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Postcard - Saturday at the Apt Market

Kathy Wood (Kaydee)

Although it's Saturday and Kelly doesn't have school today, we set the alarm for 7:30. We want to leave the house no later than nine. We all dress warmly, and I put the big straw basket in the car. It's market day in Apt.

We want to arrive early because parking can be a challenge at this popular market. In the summer it's so crowded that there's satellite parking at the old train station and people are shuttled into the center of town. Today we park as usual on the street near the music school and walk several blocks to the west end of the market at Place de la Bouquerie. Several other people also walk briskly down the street; everyone has a straw market basket. One man has a small dog that Kelly thinks is cute. We pass an elderly lady, very stooped over, who moves much more slowly. She pulls a shopping basket on wheels and is dressed nicely in a dress, heeled shoes, a woolen coat and hat. "Bonjour Madame," we each say politely, as we circle around her. "Excusez-moi, s'il vous plait."

Today we've managed to arrive a bit early, so we have time for coffee at the Cafe du Louvre on the Place de la Bouquerie. Some of the sellers are still unpacking their goods and setting up their stalls outside on the square. Charley has cafe noir, I have cafe au lait, and Kelly has chocolat chaud. A man at the bar is drinking pastis. Our favorite cafe doesn't serve food at breakfast, so Charley walks a few doors down the street to the Bouchard boulangerie and comes back with several croissants. We tell the owner we'll be back for lunch, and head out into the busy marketplace.

Saturday market in Apt, Luberon, Provence

Our Favorite Market

Apt is a town of 11,500, the closest town to our house between the villages of Bonnieux and Lacoste. We normally take the scenic route on the D3 along the base of the mountain, past the vineyards of Chateau de l'Isolette and Chateau de Mille. Although we've visited many markets during the three months we've been in Provence, the Apt market is our very favorite. We try to go every other week as part of our regular shopping. The marketplace takes over the entire center of Apt (centre ville) for the morning, and all the interior streets are closed to traffic. The seven or eight open squares are filled with stands and little truck-stores, and other stands line the narrow pedestrian streets. The big parking lot at east end of town (near the boules court) is filled with more sellers. Many of the permanent shopkeepers also set up tables or stands outside their businesses. We estimate there are at least 200 sellers who come to town just for the Saturday market at this time of year. The Apt Tourist Office brochure says this market dates back to the twelfth century and that there are 300 stalls in the summer season.

We went to our first Apt market in October, not long after we arrived in Provence. While I'm sure the Apt market benefits from tourists, it seems no different on this mid-January day than it did in early October: the same number of sellers, the same kinds of merchandise, the same crowds of people thronging the streets. Although we spot (and hear) a few tourists here and there, most people at the market today live in and around Apt. In addition to allowing residents to stock up on a wide variety of food and merchandise, the market is a major social activity. We watch friends greet each other with the now-familiar kiss-kiss-kiss. (We live in a "three-kiss" part of France.) Sometimes there are street performers, once even a group of drum-playing and noise-making American Indians complete with feathered headdresses. (How strange it seemed to see them here in Provence!) A few untethered dogs usually move around the crowd, and there's an occasional sad-looking beggar. Everyone has their shopping basket and a sense of energy and anticipation. We love being part of the Saturday market in Apt.

Today's Shopping List

I've come to the market today with a little shopping list. I like to buy my fresh produce here - actually, I like to buy as much as possible at the market. I don't know if everything's necessarily cheaper or better than what I can buy at the big Leclerc supermarket, but I definitely prefer the environment and the interaction with the sellers. Today I'm looking for ripe tomatoes, a few vegetables (I'll see what looks particularly good), and what we call "dirty" potatoes. I've also announced that I may be looking for a cheap flannel shirt to keep me warm around the house. Last week I saw some flannel shirts at the Uzes market for only five euro; I should have bought one then.

We move through the crowd and start our way down the busy street, passing the now-familiar sellers and stopping occasionally to browse. I always enjoy the large and colorful florist stand, and have noticed that at least half the shoppers seem to leave the market with a bouquet of some sort. Kelly and I pause by the man selling lavender and Provencal soaps at the Place Gabriel Peri where the big town hall (mairie) and police station (prefecture) are located. This man must sell at least thirty different scents of colorful olive oil soap, and Kelly and I stock up every several weeks.

I linger by one of several big booths selling the bright Provencal fabrics, pausing to look at a couple of tablecloths. I love the blue and yellow tablecloth I bought when we visited last summer, and I've decided to buy another one, a really high quality tablecloth, before we leave Provence in April. Kelly and I have started debating colors and patterns, but it's too early to get serious about this purchase now. We can enjoy looking for a few more months.

