FRENCH markets are not just places to shop for fresh produce - they're so much more than that!
They are a social event, a way of life, a tradition that is adhered to each week with much pleasure.
On Wednesdays and Saturdays in the medieval town of Uzes in Le Gard, the locals will tell you they stage the best markets in all the country.
ANN RICKARD'S TOUR DE EUROPE
While I think every local in every French town will claim the same boast, I must agree with the locals of this southern French town: they are the simply the best!
The markets take place in the Place aux Herbes, the leafy town-square that is the heart of Uzes.
A handsome stone fountain trickles in the square's centre and is surrounded by graceful tall limestone buildings standing tall above arcaded walkways, while the green plane trees provide shade for the tables and chairs spilling from cafes and bistros.
But on market days, Place aux Herbes, is unrecognisable with the fountain hidden by hundreds of stalls selling everything from olives to lavender; flowers to sausages.
The buzz begins around six in the morning as small vans inch their way into the pedestrianised square and the stall holders begin to unpack their goods.
Jaunty umbrellas are quickly erected over trestle tables, colourful wares are efficiently stacked in pretty arrangements, refrigerated vans become tempting butcher shops, irresistible fromageries, pop-up seafood markets.
Savvy shoppers know the crowds will be shoulder to shoulder by mid-morning and so arrive around 7am, first having a fortifying café au lait in one of the surrounding cafes, watching the pace pick up as the square fills and the traders begin work.
Tasting before buying is encouraged: a morsel of freshly made goat cheese, a couple of glistening garlic olives, a chunk of spicy saussicon, a slice of sweet nougat, a piece of ripe melon, some sweet strawberries, a small slice of duck terrine, some anchovy tapenade, a sliver of sinful nougat - oh the tastes!
The feast is not just for the palate. All the senses are engaged: the sight of shoppers with big baskets and small dogs, the mellifluous sound of French babble, the aromas from the chicken van competing with the paella man whose giant pan is brimming with rich yellow rice and seafood.
About 10am it is bedlam! Queues form at the stalls, the noise level rises as traders explain their cheeses, declare the health benefits of their hand-made sausages and share important information on how best to the cook a fresh rabbit loin or how to get the most from the new white asparagus.
Effusive cheek-kissing greetings get in the way of business but nobody minds. Greeting your neighbours, friends and acquaintances at the market, even if you saw them just the night before is essential, with three cheeks being expertly swiped.
Then, with baskets bulging with produce and the quintessential baguette poking cheerful out, it is time to fight for a seat in one of the cafes - perhaps get the man from the oyster van to shuck a dozen and bring them over to you.
This is definitely the time to enjoy a revitalising pastis or glass of pink wine and a chat while watching the market wind down as stall-holders efficiently dismantle, pack and hose down the square.
By 1pm, everyone is thinking about a long lunch made from their market bounty and Place aux Herbes returns to normal and the trickling water from the fountain is again prominent and proud.