Our first few weeks in Italy coincided with the beginning of spring military-sponsored European bazaars. Honestly, I trekked over to my first one in Vicenza simply because Harper was fussy and needed a walk. I went in thinking “crocheted toilet paper cozies and toll painted saws” like I saw back at home but walked out with genuinely cool products–cheeses, wines, cashmere wraps, pottery–from Germany, Belgium, Italy, and Poland. Two weeks later, Aviano Air Force Base held their annual Primavera Bazaar. We made it a family trip and found an airplane hangar’s-worth of goods that can only be found (affordably) if you happen to have access to military installations in Europe. Plus, we found this gorgeous field of poppies…
Tips for Shopping European Bazaars
Before I launch into the good stuff (ie: what you can buy), it’s worth offering a few tips. At least in Italy, most of the military installations hold two major bazaars each year–late spring and mid-atutumn. Air Force bases typically trump all overs, having the largest events with the greatest variety of products (all those hangars are okay for planes but absolutely great for shopping!). Logistically-speaking, parking is free, often plentiful, and quite friendly to larger American-spec vehicles. And, as I mentioned earlier, you must have access to the base/post. Money talks in the bazaar but the gate guards aren’t going to let you near it unless you can produce the proper documentation.
Granted each bazaar may be populated with different vendors from season to season, I wanted to at least feature a few of my favorites. From cookie molds to paintings and from wine to furniture, keep an eye out for these types of artists and artisans:
Wine/Beer Barrel Furniture and Wooden Housewares
Wine barrel furniture, cookie molds, wine racks…Holland Handicrafts is one of my favorite vendors. Their old-world cookie molds are made by hand (some are antique) and ring in between about $15 and $75. They make great gifts and come with a cookie recipe. My Wine Collectibles, the furniture and decor portion of their company, offers really cool products upcycled items from wine barrels, beer barrels, and crates.
Located in Vicenza, Bizzotto Silvano–affectionately called Chicken Man–is one of the places Americans go for high-quality furniture in Italy. Ermanno and his family are really nice people, often offering Prosecco as you poke around in their Rossano Veneto workshop. They also regularly attend both the Vicenza and Aviano bazaars. Prices are not cheap (a table alone run about €2000), but the products are completely handmade of hardwoods. Honestly, I haven’t found anything comparable to Ermanno’s quality in the U.S. If you’re looking for glass, Chicken Man often sells demijohns in every color imaginable. The prices are generally over-inflated (in my opinion), but they often have some of the less common (read: coveted) colors, sizes, and shapes.
The Bizzottos also create wine racks and showcases made from wine barrels, as well as reclaimed architectural salvage. Since they are made to order, you can fully customize the furniture. Prices vary but typically run €2000-€4000.
From pen-and-ink drawings to watercolor paintings to acrylics, many local artists showcase their work at bazaars. You find a few stalls full of tacky velvet paintings (bulldogs playing poker and the like) but most of the art is truly beautiful and original.
What you see below is Cruciani. Honestly, his paintings were some of the most gorgeous I’ve seen at any bazaar ever. All depicted Tuscan scenes…poppies, sunflowers, ancient windows. It was truly stunning. Pricing was a bit staggering when you consider the level of impulse shopping that goes on at a bazaar. Pieces ranged between $300 and $1000 with framing. I have made it a mission to buy a piece (albeit small) of Cruciani before we leave Italy.
Wine, Beer, and Cheeses
The most popular vendors at any bazaar would have to be the wine, beer, and cheese stalls, and trust me when I say that there a lot of them. Italian wineries from the Vicenza and Aviano areas truck cases upon cases to the venues, happily pouring samples for anyone old enough who asks for a taste. Beer vendors from Germany and Belgium are a bit more guarded, rarely offering tastings, but it generally works out since the wine loosens everyone up for a buying spree.
One of our favorites at the most recent Primavera Bazaar was the Projito…think Prosecco mojito. Most Italians would scoff at it but it’s really unconventional and tasty on a 99-degree Italian summer day.
If you happen to be shopping any of the European bazaars, make sure you seek out a vendor selling cheeses and pastries from Belgium. If you are a cheese fan, you’ll do well to just pony up and buy all the Italian and Belgian cheeses you can get your hands on.
Glass and Wrought Iron
Marble and wrought iron in Italy are as common as Pergo flooring and aluminum back in the States. If you live here, you probably have a whole home full of Italian marble floors and countertops, and your modest abode still most likely has a huge iron gate out front. It is not wonder, then, that many of us dread going back to cheaper materials. Visiting some of the many wrought iron vendors is a great way to stock up on some pretty, classically-Italian decor. One of my favorites–Wrought Iron Luigi–always visits local bazaars with a wide array of baker’s racks, kitchen islands, small racks of all types (mugs, hats, etc), bookcases, as well as demijohns with traditional stands and toppers. Since many of the vendors regularly visit military installations, you can place a custom order at the bazaar, put down a deposit, and have your item delivered when they’re at your PX/BX next.
Kitschy Decor and Gifts
Admittedly, my tolerance for kitschy knickknacks is low; however, you do run across some items that are purely frivolous and fun from time to time. The metal wine bottle figures below are by an artist named Giuseppe Scala. For someone with a specific hobby or interest, these would make a great gift.
Planning for Future Bazaar Visits
To my knowledge, the Fall 2016 bazaar dates for Vicenza have not gone public. According to the Bella Befana Bazaar site, Aviano’s autumn event will be September 30-October 2. If you happen to be traveling in Germany, it’s worth checking their bazaar schedule right now. Many of the larger bases/posts begin autumn bazaar season in early September.