The joy of nosing about

From olives to perfumes and people watching, Shaney Hudson revels in an Arles market day

There is nowhere more bewitching a place than Provence and nothing more quintessentially French than the farmers' market. I'm in Arles for one morning only and while it has a charming river, a well-preserved Roman stadium and the cutest little town square, I'm unapologetically ignoring all that history and culture to spend my morning shopping.

The Arles farmers' market is held on Wednesday and Saturday mornings but Saturday is by far the most busy and colourful time to visit, with stallholders lining both sides of the Boulevard des Lices.

I start early, roaming through the market as the stalls are set up. Green and white striped provincial fabrics are folded and hung, baskets of macaroons are arranged in rainbow colours and shallow paella pans the width of a small car bubble away on gas cookers. Silver tubs of olives are scooped and ladled next to shiny flasks of cider and vinegar, while rotisseries strung with chickens turn, the flesh more golden with each hand-crank.

It's a visual feast but the best way to explore is to follow your nose. Waves of organic perfume hit you with each footstep. It is early summer and the green, earthen scent of white asparagus gives way to the undertone of sweet apricots, and the smell of strawberries almost overpowers the aroma of lavender.

Provence is famous for its lavender fields and everywhere in the market its byproducts can be found. Stacked blocks of handmade lavender soap, bags of boiled purple sweets, hand-picked bouquets tied with ribbon, small brown bottles filled with pungent oil and large, white sacks of the indigo seeds are sold at various stalls. It's a comforting scent that lingers in the air and reminds me of my grandmother. I wander into the fishmonger's area, where the ground is wet from freshly melted ice. A woman walking in front of me reaches down and picks up a runaway crab scuttling on the ground, putting him back with his crate of wiggling captives.

At first, it strikes me as a little mean to put him back up on the chopping block but a second glance at the ground reveals all the crabs that didn't get away, crushed underfoot by the pedestrian traffic.

The only thing I turn up my nose at is the cheese. It is shaped and stacked like children's blocks and it is nose-wrinklingly stinky, making me quicken my step each time I pass a fromage stall. Outside the cluster of food stalls, I admire woven baskets and porcelain cooking pots, eye off some welded trivets and do the maths on what a set of placemats and table cloth will cost me in Australian dollars.

I pass over the fresh-cut fruit and skirt around the freshly laid eggs, bypass the breadsticks and head straight for a row of pastry stalls.

As I wait my turn, the stallholder carefully wraps a sponge cake the size of a dinner plate in butcher's paper, just like a birthday present. He finishes off by tying it with blue ribbon and with a friendly "voila" holds it out with his hands. It is such an enchanting process that if that weren't the last sponge, I swear I'd buy another just so I could watch him wrap a cake so carefully again.

Instead, for breakfast I pick out a glazed strawberry tart heaped high with plump, jumbo berries and a choux caramel - a cream puff the size of a softball covered in cracked golden toffee.

But disaster strikes. Two stalls down, a rogue elbow to my side from a woman leaving a cheese stall and my cream puff falls to the ground. For a split second, I contemplate following the three-second rule.

But to add insult to serious cream-puff injury, a passer-by accidentally steps on my cream puff, sending fresh cream squirting in all directions.

I have just committed my first proper French faux-pas. Luckily, everyone is kind about it and the stallholder sympathetic - through hand gestures and mime, he understands I dropped my cream puff and gives me another, this time putting it in a proper bag.

I sit by the local carousel to eat, my tart's crunchy base crumbling down my shirt as I watch the pastel-coloured ponies and giant teacups spin. On market day, the carousel is getting a real workout; it's packed with so many children I expect it to spin off its foundations into the town centre.

Watching the market swell with visitors, what appeals to me is that this market is more about community than consumption. Locals with bursting shopping bags chat with friends in the middle of the street, stallholders sneak an extra little bushel of vegies into their customers' sacks and under each stall, a four-legged friend is curled up, as essential to the market as the produce heaving on the trestle tables above.

Just as quickly as it was set up, though, it is gone. When I walk back through after retrieving my bike, the market has been packed up, almost as if someone waved a magic wand. There are no stalls, no rubbish and no customers. Just the faint smell of lavender in the air.

The writer was a guest of Utracks and Rail Europe.

Trip notes

Getting there

From Paris, the TGV fast train travels to Avignon, with a change there for Arles. The journey takes less than three hours.

Staying there has details on a range of accommodation, from hotels to campsites.