My first experience with the markets of Brussels was on a drizzly Saturday, as many of them tend to be, at the Clemenceau market. A friend and I stepped out of the metro station and into a gauntlet of women who would flash iPhones to anyone who looked like a potential buyer.
“Watch your wallet, by the way,” my friend warned.
Throngs of shoppers were streaming into the Clemenceau market, Belgium’s largest, often pushing baby strollers in one hand and pulling rolling market totes in the other. This is where seemingly all of Brussels buys its produce on Saturdays. And it is chaotic.
The throngs usually bottleneck at the metro-side entrance because there is just a tiny gate that funnels shoppers into a narrow aisle where vendors sell clothing. That means that shoppers, strollers, market totes and sellers of ill-gotten Apple products all mash together into a hulking mass, especially when someone stops at one of the first stalls to try on a pair of shoes.
I was already on the verge of an agoraphobic fit after having cleared the bottleneck. Once through, I found swarms of people navigating among the produce stalls as vendors climbed on top of their tables to shout their offers: “UN EURO! UUUUUN EURO!”
The sensory overload almost made me go catatonic.
Now, I wasn’t actually at the market to do any shopping. I simply had heard that the Clemenceau market was a hot mess, and I had to see it for myself.
Clemenceau was exactly as advertised. In fact, on a subsequent visit to do some actual shopping, my girlfriend found a vendor at the back of the market selling live chickens.
The Markets’ Popularity in Brussels
Most large cities in Europe have markets, which sometimes date back centuries, that offer residents a selection of locally grown produce that supermarkets cannot. Quite often, the local market produce is cheaper than imported supermarket produce.
But the two big weekend markets in Brussels, at Clemenceau and Gare du Midi, are massive. The reasons for this, I believe, say something about life in Brussels.
In a city with an unemployment rate around 20%, the population can be unscientifically separated into two big chunks: Those who can afford to drop 20 euros on steak frites and a beer on a whim, and those who can’t. Those who can often do. Those who can’t do much of their shopping at open-air markets and second-hand shops, the prevalence of which reflects the size of this latter group.
The second reason skews a little more utopian. People of foreign origin account for more than half of this city’s population. Everywhere you go, you will almost definitely hear French, Dutch, English, Arabic, Romanian and Turkish, among numerous other languages. Thanks to immigration laws and Brussels’ status as the de facto capital of Europe, this city is a melting pot.
Is there any better way for people of different cultures to come together than over food? This is why you tend to walk out of Clemenceau with not just Belgian asparagus but also West African plantains, Moroccan flatbreads and Polish kielbasa.
Markets I definitely recommend you check out when you are in Brussels
If it exists, you can probably buy it at the Clemenceau market. Arrive between noon and 1 p.m., when all the vendors slash the prices of their fruits and vegetables in an attempt to sell out of everything.
Saturdays and Sundays through the early afternoon; take the metro to Clemenceau, then follow everyone else.
Gare du Midi Market
The market at the Gare du Midi is smaller than the market at Clemenceau but still offers a wide selection of produce at the same low prices. If you want to pick up a cheap bicycle, go to the other side of the market from the train station. There should be a few guys selling bikes under the overpass, and they speak both French and Spanish.
Sundays until 1 p.m.; take the metro to the Gare du Midi and exit up the nearest flight of stairs
The old district of Brussels known as “Marollen” in Dutch was at various times a leper colony and a working class neighborhood with its own dialect. Today, it hosts the best flea market in Belgium, where you can find everything from old artwork to rusty teapots. If you want some cool Belgian beer glasses, go here.
Every day from 7 a.m. until 1 p.m.; Place du Jeu de Balle, between the Gare du Midi and the Palace of Justice
Place du Chatelain
The market at the Place du Chatelain is really more of an outdoor party. There are plenty of street food vendors and beer vendors to choose from. This is the place to go on a warm Wednesday evening after work, especially for the young professionals and the Eurocrats.
Wednesday evenings; Place du Chatelain, off Avenue Louise; take the metro to Louise, then take Tram 94 away from the city to the Bailli stop, exit to the right and follow the Rue du Bailli until you reach the Place du Chatelain
Written by Eric Barrier for EuropeUpClose.com