I just came back from Italy, which means I’m smiling. One of my favorite things to do in Italy is to shop street markets. Because, hello, it’s Italy. And they sell beautifully made clothes, shoes, and linens for a fraction of the retail price.
If you’d like to buy fabulous Italian fashion at bargain prices, wherever you go in Italy, ask for the day and location of the local street market. Many Italian towns and cities hold street markets once a week, with hundreds of vendors, and just maybe, the shoes of your dreams.
Here’s how to make the most of your market adventure:
1. Always go early, by 9 .am.. Why? A dazzling array of merchandise is heaped on tables, but sizes and styles are mixed, so you have to sort through piles of junk to find treasure. As the market gets more crowded, it’s harder to get a spot at the prime tables to find the good stuff. Also,some of the best vendors pack up early. And a crowded market increases your risk of being pick pocketed. (See #6.)
2. Always bring at least one big, deep bag, with a shoulder strap or comfortable handles. Most vendors will give you thin plastic bags. They’re hard to carry, and it’s easy to leave them behind when you’re sorting through heaps of stuff.
3. Discreetly follow the nonne, Italian grandmas. They’ve been shopping in the same market for decades and know where to find the best stuff for the best prices.
4. Bring cash. Vendors don’t take credit cards. And bring change; some vendors won’t take big bills.
5. Very important: every time you make a purchase, check your bag to ensure you bought what you paid for. And check your receipt before you leave. The market is busy; there’s an often frenetic exchange of money and merchandise. Vendors make mistakes, and if you want to take something back, you need the receipt. I recently bought my son three pairs of shorts in the wrong size, but the vendor gave me a receipt for only one pair. I asked for my money back, but because I didn’t have a real receipt, I could only exchange, not return, the shorts. The vendor exchanged them only because he sold only that brand of shorts, and if he refused, the next step would have been calling the police; neither of us wanted that. But to avoid unnecessary hassle, check your receipts every time.
Street markets do not provide a Neiman Marcus level of customer service; buyer be paranoid.
6. Watch for pick pockets. When a friend returned from a street market, she found that her purse had been slit with a razor. She never felt a thing, but that could have ended badly. And in a recent trip, my daughter witnessed a pick pocket dip his hand into a woman’s purse; he was well-dressed, charming, and was working with at least one other man.
While you’re shopping the market, professionals are shopping your wallet.
7. Avoid the stalls with the lowest prices. Shoes for 7 euros? Clothes for 1 euro? That stuff is junk. But in a place with well made goods, (look for “Italian Made,” or Pella Vera – real leather, or just follow around the Italian grandmas) there are wonderful bargains. I bought a $50 euro pair of shoes for $20 and I love them.
8. If you don’t see what you want, ask. I searched all over the market for black shoes with low heels, but all the shoe sellers showed platform shoes and 6-inch stilettos. When I asked, a vendor found exactly what I wanted, in his van. That was a moment of wholesale euphoria: I heard angels singing.
9. European sizes are different than American ones. Italian styles accommodate bounteous breasts and wasp waists. Before you buy, try it on. (But see #10.)
10. It’s really hard to try things on. Some stalls have little changing booths, sometimes, they let you try things on in a van. Shoe stalls usually have a chair in the back so you can sit down when you try on shoes. Ask for a mirror, (un specchio) so you can see if it fits before you buy it.
A trip to an Italian street market is fun, exciting, and exhausting. When you need a break,veer off to the farmers’ market section and fortify yourself with a snack of fruit, cheese, meat – the possibilities are endless. You’ll always find something fresh and refreshing to get you back into the fray. And if you don’t find everything on your wish list, there’s always next week….
For a funny story about shopping the street market, see “Agoraphobia Is Another Word For I Miss TJ Maxx,” on 4initalia.wordpress.com.