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The Passages of Time

photo: passage des panoramas

Signs in the Passage des Panoramas.

Are the Grandfathers of Malls

Paris:– Wednesday, 10. December:– If you can believe what you see, Paris is in a frenzy of shopping for Christmas. You must buy a portable phone, particularly one that takes crappy little photos, or you will be known as le schmuck de l'année. The Internet operators just got some sort of green light, and they've started a bombardment to get everybody to switch to more broadband for less.

But before the leap to high–speed Internet, you have to be sure you have a computer – one capable of playing very rapid games. In case you are not suckered in by this, you absolutely have to have home–movie–video with sound that surrounds your entire quartier. Got a boxy old TV set? You need a huge flat screen!

Got no money? Borrow some. Don't want a carload of the latest high–techno entertainment gizmos? Take yourself off to Tunisia for peanuts or to Tahiti for a bundle. Whatever you do, don't just stand there and dither – get out and get that shopping done. Do itphoto: dollhouse, chez germaine now. Do it today. Can't make up your mind? Look at all the trash and junk in the catalogues – stuff you'd never buy if this frenzy wasn't in the air.

Listen. I'm immune to this. No money and no credit – for so long I can't remember what either is. I'm like Scrooge but without the vault full of coin. Bah! Humbug! Give Little Apple Annie a token from the Beijing subway. She gives me an apple with a meaty worm in it. We're even.

Just what every café fan needs – a personal mini-café.

Meanwhile I'm a concerned taxpayer. The Christmas decorations are up on Daguerre, even if they've skipped a couple of blocks. In the Rue Mouton–Duvernet almost every shop has its own Christmas tree on the sidewalk, instead of the overhead fairy lights like there are in the Rue Brezin. In the Rue Liancourt, they've hung the cords of fir boughs with twinkle lights all the way up by Dennis' place. The only shops there are dental labs.

Well, I don't pay a lot of taxes. If Dennis' street is decorated, I may as well get in the mood, so I get in the Métro and get out at Rue Montmartre. It's called 'Grands Boulevards' now but it's still the Rue Montmartre, at the intersection of the Faubourg, the Boulevard and the Rue – all named Montmartre. 'Grands Boulevards' is the fantasy name.

The first block of the Faubourg Montmartre is worth a look. There's the Chartier restaurant in it's gloomy hole–in–the–wall. There's costume shops, the Palace, which is still closed. It's a bit of a carnival street, up to the Rue de Provence.

It's also a back way in to the Passage Verdeau, which is like an extension of the Passage Jouffroy, which is in turn continued on the other side of the boulevard as the Passage des Panoramas. The latter dates from 1800, while the other two opened in the 1840s.

The first 'passage' in Paris opened in 1786. It was the Galerie de Bois next to the Palais-Royal. In order to fuel his princely lifestyle the Duc d'Orléans sold spaces in the Palais–Royal – effectively inventing the first mall in history.

The Galerie de Bois also became Paris' social, commercial, political and entertainment epicentre – complete with pickpockets, flics, secret police, revolutionaries and lighthearted ladies.

For either 'passage' or mall there is a definition. They must be for pedestrians only, have roofs, be lighted and have boutiques edge–to–edge. Within the Paris cityscape, they should also provide a shortcut, and like all malls, be the result of real estate speculation. The Galerie de Bois closed in 1828, but some names of galeries within the Palais–Royal remain.

Another innovation showed up in the 19th century passages. This was the notion of a 'restaurant,' an idea imported from London in 1774 by a grocer named Boulanger. Before this, there were places thatphoto: cane shop offered meals only at fixed times, only with fixed menus. One of the new-style ones was the Café Véron in the Passage des Panoramas.

Passages also contained cafés, and 'estaminets' – which were less distinguished than cafés. The Estaminet Lyrique in the Passage Jouffroy was a favorite. Bookshops were always at home in the passages, as were reading rooms, and printers. The 19th century engraver Stern is still in the Panoramas.

M. G. Segas' cane shop, in the Passage Jouffroy.

In short, the main differences between a 'passage' in Paris and a mall anywhere else, are two. A mall is not generally a shortcut to anywhere, and a 'passage' has no huge parking lot. Otherwise they contain many of the same features, but few offer engravers' services anymore.

