Mad about Markets

There is nothing more thrilling than a bargain.

Nothing more colorful than endless rows of rainbow-hued spices.

Nothing more satisfying than the taste of something so fresh you know it was harvested that morning.

And the smell? Oh … the smell. Something cooking, baking, frying, positively leaping from the pan to your nose.

You could say I like markets, but that would be an understatement.

Tangier Morocco

My first market: Tangier, Morocco, 2004

There are a few things I look for immediately upon arrival in a new city: café, bookstore, market. To me, a market is one of the few places you can connect instantly and intimately with locals. Some natives may scoff that many markets have become touristy and the shopkeepers (and their prices) too keen on visitors. Can you blame them? It is a business, after all. Conversely, tourists may think markets are the place for photo ops, samples, and bargains. And can you blame them? Open any travel magazine and see how markets are advertised: glossy pics of ripe fruit, smiling patrons, laughing shopkeepers. So, open your eyes, adjust your expectations and keep a few things in mind:

1) Don’t assume a photograph is acceptable; ask. This is also an easy conversation starter.
2) Don’t expect a bargain. Look for local cues – are other people haggling for prices? You may unintentionally insult a shopkeeper if you go in swinging your wallet and hoping for a bargain when the prices are fixed.
3) Don’t forget to say thank you. Those samples you’re stuffing into your mouth are also sold separately. Like what you tasted? Support that vendor, buy some product, and hear their story.
4, 5 & 6) Bring a bag. Watch your wallet. Go with a local if possible.

Some of the markets I’ve known and loved range from grimy to glorious, and tiny to tremendous. In most cases, I allow for a few hours in a given market, particularly around a meal. Check opening hours either online, at your reception desk / concierge or ask a local. There may be full market days (midweek, weekend) and other days that showcase certain vendors or events. A little bit of research goes a long way. Bear in mind the holiday season also creates additional market opportunities, often in public squares or plazas. But that’s for another post 🙂

Here are some of my personal favorites:
* Grand Bazaar, Istanbul, Turkey. “One of the largest and oldest covered markets in the world, with 61 covered streets and over 3,000 shops,” so says Wikipedia. It’s lesser known cousin is the nearby Egyptian Bazaar or Spice Market. See this post in the Delicious Istanbul blog for local tips on do’s and don’ts. I bargained my face off for a pashmina in the Grand Bazaar, and a local friend helped me secure an evil eye pendant for a good price.

* Borough Market, London, England. This one is fresh in my mind, as I’m just off a trip to England & Wales. I had some great conversation with shopkeepers, bread makers, farmers and just some really excellent people. This is a great combination of fresh produce and prepared foods, which explains the outrageous raclette I feasted on in the afternoon. I also managed to fill up a bag with some great snacks for the following day… after sampling the entire market and returning to my favorites.

* La Boqueria, Barcelona, Spain. The Spanish know markets. From wandering gypsies to high priced Mercado San Miguel in Madrid, I have always found the same high energy, and love of food. This was one of my first Spanish markets, and I walked in wide-eyed and hungry for more than just photos. You can’t miss the gates off of the central avenue of Las Ramblas. I snapped a few photos here on my first visit, including the great escape of a local lobster (below).

* Central Market, Cardiff, Wales. I am particularly drawn to markets housed in their original (if modified) buildings. Central Market has been doing business in one of the Victorian arcades that snake between two main streets (St. Mary’s and Trinity) since 1891. Most fabulous are the Welsh teacakes, and the gigantic upstairs record store that bears my name.

* Great Market Hall or Central Market, Budapest, Hungary. My mouth waters when I think about this colorful place, and the langos I had for lunch. As bright as it’s famous paprika spice – this two story covered market is a noisy, delicious space. There is a fair mix of tourists and locals, and plenty of food and souvenirs like the hand-stitched linens, and endless rows of hot peppers.

* St. Nicholas Market, Galway, Ireland. After being intensely charmed by the Irish, I was so pleased to wander into Galway after a long stroll along the sea to find this busy market fighting the rain and the cold. Hearty souls selling everything from wool socks to fresh fish were endlessly kind. My personal favorite is the donut maker, who put a freshly fried fasnacht in my hand for a mere 60 cents, after agreeing to my photography (and confirming I was not with the tax folk).


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