Belgians have a long-standing passion for antique fairs and flea markets. For many years the contents of entire houses have been going under the hammer at Antwerp’s Friday morning market. In Heist-op-den-Berg – of all places – the ‘rommelmarkt’ takes over the entire town centre every Sunday morning.
However, in Dutch, ‘rommel’, which translates literally as ‘stuff’, sounds a tad disrespectful when you are talking about the religious statue that used to perch on top of Grandma’s cabinet.
Or what about the postcards and old magazines that Uncle Bob used to collect without missing a single issue or the car models you played with for hours on end when you were a kid?
The appeal of an antiques fair, large or small, is that you are transported back in time, to your own childhood or even further into the past. Tangible objects show you the daily lives of previous generations.
You find yourself in a world that no longer exists and that you could easily put on a pedestal. That this is a passion shared by many Belgians becomes only too apparent when you look at the number of ‘brocantes’ that are held and the crowds that flock to them. Every self-respecting village will have its own flea market or fair, the smaller ones often held in support of a charity.
Prices are fair and you can always haggle. After all, would you fancy wrapping up - again - all those beer glasses that remain unsold?
We couldn’t possibly list all of the local and temporary antiques fairs, so we will limit ourselves to the most important markets and those parts of towns where you can indulge in unlimited treasure hunting. A golden tip: on any weekend in Belgium, wherever you are, ask if there is an antiques fair being held locally. There’s every chance that you will be able to browse to your heart’s content. Happy hunting!
In Antwerp, treasure hunters make their way to the Vrijdagmarkt every Friday morning. With a little bit of luck you can unearth some good items for very little money. Even those without a fortune to spend can try their luck with a ‘varia’ box, filled with the shreds of someone’s past.
On Sundays there is a flea market on the Sint-Jansvliet, at the entrance to the old pedestrian subway below the river Scheldt.
The Hoogstraat, between the Grote Markt and the Sint-Jansvliet, attracts visitors in droves with its bric-à-brac shops, which also open on Sundays.
Continue walking southwards and you will find yourself in Kloosterstraat, the Valhalla for lovers of 'brocante'.
The displays here look somewhat cleaner and more professional and connoisseurs know where they can track down that particular lamp from the 1950s, the old map that used to be on your classroom wall or that rare piece of vinyl. If you have been truly bitten by the collecting bug, the hunt is always on. The same goes for the seller. And that’s when the floodgates open without mercy.
A collector of vintage tins whispered in my ear that her collection was taking up.... seven homes. She owned the entire stock of a 1930s grocery store.
Fortunately there are people stockpiling the past in the face of the throwaway world of today. After all, what could be more entertaining than browsing all those Pandora’s boxes of yesteryear?
De Grote Zavel is at the heart of the Brussels antiques area. The main chocolatiers gather here to showcase their craft and the same goes for the antiques stores. Their finest treasures are on display and like the chocolates, they don’t come cheap. The upmarket Zavel is encroaching, bit by bit, upon the streets that lead to the Court of Justice.
If you stroll that way via Hoogstraat or Blaesstraat, you will end up in the popular Marollenwijk area. This is the beating heart of the territory of the ‘brocanteurs’.
You will find large ‘bazars’ stuffed to the brim with old knick-knacks: a complete merry-go-round, antique chests of drawers, enamel signs - real or fake -, ancient maps, lace... One shop sells African statues and is so crammed that you have to follow the yellow line painted on the floor so you know which way to turn.
It’s definitely not recommended if you suffer from claustrophobia! But visiting a store like this makes for a great experience. The apotheosis of this world is the daily flea market held in Vossenplein square (Place Jeu de Balles). You may recognise this spot if you have watched the opening scene of ‘Tintin and the Secret of the Unicorn’, the Steven Spielberg and Peter Jackson movie starring Belgium’s most famous fictional export. The world-famous cartoon character loves to stroll around the square. And so do we; enjoying a browse and a good rummage around.
Teddy bears are universal. Everyone loves them and they sell immediately on their cute look. But take care, don’t think that you have managed to get your hands on a vintage cuddly toy. Imitations and fakes are rife in the trade.
The same goes for African art – buyer beware. Real antiques are beyond the reach of the ordinary browser. However, take your time, have a good look around and you may well unearth a treasure or two.
It is hard to imagine a more idyllic setting for an antiques market than Bruges’ historic city centre. We meet at Vismarkt on both Saturday and Sunday. Every Saturday there is a ‘folklore’ market at Den Dijver. You can embark from here for a boat trip on the ‘reien’, or canals.
If you are into vintage books, second-hand clothes, dolls, figurines and all kinds of bric-a-brac from days gone past, then this is the place to go.
