Covered Passages

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By a dull day of November, friends from the Netherlands asked me to take them to one of my favorite strolls. I took them to several covered galleries, as it is nice whatever the season and highly perfect when the weather is grey and cold. Beyond the obvious comfort provided by the covered galleries when the weather is bad, each one of them has a unique charm. Depending on their history and location, their architecture is more or less sophisticated and they are more or less fancy, but they all have a lot of character.

From their creation in the 19th century, the covered passages were greatly enjoyed by Parisians who could walk protected from bad weather and traffic. However, the metro and department stores made them less attractive. Some were demolished like the Passage de l’Opéra described by Aragon; some fell into disrepair like the Passage du Grand-Cerf. Today, most of the surviving Passages have been renovated and their history and charm are being rediscovered.   

We will visit nine covered passages and by extension the galleries of the Palais-Royal. I recommend the visit during the week or Saturdays, (Galerie Véro-Dodat and Passage du Perron are closed on Sundays).

Passage Verdeau

We will start with Passage Verdeau, n° 31, rue du Faubourg Montmartre. Going out of metro station Le Pelletier, turn left into rue Lafayette that we cross to take on the right rue du Faubourg Montmartre.

On our way, few meters ahead of the entry into passage Verdeau, let's stop in front of the old shop “A la Mere de Famille “, the oldest confectionery store in Paris. It still has its wood and brass cash register, its old school display wood cases, shelves with jars full of candies, sweets and chocolates. Its front listed facade names in gold leaf a large number of sweet treats. The store has been a paradise for the sweet tooth since 1761, as written on the  large sign across the second floor. It is always plunging me back into my childhood, truly as my “madeleine de Proust”. It was the first stop when my mother and I were going from our home, rue Clauzel to a friend of hers living rue Saint-Marc.

A few steps ahead its dark entrance, the covered passage opens clear and high under its glass roof displaying a soft light. This passage, rather common has gained some character over the last twenty years. When I was a child, it was to me sad and grey, especially in contrast with the next passage Jouffroy that I was so much fond of. There were few stores and I was not yet finding interest into old books. Today, there are many shops, old books shops, antiques and a neat shop selling cross-stitch kits.

Passage Jouffroy

Let's cross rue de la Grange-Batelière and let's enter into the passage Jouffroy that could only be providing joy to a six-year old girl in the sixties. Of course, the windows of the Grevin Museum with wax statues were quite an attraction. There was also a toy store with a horrible little papier maché bulldog at the entrance, growling horribly when I was pulling its leash. Then, I was taking a trip in the oriental shop, as large as a souk. I was Aladin, walking among the thick wool carpets to the rhythm of oriental music. I was a princess in front of wooden boxes with mother-of-pearl inlays full with heavy jewels and colored scarves.

Today, the Passage has kept its same charming character. And the entrance of the hotel Chopin always makes me want to be a tourist. Of course, I can notice new changes at each one of my visits in the passage, and it makes me feel nostalgic. This is the relentless wind of modern times which blows away the rare books, the charms of a toy store and brings a Mark & Spencer store quite out of place here. Fortunately, a break  in the nice tea room always calms down my melancholy.
When we go out of the Passage Jouffroy, we can feel the contrast between its charming quiet atmosphere with the noisy boulevard des Italiens. Let's cross the boulevard to enter into the Passage des Panoramas leaving the traffic and noise behind.

Passage des Panoramas

When I was a child, the passage with its stamp shops seemed to me too sad and too quiet. Today, it is more lively especially with new restaurants, like the first gluten free restaurant that opened in Paris. The legendary engraver Stern, established since 1834, known by the Parisian high society for their calling cards, menus cards and announcements has now been replaced by a fine Italian restaurant.

