Showtime In Bruges at Europe’s Biggest Fleamarket
Sitting quaffing beer in the open air on a balmy summer night in Bruges, on the eve of the big fleamarket which is said to be the largest in Europe, we felt contentedly rewarded already and satisfied in that way that confirms you made the right decision to sample the experience.
In the packed cafes and bars around the Koning Albertpark and t’Zand where the massive Zandfeesten event is staged only three times a year, the atmosphere is filled with an electric air of eager anticipation.
The hubub was coming from hundreds of ‘brocanteurs’ who’d arrived in time for next day’s crack-of-dawn start.
Belgium is renowned for its second-hand markets. Tonight, there were English, Flemish, French and Dutch accents all chatting excitedly.
Next day the area would become a hive of frantic wheeling and dealing, the big city centre space crammed with stalls and tents. Overspill activity threads like tentacles through half a dozen side streets to provide further hours of rummaging and bartering.
Meanwhile, the unexpected sideshow treat, from our obliging black-suited mime artiste, has the entire company enthralled.
His routine was simple.
He waited under a tree for a suitable group or couple to pass. Then approaching from behind, he’d gesture with finger raised over his lips for one to keep quiet and pull to the side as he stepped in to take their place.
Linking arms with his new found and unsuspecting partner as he or she continued to chatter away, he’d walk with them until they realised they been hooked up to a total stranger.
The startled look on their shocked faces and desperate efforts to un-couple themselves, kept us entertained. It was like watching Candid Camera “live”.
We got hooked up too, with a party of the Flemish traders who were quite content to talk in English for our benefit. When they learned that we were fanatical about junk in all its various forms, we were all “talking the same language”.
The bric-a-brac grapevine lets enthusiasts from all over Europe know that this is one to mark in the calendar months in advance.
These are the middle men who handle other people’s cast-offs. Most towns in Belgium have their weekly flea market. It’s a way of life for the entire community to enjoy.
This is Europe’s living theatre of junk. Those who need a big fix, appreciate the event as a spectacle to savour. You jump in and wallow in it.
The previous night, some of the more enthusiastic dealers – ranging from skip scavengers to house clearance experts – had already laid out boxes and tarpaulins to claim the pitch of their choice many hours before business would commence.
Most have no particular expertise. They are just dealers in “stuff”.
By 9am, traders from Paris, London, Dordrecht and Antwerp have already completed their plundering. They arrive when it’s still dark, vans empty and wallets bulging with cash.
By the time the public start to flock in, they’ve loaded up and are back in their hotels for breakfast before heading for home with new stock for their fashionable antique shops.
We were up and at ’em by 9 o’clock, and nonetheless, there were still plenty of bargains left. After six hours, we had not managed to explore every single nook and cranny.
Some brocanteurs like to cater for specialist tastes. As a result, you find tents stuffed with 1960s and 70’s designer collectables, costume jewellery, tribal art, pictures and paintings, and general bric-a-brac while others bring out early 20th century sports and leisure equipment ranging from cricket bats, croquet mallets and fencing masks to bowls, leather suitcases and even hula hoops.
There are dealers in just about everything under the sun. We even saw an old barn-find motorcycle. There are stalls featuring autographed portraits of movie stars and 1950s toys, studio ceramics and glass.
So, how do you tell a good flea market?
…When you need to go back again despite the fact that it’s on the other side of the English Channel and you consider you might hire a van or trailer to take over next time!
The Medieval city is always worth a visit at any time of the year and is the perfect short-stay destination with many architectural gems, great restaurants and boating on the canals among the multitude of attractions.
* We stayed at the comfortable Hotel Ter Brughe, once a 16th century merchant’s house by one of the waterways in the peaceful St Giles quarter, which is close to the centre of the action. For dates and general enquiries contact the www.visitflanders.com website.