The covered passages of Paris offer an enchanting journey through time
Walking aimlessly, letting yourself be carried away by the rhythm of the city, peeking through the windows, watching passers-by: the French verb flâner has no translation, but it combines the art of getting lost in the streets, of observing, of merging with the crowds. It is an art that only applies to cities and to those wandering spirits willing to let themselves be carried away by poetry, intuition and the senses. This exquisite way of walking was born in Paris in the 19th century, in a labyrinth of passages and galleries that were built with the new architectural techniques of the time, streets with glass roofs, iron structures, mosaic floors and gas lighting.
21st century travelers willing to travel back in time and lose themselves among antique dealers, second-hand bookstores, umbrella and doll repairmen, object collectors, wax museums or variety theaters, will still be able to “flanear” (let’s coin the verb in Spanish) between the precious stained glass windows of the Vivienne Gallery, the majestic glazed dome of its neighbor the Gallery Colbert, or the Passage of the Panoramas, a famous meeting point for philatelists, among many other hidden passages between the Stock Exchange, the Grands Boulevards and the Palais Royal.
The first passageways in Paris were built at the beginning of the 19th century, when the city was still a medieval labyrinth with narrow dirt streets, no sewers and no lighting. The passages emerged from the hand of the ascending bourgeoisie as refuges to buy, walk, drink coffee, talk, browse trades and objects hidden behind their windows. These galleries, with their glass ceilings and their lamps, made it possible to walk around without getting dirty or being disturbed by the noise and traffic of the city.. There you could walk at night without groping, look at the sky without getting wet in the rain, walk without the haste of carriages, and shop as in the bazaars of the East.
In these places the figure of the flâneur emerges, defined in this way by the poet Charles Baudelaire in his book The painter of modern life (1863): “The crowd is its element, like the air for the birds and the water for the fish. His passion and his profession lead him to become one flesh with the crowd. For the perfect flâneur, for the passionate observer, (…) to contemplate the world, to be in the center of the world, and yet pass unnoticed – such are the small pleasures of these independent, passionate, incorruptible spirits, that the tongue hardly reaches to define clumsily”.
At the time of splendor, there were more than fifty passages. These shopping centers were the inspiration for others that emerged in Europe at the end of the 19th century, such as the Vittorio Emanuele Gallery in Milan or the GUM galleries in Moscow. In Paris, the proportions were smaller and many of them were demolished in the ambitious urban reform of Baron Georges-Eugène Haussmann, who during the Second Empire of Napoleon III, starting in the mid-nineteenth century, demolished much of the medieval layout of the city to build the monuments, boulevards, avenues, parks and buildings that characterize it today. About twenty passages survived, later overshadowed by the appearance of large shopping centers such as the Galeries Lafayette, Le Bon Marché and La Samaritaine.
Between 1927 and 1940, the passages of Paris were secret and decadent places that inspired the monumental and unfinished Book of Passagesof the German philosopher Walter benjamin, who took them as a metaphor for modern life. Prostitutes, collectors and all kinds of “aged trades”, as he baptized them, survived there.
In the 1960s, Julio Cortázar included the passages in the story The other sky: “I liked to start walking aimlessly, knowing that at any moment I would enter the area of the covered galleries, where any sordid dusty apothecary attracted me more than the shop windows tended to the insolence of the open streets. The Galerie Vivienne, for example, or the Passage des Panoramas with its ramifications, its cuts that end in a second-hand bookstore or an inexplicable travel agency where perhaps no one ever bought a railway ticket, that world that has opted for a more next, of dirty glass and stucco with allegorical figures that extend their hands to offer a garland”.
