Patricia Cleveland-Peck

I was introduced to this walk by a friend some years ago when I lived in Paris and I am drawn back to it every time I return – especially in spring as it takes you through a network of glass-covered arcades protected from the rain, the cold and the traffic. In fact you are under cover almost all the way from the Palais-Royal to beyond the Grands Boulevards and on the way you will pass attractive shops, cafes and hotels and experience some of Paris’s historic atmosphere.

The majority of these covered passages, forerunners of the shopping mall, were built in the early years of the 19th century and they soon became popular strolling grounds for the beau monde who appreciated escaping not only the weather but also the mud and fifth of the Parisian streets. The glass ceilings meant that they were light by day so ideal for showing off one’s fashionable attire and with the new gas lamps reflecting the brass fittings, they were quite magical after dark.

It is worth mentioning at the outset that many of these galleries and passages have gates which are closed at night, so this is a walk to take by day. Begin with the Galerie Véro-Dodat, you’ll find the entrance between 17 and 19 rue Jean Jacques Rousseau in the 1st arrondissement. This gallery was built in 1826 by two pork butchers M.Véro and M.Dodat, who joined forces in the sort of speculative project which, at the time was making fortunes for anyone who could buy up buildings and cut such passageways through them. It certainly paid off in their case as the terminus of the Messagerie Lafitte was nearby so as well as giving passengers somewhere sheltered to wait on leaving the diligences, for those arriving it also provided a short cut to Palais-Royal, then the centre of Parisian life.

It is one of my favourite arcades as it has retained a good deal of historical atmosphere. It has a black and white tiled floor, elegant mahogany shop fronts with uniform shop signage and, if you glance upwards, attractive floral medallions on the unglazed parts of the ceiling. You’ll also notice the shutters and window boxes of the apartments above, all of which lend the gallery a charming, somewhat countryfied air.

It was in one of these apartments that the famous actress Mademoiselle Rachel lived when she had her great success at the Théâtre Français at the age of 17. She had many lovers including several of the Bonaparte family and incidentally gave her name to a shade of face powder. At the end the gallery the Café de l’Époque is still there. It was frequented by writers and poets including Gérard de Nerval who would take his pet lobster Thibault, for walks (on a blue lead) in the Palais-Royal gardens.

There are also art galleries and antique shops and a luthier which has been there as long as I remember. Nowadays though, the shop which attracts people from all over the world is Christian Louboutin, shoemaker of the scarlet soled footwear.

On leaving the arcade, cross rue de Croix des Petit Champs and you will see an archway in the distance, go under it and then through a smaller archways into the Palais-Royal gardens. These are surrounded by stately arcades but before reaching them you’ll notice the very modern Colonnes de Buren, black and white pillars of differing heights amongst which you often see children playing.

In the past the Palais-Royal was a lively area of gambling dens, taverns and prostitution. It was here that revolutionary Charlotte Corday bought the knife with which to kill Jacobin leader Jean-Paul Marat. Now sedate stamp, coin and medal dealers occupy the majority of the shops but at 20 & 24 Galerie Monpensier on the left, Didier Ludot’s boutique is worth a look. He sells genuine vintage haute-couture including beautifully made creations by Dior, Grès, Balenciaga et al, some dating from the 1940s and 1950s. He sells to the film industry and its stars, for these items, even second-hand are expensive. But if you consider however, that a new Chanel outfit could cost $20,000, $1000 for a nearly-new doesn’t seem quite so bad. For a more contemporary take on fashion, in Galerie Valois on the other side of the gardens Stella McCartney has opened a shop which seems to be doing well.

The famous writer Colette lived the last years of her life in rue de Beaujolais overlooking these gardens. Below her apartment was famous restaurant Le Grand Véfour established in 1760. Colette however, referred to this grand restaurant de luxe as her ‘canteen’ because she would telephone her orders down to the then-owner, her friend Raymond Olivier. In his autobiography he wrote, “I made her two meals for her 80th birthday, one in her apartment, a lark pie and the other in the restaurant, hare à la royale.”

Now the director and chef is the talented Guy Martin and you would have to be someone very special to merit a take-away service. Even Napoleon and Josephine made the journey to the restaurant as did Lamartine, Balzac and many others. I can vouch for Guy Martin’s sublime food as I had the good fortune to enjoy a seven-course lunch there sitting at Colette’s very table.

If you leave the Palais-Royal gardens by the little staircase on the right you will find yourself in the diminutive crooked Passage des Deux Pavilions. The passage is crooked for a purpose. Opposite, across rue des Petits Champs are two galleries, Vivienne and Colbert which have always been deadly rivals. The owner of Galerie Vivienne purchased this site, blocked up the original entrance because it lead directly to Galerie Colbert and by putting a kink in it made it (more or less ) face the entrance to Galerie Vivienne on the other side of the road.