The passage, which is standing at the side of the Theatre des Variétés is described by Emile Zola in his novel, Nana. The following extract reminds me quite the excitement I had as a child in the Passage Jouffroy

"She adored the Passage des Panoramas, a survival of her childhood passion for flashy fancy goods, dress jewellery, fake leather, and rolled gold. Whenever she went through there, she could never tear herself away from the various displays, just like the down-at-heel little chit of a girl who used to stand dreamily staring at the sweets in a confectioner’s, listening to a barrel-organ playing in a nearby shop; she had a special weakness for cheap and gaudy knick-knacks, vanity cases made of nutshells, rag-and-bone men’s baskets in which to stuff toothpicks, or thermometers in the shape of Vendôme columns and obelisks. "

Nana - Emile Zola

Let’s now take the Galerie des Variétés on the left and then the deserted Galerie Saint-Marc which ends at n°8, rue Saint-Marc where we make a right.   

We now walk in front of the main entrance of the Passage des Panoramas, at n°10. The high arched doorway captured by Atget is gone, together with the southern part of the Passage, demolished in the 20th century. It has been replaced by an ugly doorway topped with high buildings.  

 At n°18, is a mansion once owned by Magon de la Balue, a prominent Court banker at the time Choiseul was the Chief minister of king Louis XV. It is a nice transition to go now to rue and Passage Choiseul …

  • Service entrance
    Passage des Panoramas
    8, rue Saint-Marc
    Atget – 1908
    (BnF)

  • Passage des Panoramas
    10, rue Saint-Marc
    Atget – 1907
    (BnF)

  • Former mansion
    owned by Magon de la Balue,
    Farmer-General
    18, rue Saint-Marc
    Atget – 1907
    (BnF)

Passage Choiseul

At the end of rue Saint-Marc, let's turn left into rue Favart and cross the square along the Opéra Comique. There is a little story that I was recently reading in the newspaper Le Monde about this beautiful theatre which has to maintain a curious tradition. Indeed, the Choiseul family was granted by King Louis XVI the privilege of owning forever a private eight seats box in this theatre. This was as a recognition of their donation of a part of their private mansion garden for the construction of the Theatre in 1781. And this forever, as long as a male descendant would still bear the name of Choiseul. A private box with a private lounge connected directly with the Choiseul's mansion through an underground passage! However, the game is over for the Choiseul family who never missed a performance. After a complete renovation of the theatre and full compliance with safety standards, a ventilation shaft has impaired the box now cut by half. Seven times in the past, the Choiseul family took legal actions against the head of the Theatre who tried to dislodge them. The drama is set, how is it going to end?

Let's now continue, taking a left onto rue Marivaux, a right onto rue Gretry. Make a right onto rue Gramont up to rue Saint-Augustin. You will find the entrance to Passage Choiseul at n° 23, rue Saint-Augustin. 

Before entering the Passage, if you like old and nice shops, you should go first onto rue de Choiseul where there is a fabulous haberdashery, a mercerie. It is absolutely vintage, like the shop across the street, selling ornamental fittings that should fit all the needs for trimmings … This is no ordinary shop: there are hundreds of old buttons, of all colors and all shapes, ribbons of all types, I mean satin, silk, polyester is unknown here… be the day when this vintage stock will be depleted be late as much as possible … it was nearly sold as a bistro twenty years ago … The sight of this shop is so rejoicing …

To keep this joyful spirit, let's take a break at Café Joyeux, right at the entrance of the Passage. This café is not ordinary either! It is staffed by people with Downs' syndrom or autism. And indeed, the mood is set : the employees are so happy to have a job providing them with dignity and confidence; and the same for the customers, so happy to contribute!

In the seventies, I used to go through the Passage Choiseul to meet up with my mother who was working at the Place Gaillon nearby. At that time, it appeared to me a little bit corny, with its quite old fashioned clothes and shoe shops.

In his book Death on Credit (Mort à crédit), the writer Céline tells about his childhood. He disliked the Passage where he lived at n° 64, upstairs his mother's lace shop. As he was suffering from anemia, his family's doctor exclaimed, in Céline's vigorous and distinctive style:
What he needs isn’t two weeks, but three months of fresh air!... “ That’s what he said. “Your Passage,” he went on, “is a pesthole… You could not even get a radish to grow there! It’s a urinal without doors or windows… You’ve got to get out of there!...”

Needless to say that this picturesque description cannot be applied anymore to the Passage, well-used during the week by many people working in the district.

