There are quite a few enclosed shopping passages in Paris. They will remind some people of the earlier days of a very distinct Parisian culture. They are still there among the streets, they still trade, and they are a joy to experience.
Some of them are sheltered by a glass ceiling, some lie just off the beaten side street and some of them exude a bright, shining and glowing art deco persona that instantly attracts; a brightly lit presence. A few of them are fusty, un-maintained and tatty but many Paris shoppers go back to all of them, every day. They are all a component of an earlier Parisian vibrancy that stands alone as a piece of quality living that is so easily appealing to all of us. They have a timeless quality comparable to a vintage Rolls Royce and they are fun to track down.
These passages have a particular permanence about them. They seem to have existed for all time as a symbol of French living. They project a quality and curiosity that cannot be found amongst the heavy commercialism plying its trade as part of the regular street life that surrounds them.
Visitors and determined shoppers will be able to find rare and older remnants and symbols from the misty, bygone days of Parisian and French life. There are many ‘one off’ items like dusty books that have lain for decades unread and perhaps some bargains. Older furniture and older styles of household goods and perhaps unused clothes can rest behind the shadows in some of the stalls and shops. Visitors will find collections of earlier fashions in everything; visual, layouts, designs, tastes and styles.
Some of the grander passages provide café tables to use just as people from an earlier period did. They are all laid out alongside some of the shops. The cutlery and table ware remains just as it was so long ago. They are much more than just an imitation of past days, they are always as they have been.
Modern confectionary and market style fruit and vegetables are traded in a few places in the way of an authentic and surviving earlier culture. These are the goods for the connoisseur.
I decided to go on an exploration of Paris to track some of these great passages down. They can all be visited by travelling to a nearby Metro station.
Cour du Bel Air
This ‘just off the street’ collection of Parisian civilisation is a bit of an oasis. It is within the grasp of a street walker but it is secluded and strangely private. Go to Faubourg Saint Antoine and have a look. It is a little like a hamlet in Paris all by itself. Find the trees, flowers and ivy encrusted buildings surrounded by exquisite architecture harbouring a celebrated art bookshop and library. It will be a peaceful retreat from the pace of the courser life in the street around you. The nearest Metro station is Ledrue-Rollin.
Passage du Grand Cerf
Perhaps this is the most beautiful shopping passage in Paris. It has been resurrected to its original glory like a phoenix. There are many alluring shops and the French scent of a Parisian culture fills the atmosphere around you. You can buy fresh flowers that arrived in the morning from the Rungis market that the stall owner gets up at dawn to go and collect. Look for the designer jewellery discovered by Christian Lacroix, enticing household goods and older style eye wear. When you have finished go to the’ Le Pas Sage’ wine bar to rest your soul. The nearest metro is Etienne Marcel.
This passage has seen better days but conducts its business vibrantly. It is not supported by national funds but has survived the years. The cracked glass ceiling lets in the rain, but it clings to its charm. You can find stalls selling vague bric-a-brac and dusty old books and also dine on obscure Asian dishes. It is exciting and timeless. Find the metro, Quatre-September.
This is splendid. It takes its origins from the heyday of the 19th century. Find and explore the Paris version of London’s Madam Tussauds with the scary Grevin staring right back at you. There are old fashioned toy shops, antique walking sticks for sale and a vintage photographic gallery. Tempting obscure art books and a hotel will hold your attention too. (Book the hotel well in advance if you want to experience it!) The nearest metro is Richelieu-Drouot.
Passage des Panoramas
This is a brightly lit and enticing classic galerie. Non Parisian visitors will find it unusual. There are shops selling long lost postage stamps and similar articles in a shop called Tombees du Camion. This phrase translates as ‘fell off the back of a lorry’. This emporium sells everything from frightening plastic dolls to rather kitsch postcards. Go to one of the fashionable wine bars to get your breath back. The metro, Grand Boulevards.
This gallery is a little off the mainstream Parisian cultural track but is a classic senior relative of the family. View the splendid architecture, mosaics and sculptured statues. They have all been caringly-preserved. Jean -Paul Gaultier opened his first boutique here and it remains his primary symbol. Look for the contemporary designs also of Didier Ludot and the fabric establishment of Wolff and Descourtis. Find also what could perhaps be the finest wine shop in Paris called ‘Les Caves Legrand’. ‘Bistrot Vivienne’ and ‘A Priori’ for a midday café break are excellent stop offs for a drink, a meal or afternoon tea French style. The nearby metro is Bourse.
This was where I started my little exploration after my cafe breakfast of coffee and pastries, Passage Moliere. It is named after the Theatre Moliere that presented performances of the great dramatist’s plays. The theatre here still exists and this collection of buildings rest alongside an off street, open air passage. The location is a little scruffy and un-tended but it retains its eternal culture. It presents a large museum containing rare cinema posters from earlier days. Find also the shop selling the very expensive but high quality, made to measure shoes, from the Japanese cobbler Tamano Nagashima. Passage Moliere is modestly charming. Metro station, Rambuteau.
This really is two passages opposite each other on either side of the road. It presents itself as a little India. It is a reserve, almost, for spicy Asian food restaurants. The cuisine flavour is harmlessly quite mild to suit the French taste buds. The prices are very reasonable but the atmosphere is one of active and workman like activity. The feeling is one of shop floor, vibrant commercialism. The part across the other side of the road consists largely of shops and stalls selling items of an Indian nature. The best metro station is Chateau-d’Eau.
Passage du Caire
This row of establishments is actually a commercial, working district dealing with fashions, clothes repair and dry cleaning. The gallery is notable particularly for its grand and vintage glass roof. Have a look and admire the original architecture. Metro, Sentier.
Passage du Prado
This was the last gallery passage that I looked at. It is in a state serious disrepair but the classic art deco features stand proudly to be admired. It lies in a fascinatingly cosmopolitan district of Asian and African citizens of Paris. It is home to numerous barber shops and hair salons that dictate the active, business like environment. Visitors can enjoy what must be sumptuous cuisine in the associated café stemming from the island of Mauritius. Get off at the metro, Strasbourg Saint- Denis.
Some of these shopping passages and galleries were brighter than others but all were trading steadily. They were all about a Paris culture, Paris art and Paris commercialism. Some were in poor repair but they had survived. They were there because they represented a timeless quality that is regarded so much as a still required feature originating from long past days. They all still attract style conscious visitors and shoppers that are all enjoying the flavour of richer past somehow.
The galleries and passages are all such good places to find that special gift, romantic gesture or perhaps even the very collectable bargain now and again. Perhaps do what I like to do when I see a painting or a book for sale. I buy what I like and what I can afford but maybe one day, like the gallery traders, I shall make a profit or two.
For City Breaks Silver Travel Advisor recommends Kirker Holidays.