A fun way to discover the ‘Venice of the North’ and, moreover, a very central location if you are making your way from the Market to Sint-Janshospitaal, the begijnhof and the Minnewater or vice versa.
During the summer months, keep an eye out for the dates of the ‘Zandfeesten’. Three Sundays in summer, a huge antiques market takes over the Zand, a large square on the edge of the city.
It also spreads out into Koning Albertpark and Beursplein, the square in the vicinity of the central railway station. If you want to grab a bargain or two, you had better set your alarm clock early, as this event attracts droves of visitors. Walk the entire length of the fair and you will have clocked five kilometres without even noticing.
There is no lack of entertainment either. Fanfares liven up the already lively atmosphere and it goes without saying that there are numerous opportunities for a snack and a drink. You are in Belgium after all.
The Sint-Jacobsmarkt in Ghent stages a small antiques fair every Friday, Saturday and Sunday morning. It is definitely recommended for aficionados of old cartoon albums, magazines or postcards. A number of quirky antique stores surround the square.
At least one of them will offer lunch and a drink, so whilst sipping your beer or coffee you can browse what is on offer. It’s a great place to stop on your tour of the ancient city centre.
The area around the Vrijdagmarkt, or Friday Market, is also worth a visit. Take a look at the Baudelostraat warehouse if you are a lover of vintage toys, 1950s interiors and gadgets in all sizes and shapes. And don’t forget the little Serpentstraatje with its quirky shops and eateries. Also, dotted around the city you will find a wide choice of galleries and antique stores in which you will find contemporary art as well as retro designs; western works alongside the ethnic.
The massive trend towards vintage and retro has obviously left its mark here.
There is an abundance of little stores selling both new and pre-loved designer clothing, furniture, accessories and other items with plenty of mileage.
And every Sunday morning the ‘bouquinistes’ showcase their literary treasures at the book market on the banks of the Ajuinlei. At that time, Ghent could be mistaken for Paris, if only briefly.
Each Friday morning sees a horde of treasure hunters descending on the brocante de Saint-Pholien. You will find this market on the Boulevard de la Constitution and place Jehan-le-Bel in the Outremeuse – beyond the Meuse – area of Liège. Here is a 'Champs-Elysées de la brocante’, wildly popular with the locals as well as visitors.
Although you are within walking distance of the city centre, this area looks more like a large village.
There are many gems on offer, and although you come across quite a few professional traders their wares are often straight down from the attic and prices are reasonable.
Allow for a couple of hour’s browsing which will give you ample opportunity to explore the area, where author Georges Simenon, world famous for his Maigret detective novels, spent his childhood.
And enjoy a serving of Liège meatballs in tomato sauce made with the locally produced 'Sirop de Liège', Liège waffles or a glass of Curtius city beer in one of the typical small taverns or café's. Visit the “Les puces de Saint-Gilles” flea market, held every Saturday morning in the square by the church of the same name.
This is a place to absorb the city’s jovial atmosphere and to have a chat with its citizens, who always wear their hearts on their sleeves.
Last but certainly not least, on Sunday mornings the rather large and very popular 'Marché de la Batte' food market is held on the appealing banks of the river Meuse. There are always some interesting items to be had and sometimes quirky second-hand stores open for the occasion. No need to worry if antiques or vintage isn't your thing, Liège really is a surprising city packed with character and well worth a visit...
Let’s pay credit where it is due. Every Sunday morning the largest antique market in all of Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg descends on the roads and squares of the city of Tongeren. Three-hundred-and-fifty stallholders take up their pitches in the shadows of the medieval walls of the oldest city in Belgium.
The 40 antique shops located around the market square also contribute to this festival of quality used goods. You will hear American accents as well as French, Danish, German and the local Tongers dialect. It’s a veritable melting pot.
Even the Crown Prince of Thailand and his retinue have been spotted here seeking out antiques. About 30 years ago a local artist and an antiquarian came together to set up a flea market in Tongeren and the rest is history. A number of the antique dealers in this city specialise in a particular period, style or object.
It is easy to get lost in the streets among the vast displays of chairs, tables, lampshades, chandeliers and mirrors from times gone by.The dealers scour the local markets and also travel abroad in search of beautiful items to sell. You’ll encounter established names as well as ‘brocanteurs’ from all walks of life with prices that reflect the variety of the vendors.
One fun aspect of this largely open-air market is that while browsing you will also see a fair bit of the old city, both on top of and underneath the historic walls.
Take the chance to extend your stay in Tongeren. A morning spent ‘antiquing’ forms a perfect combination with a visit to the Gallo-Roman museum.
Also, be sure to pass by the basilica and its ‘begijnhof’ (nuns’ quarters) or why not take a walking or cycling tour in the beautiful fruit-growing countryside of Haspengouw? Don’t forget to keep track of all the castles you see on the way!