Unlike many other people we work an inverted week. Our busiest and longest days are the on the weekends when from dawn on Saturday and Sunday we work the local markets to hunt for stock.
Carole loves this- buying is the most fun part of the job. For me there's the added bonus of seeing France close up and in detail. There's the traditional stuff antiques traders do, the auctions and the marchés aux puces, or flea markets. These are usually semi-permanent in nature, like the famous Paris ones every weekend. More interesting for us are two other types of event- Vide Greniers, literally 'empty attic', and equivalent to a car boot or garage or yard sale. And then there's Brocantes, usually meaning a market for professional traders. Both of these are temporary affairs, large congregations perhaps only taking place annually or every few months.
Nevertheless they are so prevalent in rural areas they occupy a large chunk of our time and are our best sources for stock. Their prevalence perhaps also explains why ebay.fr isn't as hugely prevalent as the UK or USA, but perhaps that's a story for another post. This weekend was busy and hot, with temperatures peaking at 30ºC. Saturday we were at Annoville a small commune 30minutes drive from us. The Vide Grenier was actually just outside Annoville in a field.
From around the commune, local people arrive to sell whatever they want. Children's clothes and toys are a favorite, as well as old car parts, junk from the garage, mum's Paris Match collection, dad's branded beer glasses, anything. In between we'll find things that have been stuck in the attic for fifty years or more. These are social events as much as anything, and there will be a small pop-up bar and stall selling sausage sandwiches. Behind the stalls wine flows freely into plastic cups. For visitors its a day out for the family too, with the added bonus of perhaps kitting out your new house for less than €10. On Sunday we visited Barfleur on the other side of the Cotentin peninsula. It was a long drive along the dead straight roads of North Normandy, all empty on a summer Sunday morning.
Like many small towns in Normandy, indeed France, Barfleur is outrageously pretty. A small harbour surrounded by small houses built in local grey stone and a stout Norman church.
Barfleur is more touristy than Annoville, so the range of sellers was different. Closer to the large towns of Cherbourg and Valognes its bit more bourgeois too. There was a fair range of professional sellers mixed in here, making this kind of crowd very different. But even here the Vide Grenier was a day out and the bars were full. Early in the morning, hundreds were out snapping up local bargains.
An elderly lady selling her antique linen sheets comments on my English voice. Carole explains I'm still learning French and how I'm still somewhat embarrassed of my clumsy accent. The seller emphatically tells us how adorable the English accent is and how much she liked Jane Birkin's accented French. As is typical in this part of Normandy, there are lots of Brits around these days but the link between the this particular part of France and Angleterre is quite rich. Barfleur is tiny- less than 1000 inhabitants but has cute sense of identity thanks to its position on the coast facing England.
The town, like much of coastal Normandy, has its origins in the murky Viking past. The fleet that took the Normans to the Battle of Hastings in 1066 left from here. William's grandson embarked from Barfleur in 1120 after quelling the troublesome Normans only for his ship to founder on the notorious rocks on the coast. He drowned along with a large chunk of the Norman aristocracy leave King Henry I without a legitimate male heir. The war of succession that followed his death 1135 led to a brutal civil war sometimes called 'The Anarchy' between England and Normandy which lasted almost 20 years. The war was finally ended by King Stephen, whose own son Henry II eventually restored Norman royal authority. Henry II married Eleanor of Aquitaine and their son was Richard I ('Lionheart'). All three at some point were buried at the Abbey at Fontevraud in the Loire Valley, which we were lucky enough to visit last year.
After Richard's death, his French Angevin possessions reverted to Eleanor and henceforward they followed the fortunes of the other English possessions in France, such as Normandy, ultimately leading to the Hundred Years' War between the French and English crowns. It was during this conflict that King Edward III landed nearby at Saint-Vaast-La-Hougue and pillaged the entire Cotentin Peninsula. Of Barfleur's 6000 inhabitants only 150 survived. The port was later home to fearsome corsairs and in 1692, the decisive battle of the Nine Years war, one of the more obscure Anglo-French conflicts, took place just off the coast at Barfleur. I like the feeling that even this small town on the edge of France could be so steeped in the history (and spilled blood) that links England and France. I don't expect many, if any, of the other shoppers and antique hunters worry too much about the depth of the town's roots. For me, it fixes the town in time. That squat Norman church suddenly gives a sense of vertigo, as I try and feel what it has seen... #Antiques #Brocante #France #VideGrenier #History