This has taken us a fair way up the Rue du Faubourg Montmartre just to get in the 'backdoor' of the Passage Verdeau, but now we'll be mostly under cover all the way to the Rue Saint–Marc – except for crossing the Rue de la Grange-Batelière and the Boulevard Montmartre.

The Passage Verdeau was the long–time orphan of the trio of passages, but its proximity to the Drouot auction house has given it a life of its own with its old, ah, collector – postcards and stamps, old photographic equipment, engravings, old books, and the printer, Largeau, in this passage since 1848.

Everybody and his brother who has anything to peddle during this season has printed a glossy catalogue and you get these via the post or they fall out of newspapers and magazines. As far as I know, none of the passages put out seasonal catalogues – although some of the wares of passages may be featured in magazine 'gift idea' sections.

So, cruising through the passages, you find what there is. Somebody close to you might want an antiquephoto: teddy, green car cane, some seashells, a film poster, or a dollhouse designed like an old café. If it's odd and it isn't electronic – or even electric – it'll probably be in a shop in one of the passages.

A 'King of the Road' teddy, ready to go.

They are like the cavern of Ali–Baba. Even if you aren't shopping, like I'm not, they are full of the unknown. All you have to do is 'shop' a lot of windows, inside, in comfort. During the day, lights are augmented by the ceilings made of glass. There even used to be heat in the Passage Jouffroy, and maybe there still is. For cafés, you'll find some of them in the Passage Verdeau and a lot of them in the Passage des Panoramas.

Then Baron Haussmann came along and turned narrow, dirty and dangerous streets into boulevards lined with trees and wide sidewalks. Everybody said light, greenery and open air were better than enclosed passages and their popularity was eclipsed.

But as wide as the boulevards are – for cars, motorcycles, trucks and buses – the sidewalks are never as wide, and are cluttered with kiosks and trees, and watch your step with the curbs of differing heights.

Here we are, more than 150 years after Haussmann modernized streetlife, and the 18–odd 19th century passages in Paris are still with us. Some, like the Passage du Harve, has even been made over into what looks like a 'mall.' Its parking lot is out in the suburbs, and its customers arrive by commuter train at the Gare Saint–Lazare.

To make it full–circle, the Passage du Harve is a major shortcut between the train station and the – the Boulevard Haussmann, with its major department stores.

To finish off I walk south along the Rue Montmartre, to Les Halles. There is talk of giving the mall at Lesphoto: hotel chopin Halles a make–over. It is not a shortcut to anywhere because it is like a deadend maze, but is does benefit from its proximity to two RER lines that bring trinket–starved suburbanites to the city's centre.

I skip Les Halles and wander away from it, up the Rue Montorgueil. Much of the area north of the Rue Etienne Marcel has only restricted traffic, so it is as good as a carless quartier – but it's not a passage and not a mall, but definitately pedestrian.

The Hotel Chopin's rooms on the 4th floor have the best views.

Here too the extravagant Christmas lights of past years have been replaced with lighted Christmas trees along the edge of the pavement – another sidewalk obstacle. I miss the overhead twinkle lights that used to turn winter's 17:00 gloom almost into day.

I buy a Loto chance – slim – have a café, buy some food and walk east along the Rue Tiquetonne, to find a surprise boulangerie, and buy its last loaf. Then it's just a couple of crosswalks to get over some traffic–clogged streets, to catch the Métro at Etienne Marcel and ride back to Raspail.

And have another café near the Métro exit in the Raspail Vert because the wind is notphoto: finger points at musee grevin nice. Though the walls of the cemetery I have yet to pass may reduce it to near nothing. Good thing too – the high today, before sundown, has only been three or four degrees.

Big finger points to the Musée Grévin.

For me it was a successful Christmas shopping excursion, even if I bought nothing and am only carrying food home. As tempting as the catalogue from the BHV department store is – it contains some really odd stuff from the hardware department like enamel plaques – 'Attention Chien Bizarre' – and old–fashioned tools made out of chocolate, or a candle in the form of a clock. With its Café Bricolo maybe the BHV really is a passage.

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