Le Mans yielded an armful of good oil paintings (along with the not unfamiliar poignancy of finding the entire contents of a late artist’s studio spread out on the ground), tall hinged shutters, garden furniture and the usual selection of 19th century household items. A pile of insect display boxes that happily contained nothing more deathly than 1920’s cotton and gauze dragonflies from a haberdashers was a magical find.
The indomitable Madame Saulnier, the organiser of the fair, was in fine voice. Announcements ranged from “The person who has left a little brown dog in their vehicle with no windows open is requested to return immediately, otherwise we will smash the window.” And “The person who has left their car boot open with their luggage and paintings on view might wish to return to their vehicle.” To “Le monsieur who bought a Limoges tea service must return to the stand. He has left his teapot behind.”
The weather was heavy and no-one was rushing about. It was another day of pushing forty degrees. I bought three large substantial wooden Leroux crates, lovely in their own right, and perfect for stacking in the van and filling with purchases. The dealer’s phone rang. It’s ring tone was of Cigales, crickets, and it evoked the scrubby, thyme fragrant garrigues of Provence.
As I was buying a long oak farmhouse table I saw Francis and Martine having lunch in the shade of their van. They beckoned me over. Their daughterMartine was cutting slices of Canteloupe melon – deep orange flesh, green skin – and offered me a slice. A pause in the shade with cool melon was a relief.
A trailer full of bunches of garlic looked wonderful. “It is from my parent’s farm in the Gers,” said the dealer as he put an enormous bunch in a carrier bag for me. Despite having already bought a kilo of garlic earlier that week I had to buy more.
As temperatures soared dealers were keen to pack up and go home. Jack, my shipper who was taking home my overflow purchases, arrived pink cheeked and grinning. He came round the market with me and loaded three farmhouse tables in his van then set off northwards. I took longer to pack my van and made a last quick circuit of the market
An hour or so later, pulling up in the Place du Marché, I made straight for the nearest citron pressé. The bar with dramatic slate roof that had burnt down was now open again after three years’ restoration. Gone were the traditional window boxes with red geraniums. The décor was now greys and plums and sleek.
Across the square, the soaring, vaulted stone Cathedral provided further respite from the baking afternoon. Someone played the organ. I sat on a little rush seated chair and felt the music wrap around me. It was pure exhaltation. The organist paused and the sound of an ambulance siren penetrated in from the outside world.
The door of one of the brocante shops here was, unusually, open. Heavy beams, large stone chimney pieces sooted from decades of smoking fires, broken floor tiles, cracked plaster were the framework for a tumble of piled items. A grand, wide wooden staircase with swirling metal iron work forming the balustrade was equally piled with objects. “Upstairs is le souk des souks,” said Monsieur gesturing for me to pick my way up. From amongst the crowded panelled rooms I collected a few choice items including some elbow length, hand-sewn white kid gloves with tiny buttons at the wrist, for the tiniest of hands.
The house had clearly suffered over the years but would have made a wonderful home. “I want to sell it”, said the owner, “if you ever come across any English who want to buy….”
Evening arrived and after dinner at Le Channel I sat with notebook and a cup of verveine infusion before driving to the ferry. A glass of Calvados appeared on my table – marking the end of a more than satisfying trip.