The magical French Market

French Market in AthloneIt always arrives unexpectedly.

I remember the first year. I awoke to a heavy fog – so heavy you couldn’t see 20 feet ahead of you. I headed up along the river under the castle on my way to work early in the morning when suddenly the mists around me parted and I was passing by makeshift stalls, colourfully dressed people brushing past me chattering away to each other in a foreign tongue. The odours of spices, pastries and leather cut through the crisp morning air.

It was magical – where was I? Had a stumbled onto some ancient travel stone and journeyed far from Athlone? No, I had simply walked unknowingly into the travelling French Market.

The market travels europe, a loose caravan of merchants that passes through Athlone once, possibly twice a year. They set their stalls up in the elbow below Athlone castle; a festive alleyway blooms into life between the castle walls and the River Shannon. Their presence drags the town back centuries into a medieval market. Cured sausages, spices, handmade soaps, clothing, wooden hand-made toys, chocolates and, of course, the Crepe vendor; this is the magical French Market. Though not a particularly large market, I always end up taking a circuitous route through it, revisiting stalls I’ve already seen and criss-crossing my path over again, hoping not to find myself at one end or the other, but perpetually lost in the clamour of goods and strangeness.

French Market in AthloneI was having a jar the other day with friends in the know a week or two ago. We were discussing the market then and no one seemed to know when their next visit was due. As if summoned, here they are just a week later, as if blown in last night by the first storm of the winter.