MARKETS HAVE BEEN a feature of Saint-Denis since the seventh century. Then the markets were held at Place Panetière, in front of the Basilique de Saint-Denis, the Royal Necropolis of France; final resting place of 42 kings, 32 queens, 63 princes and princesses and 10 great men of the realm. In the 12th century, Abbot Suger, abbot of Saint-Denis, spoke of Place Panetière as a place where “everything to buy or sell may be found”.
Today, Place Victor Hugo and Place Jean-Jaures occupy the former Place Panetière but the markets have survived and nothing much has changed – everything to buy or sell may be found.
Every Tuesday, Friday and Sunday an indoor market, housed in the 19th century Grande Halle, opens for business and an outdoor market appears on Place Jean-Jaures and in the surrounding streets.
The outdoor market is rather like an African souk selling everything from clothes and fabrics to a range of footwear, cosmetics, bags, clay cooking pots and other assorted household goods, tools and plants, as well as some high-end, branded goods at suspiciously low prices.
But for me, the indoor market inside the Grande Halle is the main attraction. With its sights, sounds and exotic smells, visiting the Grande Halle is a multi-sensory experience not to be missed.
Sounds inside the Grande Halle, Marché de Saint-Denis:
To get to the Grande Halle I passed a man on the street selling boxes of what he claimed were top-of-the-range perfumes, Givenchy, Dior etc., for knock down prices and a fascinating lady selling couscoussières. I stopped to listen to their sales patter, which you can hear in my sound piece.
Although tempted, I did though decline an invitation from another stallholder to buy a ‘genuine’ Longines watch for the bargain price of six Euros!
The Grande Halle is a food market but it’s also a microcosm of French history, gastronomy and successive waves of immigration and the sounds inside the Grande Halle reflect this cultural kaleidoscope.
Produce from France, Italy, Portugal, Spain and North Africa sits beside Caribbean cooks, spice sellers from Morocco, magnificent displays of fruit and vegetables from around the world and even more exotic fish. The butchers, including Halal butchers and a horse butcher, sell conventional cuts of meat as well as tripe and meat you won’t find in the swanky shops in the centre of Paris including pig’s heads, feet and everything in between. Nothing goes to waste.
Sunday is the busiest day at the market when whole families turn out to hunt for bargains and they seldom leave disappointed.
Just as in Abbot Suger’s day, everything to buy or sell may be found.
STRETCHING ALONG THE Boulevard de la Chapelle from Barbès Rochechouart Métro station to rue de Chartres, the Marché Barbès is not for the faint hearted. Even getting to the market can be a challenge since some of the market often spills over into the Métro station itself.
Inside Barbès Rochechouart Métro station on market day
From 08.00 to 13.00 on Wednesdays and from 07.00 to 15.00 on Saturdays, the Marché Barbès appears under the overhead section of Métro Line 2 and if you’re looking for a leisurely market with lots of personal space, then the Marché Barbès is not for you.
An assortment of stalls selling clothes, shoes, jewellery and assorted trinkets are clustered at either end of the market but most of the stalls in between are awash with fruit, vegetables, meat and fish.
From end to end, a multi-ethnic sea of people moving at a snail’s pace, or sometimes not moving at all, fills the market. Getting close to a stall to actually buy something requires grit and determination, not to mention judicious use of the elbows. But the effort can be worth it. Not only is this perhaps the busiest market in Paris it’s also one of the cheapest where most of the fruit and vegetables seem to sell for €1/kilo. A running commentary of what’s on sale and for how much resonates around the market as the stallholders cry out vying to outdo each other to catch the attention of customers from the passing tide of people.
All this of course, together with the Métro trains running overhead, makes for a fascinating sound tapestry and so I set off to capture it. Having negotiated my way through the crowd inside the Métro station, I plunged into the throng of people across the street at the head of the market and set sail through what felt like a tsunami of people.
Progress was slow and not without incident, but I made it to the other end more or less unscathed although the relative calm of the rue de Chartres did come as somewhat of a relief.
Sounds of the Marché Barbès:
If you can cope with the crowds then the Marché Barbès is well worth a visit and there are certainly some bargains to be had – although I’m still not sure about the watches on sale for €2 each!
Rue de Chartres