We always stop and look at the pottery shop on the corner (Tamisier), the place where we bought some of our santons and made friends with the owner who wears shorts even in the winter. On market day he has as much for sale outside his shop as he has inside; little jugs for olive oil, casserole dishes, serving bowls, pitchers, olive wood cutting boards, straw baskets - how can I possibly get some of these things home??

Is this an elegant French woman shopping at the Apt market? Or is it our own Kathy?

The One Euro Sweaters

There's a lot of activity in the big square by the prefecture, and the market moves from here in several directions. The nice Oriental man in the little truck is located here, selling egg rolls and other oriental food items. Kelly likes his chicken on skewers, and we normally buy her a few every time. We're heading in his direction when we see two men with a table filled with sweaters. Unlike some other sellers, they don't have a fancy stall: no awning overhead, no covering on their table, no artful display of their merchandise. Their table is covered with at least 50 sweaters, almost every one different. Each sweater is sealed in cellophane, and they're all piled on a simple folding table with a cardboard sign thrown on the top.

The sweaters catch our attention. Kelly would desperately like another sweater, and I need some more warm clothes too. Then we read the cardboard sign: "1 euro". One euro!?? Could this possibly be? We ask one of the men in French, and yes, somehow they're selling these brand new sweaters for one euro each. All three of us begin to paw through the pile, looking at the styles and trying to see the sizes through the cellophane. Sometimes we ask the man about a size, and somehow the man seems to magically know a size he cannot see. The two men pull more sweaters out of a cardboard box as high as Kelly and throw them on the table.

Suddenly the table is surrounded; ten other people join us searching through the sweaters. Charley finds a sweater, and then wanders away to talk to an American couple living in the village of Saignon. He has a kind of radar for American voices, and now he's finding all about their decision to retire to Provence, while Kelly and I continue our frenzied search among the sweaters. Finally we buy seven sweaters, some for each of us. The man takes our money and puts the sweaters in a couple of plastic bags. Seven brand-new sweaters for seven euros! How amazing! Now we will be warm for the rest of the winter. (When we finally get home and take the sweaters out of their bags, we find the man didn't really know the sizes of the sweaters. One of Kelly's sweaters ends up with me and one of my sweaters ends up with Charley, but they're all very good sweaters and we're proud of our luck to find such sweaters for just one euro each.)

Asparagus and Strawberries

Our hands are now filled with the bags of sweaters, but we continue our way around the market. Some Saturdays Kelly and I split off from Charley; we're more aggressive shoppers with a different agenda than his. He's happy to look and we like to buy. Today we all stay together until near the end. Charley and I check out the vegetables at a couple of stands, thinking we'll buy the heavier produce on our way back to the car. The produce is wonderful. At this time of year we think much of it is brought over from North Africa, not too far away from southern France. I spot one man selling fresh asparagus, the first we have seen, and I ask for half a kilo. The same man is also selling wonderful looking strawberries, big and luscious, unusual at this time of year. He gives Kelly a sample, and we buy a half kilo of these too. I notice he's also selling truffles, but these are too expensive for us. Our straw basket is filling up, and Charley takes it from me. At another stand we buy five potatoes, several ripe tomatoes, and one enormous mushroom.

I'm trying to find the man who sold me a pair of blue jeans before Christmas, a Christmas gift for Charley. Although I thought I got the right size, they didn't fit and I'm hoping to exchange them for a different size. I only paid 15 euro, but most importantly, I want Charley to have a new pair of jeans. We go to the square where I thought the man was located, but suddenly I'm confused. Usually you can find the sellers in the same general place. Where exactly had the jeans man been that day? Was it this square, or perhaps this next area? We look down several streets and I find several sellers with clothes, but I can't find my jeans man today after all. We'll have to bring the jeans back another Saturday.

Pizza Truck Pizza

Near the library (bibliotheque), we see our favorite pizza people, a husband and wife. They bake pizzas to order in a specially-equipped pizza truck, a familiar sight at the markets of Provence. We mainly know this couple because they bring their truck to Bonnieux almost every Friday morning, parking down near the new church. Charley often places an order for pizza when he takes Kelly to school on Friday morning and then picks up our pizzas when he picks her up for lunch at noon. The French don't make pizza with pepperoni, but I like the pizza with ham, mushrooms and black olives - a pizza royale.

The "pizza truck pizza" has become an anticipated Friday lunch tradition for our family, and Charley has a nice rapport with the couple. The man is a retired policeman. Today in Apt Kelly asks us if she can have just one piece of pizza. They sell a plain cheese pizza by the slice. She's excited to greet the couple, and I can tell they remember the American girl who speaks to them so politely in French.

