Although there is some disagreement about whether the term “flea market” originated with this famous ancient swap meet on the northern fringes of Paris, the Marché aux Puces (pronounced “mar-shay ōh poose”, literally meaning Market with Fleas, or Fleas’ Market), began as a gathering place for rag-pickers trying to peddle their meager finds, even decades before the area’s official designation as a public marketplace in 1885. Nowadays “Les Puces” is a magnet for bargain hunters and big spenders alike. From books to bric-a-brac, furniture to fabrics, junk to fine jewelry, it would take days to explore every corner of this acres-sized jumble of shops and stalls. Even non-shopaholics are fascinated by the variety and abundance of wondrous stuff just waiting to be discovered; it’s as much a museum as it is a market.
Sometimes one hears “Saint-Ouen” (“sant – ooh – ĕhn”) following or instead of Marché aux Puces, referring to the working-class suburb where it is located, and to differentiate it from various other neighborhood flea markets. Its local Metro (subway) stop is identified by another name still; Porte de Clignancourt (“port – duh – glee – yan – coor”), at the northern end of the number 4 line, usually marked in purple or lavender on the omnipresent Metro maps. From there go north on Ave. Porte de Clignancourt, and under the big Périphérique freeway overpass to find Les Puces.
Metro line 13 (yellow) stops Garibaldi and Porte de St-Ouen will work, too. The underground journey from central Paris can take over an hour, depending on your routing’s Metro line changes, and also on the day and time. As always, I recommend preparedness! Print or download a map of Les Puces and surrounding area. For a close-up of the area, try http://www.les-puces.com/services.html; there’s a list of other transportation modes (bus, for example) at that site, as well. A taxi to Saint-Ouen on weekends from central Paris tourist areas is not terrifically expensive; usually 13-15 euros (made cheaper still when my colleagues come along and share the fare). However, I wouldn’t advise a taxi on Mondays unless your patience and pockets are deep.
Plan to devote at least one full day to Les Puces. And, while many vendors accept major credit cards (Visa and MasterCard most commonly), cash is king there, especially for shoppers who like to haggle. Don’t expect much of a discount when using a credit card (unless you are buying out the shop); but I have been quite successful in garnering a 10% – 20% discount, and sometimes more, when dealing in cash. By the way, never wait until getting to Les Puces to find an ATM. Complaints about the market’s local ATM abound – out of cash, excessively long lines, or just simply out of service. So, get all of your cash beforehand. One word to the wise, though – true anywhere in Paris, but especially at Les Puces – do not flash the cash, and protect your wallet! Pickpockets flourish in the tight shop spaces and crowded alleyways. And don’t forget to reserve a little cash for contingencies, even if you’ve already purchased a return Metro ticket.
Here’s another must – decide beforehand which of the markets within Les Puces to focus on…they are all named and some specialize. A good description of each can be found at: http://www.les-puces.com/marche2.html, or any of the other helpful websites that can be found by way of your favorite search engine. Familiarity with the layout is important, if for no other reason than to locate the toilets in the Dauphine and Vernaison marketplaces! Remember also that the tents and street vendors hawking cheap imported wares along the street from the Metro station and taxi stand are not actually part of the official Marché aux Puces. I prefer to pass them up in favor of the good stuff.
When I am fortunate enough to be in Paris on a weekend morning (most Puces shops are open Saturday through Monday only, 10-ish to 5:30-ish, sometimes earlier or later, depending on the shop and day), I head straight for the upper story of the Dauphine, where I lose myself amongst Monsieur Jacques Desse’s incredible antiquarian books, until, of course, I realize how many hours have passed. Then I rush madly through the passageways, searching for somewhere to spend the rest of the day’s allotment. It’s a tough job, but someone’s got to do it.