French markets: They exist in most towns and cities all over the country, and within cities, in major neighborhoods where merchants gather at least once or twice a week. They can be outdoor (le Marché Saleya in Nice,) or indoor, in old buildings often referred to as les Halles, like the lively Marché des Carmes in Toulouse.
As I traveled through France, from Paris, to Lyon, and Nice, this summer, I tried to visit as many as I could. Even in the days of globalization and convenience shopping, ruled by hypermarket chains like Auchan, Casino, or Carrefour, my countrymen remain faithful to French markets and, to a large extent, to their neighborhood specialty shops, les commerces de proximité. Markets are one of the best places to observe the French way of life. Everything you have ever wanted to know about France’s love of food and the good life, is in full display in the middle of colorful stalls. I have never found their equivalent in the United States, where many Farmers’ markets, at least in my area, seem to offer as many crafts and souvenirs as they do produce. There are rules and rituals au marché, just like in other areas of French life. You do not touch the produce. You point at what you want or ask for it. You trust the merchant to pick the best fruit or vegetable. Do you need un melon (cantaloupe) for lunch tomorrow? Ask for it. The merchant will smell and weigh a couple of cantaloupes in his hand before he makes his final selection and announces: “Voilà, celui-ci est parfait.” And if this is any reputable market merchant, it will be just that, perfect. To enjoy your market experience, you need to speak a little French, enough to make small talk; exchange greetings, a few pleasantries about the weather; and if you are more advanced, a joke or two about current events, or the latest of the president’s blunders. At French markets, you meet friends; catch up with your favorite merchants, and stock up for part of the week. There is no need to buy a lot: Your fridge or pantry would be too small to accommodate more than a couple of days’ worth of supplies. Why worry? The market will be back a few days later, and in the meantime, you will eat fresh food. You may want to bring your own bag to French markets. Merchants will only offer flimsy plastic bags. If you are a native, you will walk the market with your caddie.
In Lyon, France, there are neighborhood markets, and some are famous. Once again, the renowned French capital of gastronomy gives Paris a run for her money. The covered Les Halles de Lyon founded by legendary Chef Paul Bocuse, is one. Le Marché St Antoine, on la Presqu’Île (the peninsula,) is another. I was only in Lyon for two days, and over a weekend to boot. On Saturday morning I crossed the Saône river, left my hotel in le Vieux Lyon (the old town,) and headed towards la Croix-Rousse, one of the two big hills in the city. It faces Fourvière Hill, directly across the river. I knew I was in for a treat, and a workout. It’s a steep climb up les pentes (the slopes) of the old working-class neighborhood where silk workers, les Canuts, used to slave away, all the way to the top, le plateau de la Croix-Rousse.
As you climb uphill through the old streets, everything looks unmistakably French, the buildings, the people, the streets and the trees lining them, les platanes.
Finally, you reach le plateau and the busy boulevard de la Croix-Rousse. There, every day except Monday, merchants and locals meet, engaging in the most enduring of French rituals: life at the outdoor market. I have visited many French markets, but this one is unique. It runs along the boulevard for over one kilometer, stall after stall of produce, meat, charcuterie, cheese, bread, and everything else in between. Colors, smells, sounds of conversation and laughter fill the air. To this French expat, nothing (except maybe, a café terrace,) says “home” more than French markets; and as markets go, the lively Marché de la Croix-Rousse, feels real. There were hardly any tourists there at 9:00 am that morning, just locals. A few people walked around, taking photos, as I did. Travel tip: Merchants appreciate being asked first. Just show your camera and smile, “Bonjour! Je peux, Monsieur?” (Hello, may I take a photo, sir?) Most will gladly let you take shots of their stalls, even if you are not buying. A gentleman in front of me was snapping away, and got taunted by several merchants who shouted jokingly as he walked away: “Attention, voilà les Paparazzi!“
I knew what I was looking for: I had planned an early lunch picnic down by the Saône river before I tackled the second Lyon hill that afternoon, la colline de Fourvière. A local boulangerie provided the basics, and my nose took me to the essential part of the meal.
And there I had it, the perfect weekend visit to a perfect city, on a perfect summer day, with the perfect picnic. As I enjoyed my lunch in the sun by the water, I was reminded of a favorite saying of mine: La vie est faite de petits bonheurs. As petits bonheurs go, Lyon delivers. The city I once called home so many years ago, welcomed me back with open arms. Merci, Lyon.
(It goes without saying:) A bientôt.
All photos by French Girl in Seattle. Please do not use without permission.
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To read more about Lyon:
Lyon, the other City of Light(s) here.
Savoring Lyon’s food here.
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