Les Marolles: Something Old Brings A New Light To Souvenir Shopping
Sitting just below the gargantuan Palais du Justice is the traditional working-class neighborhood of Les Marolles.
Here you’ll find dozens of antique shops mingling with branche (trendy) cafes along the neighborhood’s two parallel main streets, Rue Haute and Rue Blaes. But the best draw to Les Marolles is the Vieux Marche, a daily flea market held on the Place du Jeu de Balle for close to 100 years.
While there are plenty of t-shirt shops and porcelain figurines to be found around Brussels’ other more famous square, the Grand’Place, it is on the cobblestones of the Place du Jeu de Balle that you can uncover a quirky and inexpensive souvenir truly representative of Belgian life.
At first glance it may appear more garage sale than Paris flea market, but at the Vieux Marche, beneath a sea of tattered clothes and shoes, and warped vinyl records, there are gems to be found. But be prepared to step on, stoop over and wiggle your way through this obstacle course to find them. Vendors literally drop their boxes and blankets anywhere dry enough and flat enough to set up shop. It’s also advisable to bring your own shopping bag since no printed plastic ones are handed out upon purchase.
One thing is certain – at the Place du Jeu de Balle, you can find anything and everything, including the kitchen sink. My dad and I put this theory to the test one morning and were able to furnish an entire apartment (imaginary of course) including: furniture, silverware, a stove, and yes, the kitchen-sink.
For visitors, declaring a sink at customs is probably a little daunting, but the market is brimming with souvenirs easy enough and small enough to carry on the journey home.
-Recently, a friend of mine found old Belgian Le Soir newspapers for her children, each with their birth date and historical headline, for 5 euro apiece.
– You probably already know that Belgium is famous for its beer, but did you know there is a printed glass of a special shape and size for each? These glasses are found all over the Vieux Marche, and for cheap (50 cents to one euro apiece). Stella and Jupiler is the most common, but others like those of Duvel, Chimay, Hoegaarden, Leffe, and Trappistenbier can be discovered. A true Brussels token would be glasses belonging to one of the Lambics – a spontaneous fermentation process unique to the Brussels region. The most common are those of cherry-flavored beers Kriek and Belle-vue.
Wrapped in newspaper and packed gently in a carry on, these easily make it back to the United States in one piece.
-One of my favorite finds, but not always easy, was a set of planches a tartines (sandwich boards). These small porcelain rectangles, usually plain white and about an inch thick, are commonly used instead of plates at Brussels brasseries and cafes to serve tartines – open face sandwiches. They are flat, and like the glasses, can easily be protected for travel.
-Recently I saw small metal nameplates commonly found bolted walls and doors of many Brussels establishments. I picked up a ‘bienvenue’ (welcome) and a ‘le jardin’ (the garden) as a housewarming gifts, and three for my own wine cellar that say ‘champagne’, ‘vin blanc’ (white wine), and ‘vin rouge’ (red wine).
Bargaining at the Vieux Marche is a must and sellers expect it so don’t be shy. While I was there, a stoic old man in a neck scarf was willing to strike a bargain right away on an umbrella stand I had been eyeing. The younger “business men” seemed less inclined to give away the goods. But come 2 p.m. (quitting time), the cries of “one euro, one euro” were drowned out only by the bell-tones of Notre-Dame Immaculee, the square’s unpretentious church whose hourly reminders are like the closing bell at the bourse. It was also during this fever pitch when I was able to buy a set of small note cards with whimsical designs, for 5 euro. I use them as gift cards, but I often see them used by local shop owners as business cards, handwritten with name and phone number.
True “jeu-de-ballers’ know that Sunday is the best day for treasure hunting. For the real deals and unusual finds, arrive early (like at 6 a.m.) when the trucks back up to the square and slide open their rear doors (above mentioned umbrella stand was later spotted at a Rue Blaes shop for 25 euro more).
For those who prefer to arrive later, there are still plenty of piles of bric-a-brac to pick through, and plenty of possibilities for a Belgian memento more distinctive than a t-shirt, and certainly more fun to shop for.
Kimberley Lovato is a freelance writer temporarily stopped in Brussels, Belgium