Cross the road and enter the said Galerie Vivienne, queen of the galleries. which contains many enticing shops. Wolff et Descourtis with its sumptuous displays of vivid fabrics and silk scarves; Emilio Robba whose artificial flowers almost hoodwinked me (who thinks she knows her plants); Marelle, another classy vintage shop, not cheap but more reasonable than Didier Ludot; a second hand and rare book shop, D-F Jousseaume on the site of Petit Siroux established in 1826 which doesn’t look as if it has changed much since Théophile Gautier and Beaudelaire browsed among the volumes. Elegant and sophisticated with rounded archways, nymphs, a clock, a pretty rotunda and light sparkling off the fine mosaic floors, this is not a gallery to miss.

Running parallel is Galerie Colbert which belongs to the Bibliothèque Nationale. It has undergone impressive restoration but unlike the other arcades it does not contain shops but is home to various cultural institutes. With rosy marble columns, impeccable floors attractive bulbous lamps and a magnificent rotunda topped with a glass cupola it is well worth seeing although it lacks life – except it must be said, for in the popular and elegant brasserie Le Grand Colbert which is a very good place to pause for refreshment. In a scene in the 2003 film Something’s Gotta Give, Diane Keaton and Jack Nicolson ate roast chicken there, since when Americans turn up regularly asking for the same dish which has now become something of a house speciality.

From here you have to brave the elements and take a walk up rue Vivienne to No 38, the entrance to Passage des Panoramas, one of the oldest arcades. The panoramas, long gone, were circular structures built around 1787 on which paintings of Paris and other cities were displayed, They had an impact comparable with early cinema and were the creation of the American inventor Robert Fulton who had developed steamboats and submarines. He originally came to France to sell Napoleon marine inventions but while waiting, set up this entertainment. The rotundas were demolished in 1831 after which a warren of smaller passages was added. It was a very fashionable spot to see and be seen where, as observed by Zola’s Nana, "the splash of displays, jewellers gold, confectioner’s crystal and milliner’s silks blazed behind clear glass…"

Nowadays although the atmosphere is less elegant than the Palais Royal galleries, it has plenty to offer. Passages were always places of entertainment and the stage door of the Théâtre des Variétes is still to be found in one of the smaller galleries. There are the usual book, stamp and post-card dealers which seem to gravitate to these passages but sadly the magnificent establishment of Stern which engraved the letter heads and visiting cards for the royal families of Europe, has now decamped elsewhere leaving only some brass fittings and the name, now incorporated in that of an Italian pizzeria, Caffè Stern. At the end of the passage there is another Italian pizzeria Victoria Station-Wagon, decorated in the style of an old fashioned train, which you can peep at from the passage although the entrance is in Boulevard Montmartre.

You must now cross this busy boulevard and leave the smart 1st arrondissement as, when you enter the Passage Jouffroy, you are technically in the more down-market 9th. This bustling passage with its high glass ceiling and chequered floor backs onto the Musée Grévin waxworks and is bright with neon signs and an eclectic variety of shops ranging from an umbrella shop, Galerie Fayet which originally belonged to the brother Segas who ran it for years, to a large M&S Food emporium of more recent date. La Boîte à Joujoux is a mecca for collectors of doll’s house furniture and all things miniature, while the toy shop Pain d’Épices which stocks marionettes, old metal toys and rocking horses, also delights children. If you feel in need of refreshment Le Valentin restaurant and tea rooms opposite specialises in delicious cakes and pastries.

At the end of this passage is the two star Hotel Chopin, so named, the owner told me, because Chopin used to pass by regularly on his way to the Salle Pleyel. It makes a good base for exploration of these passages. I stayed there once and found my room which overlooked the rooftops, comfortable, attractively decorated and quiet.

Continue by crossing the road as our last arcade, Passage Verdeau, is a continuation of Passage Jouffroy. It too is full of specialist shop selling cameras, postcards, and antiques. It is one of my regular haunts when looking for second-hand books and it was in the little Librarie Farfouille that I came across a book entitled Rue des Boutiques Obscures, which at the time seemed to echo my the location so perfectly that I bought it and thus discovered the books by Patrick Modiano which describe post-war Paris so evocatively.

These last passages of the Grand Boulevards may lack the refinement of Galerie Vero-Dodat and the galleries of the Palais-Royal but they do reflect the subtle change of atmosphere as you move from an upmarket arrondissment to a more workaday one. Since their inception the passages have gone through several incarnations. Many were lost when Haussmann redesigned the streets of Paris and those which remained fell out of fashion with the advent of department stores. Today, however, as more people enjoy places with character and individuality, they have come into their own once again.

You have now finished the walk but if you continue on rue de Faubourg Montmartre a few yards until you reach the corner of rue Richer you can reward yourself with a little treat from a lovely old fashioned shop A La Mère de Famille where sweets, cakes chocolate and dozens of other délices are laid out as prettily as in a Colette novel

Patricia Cleveland-Peck travelled courtesy of Kirker Holidays which offers a 3 night package at the Hotel Royal St. Honore from £668.00 which includes –

Return standard class Eurostar from London to Paris,- Return transfers, Accommodation including breakfast, a two-day museum pass, a Seine River cruise, Kirker’s guide notes to restaurants, museums and sightseeing and the services of the Kirker concierge to book opera tickets, expert local guides or a table for dinner

Contact www.kirkerholidays,com telephone; 020 7593 2283