Off the main tourist drag of La Rambla in Barcelona, La Boqueria market is a tangle of colours, sounds, smells and flavours. La Boqueria has colourful displays of fresh fruit and vegetables, gaping fresh fish, beady-eyed poultry and giant hanging jamón. It has generous heaps of dried and candied fruits, rainbows of herbs and spices and piles and piles of irresistibly pretty chocolates. There are lively seafood restaurants and thriving street food stands, refreshing fresh juices and enticing tapas bars all around.
While there are undoubtedly less touristy and more authentic food markets in Barcelona, if you want a quick market fix and have limited time to search for them, La Boqueria hits the spot. Unless, perhaps, you are accustomed to even more intense market delights.
A friend I was visiting Barcelona with regularly goes to Morocco, and while I was cooing and gawping at La Boqueria, she was a little less impressed. For her, it would take a lot to beat Moroccan souks on food, atmosphere and experience. "Moroccan markets sell leather goods and clothes, but the main section of a souk is food," she said. "Natural, predominantly organic, fresh, locally produced food, the kind we would spend a fortune on in the UK. The Marrakech souk stretches for miles, and all the markets are packed, with people bustling about, carrying flimsy plastic bags full of vegetables, fruit, spices and meat."
Giant vats of olives, and spices of vibrant colours - bright red paprika, cumin seeds, saffron, turmeric - presented in huge cones, chickens running about (many won't see the market out, as you can choose the one you want and have it killed on the spot), mules pulling carts, a throng of people going about their business ... It beats a trip to the supermarket. Markets are natural attractions for hungry tourists; a rich, fun experience reflecting local cuisine, culture and lifestyle. There is plenty of room for interaction with locals, the chance to try out iffy language skills and the draw of a fresh, cheap lunch too.
Some of the more popular markets may have become such an attraction that you find your interactions are mostly with other tourists who keep stepping on your sandalled toes. The market of Uzès in France, with fresh local produce including fabulous cheese, charcuterie and artisan bread, is wonderful, but it can get hard to navigate the pretty Provençal streets during tourist season without being caught up in a browsing bottleneck.
My current local market in a suburb of Toulouse, south-west France, may not be as spectacular as La Boqueria or as pretty as Uzès and other, fancier French counterparts, but every week the alleys between stalls are crammed with local shoppers. There are larger-scale importers of produce, but you can easily opt to buy your food from stalls run by the people who grew it, and who can tell you that the marks on the vegetables are down to a recent hailstorm, or that they've struggled to keep deer away from the cabbages this week. There are local producers who drive small vans, and those who come in the car with a small table laden with home-grown produce from their vegetable patches and eggs from the hens in their gardens.
Several well-stocked cheesemongers sell a fine array of French cheese, from large, round truffled brie to tiny goat's cheeses. Local butchers set up a grill to entice shoppers with a taste of Toulouse sausages, and while not all service comes with a smile, there is a very jocular onion seller who calls everyone "tu" rather than the usual formal "vous". Markets, wherever they are, can offer a chaotic walking tour of local cuisine and culture, and a delicious way to mark the changing seasons. Here there are huge beefheart tomatoes, plump courgettes and fat aubergines in the heat of summer; giant wild mushrooms that draw crowds when the air turns cooler in the autumn; and spring garlic and early strawberries to remind you the warm weather is on its way back. Other markets are amazing to visit, but this is my favourite place to shop.
So which are your favourite markets in the world? Which are the most spectacular and fascinating you've visited? Which UK markets offer the best in home-grown produce, and which overseas markets should make it on to a food lover's bucket list?
La Boqueria market in Barcelona. Photograph: Peter Bowater/Alamy