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Slightly niche, but I do love a bit of French boulevardier of the 1940s

In the last full day of our short trip to Belgium, we decided to break away from the museums circuit and see if we could track down some vintage shopping in Brussels. We’d already been pleasantly surprised by the number of record shops to be found quite close to the city centre, including one devoted to second hand stock just minutes from the Grand Place – could you imagine that in Central London? With one eye on my role as chief suitcase-lugger, I forcibly limited myself to a few token purchases, but even so found it hard to select just a few of the selection of French 1940s boulevardier singers on their original French-label 78s.
So, we had high hopes as we followed a guidebook recommendation to try the Marolles area of the city, still within easy walking distance. It sits just inside the old city walls and is clustered around two main roads that run from the Chapel Church out to the Porte de Hal, with a series of side streets running up and down hill either side. We set off along one of those main roads, the Rue de Blaes, heading for a flea market that runs every day at the Place du Jeu de Balle, but were very quickly distracted into what seemed to be a succession of good quality vintage shops on either side. One in particular ViaAntica, seemed to go on and on, deeper and deeper into a vast building that then opened up over several floors. At every turn, there were midcentury furniture, lighting and decorative gems – some carefully arranged in room displays, others less artfully laid out but clearly in good condition. Prices looked very reasonable but, to be honest, with only the Eurostar to carry us home, we deliberately didn’t start picking out particular ‘wants’ – it would just have been too painful to have to leave them there. When we got back, we found their website which gives a flavour of what’s on offer.

Flea Markets – unglamorous, even witha European flavour

Although larger than most, ViaAntica set the tone for the rest of the street and we could easily have spent the whole day just wandering in and out of mouth-watering vintage shops, but we’d set our sights on giving the flea-market a good going-over. In truth, much of it was largely downmarket boot sale material, but that gave us the feeling that there might be some bargains amongst the piles of modern cast-offs as this was clearly no antiques fair. A couple of nice 1930s table lamps were tempting, but the sockets were obviously in need of serious repair and too integral to the structure to offer any chance of grafting on even period-style replacements (at least with my inexpert electrical skills). There were a couple of huge piles of 78s I could probably have picked up for very little but, with no sleeves, the chances were that a good clean wasn’t going to make them playable enough to merit the labour of hauling them home. However, amongst the tat on one dealer’s groundsheet, we spotted one of the melamine Atomium ashtrays we’d seen on display on our visit the previous day and that Jane had once owned. It was extremely grubby, but a surreptitious wipe with a wet finger suggested that it would clean up and a bit of haggling in best A-Level French secured it for a reasonable sum. Sure enough, some gentle removal of several layers of finest Belgian nicotine brought it back to a nice condition.
The Marolles is definitely worth a visit, whether for shopping or just for a wander and a look at what Belgian vintage has to offer. Many of the cafes and bars in the area are definitely there to cater for the local residents and traders, and didn’t look massively tempting, but a quick wander up to the Rue Haute uncovered a modern art gallery and cafe which proved just the job. There’s lots we’d go back for, as we were determined to make it to the Art Nouveau shrine of the Horta Museum in the afternoon. Our route out took us by an Oxfam shop which is where the saddest part of our trip comes in. There in the window was a biscuit tin from the 1935 Brussels exhibition; on close inspection, it was in good condition; just four Euros was the price; and which idiot took it home, gave it a wash in warm soapy water so he could put biscuits in – and came back to find that the 80 year-old image on the top had faded badly after its immersion. My spell on the vintage collectors’ Naughty Step is going to last a looooong time…

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The find I didn’t manage to ruin…