidden treasure?

Someone once said that wherever you are in Britain, you're never more than five minutes away from some historical monument. Well, one of the great things about living in France is that you never seem to be more than a few kilometres from a source of brocante. In addition to the numerous regular weekly and monthly flea markets, there are masses of one-off brocantes and vide-greniers organised most weekends right across Poitou-Charentes.

brocante poitou charentes

And if the craving for bargain-hunting can't be satisfied at the weekend, there are plenty of permanent brocante shops worth exploring. Most of the larger towns also have a troc, depot-vente or the charitable organisation called Emmaus: these are all excellent sources of second-hand goods of every description. Sited in large warehouses, they make an ideal choice on those wet days when Poitou-Charentes reputation for being the 'second sunniest region of France’ sounds like an estate agent's over-enthusiasm.

While it's true that many of the goods on offer will be in poor condition and may need repairing - certainly cleaning, possibly treatment for a spot of woodworm or even complete restoration - for many people this is the real lure of brocante. It's the satisfaction of discovering some shabby, old, used-and-abused item for next to nothing, and giving it a new lease of life. But beware of the dangerous Stage Two of the affliction. An early sign of this is when, for example, one old enamel jug simply isn't enough. You've got to have a tall one too: a blue one, one with a funny handle, oh look - there's one with some floral decoration on it ... Welcome to the fascinating world of junk.

Also, be careful when tempted to put quaint old objects to a new use without fully appreciating what they were originally in ended for. When I lived in Andalucia I kept my cooking utensils in a charming little tin pot bought in a Cadiz flea market until, one day, my horrified Spanish neighbour pointed out that it was originally for enemas!

The need to furnish and decorate a newly acquired french home is probably how most of us first get introduced to brocante, I am currently renovating an old cognac farm and the highlight of many a weekend is setting off at dawn to trawl another market for bits and bobs. More often than not, I drive home whistling the theme tune from Steptoe and Son as the van labours back through the vines under the weight of tables, chairs, lamps, windows and odd bits of rusty iron that surely must fit somewhere'.

brocante

There is a myth, possibly perpetrated by professional dealers, that you need to know a great deal about antiques to recognise real treasures. This may well be true if you're intending to collect high quality period pieces or race items that carry a hefty price tag; specialist knowledge would then be vital to tell if an item is genuine. But for the amateur, the trick is to be able to spot the bargains, grab them before someone else does and pay the right price for them. To be a successful chineur you need: a keen eye; a great deal of perseverance: to be ready for a little haggling (a great chance to brush up your French conversation): and to be prepared to drop your offer if you're uncertain.

I recently caught up with keen chineur Carole. She goes to flea markets as often as she can, and has been known to do two in one day if they are close enough. As she's loading her finds into her van after a successful day at a brocante, I ask her if there's anything in particular she looks for. 'I always have a mental list of things I'rn searching for’she replies, 'But the real fun is unearthing something you didn't expect to find. Look at this great old 1950's bakelite telephone complete with its extension earpiece. They were asking fifteen euros, but I got it for ten.' I admire it and ask what her 'best ever bargain' was. 'Oh, that's easy -a fabulous five branch chandelier which now hangs in my bedroom. Amazingly, it was even in working order. And how much did she pay for that? One euro! So, the bargains are definitely out there, just waiting to be snapped up by those early risers with their eyes open. To help you on your way. I've compiled a list of tips:

Seven Tips to stay ahead of the game

• Get there really early while the bargains are still available; the dealers will already have come and gone by the time most people arrive

• Go around the stalls several times and in different directions: it's surprising how much you will have missed the first or even second tirne

• Carry plenty of small change I notes and some carrier bags for smaller items

• Wear old clothes: you don't want to appear too affluent, and some of the items will be seriously grubby

• Keep a blanket in the car to protect mirrors, glass cupboards etc.

• If you're looking for doors, windows, shutters etc ... make sure you have all the measurements you need and remember to bring your tape measure

• Don't forget to pack a flask of coffee and some grub: just at the point when you're losing the will to live (usually about halfway through the third circuit, in my case), you can go back to the car and fuel up for one last foray. The ideal time for this might be when the market is starting to pack up. It's the very moment to make a low offer for that heavy old buffet the stallholder struggled to bring along and may be glad to see the back of at any price.

Previously published in Living Poitou-Charentes