The other Paris

Ah, Paris! The panoply of sights, sounds and smells in its street markets command all of your senses to stand at attention. Fish heads stare at you with glassy eyes. Chickens and ducks hang by their feet. Mounds of ripe tomatoes present themselves for prodding.

From the daily street markets to the transient morning produce markets to the colourful weekend flea markets, this is shopping as an art form.

Here in North America we do our shopping in hermetically-sealed environments. Shrink-wrapped produce and meat that you — let alone a few little microbes — can’t penetrate.

Not so in Paris and elsewhere in France. They let it all hang out here. Heads, claws, piles of animal innards of which the French are so fond — kidneys, brains, sweetbreads. All taken home and eaten fresh that very day.

The street market is just part of everyday life here, as well it should be. Where else can you find artichokes the size of a man’s fist, succulent nectarines and figs from North Africa, fresh herbs, spices, shouting vendors and the ever-present dogs roaming among the stalls hunting for fallen scraps?

The selection at even the tiniest of marketis overwhelming by North American standards. And at the bigger market streets (or rues commercantes, as they are called) the selection of fresh produce, cheeses, wines, and household goods goes on and on.

One of Paris’ oldest and largest markets is on the Rue Mouffetard, in the Left Bank’s Latin Quarter. And, by far, my favourite place to while away a morning. Rue Mouffetard has a certain down-at-the-heels charm that’s a welcome change from the glitzy tourist haunts along the Champs Elysees. It’s a real street with real people. Students from the nearby Sorbonne and the City University buy the fixings for a cheap supper, moms with kids in tow reach across a stall for a kilo of apples. The street also has its occasional sidewalk musician and entertainer, hoping for a few francs to be tossed their way.

When I first visited Rue Mouffetard more than a decade ago, the Place de la Contrescarpe, from which Mouffetard leads, was a rundown circle of earth where transients would sit around and drink wine and often sleep. The Contrascarpe has since been gentrified and landscaped and several cafes overlook the scene — including La Choppe, where Ernest Hemingway is said to have lifted a jug or two of wine. In fact, Hemingway described Rue Mouffetard as a “wonderful, narrow, crowded market street.” He was right. One building in particular, No. 134, offers an intricate swirling mosaic of birds, foliage and wild boar on its façade dating back several hundred years.

At the end of Rue Mouffetard is the tiny church of St. Medard. It has the curious history of being home to a cult in the early 1700s, which took part in orgies of hysteria as an inducement to curing various ailments. Royal decree put an end to those shenanigans in 1732. Considering its turbulent past, St. Medard is a wonderful place to enter and sit in the cool, dusky shade on a hot summer day. A little parkette adjacent to the church offers benches overlooking the busy street.

Paris also has what it calls marches volants or roving markets. These usually spring up around 7 a.m. in various parts of the city, offer fresh produce all morning and then are disassembled as quickly as they went up.

In addition to produce, they sell household items and cut flowers. These markets do have regular locations, so it’s best to ask around to find out what might be near where you’re staying. My favourite sets up near the Metro stop at Maubert-Mutualite, just off Blvd. St. Germain – again on the Left Bank.

On one morning I was there, flower vendors were doing a brisk trade selling variety after variety of fragrant blooms – lilac, lilies, roses. You don’t find a lot of tourists at these small markets, just the local folks doing their daily shopping.

A popular weekend pastime for both tourists and Parisians is to take the long subway ride to the north part of the city for a few hours at the Marche aux Puces, near Port de Clignancourt.

This is the city’s finest flea market. A maze of alleys and narrow streets (some covered from the elements by canopies, some not) offer up almost anything you could name – modern or ancient.

Clothing stalls offer cheap jeans or shirts. There are a few finds, like designer odds and ends, but you have to search very carefully.

Antiques range from tiny bits of turn-of-the-century bric-a-brac to high-priced ancient French furniture and paintings. There are stalls that sell only old books and manuscripts or maps, while others offer toy soldiers or old miniature cars.

A word of caution: There are very few bargains to be had if you’re in the market for serious antiques. The dealers know their stuff and its value. After all, they have been in the business a long time.

The Paris markets offer an adventure that is both colourful and fun. And isn’t that really what a vacation is all about?