As the title of my blog implies (the kitsch part), I am a collector. I have mild hoarding aspirations that I attempt to disguise by portraying myself as a discerning collector of random, yet CLASSY things from around the world. Most of the time, this turns out to be postcards, maps, pins and badges, and antique clothing pieces – among many others (including snow globes). I’ve written a post or two about this, but thought it would be useful to provide a run down of my favorite markets in Eastern Europe for anyone with an eye for kitschy communist goodies from the former Eastern Bloc.
We’ll start from Tallinn, Estonia, before making our way south to the Balkans, and east to the Caucasus.
Balti Jaam is the main train station in Tallinn, and lies a short walk Northwest of Toompea Hill. Just beyond the train station lies the Balti Jaama Turg, Tallinn’s largest and perhaps sketchiest market. David and I are particularly talented at finding the Russian market in any given city, and it was no exception in Tallinn. Now, saying that the market is sketchy is perhaps a false comparison – in the grand scheme of markets in Eastern Europe, it’s not sketchy at all.
We found some great items at Balti Jaama Turg as well – an old submarine clock, some Estonian tapestries, and many many pins and buttons to add to our collection. There is also a great deal of good street food around.
We ate delicious Uzbek somsa from a vendor in the train station itself before heading back to our relatively cushy digs in the Old Town. You can also walk from the market north through Kalamaja if you’re into older wooden architecture and a bustling modern art scene – the neighborhood is rapidly gentrifying from what was once a working class area to a hipster gathering spot replete with public artistic spaces.
Best for: Adorable old ladies
I have written about what is likely my favorite food market, the Riga Centraltirgus, here already, so will devote this Riga space to talking about a less frequented market – the Latgales Tirgus, which just so happens to fall into my top two favorite sketchy markets. (The best category, if you ask me)
We tend to search far and wide to find random old trinkets, and upon realizing the Centraltirgus had a food focus, we sought to find a local flea market. Frantic google searching led us to the Latgales Tirgus – we had asked for directions at the Tourist Information Center in the old House of Blackheads in Old Town Riga, who told us that we should NOT go there. That’s how we knew maybe we’d stumbled upon something memorable.
And memorable it was – I got yelled at for taking pictures, and kind of thought I was going to get shivved at any moment. Oh the thrill! We also picked up an old map of Lithuania and some Soviet war medals. Maybe don’t bring a camera if you go…
Best for: Getting called out for taking pictures. (1st Place)
Vilnius, Lithuania: Kalvariju TurgusI’ll be frank – our kitsch shopping in Vilnius markets was not great. And while Kalvariju Turgus had great food to buy, we couldn’t find much in the way of old crap (technical term) to stuff in our luggage. That said, it was a great departure from the more ritzier and polished Vilnius that one finds south of the Neris River.
A photo posted by Nick Myers (@concreteandkitsch) on
Best for: Getting called out for taking pictures. (2nd Place)
Despite having a bit of a rough go in Belgrade, we did enjoy their markets. Unfortunately, we were not around for the Sunday flea market in Zemun, but we did make it to several green markets in the city.
First was the Zeleni Venac market, right in the center of Old Town. I was out on my own, as David was busy praying to the porcelain gods at our AirBNB. I was drawn to the multicolored roofs of the various pavilions from my bus, and hopped off as quickly as I could. And while I didn’y buy anything there, it was the only place I witnessed live Balkan gypsy brass music, a style I’m very very keen on, during our time in Serbia.
Kalenic is a more traditional green market, with some flea market stalls peppered in among the stalls selling vegetables, smoked fish, and meat. David found some Eastern European/Orthodox Christmas-themed kitsch that he’s so fond of, and I was rather enchanted by the Christmas tree stands all over the market. As it turned out, we couldn’t find a taxi from the market to take us to our apartment – a turn of events that almost caused us to miss our flight to Sarajevo.
While I am glad I went to these markets (we also went to the market in Skadarlija), they didn’t wow us with what was for sale there. I guess they can’t all be A+ stunners. Next time we’ll be sure to be around for the Zemun Flea Market.
Best for: Christmas kitsch
Bascarsija reminded us a lot of the various markets in Istanbul. Its obvious Ottoman influence, and even remarkable similarities of offerings made this an easy comparison to make. But what we loved about Bascarsija was everything that differentiated it from Istanbul’s grander markets. The touts weren’t so aggressive, the travelers were few and far between, the architectural diversity was impressive, and the people seemed more genuine.
What did we walk away with…coffee mugs, car decals, and a cheap Bosnian coffee set. A good haul, sure, but I wouldn’t say we hung around for the shopping. Rather, we stayed for the atmosphere and happened to empty our wallets a bit in the process.
Best for: Taking your vegetarian husband to a VERY meat-intensive restaurant.
Kosovo was our first taste of Balkan life, and what a taste it was. In terms of disorientation, if France or Italy are intro courses to travel, Kosovo is at least 400-level. That feeling of being so far out of anything remotely familiar was what we loved about Kosovo the most. And while we didn’t buy anything there, save a couple snacks for our road trip through the country, I look back on our early morning stroll through the market very fondly. Definitely a highlight of our jet-lagged wanderings through Kosovo’s quirky capital.
Best for: designer fashions
The Old Bazaar in Skopje also resembles the markets in Sarajevo and Istanbul. But slightly grittier than either of them. It was a beautiful, balmy October day when we visited Skopje, and we kind of fell in love with the place (despite current popular opinion of the Macedonian capital).
It was also prime season for making ajvar, so everywhere we went, there were huge crates of huge red bell peppers around. If we had been in Macedonia longer, I would have loved to experience making ajavar – a Balkan marinara or kimchi type of catch-all condiment.
Best for: Hand rolled cigarettes and kitties.
Sofia, Bulgaria: Bitaka
Dare I say this is my most favorite market in the whole wide world? Maybe even moreso than my hometown’s famous Pike Place Market – in a very different way. And I’m going to be really cliche and kind of terrible, but when I walked around Bitaka, I felt like I was seeing an authentic Sofia – a Sofia stripped to its base level . We talked with many folks (grilling meat at 9am, no biggies), and almost got our asses kicked a few times (didn’t know I had to punch my bus ticket, and misread many many Bulgarian gestures). Despite our foibles and faux pas, walking around the grounds of the market made me feel more connected to the country in total.
Also, if you ever need a gun or old Bulgarian passports, it’s perfect for you!
Best for: Brunch
Yerevan, Armenia: The Vernissage
I haven’t yet written about Yerevan, because we had a complicated time there. Many of my favorite bloggers absolutely adore Yerevan – Megan Starr and Kami and the Rest of the World. I’ll write about my time there sooner or later – suffice to say we found it difficult to connect with the city.
We DID, however, enjoy the market, and are proud to say that we were there before the Kardashians.
Best for: BOOKS! (Must read Russian)
I’ve never properly written about my love of Tbilisi. We were totally enchanted by our time in the city, controversial architecture and all. (Aside – is there any Eastern Bloc city that doesn’t have controversial architecture?) While my fellow bloggers were falling in love with Yerevan, Tbilisi was the Caucasian capital that most won me over.
And the market was another lovely place. I was a diligent student of the Georgian language for about six months leading to our trip, and loved the mishmash of languages and cultures there. I would ask a question in Russian, and the Georgian vendors would respond in Russian, thinking that was where I was from. Cross-cultural communication, am I right?
But really, I love the Dry Bridge Market because it created a tradition that we practice whenever we go on an adventure.
What’s your favorite market you’ve visited on your travels?