Paris nostalgia

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?

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Exactement.

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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.

Palais Royal

Theatre 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.

Vivienne 1

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.

Vivienne3

Vivienne 2

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.

Passage Choiseul

Choiseul 2
Les Bouffes Parisiens, a theater built in 1855, once specialized in Operatta.

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.

Metro 4 septembre

Rue du 4 septembre

Metro Bourse

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.

Panoramas 2

Panorama Arbre a Cannelle

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.

Panoramas Theatre Varietes

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…

PainEpicesOutside

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!

JouffroyPainEpicesStore

PainEpicesFurniture

Behold: French icons galore…

PainEpices Deuche
For most of us, alas, la Deuche (2CV) can only be toy-sized.
PaindEpiceSchoolSupplies
I know I used some of these at the local elementary school.
PainEpicesColle
The almond-scented Cleopatra glue smells exactly the same, after all these years!
PainEpicesPortePlumes
Young students were only allowed to switch from the pencil to the quill, if they had neat cursive handwriting!
PainEpicesRoudoudou
Les Roudoudous: Hard caramel poured inside a shell took hours for children to lick off!

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.

PassageVerdeau

Verdeau

Verdeau Estampes

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…

PassageVerdeauBandesDessinees
Bonjour Gaston, Bécassine, Asterix, Obelix, les Schtroumpfs…

 

A bientôt.

Story and photos by French Girl in Seattle, unless otherwise mentioned.

Do not use without permission.

Bonus! 

In tribute to the Parisian Metro station mentioned in this story, here is Vanessa Paradis‘ “Station Quatre-Septembre.”

Dear readers:

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What did you think about this article? Let me know in the comment section below, (I love reading your messages and reply to most.) Don’t be selfish and share with a friend! Merci. Véronique (French Girl in Seattle)

12 Comments

  • i was just in Paris and determined to find the Galérie Vivienne which I did manage to do. On a previous visit a few years ago, I happened upon the Passage des Panoramas and absolutely loved it!

  • Bonjour. What a lovely article. Merci bien. We visited just one of these galeries in May, Galerie Vivienne. It was so beautiful. But expensive! I looked at scarves for over 100 euros at two different shops. Needless to say, I did not purchase one. But it was fun to look around & take pictures. Next time I will look for the others you mention here. They sound wonderful. Regards, Diana

    • Wonderful to hear from you g. It feels great to be back, after several months away from the keyboard. My Facebook community has been the only thing I’ve had time for, after taking that new position last May. I knew I had a few more stories to tell before the next Paris trip at the end of the year, so yesterday, I thought: “Pourquoi pas?” I hope life is good for you on the East Coast. Everything ok here, with the teenager, in the 10th grade already! Stay in touch. Bon dimanche!

  • Thanks so much for the galleries tour. They are fascinating, and a great way to spend a dreary day. My wife and I walked through several of the covered galleries last month, and we were lucky enough not to run into a bomb scare at Galerie Colbert. It’s very calm and formal, and it was nearly devoid of people that day. Thanks for the déjà-vue!

    • Merci Tom. So happy you got to see Galerie Colbert. It’s usually pretty quiet, compared to the covered arcades closer to the 9th arrondissement. The whole story (which I did not share) was that there had been a bomb threat, and they did not have enough staff on hand to keep patrolling the Galerie, so they chose to keep it closed instead. Having lived through two waves of terrorist attacks in Paris in the late 1980s and early 1990s, I can certainly understand, and did not try to argue too much– which, in other circumstances, I would have done with gusto, just like in my (good old) Parisian days 🙂 Bon weekend!

  • J’éprouve un grand plaisir à revoir tous ces passages couverts que je connais par coeur pour les avoir arpentés pendant des années et y avoir fait des achats . Ils ont tous une histoire et font l’objet de visites guidées .

    Nostalgie …

    Merci Véro pour cette agréable promenade .

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