Patricia Pellegrini, former president of the Marianne Association of Franco-Argentine women, rescues this anecdote: “Baudelaire walked a tortoise through the boulevards of Paris to mark the exact rhythm of the flâneur’s walks.” The Marianne Association has just launched the fanzine “Flâneuses” (flâneur in feminine) where it vindicates the art of walking aimlessly also for women, a situation unthinkable in Baudelaire’s time. “What happened in the time of Benjamin or Baudelaire if a woman went out into the street just to look at buildings, doors, windows or people gathered somewhere? “, asks Vivian Lofiego, writer and member of the Association, in the first issue of the magazine, and claims the right to walk for women: “It was necessary to make a path when walking, and never better said. Seeing a woman savoring an aimless walk, walking into a bar, or eating alone in most civilized places no longer arouses attention. Today we are all a bit like Mrs. Dalloway – the character in Virginia Woolf’s novel – and, with a heart of dandies, we savor the beauty of the world around us”.
For men and women who want to immerse themselves in these time tunnels, here is one of the possible routes:
Near the Louvre Museum, at 19 rue Jean-Jacques Rousseau, is the Vero-Dodat Gallery (1826), which dazzles with the luxury of the marble and mirrors, the dark wood stained glass windows and the ceiling decorated with paintings framed by gold moldings. There the flâneur/flâneuse will be able to visit the distinguished stores of decoration, art, musical instruments, the famous boutique of old dolls of Robert Capia, or the workshop-store of the luxury footwear designer Christian Loboutin, with its mythical stiletto heels and red soles that celebrities often wear to step on the red carpets. You can then sit down for tea at the “Café de l’Époque”, once frequented by Gérard de Nerval.
The second stop will be at the Vivienne Gallery (1823), the most elegant in Paris, at 4, rue des Petits Champs. There you will marvel at the semi-circular stained glass windows, the mosaic floor patterns by Italian artist Faccina, the ornate columns and the rotunda with sculptures of nymphs and goddesses. You can browse old books, taste wines or drink hot chocolate at “L’A Priori Thé”. In one of the entrances is the bar Bougainville, which evokes the sailor Louis-Antoine de Bougainville, who in the 18th century traveled around the world, passed through Patagonia and even had a project to colonize the Malvinas Islands.
Opposite this gallery is its competitor, the Colbert Gallery (1826), with its large glazed dome 15 meters in diameter over a covered rotunda. This gallery is owned by the National Library and, unlike the other Parisian galleries, it does not have shops. It is open to the public who, with a bit of luck, can browse a class behind the glass walls or have a beer in The Great Colbert, with art nouveau decoration, at the entrance to the gallery, listed as a historical monument and the setting for various films.
the passages Verdeau, Jouffroy and Panoramas, are located on the same axis, intimate and sheltered from the city that moves outside along Boulevard Montmartre. In Passage Jouffroy you will find shops selling old postcards that still preserve the calligraphy in black ink of their senders, a shop selling collector’s canes and various shops selling small ornaments. When it’s time to take a break, you can have a tea with a macaroon in the famous house The Valentine. In the same passage you can visit the Grévin Museum, with its Madame Tussaud-style wax figures, and if the night progresses, you can rest in the cozy Hotel Chopin, whose room 409 offers a wonderful view of the gallery.
The passage Verdeau with its herringbone glass roof it houses antiques, used books, vintage newspapers and a 1901 Kodak boutique selling vintage cameras.
The last stop will be in the Passage of the Panoramas (1799), the oldest, frequented by Eugène Delacroix and Alexandre Dumas. It owes its name to the “panoramas”, huge painted canvases depicting landscapes unknown to Parisians, which decorated it at a time when photography did not yet exist. Gourmet shops, artisans, artists, collectors of postcards, coins, autographs and old stamps coexist there. It is worth stopping at the premises of the old chocolate shop Marquis and in Stern, one of the oldest printing houses in Paris. If the idea is to be entertained, you can get a ticket to see one of the shows offered by the Teatro des Variétés, opened in 1807.
The passages are still there as they were almost two centuries ago, with their arrested charm, with their shops that invite you to flânerie, to walk through one of the few spaces that are still out of time.