Friday, March 26, 2010

Passages of Time

Among the characteristic sights in our part of Paris, in an area roughly between the Grands Boulevards and the Louvre, are the remains of what were at one time dozens and dozens of "Passages" (accent on the second syllable - pa'ssahje). Designed and built in the 19th century, these narrow, glass-covered arcades, constructed within a building block, with entrances at the top and bottom streets and both side streets, offered the public a safe haven from the mud and squalor of the streets. Here, people could stroll at their leisure, window shop, take a coffee, or browse in a book store.

Paved with tile, and covered with an iron and glass framework that cast a luminous light into the space, these Passages enjoyed a fashionable following for many years. However, with the arrival of Baron Haussmann's new city plan for Paris, old, narrow streets were torn up and broad, tree-lined boulevards took their place, offering pedestrians dry sidewalks and, eventually, street lights. Many of the Passages disappeared at this time. Others fell into disarray.

As I walk to the gym (three times a week!), I pass by several of the surviving Passages. They make a lovely detour, a chance to check to see if there's anything new going on.

These days, the Passage Jouffroy on Blvd. Montmartre, on the border of the 2nd and 9th arrondissements, is home to the charming Hotel Chopin at the far end....

...a Best Western hotel at the front street end, several postcard shops, tourist tour offices, a few jewellry shops...

...and a lavish candy store, which looks like it's gearing up for big Easter sales.

Facing the Passage Jouffroy on Blvd. Montmartre, the Passage des Panoramas serves a different clientèle. Even though it is just across the street, this Passage encompasses the bustling business community of the 2nd arrondissement. The grand Bourse building (formerly the stock exchange, now a temporary exhibition space) lies at the far end of the Passage. In between, the side streets are lined with gold, coin and stamp dealers, still doing a thriving business. This neighborhood is also home to most of the major newspapers -- Le Figaro, La Libération, Le Nouvel Observateur, Agence France Presse -- as well as many major insurance and banking companies.

This combination of being part Fleet Street and part Wall Street has made the Passage des Panoramas a favorite, bustling sit-down lunch spot for hundreds of daily workers. At around 11 o'clock every morning, waiters busy themselves setting out the tables that line the entire length of the Passage.

Menu boards post today's "formule" as well as other tempting offerings.

By 1 o'clock hungry customers crowd into the more than two dozen bistros, créperies and cafés, enjoying their lunch break before heading back to work.

Over on the far side of the Bourse, on the rue de la Banque, stands probably the most elegant of all the Passages. It's so elegant it's not even called a Passage, but, instead, Galerie Vivienne. From the fetching two Grecian bas-reliefs above the entrance and the sparkling gilt-edged name... the signature of the mosaic artist who laid the entrance tiles, this Passage breathes the world of chic.

The bas-reliefs continue all along the walls and rotundas at either end. Beautiful chandeliers add to the natural light that pours through the vaulted glass ceiling.

There are no bustling crowds. Indeed, there's only one eatery, the lovely Priori à Thé, with just a couple of tables set out in the Passage. Here you can enjoy a wide variety of teas, and, at lunchtime, a slice of quiche or a delicate salad and sandwich.

Instead of coin and stamp collectors, candy stores or tourist agency offices, the Galerie Vivienne serves the discerning wine connoisseur at the egalitarian Lucien LeGrand, filles et fils (!)...

...several boutiques offering the latest in spring fashions, without posting a single price in the windows...

...and at the far end, one of the most fantastic rare book shops. Tables of recent books are set out in the Passage, along with racks of postcards -- not featuring the usual Parisian icons, but, instead, movie star icons of yesterday, reproductions of early children's literature heros, etc. The windows are filled with first editions and busts of eminent authors. The temptation to linger and browse is overwhelming.

Meanwhile, at the Village Joué Club on the rue Richelieu, the clientèle are of a younger age. The entire Passage is devoted to children's needs, loves, passions. Again, the structure is a real homage to 19th century design. The glass ceiling is kept sparkling clean so you can see the façades of the buildings that surround the Passage.

No wine shops here, no bistros or cafés. Just specialty shop after specialty shop offering exquisite children's clothing, model plane kits, computer games, Lego kits galore, dollhouses, and adorable stuffed animals. On a quiet weekday morning, there are no children to be seen. Just a few of us adults, gazing, misty-eyed, at the astonishing array of delights that still bring out the kid in all of us.

Our apartment building on the rue Ste. Anne forms part of yet another Passage. This one, alas, is showing sad signs of the passage of time. The name itself, Passage Choiseul, is missing letters on a side street entrance.

The main entrance off of rue St. Augstin still has a sort of faded elegance about it, even though the flower boxes above are neglected.

(By the way, the gentleman in the blue shirt on the sidewalk is Monsieur Serge, my hairdresser, taking a quick cigarette and phone break from his busy salon behind him!)

Inside, the vaulted glass ceiling is covered with some kind of opaque plastic sheeting to prevent rainwater leaking through the broken panes, giving a gloomy look to everything. The tile floor is cracked and patched in many places. Several stores are going out of business or are boarded up.

In spite of its rough, gritty edges, though, we feel a warm friendship for this Passage. After all, it's our Passage! Setting aside its downtrodden appearance, it's a busy place during the week -- no sit-down cafés but lots of counter service take-out spots that have the weekday office workers lining up every day. These stand cheek by jowl with cheap dress shops, more postcard stands and a paperback book shop.

And for a really wide selection of reasonably priced and good looking shoes, there are at least five shops vying for my business every time I walk through...and getting it from time to time.

In another sign of the passage of time, I'm happy to report that we've packed away our down coats and winter boots, it's still light at 7 pm, the flower beds in the Palais Royal gardens are bursting forth with daffodils and hyacinths, and a brave magnolia tree is showing its first blossoms

Finally, the view from our living room window looks over the sloping roof of the Passage Choiseul, which is slowly disappearing behind the newly flowering mystery tree!

Spring is almost sprung!

À bientôt!


  1. Loved this one. Passages, never knew their history before.
    And spring is sprung. Bravo MXM

  2. Dearest J,
    Thanks so much for all these postings! They are spectacular and evocative. I adore the Gallerie Vivienne. I remember stumbling upon it while walking all day in Paris. I felt like I found secret treasure. Thanks so much for bringing us with you.

  3. Hello Janet,
    Connie mentioned your blog, and I'm so glad she did. I'd read up on these passages, but your account is marvelous. I'm coming next week and have them on my list. Also glad to hear that you've put away winter coats. Still looks pretty cold compared to Inverness and Berkeley. Best,

    p.s. I was Sonya's school bus driver for a time.