Street Festival, End of Season Sale, Carnival, All Night Rave, there is nothing like the Lille Braderie. Accurately described by the Guardian travel section as a "two-day orgy of second-hand exchange," a visit to the Braderie is a must for any antique or flea market lover.
Dating back to medieval times, the Lille Braderie is one of the largest festivals in all of Europe and certainly its largest second-hand market. Two million people descend upon this pretty medieval town for the first weekend in September. It is over 200km of stuff. The word "braderie" comes from the verb "brader" which means "to sell cheaply." A "bradeuse" is someone who sells second-hand items.
Americans, it seems, have yet to discover Lille. I suspect that is because the summer holidays are over for Americans as students return to the States before the party begins. There are many excellent places for dealers to explore including the French antique markets. But Lille is unique. Most dealers will tell you that, now that word has gotten out, genuine bargains are few and far between at Lille. But one of the reasons to go is to enjoy the atmosphere of a beautiful city partying for 48 hours and good finds can still be had. Plan well and you can include the Paris flea at Clignancourt the following Monday - if you have the energy!
Lille holds nothing back for this weekend. The city figures they'll pull out all the stops and include a large carnival (at the Chap de Mars), talent shows and a mini marathon (around the Pl.S.Vollant) in addition to the street festival. Lively street performers and music line the streets from Native American drummers to aspiring DJs. A special newspaper is printed for the weekend (in French). Most brochures and maps will also be in French. While the crowd is predominately French, we did fine with a smile and our mangled French.
The city streets are zoned according to Braderie activity; some are completely closed to vehicles, while other streets permit selling on one side. There are also some safety routes where no selling is permitted to allow emergency vehicles access. Informal Braderie sales stretch far past those depicted on the official map. It is very difficult to drive in the city during Saturday & Sunday. If you are staying outside the city centre, you should consider a special Braderie metro pass for the two days. Keep in mind that crowds will be queueing up at the outer metro stops to buy the Pass Braderie, a special all day access pass that costs under 5 euros. They are only sold on the day, so arrive at the station early to avoid long delays. The queue could extend outside the station building.
Lille is an easy drive from Dunkirk if you are taking the ferry from Dover. All the hotels sell out within the perimeter of the town, so book early. Tourist groups bring in coach (bus) tours from as far as Spain and Holland. You can stock up on basics at the large Carrefour supermarket at the shopping mall by Gare de Lyon, if you can't find a smaller independent grocery with what you need. Tourist Information is at Palais Rihour, Place Rihour. I've found the longest, straightest thoroughfares to have the least interesting items for vintage and antiques dealers. Clusters of stalls on small side streets yield more likely bargains from local families cleaning out. I prefer the areas along the canal where the dealers line the canal for miles and sell a huge range of items near the Champ de Mars. There is a high concentration of antiques in the St Saveur neighbourhood by Boulevard Jean Baptiste Lebas area but prices will be high.
How can I write about La Braderie without mentioning les moules? A regional delicacy, these mussels are prepared in garlic and are the specialty meal of the weekend. Even in neighboring towns outside Lille you'll find the locals celebrating with steaming bowls of moules-frites (chips or french-fries) beer and wine. Historically restaurants in the city centre competed with one another to see who could create the biggest stack of empty moules shells outside their establishments. Health & safety regulations have since intervened, but a number of restaurants still deposit the shells in huge piles on the pavement. In reality, the number of moules-frites a person eat in a weekend is limited so check out these alternatives when you're sick of mussels: Les Bons Paturages at the Corner of Rue Esquermoise and Rue Basse, and the yummy La Artisaine Boulanger also on Rue Esquermoise.
Technically the Braderie starts at 3pm Saturday, but in reality people have been trading during the two weeks prior while they unload goods onto their pitches. As dealers show up from all over Europe, they begin camping & parking in the informal "casual sales" areas. I find having a hotel near the action works best, so that I can continually bring purchases back (a really large suitcase on wheels works well) - plus you will want to soak in a warm bath to get ready for walking the next day!!! Most dealers camp, buy and sell throughout their stay - for up to two weeks before hand, as they vie for a good location.
Begin prowling early. Armed with flashlights, buying is busily underway, even though sales before Saturday are officially forbidden. Practice your numbers in French -both listening and speaking, and you will be ready to roll. If all else fails, have a piece of paper to scribble down offers, as a small portion of sellers speak neither French nor English.
Saturday morning start out early. I find a bike the best way to get around for the early morning rounds, joining the other dealers by 5am. You can quickly pass the stalls selling glow sticks and tie-dyed t-shirts to get to the 2nd hand dealers in a timely fashion. However, by 9am you are back on foot as the crowds are too thick to bike through. Have a good map so you can manoeuvre on streets outside of Braderie activity to speed up. Be prepared to carry stuff yourself, as vehicles are not permitted until Sunday in the main street areas. If you are leaving large items to pick up later, be sure to exchange mobile (cell) phone numbers and locations, as it is easy to become disorientated. By Saturday evening the streets are heaving. Nightclubs are setting up kerb side with bars selling shots. DJs too are spinning for enthusiastic audiences on the street. You'll want to pick up your purchases on Sunday as the street are too crowded to manoeuvre on Saturday night.
Before 8am, it is pretty quiet, as people sleep in from late night revelries. The city litter pickers are out in force. You'll hear an occasional thumping of a bar's sound system while a few groups stagger around. I recommend sleeping in! By 9am things are beginning to pick up. You'll see an enterprising young man or woman selling hot coffee and tea on the back of their bike. Plan on Sunday to pick up all your bigger purchases. By noon on Sunday things are winding down. It is always nice to spend Sunday night in Lille for an opportunity to rest before hitting the road on Monday and thus avoiding the traffic leaving town on Sunday, unless you want to be at the Paris flea market for Monday morning.
Some hints for those of you who want to experience Lille's delights:
1) Book early
2) Book in town
3) Better yet, book a stall and sell at the same time.
4) Bring a bike and torch (flashlight) to get around in the early hours before the crowds.
5) Bring all cash; only the shops will take credit or debit cards.
6) Be prepared with sunscreen, comfy shoes and water.
7) Prepare yourself for little sleep over the weekend!
Recommended website: http://www.mairie-lille.fr/en/discovering-lille/braderie