Before the Passage was built and opened in 1827, there was a mansion, owned by the Marquis de Gesvres Governor of Paris in 1703, which was said to be the most famous gambling place. This mansion was built in 1655 by a famous architect: Antoine Lepautre, known also for having built the Port-Royal convent and the elegant hotel de Beauvais, rue François Miron. We can see in the Passage a loggia with columns and a pediment: it is a remain of the central dwelling of the former mansion. Through the glass ceiling of the Passage, we can also see the shape of a perpendicular building: it is also a remaining part of the former mansion. In 2000, the owners of this remaining town house,  Joseph Achkar and Michel Charrière, two renown interior designers have beautifully renovated the rooms (they are currently restoring the Hôtel de la Marine, place de la Concorde).

 Let's take the Passage Sainte-Anne on the left before the main exit of Passage Choiseul towards rue des Petits-Champs. So different with the main Passage, especially in Atget's and Céline's time, it could have deserved this name of Passage des Bérésinas. Céline gave this name to the Passage Choiseul, the Berezina being the doomed and cold location of  Napoleon's defeated army's retreat from Moscow. The photo of the Passage Sainte-Anne taken by Atget is perfectly graphic, its framing enhancing the geometric lines of the glass ceiling.

  • Hôtel de Gesvres
    Passage Choiseul
    Atget
    (Musée Carnavalet)

  • Passage Choiseul
    Atget – 1907
    (Musée Carnavalet)

  • Passage Choiseul
    40 rue des Petits-Champs
    Atget
    (BnF)

  • Passage Choiseul
    rue Sainte-Anne
    Atget
    (Musée Carnavalet)

Square Louvois

We arrive in rue Sainte-Anne which we take on our left up to rue Rameau. Make a right on rue Rameau and let's take a break in Louvois garden. (Directions)

On our way on rue Sainte-Anne, let's stop at the outstanding spices store, created by the Chef Roellinger, that I discovered recently on the advice of a friend, a Brit and gourmet!

After our break, let's exit from the garden onto rue Richelieu. Make a left and go around the National Library of France (BnFBibliothèque Nationale de France), my key source of Atget's photos among their rich and large collection of documents. Let's take rue Colbert and turn right onto rue Vivienne. (Directions)

  • Louvois fountain and garden Rue Richelieu
    Atget
    (BnF)

Galerie Vivienne

The Passage Vivienne opens at n°6. This Passage is the most  beautiful  covered Passage of Paris. It got a big immediate success when it was built in 1826, and then at the beginning of the 20th century, the elegant gallery fell into neglect.  Today, it is beautifully renovated and all the shops are really fabulous. Its fame also attracts many tourists that you will see accompanied by experienced guides.  

Vidocq, the famous criminal who became a detective, lived at n°13 of the Passage, in 1840.  It is said that he was using underground galleries of Paris like Valjean, the famous hero of Hugo's novel Les Misérables. Rather than comparing him to Jean Valjean, I should rather say like the detective Javert, Hugo's police detective, as when Vidocq lived here in the Passage, it was as the head of his private detective agency. 

  • Colbert fountain
    Rue Colbert
    Atget
    (BnF)

  • Staircase at
    n°13, Galerie Vivienne
    Atget – Mai 1906
    (BnF)

Galerie Colbert

Galerie Vivienne
Atget – may 1906
(BnF)

Not that long ago, it was possible to get into Galerie Colbert from Galerie Vivienne. Today, you have to use the entrance at n°4, rue Vivienne. Galerie Colbert is owned by the National Library of France – BnF (Bibliothèque Nationale de France) since 1974. Galerie Colbert was so ruined that it was demolished and then rebuilt as it was.
Today, it is used by the National Institute for Art History (INHAInstitut National d'Histoire de l'Art) and by the French National Institute of Cultural Heritage (INPInstitut National du Patrimoine).
The contrast between the two galleries is striking: not because of the architecture equally elegant, but in the absence of life in Galerie Colbert, as it is without any shops and is isolated from Galerie Vivienne. It is a silent and cold beauty, worth visiting.

