Postcard

Europe's biggest flea market ... le Marche aux Puces de Saint-Ouen.

Europe's biggest flea market ... le Marche aux Puces de Saint-Ouen.

NEARLY all of us in the Western world have way too much stuff. And that certainly includes Parisians.

It's fine if you're Louis XVI, with the Palace of Versailles to fill, but when the time comes to downsize, say, because the kids leave home or there's a revolution, what happens to the heirlooms collected during several lifetimes of shopping?

My wife browsed the silver while I pored over ancient maps of Brittany. 

After a period of attic clearances, nest emptying and threatened divorces - "either that stuffed heron goes or I go!" - a large proportion of Parisians' superfluous bric-a-brac ends up in the Marche aux Puces de Saint-Ouen, Europe's biggest flea market. We'd heard it sold a very high class of flea.

We solemnly promised ourselves we wouldn't buy anything. We already had too much at home. But looking at other people's stuff is free fun.

So on a Monday morning we took the Metro to the northern terminus of line four. The Paris suburbs extend way beyond this, of course, but nevertheless an expedition to the wilds of Porte de Clignancourt made us feel like intrepid adventurers.

When we surfaced from the subway, the initial impression was not promising. There were markets, certainly, but they were selling cheap luggage, model Eiffel Towers, American baseball caps, sneakers and sunglasses. Earnest young men whispered about the excellence of the genuine leather belts and watches they thrust in our direction.

We gripped our wallets firmly, passed under the railway line and took a turn to the gauche. Suddenly, we were in a French treasure trove; more than 250 stalls selling the finest and the weirdest of Paris's surplus stuff.

Antique clocks, silver tea sets, gold-rimmed mirrors, vintage clothing, objets d'art, buttons and beads, old lace and carpets - all were packed into dozens of speciality shops in the covered area of the Marche Dauphine.

Across the road we dived into the maze of laneways known as the Vernaison, the perfect place to buy an old rocking horse, a chandelier, a Meccano set or a diving helmet. We didn't buy anything, of course. Where would we put it?

The Marche aux Puces is open at weekends and on the quiet day, Monday, there was no hassling and no crowd. Dealers sat reading newspapers and chatting. Our cameras immediately identified us as tourists, not customers, and we were left to peruse in peace.

From time to time we dared to reach for a price tag on a vintage golf club or an antique designer handbag. Ouch! This was not the place to snaffle a bargain. These serious dealers knew the value of their treasures. Still, we were just there to look, weren't we?

My wife browsed the silver while

I pored over ancient maps of Brittany and tried to decipher the handwriting on sepia postcards of the Louvre. It was a fascinating day for the price of two €1.27 ($2) Metro tickets. Nothing bought, no excess-baggage fees. We'd promised ourselves we'd travel light on this trip. Mission accomplished.

Can you take a stuffed heron on a plane as hand luggage?