Antiques and antiquities

Pézenas antiques

Twice a year, the village of Pézenas hosts an antiques fair known as the Foire à la Brocante. (A brocante is a shop that sells vintage or antique goods, including all manner of tools, musical instruments, furniture, linens, pottery, mirrors, art and sculpture, and housewares such as dishes, glassware, crystal, copper, and silverware.) The fair in Pézenas brings together vendors from all over the region for one huge market day. I was invited to go with friends, and eventually decided to stay longer and turn it into a brief getaway.

Catherine and I met in Bize at oh-dark-thirty—also known that day as 7:00 a.m.—and we each drove our own car an hour northeast to Pézenas. We arrived just as the market opened at 8:00, enabling us to see a lot of wares without the bumper-to-bumper crowds that we would experience later in the day. We had fun bantering with the vendors.

A lovely display of antique pottery in autumn colors.
One of the permanent brocante shops in Pézenas opened its courtyard to display antique furniture, including this set.
In the foreground, a fine selection of bed warmers. Behind, a variety of the large wicker-wrapped glass jars known as Dame Jeanne en osier, or Dame Jeanne habiller d’osier. The “Dame Jeanne” is a large glass jar, and “osier” is wicker or rattan. These were used for making or transporting wine, cider, homemade fruit spirits, oil, and vinegar.
A beautiful arrangement of crystal from one vendor.
Do you know what these are used for? I’ll give you some time to guess; the answer is at the end of this post.

Catherine and I worked our way up the street, looking into shops and checking out the huge variety of wares on offer. We paused for a coffee break, and then jumped in again, and by this time, the crowds had swelled.

And here I learned a new phrase: noir de monde, meaning that the crowds are so dense, it’s like one solid mass of people moving in unison.

After another couple of hours of browsing, it was time to head to the restaurant, where we met more friends who had also driven to Pézenas for a day of treasure-hunting. We enjoyed a lovely afternoon of good food and lively conversation, and then everyone but me headed to their cars for the drive back home.

I moved on to the next part of my adventure: two nights in a lovely bed-and-breakfast in the center of ancient Pézenas, and a day to explore the village.

If you’d like to go to Pézenas:
– Click here for more information about the biannual antiques market.
– Click here for a delightful B&B (chambres d’hôtes) named La Maison 1634.

A cheery yellow stripe highlights a spiral-motif decoration in the stairwell of a building dating to the early 17th century.
Pézenas antiquities

I had decided to build on the Sunday antiques fair by staying two nights in Pézenas so that I could explore the village: one day for the antiques and another for the antiquities.

While humans have lived in the South of France for around 40,000 years, the origins of Pézenas as a city date to the 7th century BC. It was settled by the same Greek culture that founded other nearby cities such as Marseille and Agde. I’ve read that these were the first people to grow grapes and make wine in this area.

Later, the Romans left their mark all over the region, expanding the wine production and leaving behind terracotta amphorae and larger wine containers called dolia. After the fall of the Roman Empire, Pézenas seems to have gone into a long period of decline. It reappeared in the early 13th century, when the pope granted the town to Simon de Montfort after he defeated the Cathars.

Beginning later in the 13th century, Pézenas was granted the right to hold fairs and markets, a valuable right during the middle ages, and its fortunes rose. Much of the stately architecture of the town came during the period of the 16th-18th centuries, when many grand hôtels particuliers were built.

The playwright and author Molière spent time in Pézenas with his theater troupe, and many artists, writers and craftsmen have made Pézenas their home ever since. It’s a beautiful place to visit, to wander the streets and find a beautiful building or a fine leather shop.

A fabulous wooden door, surrounded by equally fabulous stone work on a building dating to the first half of the 17th century.
The surprising skewed door of the Hôtel Agde de Fondouce, which dates to the 16th century. The word hôtel in French can signify a place where one pays for nightly lodging, but in this case, hôtel refers to a grand, private house in a city or town.
I was able to step inside the early 17th-century Hôtel de Ribes for a view of its pretty stairway, and along the way I found myself looking at this interesting creature. He sits on the wall above the very modern mailboxes for the building’s tenants, perhaps a mail demon?
“Les enfants musiciens,” a wonderful 18th-century stone carving.
A detail of the stone railing in the Hôtel Lacoste, a mansion built by Etienne de Montagut, Lord of Lacoste, between 1509 and 1518.

About that photograph of spiky boots…
Remember the photograph of the old pair of leather shoes with long, serrated spikes? Those are chestnut shoes, or in French, chaussures à châtaignes. They were used in the Cevennes region of southern France from the mid-1800s until the 1950s.

Chestnut trees mainly grow in mountainous regions where traditional cereal crops are difficult to cultivate (such as the Cevennes). Local populations, often poor or during times of famine, would harvest the chestnuts for food.

The nuts were dried in a stone hut called a clède, then the outer shell and inner skin had to be removed. If you’ve ever eaten roasted chestnuts, then you’ve done this, slowly, one nut at a time. Imagine needing to feed a family or a small village, using the dried nuts to grind into flour for bread. That would be a lot of work. These shoes enabled the wearer—standing in a trough full of dried chestnuts—to continuously rotate the nuts until the shell and skin came off. The nut meats were then ground into flour.

The shoes consist of a wooden sole, which the metal spikes were driven into, topped with leather pieces that were laced together to form shoes.

A fallen chestnut showing the spiny outer shell and the nut in its shell.

2 thoughts on “Antiques and antiquities”

  1. I was so certain those spikey boots would be used for walking on ice or snow. How interesting – and creative – that they’re used to open chestnuts. Very informative post. Thanks.


    1. Hi Cathy, thanks for writing, and for sharing your thoughts about those crazy boots! I’m glad you enjoyed the post. -Lynne


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