The best flea markets in Vienna: From Euro trash to treasure

As I step out of the Kettenbrückengasse​ U-Bahn station, I have to sidestep a couple absorbed in examining a pair of jeans they've just bought.

The denim doesn't look much chop to me, faded as it is, with holes in both legs. But this could be the motto of Vienna's Saturday flea market, southwest of the historic Ringstrasse: "Beauty is in the eye of the beholder."

A strange eclectic jumble of items that could be trash or treasure is at the heart of the term "flea market", and never was it more apt than here. As I move toward the lines of trestle tables I can see piles of household goods above and below them: clothing, handbags, books, electronics and glassware.

Directly ahead is a framed painting propped up sideways, depicting a bucolic autumn scene around a lake. Beyond the frame, its owner's excess shoes and clothes are heaped up in such a mess that the whole scene resembles an abstract artwork, albeit an interactive piece that shoppers rummage through.

This random sunlit chaos is as far from the stereotypical glamour of imperial Vienna as you could imagine, and it's also the most diverse I've seen the Austrian capital. The stallholders come from every ethnic background, and professional traders expertly haggle next to elderly ladies selling surplus family heirlooms.

The stock is just as varied. Some stalls seem to have a theme – hardware, or clothing – but others are all over the place. At one stall of mostly glassware I spot Japanese lacquerware, glass stein mugs with embossed lids, Art Nouveau statues bearing clocks, cherubic candlesticks and vintage postcards.

As I browse, the stallholder is having a spirited discussion with the couple next to me, dubious that a misshapen statue of a woman is really made of silver. "Das ist Silber!" he insists, but who knows?

By the time I turn into the second row I feel I've seen enough ceramic elephants to last a lifetime – enough ceramic anything, really. But I wouldn't mind finding a Cold War medal or some other relic of the era that might have ended up on this western edge of the former Iron Curtain.

As I weave further inward, there are occasional surprises. A table of gleaming brand-new crockery stands out among the tat, and there's a stall selling leather shorts for those interested in traditional leatherwear.

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Then a man sidles up to me, covertly producing a mobile phone and hissing "Galaxy 6?"

There's a low but insistent hint of fell-off-the-back-of-a-truck about the market, or at least elements of it; some stallholders are quite reluctant for their wares to be photographed. But it's all part of the fun, an air of low-level dodginess that lends a frisson to even the most innocent pram full of assorted doll limbs.

What's even more engaging than the provenance of the items on sale, is why anyone in their right minds would want to buy or sell much of it. How can there be a viable market for old lapel pins issued by oil companies, clapped-out cameras, hefty chunks of quartz and ratty-looking furs?

On the other hand, why go to the trouble of carting it all here if it won't sell? Is there really a buyer for everything, or is it just a sad triumph of hope over reality?

As I reach the end of the flea market tables, there's a sudden transition to the regular Naschmarkt, the more conventional food market which is open daily except Sunday.

It's startling to be suddenly ejected into the world of sane merchandise, like Alice being evicted from Wonderland; so I do a quick about-turn back into the flea market, to see if I can find a keepsake before I have to leave its eccentric confines for good.

However, I'm a terrible person to shop for, even when I'm doing the shopping myself, and the piles of mismatched goods are starting to cloud my mind. What's of value and what isn't? Who's to say that bag of old beer coasters should just be taken to the tip? (Well, I am, but what do I know?)

What does strike me is the mountain of stuff we buy, both decorative and practical, which is arbitrarily discarded once fashion moves on. Where now are the ceramic ducks that once hung on my nanna's wall?

So I leave empty-handed. But it's been fun watching Vienna's weekly theatre of give and take.

Tim Richards travelled courtesy of the Austrian National Tourist Office; read his travel blog at aerohaveno.com.

THE FACTS

FLY

Qantas (qantas.com.au) and partners fly from Melbourne to Vienna from $1800 return.

STAY

Hotel Daniel, Landstrasser Gürtel 5, Vienna, hoteldaniel.com.

Schweizer Pension Solderer, Heinrichsgasse 2, Vienna, schweizerpension.com.

SHOP

The flea market next to Kettenbrückengasse U-Bahn station takes place every Saturday from 6.30am to 6pm. Free entry, more at wien.info.​


 

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