At the New York Times Travel Show, the theme of my session was “markets as a window into the soul of a place.” It’s my mantra. Here’s why I’ve embraced it with gusto.
- Markets are social hubs.
Amble through almost any market and you’ll see residents going about their normal routines. If you observe how they interact, which vendors they go to, how they comport themselves, what they buy, whether and how they negotiate, you’ll get a good glimpse of the local customs. In France, for example, there’s a premium on establishing regular, trusted relationships. Shoppers tend to return to their favorite vendors even if it means waiting in line. Loyalty might be rewarded in the form of a warmer greeting or more advantageous portion.
I first observed this pattern on rue Cler, a market street in the 7th arrondissement of Paris (though the same holds true at all French markets). When I lived in Paris and began shopping there, vendors were genial and fair. Once they recognized me as a regular customer, however (and this took months), their behavior became markedly friendlier. Understanding this helped me not take things personally when interactions at other markets, where I wasn’t a regular customer, were purely transactional. I learned about this aspect of French culture at markets, and I quickly realized that it plays out in other areas of French life too. The insight has been tremendously useful to me throughout my travels in France.
- Markets are where you can discover local specialties.
Market stalls and shops devoted to cheese are a mainstay throughout France. That tells you how important cheese is to French culture, in case you didn’t already know.
At markets in Provence, one can also find cheese sellers (or farmers) selling cheeses that are unique to the area. Banon, for example, is a round of goat cheese wrapped in chestnut leaves. To qualify as Banon cheese, the goats must have been grazing in the village of Banon in the Alpes-de-Haute-Provence. Banon is one of several local cheeses—easy to find in Provence, difficult (if not impossible) to find once you leave the region, and a taste sensation that you don’t want to miss.
Similarly, flea and antiques markets offer a view into the local taste as it applies to furnishings. In Provence, there’s a tendency toward rustic durability. In Paris flea and antiques markets, polished elegance holds more sway.
Lavender is a well-known specialty of Provence. Even if you didn’t know that before traveling to Provence, once you browse the markets and discover numerous vendors selling lavender tied in bunches and lavender lotions, oils, and soaps, it’s a tip-off to the importance of this local crop.
- Markets are invitations to explore the “real” physical surroundings and public spaces.
Markets are where people come together to buy and sell goods. Historically they’ve been vital to how people get their needs met. They’re usually located in the center of neighborhoods or villages—not tourist sites. The pleasure of going to markets is, for me, as much about what goods I might find at the stalls as what I might discover in the surroundings.
In Saint-Rémy-de-Provence, a backdrop of mansions in one section of the market sheds light on that town’s aristocratic history. In Cucuron, a walk through the narrow streets near the market led me to learn about a local tradition of marching with a poplar tree. At Marché Président Wilson in Paris, the neighborhood is filled with elegant stone buildings, wrought-iron balconies, and wide boulevards—the signature style of Baron Haussmann and commissioned by Napoleon III—that have bestowed a distinctive architectural identity upon Paris since the 1880s.
Flea and antiques market, such as Marché aux Puces de Saint-Ouen (also known as Clignancourt), are located just beyond the boulevard périphérique that surrounds Paris. Seeing their physical surroundings helped me understand the origin of les puces (flea markets) in Paris, when rag-and-bone vendors (yes, that’s what they were called) were forced outside the city limits.
- For all these reasons (and more), markets are one of the first places I go whenever I travel. I like to get off the beaten path of typical tourist sites. Markets are not only an introduction to local foods and customs but also an invitation to explore different neighborhoods and regions. It’s easy and fun to combine market outings with sightseeing.
I come away from markets with riches that I wouldn’t have had otherwise: a chance conversation, unforgettable flavor, historical insight, favorite purchases linked to a certain time and place. Markets add an extra dimension to the rewards of travel. Indeed, they are a window into the soul of a place.