I do not love Paris. Sometimes I feel these words will be engraved on my tombstone, but darn it, why lie? And while this simple truth may not endear me to Francophiles it does mean that (whether it’s for work or because I lost a bet) when I find myself in the City of Lights, I do more than scratch the surface. And when you’re dealing with one of the world’s most travelled-to cities, this is no easy feat.
In late summer of 2017, I found myself stuck in a five-star Parisian hotel for four weeks (long story). I know what you’re thinking – how did I survive such an ordeal? It wasn’t easy, I can tell you that. In my increasingly desperate endeavour to suss out places overlooked by the museum-pass-carrying-crowds, I stumbled across a tiny brochure published by the Center for National Monuments entitled “The Covered Passages of Paris” – a slim but beautifully written guide that delves into a short but sweet history of the city’s’ arcades. By the time I was done reading I made it my mission to visit every one of Paris’s remaining galleries. And over the next three days, that I did.
To date there are 17 existing covered passages in Paris (also known as galleries or arcades) – 37 if you count those sites that are now demolished. Many of these galleries date as far back as the early 1800s or even late 1700s, and, for locals, they remain as much a part of Parisian culture as their morning croissant et cappuccino. According to my guide’s introduction written by Guy Lambert, an architectural historian and lecturer at the École Nationale Supérieure d’Architecture de Paris-Belleville, these covered passages once offered Parisians “entertainment, and the spectacle of their prosperity,” along with the irresistible appeal of flânerie or strolling. Sounds good to me, I think. An idle stroller or flâneur I shall be.
With the laces of my running shoes knitted together as tightly as a French roll, I start out at ground zero (in this case somewhere between Paris’s swanky 1st and 8th arrondissements), making my way at random to the first name on the list that catches my eye, Passage du Caire.
Located between metro stations Strasbourg-Saint-Denis and Réaumur-Sébastopol, Passage du Caire is a brisk five-minute walk from the infamous Boulevard Saint-Denis. Tucked away in a busy residential neighbourhood the mouth of the arcade is punctuated by antique street lamps on either side, ornate architectural detail and an elegant brick-red sign that hovers like a placeholder above a pair of wrought iron gates. Excited for the first time since arriving in Paris, I dash inside to see what awaits me.
The second-oldest passageway in Paris (and the oldest of the remaining arcades), the covered walkway was built on the site of an old convent and is, as one might imagine, rife with the sort of legends that tend to accompany such a past. Folktales aside, I remember my desire to become a flâneur and stroll along the narrow space, past ready-to-wear stores and a somewhat depressing collection of wholesale mannequin shops. While my find was exciting, it is not the hidden world of secret gardens and artisanal boutiques I had imagined and after half an hour I decide to move on.
Taking some time out to study the map that accompanies my guidebook, I observe with a hint of surprise that the 17 covered passages that remain, are all located to the north of the Seine and all but three are clustered round well-known avenues such as boulevards Montmartre and Sébastopol.
Acting on a whim I decide to check out Passage du Chantier. My hotel concierge seems to think it merits a trip even though it wasn’t in my guidebook. I place my fate in his capable hands and head south on foot towards the Opéra Bastille.
Just off Rue du Faubourg Saint-Antoine in the 11th arrondissement, I am greeted by a tightly coiled passageway brimming with attractive antique furniture shops and storefronts flanked by corrugated steel doors. Perhaps it’s the time that I’m visiting, but many of the businesses seem to have already closed for the day and there are but a handful of people milling about. All in all, it lacks the lively atmosphere I had anticipated and hardly seems worth the trip. Feet covered in Hansaplast bandages, I slump the hour’s walk back to my hotel defeated.
The next day I begin anew. My plan is to visit the Passage des Panoramas and Passage Jouffroy. If things go well, I might even skip north to the Passage Verdeau. Instead however, I become infatuated with Galerie Vivienne.
A historical monument since 1974, Galerie Vivienne is everything I had hoped for. Located within a short walk of the Palais Royal gardens, its floors are decorated with ornate mosaic motifs and a glass ceiling that drenches the bustling passageway in soft natural light. Overjoyed, I swoop into L’Aparté – an interior design shop filled with luminescent housewares and impossibly charming accent pieces – and afterward spend more than two hours browsing through the arcade’s delightful little boutique shops and dusty bookstore. After bludgeoning my credit card I stop at Bistrot Vivienne, a local haunt whose mahogany interior and chalkboard menu looks like something straight out of Midnight in Paris.
Two hours later, after a perfect meal of tender escargots and duck confit, I feel, for the first time in years, genuine affection for Paris. And while I continue to favour the gritty port of Sète and sole-sized oysters of Languedoc, all it took was an old Parisian arcade to help restore my faith in the City of Lights.
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