Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris has done more to foster Paris nostalgia than any other movie in recent memory. What is nostalgia? Is it a good or a bad thing?
Can you blame us for wanting to escape the present when we turn on the news these days?
As I browsed my photo archives this afternoon, I came across a series I shot during my last trip to Paris in February. I felt the familiar tingle, the feeling of déjà vu. I remembered the day I took the photos; the food I had for lunch; the streets I followed looking up at the magnificent buildings; the conversation I had with my parents that evening as I recounted my adventures in the city I once called home.
Tonight, on a beautiful Seattle fall evening, I would like to retrace my steps, and take you with me around the streets of Paris. On y va?
Parisian weather – Paris nostalgia be damned – was always what it is today: overcast year round, occasionally damp and cold, stunningly sunny on a spring day, stiflingly hot in summer months, and more often than not, changing and unpredictable. Walking in the city in the 19th century could prove a muddy, smelly affair. Today, to escape the weather, we head to the mall. It is the perfect refuge for shoppers year round, popular around the world. Parisians, it turns out, may very well have invented the concept of the modern mall when they built over a hundred covered arcades (passages couverts or galeries, in French,) in the early 19th century. It was Paris, so things were done in style. Mosaic floors, cast iron gates, marble pillars, ornate architectural details, and glass and steel canopies welcomed visitors. Overtime, these arcades (many located on the Right Bank,) faced intense competition from the Parisian department stores, le Printemps, or les Galeries Lafayette. Many were destroyed during the 20-year remodel of the city of Paris undertaken by Napoleon III and his wingman, Baron Haussmann after 1850. A handful survived, but fell in a bad state of disrepair, until the 1980s, when Parisians – in a fit of nostalgia? – rediscovered and restored the once popular covered arcades.
My favorites are located in the 2nd and the 9th arrondissements, and on a cold but sunny February day, I took a trip back in time in Paris. I started in the gardens of le Palais Royal, scenic year round, and a crowd pleaser. I walked past le Grand Véfour, marveling at the prices on the menu posted outside the 200-year old gourmet restaurant; then took a few minutes at the corner of rue de Montpensier to admire the façade of le Théâtre du Palais Royal.
From there, I headed to my first stop, la Galerie Vivienne , considered by many the most spectacular covered arcade in the French capital.
From Jean-Paul Gaultier, to les Caves Legrand, the famous wine shop, and upscale boutiques, la Galerie Vivienne, built in 1826, oozes elegance, affluence and charm. It is easy to get distracted by the beautiful window displays and to miss the architectural details.
After a leisurely lunch at A Priori Thé (clever name!) I headed outside and followed la rue des Petits Champs to nearby Galerie Colbert. I was impatient to admire its famous glass dome. Alas, the arcade was deserted, and closed to the public. Two guards sat by a small table at the entrance. I begged; I pleaded; explained I was headed back to the US the next day. To no avail. “Impossible, Madame,” the youngest replied firmly. I knew better than to insist when I heard the word “impossible.” I found out later there had been a bomb scare that morning, and the Galerie remained closed for the entire day. Undeterred, I followed la rue des Petits Champs to le Passage Choiseul, a few blocks from la Galerie Vivienne. Quel dépaysement! Culture shock! Le Passage Choiseul, one of the longest in the city, has a Parisian flavor, but it is as unpretentious and populaire, as la Galerie Vivienne is impressive and elegant. There is an eclectic mix of eateries (Bio [organic] Burger, Croque-Monsieur, anyone?) and shops. By that time, the weather had switched to rain, and I was grateful for a chance to stay dry for my after-lunch walk.
There was no mistaking the city I was exploring, as I exited le Passage Choiseul. From there, I followed la rue du Quatre-Septembre, lined with imposing Haussmannian and post-Haussmannian buildings, to la place de la Bourse, the Paris Stock-Exchange.
La rue Vivienne took me to a popular group of covered arcades: The last two are connected and straddle the 2nd and 9th arrondissements. Le Passage des Panoramas (1799) is the oldest one. It once belonged to an American businessman. This was the first public area in Paris to be lit by gas, in 1816. Many signs and luminaries are originals.
Three smaller galleries intersect with the main one. One is a side entrance to the popular Théâtre des Variétés, one of the oldest Parisian theaters still in operation and a Historic Monument of France.
Le Passage des Panoramas ends at Boulevard Montmartre, and I crossed the busy street to reach the last two arcades.
Le Passage Jouffroy (1846) is a Parisian favorite. It can be crowded, but is worth seeing. Its barrel vault skylight, all glass and steel, is spectacular. In the gallery below, there are unique shops, a brasserie, and an old hotel, Hôtel Chopin. This was the first arcade to be equipped with a heated floor. It was entirely renovated in the late 1980s, and it shows. Le Musée Grévin, Paris’ wax works museum is located there, but my favorite destination is a cute shop named Pain d’Epices (spice cake, once a favorite of French children’s.) Nostalgia, when you hold us…
Stepping inside Pain d’Epices is faster and more satisfying than time travel. One is instantly transported back to the colors, sounds, and smells of childhood. From old-fashioned wood toys (made in France,) to school supplies, all items in the store are displayed or stored just as they were way back when. It’s fantastic!
Behold: French icons galore…
But we have one last galerie to visit, le Passage Verdeau. It is connected to le Passage Jouffroy, and is more peaceful than most. Le Passage Verdeau specializes in antiques, engravings, comic books and art.
There are more covered arcades in Paris, but few can rival the ones we have just visited today in Parisian atmosphere, decor, and shop selection. Nostalgia may be denial. Paris nostalgia is contagious. Pourquoi pas? Let’s live dangerously. When you tire of large commercial malls and their chain stores, remember there is place in the French capital where you can time travel; browse; eat; go to the theater; and shop. I, for one, know my old friends will always be there when I stop by…
Story and photos by French Girl in Seattle, unless otherwise mentioned.
Do not use without permission.
In tribute to the Parisian Metro station mentioned in this story, here is Vanessa Paradis‘ “Station Quatre-Septembre.”
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