You can never excavate Paris deep enough. No matter how many times you visit it, there is always a hidden gem to discover. Strolling through the streets of Paris is like walking through Time, tiptoeing through History. Each boulevard, avenue or street is associated with some significant story or a clandestine cultural rendezvous that changed perceptions of art or gave birth to a completely new style of cinematography called the nouvelle vague.
Prime venues for strolls in Paris remain either the blossoming gardens or the grand colonnades that Baron Haussmann inaugurated. Napoleon vowed to make Paris the most beautiful city in the world. It is. Without being unfair to him, let me restrict my wanderings to only a quartier or two.
At the end of the 18th Century, town planners in Paris created a labyrinth of covered passages across Paris. These passages are mostly shopping arcades covered with glass roofs decorated with mosaic floors, ornate clocks and cast iron gates. They protected visitors from inclement weather and often dirty and odorous streets. Eventually they were abandoned, as visitors preferred larger department stores such as Galerie Lafayette and Printemps. These passages, in a sense, were the forerunners to our modern day malls. Today these passages are flanked by specialty boutiques, antique shops and hidden staircases waiting to be discovered.
There are several such covered passages located around the Portes, a district steeped in history and heritage, particularly architectural heritage of very high quality. The first passage I walked through was the Brady Passage. It was fortuitous. The passage is now home to Pakistani (my native country) and Indian shops and restaurants. In the same quartier we have the Caire Passage on rue du Caire, named famously after the public’s enthusiasm for Egypt following Bonaparte’s expedition in 1798. It has a distinctive glass roof and the façade marking the entrance to the Caire Passage is adorned with three superb effigies of the Goddess Hathor.
Passage du Grand Cerf was recently subject to restoration work and is arguably one of the most beautiful of passages. With a height of around 12 meters, it is the tallest of all the Parisian passages. The passage is strikingly elegant with wrought iron work, wood paneled shop fronts and an interior that reaches 3 stories high to a skylight roof. It also contains some of the most alluring shops, of which Pour Vos Beaux Yeux, specializing in vintage eyewear, catches the eye.
Built in 1799, the Passage des Panoramas is the oldest covered passage in Paris and the first public place lit by gaslight in 1817. Passage des Panoramas like every other passage has a character of its own. Philatelist’s and trendy wine bars occupy the passage. Also situated in the passage is the théâtre des variétés hosting concerts and comedies while adding vitality to the walkway. If you head south from the Passage des Panoramas, across the street there is Jouffroy Passage, which is followed by Verdeau Passage. The highlight of the two passages is located halfway between the two, MuséeGrévin. MuséeGrévin is Paris’s version of Madame Tussauds and attracts a decent number of tourists but isn’t the only source of attraction. Pain D’épices a wonderful old toyshop and Segas, a store selling antique walking sticks, add charm and variety to the passageway.
The passages located in the shadow of the Palais Royal are those developed with the most opulent architecture and contain the most seriously chic and expensive restaurants. The Palais Royal Galleries encompass the Palais Royal Gardens and contain quirky shops like one that sells an army of figurines. Across the Palais Royal, there is the renowned Galerie Vivienne. Jean-Paul Gaultier opened his first boutique here and the passage remains a gathering point for fashion aficionados. In their own unique way each passage represents a microcosm of the city and its inhabitants--whether loiterers sheltering from bad weather, couples sharing a glass of wine, shopaholics or collectors searching for exquisite antiques, or even those who want to enjoy a quick moment of debauchery, these passages depict the different faces and lifestyles present in the city.
If you’re anything like me and dream of a day when you know Paris well enough to call yourself a Parisian, exploring these covered passages is a great way to start…
~ Haider Abbas '17
© 2014 Princeton Traveler