The rotunda was originally designed to connect the double bend gallery to both streets, rue Vivienne and rue des Petits-Champs together with Galerie Vivienne. Its center was decorated with a high bronze chandelier supporting seven crystal globes. Then, the elegant gallery became deserted by the end of the 19th century, falling in disrepair, as shown by Atget's photograph. The crystal globes disappeared by that time and the gallery was used to store handcarts.

The chandelier has been replaced by a bronze statue, Eurydice mourante ( Dying Eurydice) aka Eurydice piquée par un serpent (Eurydice bitten by a snake), made in 1862 by Charles François, aka Nanteuil.  In the 1980's, after the renovation of Galerie Colbert, the statue was moved from the garden of Palais-Royal inside the rotunda.

Let’s now exit onto rue des Petits-Champs and make a right. Head up and make a left on rue Vivienne to reach Palais-Royal through the Passage du Perron.

  • Galerie Colbert
    Atget – 1906
    (BnF)

  • Garden of Palais Royal
    Atget
    (Musée Carnavalet)

Palais-Royal

Palais Royal
Atget – 1904/1905
(J. Paul Getty Museum)

Three... Six...Nine..., written in 1945 by Colette tells the author's nine moves within Paris, one being her first-floor apartment at 9, rue de Beaujolais in which she describes the garden of Palais-Royal, quite deserted and still unknown by many Parisians. The garden was then only known and visited by the locals walking their dog or child, as Colette would put it…

She lived twice in Palais-Royal, on the first-floor at the first time, just above the shop with the arched windows; and later on the second-floor where she died. Her name is engraved on a seat of the prestigious restaurant nearby, le Grand Véfour, where she was dining frequently until her last days.   

Attraction of tourists and Parisians alike, Palais-Royal offers the combined pleasure of its arcades, providing a nice shelter along elegant shops and its calm garden away from the traffic. Whatever the day, the time, the season, the temperature, you can always spot  young couples in their wedding outfits posing for photos. Many Parisians have rediscovered the place thirty years ago to see those Buren's columns which originally received a lot of negative criticism, as well as Pol Bury's steel spheres fountains reflecting the elegant classical architecture of Palais-Royal.

At Colette's time and later in the sixties when my mother was taking me for a walk in the garden of Palais-Royal, it was quite deserted. I preferred the Tuileries garden, across the street, less calm, more open and pleasant for a child. However, I was completely fascinated by the old windows displaying pipes, medals and tin soldiers looking from an other age. These old shops still exist; A l'Oriental is still selling carved pipes and Bacqueville is still manufacturing Legion of Honor medals and other awards. An other wonderful childhood memory is the view of actors during a break. A Don Rodrigue with a sword by his side talking to a Chimene in her long dress outside on a balcony of Comédie Française; this was ever more increasing my feeling of having entered in an other dimension of space and time once  into Palais-Royal.

Before being Royal, it was Palais Cardinal when it was built in 1636 by Cardinal Richelieu. It became Palais Royal when it was inherited by the royal family when the cardinal died. Later, before the French Revolution, Philippe d'Orléans, cousin of King Louis XVI, decided to close the three sides of the garden with stone arcades built by Victor Louis, who is also the architect of the actual Comédie Française theater. The various shops, gambling dens, cafes and restaurants  which opened in the new galleries got an immediate success. It was also a gathering place of prostitutes, especially around the Galeries des Bois, a temporary wooden arcade, which was standing in the place of the Galerie d'Orléans between the gardens and the inner courtyard (Cour d'Honneur).
Today, the Palais Royal accommodates the Council of State, the Constitutional Council and the Ministry of Culture.

The statue Eurydice bitten by a snake left Palais Royal to stand in the rotunda of Galerie Colbert. However, Adolphe Thabard's Snake Charmer is still in the garden, though it both lost its left arm and the snake which was around its hand, still visible on Atget's photo.

Let’s now go to rue de Valois through the Passage des Fontaines.

