Those who have made a visit to The Hungry Cyclist Lodge will know that I have a passion for antiques. Over the years the house has been filled with finds from all over France and the hunt goes on.
Over 30 years of search brocante and flea markets in France, it was an honour to be asked by The Guardian to write the following article about my passion for junk and my favourite spots to track it down. Enjoy the read here or below.
Among my childhood memories of summer holidays in France – seemingly endless car journeys, fighting with my older sister on the back seat, Dire Straits on the cassette player – one stands out: repeated stops at localbrocantes (junk shops).
My parents seemed to suffer from some kind of affliction – they were physically unable to drive past a brocante sign. My mother even had a knack of waking from a doze just as a sign appeared: “Look, a brocante!” And we would abruptly pull over.
My sister and I would complain bitterly and be bribed with the promise of ice-cream, and for the next few hours my parents would disappear among piles of stuff all reeking of stale cigarettes, pastis and age.
They would reappear clutching cracked plates, bedposts, stuffed animals and broken clocks, and these supposed treasures would take up what was left of any fought-over space on the back seat before our journey south continued.
But apparently, this affliction is hereditary. As I grew older, instead of whining about another brocante stop, I’d eagerly follow my parents around these dusty Aladdin’s caves, handing over my hard-saved pocket money in exchange for old fireman’s helmets, bicycles, fossils and enamel signs. Learning from the best, I honed my haggling skills, developed a good eye and, now that I live in France, am also incapable of driving past a brocante.
The chance that you might find something special at a bargain price is the real lure, but there is also great pleasure in simply rummaging in a shop full of interesting and beautiful things. A good brocante is a private collection, whose curator buys whatever takes their eye, in the hope that someone else might like it enough to part with money.
Generally, brocante dealers are kind, full of stories, and more than willing to drop a few euros when asked for le dernier prix. A brocante visit also provides a welcome distraction from soulless miles of autoroute, and a fine pitstop in otherwise undiscovered towns and villages. Dig around in a brocante, eat lunch in a local restaurant, then continue your journey. What could be better?
I now have a house full of finds from all over France: a 1868 sketch, picked up in Honfleur, of men on bicycles chasing rabbits; two pairs of 19th-century cinema seats from Lyon; a leather gym horse from a shop in Champagne; a fossilised dinosaur egg from under a table in Bordeaux; and a huge 1950s enamel sign from one of Beaune’s great wine estates.
For anyone contemplating a long summer holiday drive through France, here are five brocante stops that make a fine break to any journey, with a good place to eat nearby.
Quatre Faubourg, Beaune
Just outside the city walls of Beaune in Burgundy, and just five minutes from the autoroute exit, Jean-Luc Girard’s brocante makes a good break on a journey south. Walls and corridors are filled to the rafters with anything from armoires to winemaking equipment, and the garden at the back is full of architectural pieces. The Café de France, opposite at number 13, is where local winegrowers descend for cheap and hearty lunches. At noon you’ll find Jean-Luc at the bar.
My best buy: a huge 19th-century vineyard workers’ parasol in blue linen, €60.
• 4 rue du Faubourg Bretonnière
Les Puces du Canal, Lyon
Every Thursday and Sunday, an industrial wasteland next to the Jonage canal in Villeurbanne, on the outskirts of Lyon, is transformed into brocante heaven. Dealers arrive in the early hours to unload and display their stock - a couple of permanent hangars brim over with finer pieces of furniture, while shipping containers display old bicycles, light fittings and vintage posters. At midday, it all packs up and a few bars and restaurants get going with live music, steak-frites, plenty of Rhone wine and generous menus du jour. The Broc’cafe is the pick of the bunch and if I die there, I’ll die happy.
My best buy: industrial madeleine baking trays, €6.
• 3 rue Eugène Pottier, pucesducanal.com
Richard Barbey, Ardèche
Just outside the fortified medieval town of Aubenas, Richard Barbey has a hangar filled with gems. He specialises in 18th-century furniture, and buys stock all over France. His keen eye means his shop is always full of interesting pieces and turnover is quick. Make a day of it with a picnic and wild swim in the stunning Besorgues river (take the D243 north of Vals-les-Bains), then enjoy a homemade ice-cream, sorbet or macaron on the shady terrace of Maison Beatrix (3 avenue Paul Ribeyre).
My best buy: art deco poster advertising electric water pumps, €20.
• 1 route de l’Echelette, Saint Privat, barbey-antiquites-ardeche.fr
Les Puces de Saint-Michel, Bordeaux
Every Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday, Place Meynard, in the shadow of the 14th-century Saint-Michel basilica, is transformed into a huge open-air flea market. This once-rundown corner of Bordeaux now buzzes with dealers, collectors and enthusiasts. In the 18th-century townhouses and warehouses surrounding the square, a few dealers have set up permanent shops, and visits to Hangars du Passage (12 rue des Allamandiers) and the charming Jamal Bennaji will not disappoint. Have a laid-back lunch at Le Passage Saint Michel (14 Place Canteloup, lepassagesaintmichel.com): it’s a beautiful galleried bistro serving south-western classics such as salade de gésiers de canard confits and magret de canard grillé.
My best buy: a very early cycling poster for Hutchinson tyres, €200.
Espace Nord Ouest Antiquités, near Lille
In the town of Bondues, on the outskirts of Lille, 17 dealers share the huge hangars of Espace Nord Ouest. It’s an impressive space – open Weds-Sat, afternoons only – and their finds are laid out like an elaborate film set. Its collections of industrial fittings, architectural objects, 1950s furniture and 18th-century mirrors are well worth the trip out of Lille. Back in town, celebrate with an atmospheric dinner of local specialities, such as goyère au carré du vinage ( a local cheese tart) washed down with a Les Sept Péchés (seven deadly sins) beer atEstaminet Chez la Vieille (6o rue de Gand).
My best buy: a 1920s child’s clothing mannequin, €45.
• 644 Avenue du Général de Gaulle, espacenordouest.com