I have a normal route I like to follow at the Apt market, from our starting place at the Place de la Bouquerie, down the narrow Rue du Marchands, to Rue St. Pierre and finally to the Place Lauze de Perret parking lot at the other end of the town. Then I wander back through a series of narrow streets and squares north of my initial route. There's always some surprise, something new for sale, some different produce now available, a stand I hadn't noticed before. At one point in my route, we come into a big square surrounded by tall stark-looking apartment buildings, laundry hanging from the windows; we're in the middle of some type of housing project. We also feel like we've stepped into a different country. (In a strange way it reminds me of moving between Frontierland and Adventureland at DisneyWorld.) Many of the people shopping in this square have a different complexion and style, even a different language. I think many of them are immigrants from Arabic countries. Some of the women wear long robes and head coverings. The stalls in this part of the market sell some different foods and clothing items. It seems exotic, more foreign, another aspect of Provence.

Saturday market in Apt, Luberon, Provence

A Few Last Stops

I look at my watch on this Saturday morning and realize it's already 11:40. The market starts winding down at noon and the shops close then too; after all, it's lunchtime. Charley volunteers to take our bags of sweaters and vegetables back to the car, while Kelly and I make a few last stops. We pass by the old Cathedrale Sainte-Anne, which is hidden in the center of Apt. Although it's been remodeled many times, the original building is from the 11th or 12th century. Some relics of St. Anne (the mother of the Virgin Mary) were supposedly brought back here after the Crusades. Not far from the Cathedral on the Rue du Marchands there's a kitchen shop we like a lot, with a neat cave down in the basement filled with high-quality pottery. We're looking for some type of water carafe that Charley's mentioned wanting, but we don't find it. Instead we buy Kelly a fold up bag with cats on it to take on her ski trip Monday. (She's leaving Monday with her school class to go skiing in the French Alps for the whole week!)

I pause to look at a table of scarves. I've bought two scarves since we've been in France and have gotten two others as gifts. I like wearing scarves as so many of the French women do - now if only I could drape them around my neck in that same stylish way. I feel the urge to buy another scarf today, but Kelly is anxious to move on. And she says she thinks the scarves look too much like India. I'll have to do my future scarf shopping without her. Today I'll just be satisfied with my one euro sweaters.

Back to Le Louvre

Kelly and I make our way back through the main street to Le Louvre, where we began our day. Charley's waiting for us at our regular table by the sunny window, and the nice owner greets Kelly and me again. Almost every table in his cafe is filled today. I check the board for the plat de jour (lamb), and we study the menus we now know by heart. We settle back for another leisurely lunch and a few glasses of wine; our favorite way to end another Saturday morning in Apt.

For more of Kathy's photos of the Apt market and other markets in Provence, see her photo essay, "The Best of Provence: Experiencing the Markets".


Woods Family Grand Tour of Europe: List of articles and photo albums by Kathy Wood

www.slowphotos.com/photo/showgallery.php?cat=3423: Best of Provence - Experiencing the Markets, Kathy's photos

Markets of Provence

Slow Travel France - Markets of Provence

www.ot-apt.fr/us/terroir/marches/marches_hebdo.htm: Apt Tourist Office page on Apt Market.

www.provencelive.com/practical/daily/market/market.html: Partial list - markets in Provence

www.luberon-news.com/caa.html: Markets in the Luberon

Other Resources

www.ot-apt.fr: Official Apt Tourist Office site.

Recommended Books

Click to order from Amazon

Markets of Provence: A Culinary Tour of Southern France, Ruthanne Long, Morrow Cookbooks, 1996

Photos, recipes and details of seven market towns in Provence.

Order from Amazon

The Wood family from Knoxville, Tennessee are veteran travelers who successfully pursued their dream of living and traveling in Europe. Kathy, Charley and daughter Kelly (then 10 years old) began their fourteen-month "Grand Tour of Europe" in June 2004 and returned home in August 2005. Their trip focused on four major areas: France (33 weeks including 6+ months living in Provence), Great Britain (11 weeks), Italy (11 weeks), and the German/Austrian/Swiss Alps (6 weeks). Kathy is a regular Slow Travel contributor and maintained an extensive blog during their travels - Our Grand Tour of Europe.

Kathy is a former Human Resources executive who now works as a consultant and part-time college professor. She and Charley also lead The Luberon Experience (www.luberonexperience.com), a week-long, small-group trip based in Provence.

© Kathy Wood, 2005

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