  • Passage du Perron
    Entrance into Palais Royal
    9 rue de Beaujolais
    Atget – 1906
    (Musée Carnavalet)

  • Palais Royal garden
    Atget
    (BnF)

  • Palais Royal
    Passage des Fontaines
    Atget – 1903/ 1908
    (Musée Carnavalet)

Rue de Valois

N° 8, rue de Valois, photographed by Atget is a mansion built by Richelieu called the Hotel Mélusine, due to a tapestry representing the fairy Melusina.
Let's also notice the old sign of the former restaurant Le Boeuf à la Mode founded in 1792. As à la mode means fashionably, the sign represents a beef dressed following the fashion of  late 18th century, with a shawl and a feathered hat. However, this is of course a pun, as boeuf à la mode is a beef stew slowly simmered after been marinated in white wine and brandy… On Atget's photo, we can see the restaurant, still there until 1936.

Let's continue on rue de Valois up to Place de Valois. There we turn to the left on rue Montesquieu heading up to rue Croix des Petits Champs where we find the entrance of Passage Vero-Dodat, at the corner of rue du Bouloi.

  • Hôtel Mélusine
    8, rue de Valois
    Atget
    (BnF)

Galerie Véro-Dodat

Until a few years ago, it was a very quiet deserted Passage. It is more known and frequented since new shops have opened like a Louboutin store, the iconic red sole shoes.
This passage was founded in 1826 by two men of taste(s), Vero and Dodat, two delicatessen owners. With its black-and-white marble-mosaic floor, its pilasters coated by mirrors between the windows framed in gilded copper, the passage could be somewhere in a small Venitian street. When the Passage was less known and less frequented, it looked even more like the eeriness of a Corto Maltese's trip, well hidden and secret. I remember there was a shop selling old dolls and automatons which does not exist anymore. I remember there was a shop window, dressed in quite an ambiguous and voluptuous way, evoking the Baths of the Passage de l'Opéra described by Aragon. In this shop window there was a pair of high heel sandals on a red sofa and a heavy velvet curtain hiding the secrets of the shop.

We are now going towards the Halles district to reach the last two passages. Let's go out of the Galerie Véro-Dodat on the left onto rue Jean-Jacques Rousseau, then onto rue du Louvre and on the right onto rue Coquillère. (Directions)

We walk by the old  Dehillerin cookware shop, nearly 200 years old, not that changed, with its narrow corridors filled with old wooden shelves full of high quality utensils.
After having walked along the Saint-Eustache Church, we take the busy rue Montorgueil. At n° 17, on the left, there is the Passage de la Reine de Hongrie (Passage of the Queen of Hungary). It is not a covered passage: just a passage opened in 1770 to join with rue Montmartre. And, it has nothing to do with the Queen Maria Theresa: its name comes from a shopkeeper at the nearby Les Halles market, who looked like Marie-Antoinette's mother, the Queen of Austria and Hungary.
Let's turn right onto rue Marie Stuart, and head up towards the Passage du Grand Cerf in front of you.

Passage du Grand-Cerf

Passage du Grand-Cerf
145, rue Saint-Denis
Atget – 1909

Created in 1825 on the site of the hostelry du Grand Cerf, it was the former terminus of the Royal Mail coaches with the Eastern French provinces. With its three floor height, it is the highest passage of Paris. Neglected for a long time, it found back its soul after being fully renovated in the 1990s. It is a beautiful Passage, definitely worth a stroll along the pretty shops below the high glass ceiling made of metal and wrought iron. 

Let's go out on rue Saint-Denis where is the last passage can be found across the street. 

 

Passage Bourg-l'Abbé

Passage Bourg l’Abbé
120, rue Saint-Denis
Atget - 1907
(BnF)

It was built in 1828 on the site dependent of the Church of Saint-Martin des Champs. Located in an industrious area, the passage was primarily used by the locals going between rue Saint-Martin and rue Saint-Denis. Today, the revival of the covered passages and its location across the Passage du Grand Cerf seem to benefit to its rediscovery. However, it still is a very quiet passage, quite charming with its curved glass ceiling providing a natural light to the simple wooden storefronts. The shops that were once closed and used as offices or storage places are changing, becoming more attractive.

At the end of the Passage, let’s turn right to go onto rue Turbigo where there is the metro station Etienne Marcel.

Copyright Year 2018 - Martine Combes - author text and photos of today Paris