As we squeeze through the crowds that seemed to inch en mass along somewhat slippery walkways, the intense smells of seafood mixed with hawker’s cries. We’re experiencing a foodie’s travel sensory overload at its finest at one of Europe’s largest public markets.
While our fellow cruise ship passengers had boarded tour buses early that morning headed to Sicily’s Taormina and Mt. Etna, we set out on foot to another of Catania, Italy’s ‘must-see’ destinations: its famed “Pescheria,” the fish market.
We’re eager to get a taste – both figuratively and literally – of European cities so we head to the local public market at our first opportunity. The prepared food and drink sold at the markets offers a break from the good, but often predictable, cruise cuisine. We can also ease the travel budget by shopping at these markets for fruit, vegetables, cheese, and baked goods when staying in self-catering accommodations and hotel rooms.
European markets are known by many names: le marche in France, mercatos in Italy and mercados or mercat in Spain. Some are held in indoor permanent locations, others set up daily or once-a-week on the street.
Here are some of the questions people ask us most often about shopping at the markets:
How do you communicate what you want if you don’t speak the local language?
When all else fails we revert to rudimentary sign language – pointing to what we want and holding up fingers for quantities. By pinching the thumb and forefinger together for small or spreading hands apart for large amounts, then shaking or nodding the head to confirm the amount. (We are constantly surprised at how many places where English is understood or even spoken fluently.)
How do you know what to pay if you don’t understand what they’ve said?
If we aren’t sure of the price we hold out a few coins in the palm of our hand and let the vendor select what they need for payment. (The prices are so inexpensive, that we usually try to overpay and have often been given back coins. We’ve never been ripped off – generally we are amazed at how so little buys so much.)
But you can’t take the food back onto the cruise ship, can you?
No, but we can skip that Lido Deck buffet lunch on day’s we are in port and sample some local cuisine at the market. I also buy jars of honey or bags of spices at the market for souvenirs – those sealed or packaged products can be taken on the ship.
What if you are in a hotel room without a kitchen?
For our land based travel,s I pack a couple lightweight plastic plates, small pack of napkins and a few paper towels, plastic cutlery and a small paring knife (packed in the makeup bag in the checked luggage). Many European hotel rooms have small refrigerators, but even if they don’t, the ice bucket or a plastic bag filled with ice and placed in the bathroom sink keeps items, like a carton of yogurt and a basket of berries, cool until the next day’s breakfast.
How do you find the markets?
We research them before we leave home using traditional print travel guide books and through internet searches.
The Best European Food Markets
What are your favorite markets?
Those that we think should not be missed include:
Italy: Catania, Sicily’s expansive Pescheria, just below the Piazza del Duomo, Monday – Saturday, mornings only. After winding through the endless displays of fish, head to the adjacent fruit, vegetable and meat market. Wear comfortable walking shoes as the market is spread out over several city blocks.
France: In Paris, head to the Marche Poncelet, 9 Rue Poncelet, daily except Mondays. An easy walk from the Arc de Triomphe. Or, in the 7th Arrondisment, visit the Rue Cler, where the shops open out onto the pedestrian-only street. Closes at noon on Sunday, reopens Tuesday.
Spain: Barcelona’s Mercat de Boqueria, on the famed Rambla at 85-86. This fabulous foodie’s hangout dates back to 1217 (the present day market was built in 1814). Closed on Sundays. Or take a bit of a stroll from there to Mercat Santa Caterina at Francesc Cambo 16, in the Ribera District.
Greece: Nafplio, Peloponnese, the market is held every Wednesday and Saturday morning at 25 Maritou. The vendors line a route several blocks long. Tip: try some of the wine being sold for 2-euros for a liter-sized bottle. It is some of the best wine we’ve had. In Crete, we look forward to Elounda’s street market that sets up near the church in the center of town early every Friday morning and finishes by early afternoon.
Croatia: Split’s Green Market (Pazar) is an enormous maze of vendors not far from the harbor and the bus station. The market runs from 6:30 a.m. until evening. Dubrovnik’s Old Town hosts a market in its Gundulic Square near the Rector’s Palace and Cathedral – you can’t miss its colorful umbrellas. – Story and Photos by Jackie Smith, RFT ContributorJoel and Jackie Smith