The story of their rediscovery is a strange one. It is due to the German-Jewish critic, philosopher and revolutionary Walter Benjamin, who died in 1940. He spent 13 years writing, or compiling, his masterpiece, The Arcades Project, finally published in English in 1999. In Benjamin's view, the arcades were not just curious relics but master keys to the modern world. The arcades were capitalism's cradle, where everything important about modernity began, from mass entertainment to window shopping.
I set out to walk through Paris's arcades on a sunny morning. I reckoned it would take me about three hours, moving at the easy pace of one of Benjamin's flâneurs - the rich idlers (and poor bohemians) who created the art of "reading" a city by strolling. In a small street behind the Louvre, a gap between two buildings signals Passage Vero-Dodat, constructed in 1826 by two men who made their pile as pork butchers. With its brass shop window frames and trim, its ceiling medallions of lounging classical nudes, its glass roof with double row of bistro-globe lights and its black and white check floor (the original was marble), it's an austere but elegant introduction to the arcades. "C'est superb!" exclaimed a French family who wandered in behind me.
From Vero-Dodat, I crossed to the Palais-Royal. Nowadays its interior is a classic Paris square (mercifully traffic-free) composed of sand-coloured gravel, rows of box-cut trees, green metal chairs and a spectacular soaring fountain. In the early 1800s it was a hive of wooden galleries lined with shops (and notoriously crowded with prostitutes) - these led to the arcades which, in their turn, led to department stores and today's shopping malls. The arcades were among the city's first iron constructions. Their architectural influence shows in the Eiffel Tower and in those amazing, baroque galleries and domes in the grands magasins such as Galeries Lafayette and Printemps.
Two sides of Palais-Royal remain as shopping galleries. Their shops are typical of the arcades where, as Walter Benjamin wrote, "antiquated trades survive". There are shops for collectors of old pipes, coins, medals, and magnificent model figures. On the right are Le Petit Robe Noir selling second-hand couture little black dresses from every decade; and the world's most luxurious shop for gardeners, Le Prince Jardinier.
Behind Palais-Royal, on rue des Petits-Champs, two arcades run side by side and join at the rear: Colbert and Vivienne. Colbert has been taken over by the University of Paris, its shops turned into offices and classrooms. But it still houses the Grand Colbert restaurant, which is among the few remaining examples of a full-dress Paris brasserie with its palm fronds, brass rails and leather banquettes. Vivienne has clothes boutiques, a famous wine store (Le Grand) and one of the old book/curiosity shops that are a feature of the arcades (the daddy of them all is Libraire Paul Vulin in Passage Jouffroy).
Passage Choiseul, also on rue des Petits-Champs, is a different experience. Pigeon netting under the cracked glass roof and shabby, scuffed flooring, but plenty of life and at the end a toy shop with classic metal pedal cars. Toy shops are another speciality, so much so that one short arcade, Passage des Princes, is devoted to them.
The best arcades form a chain from Passage des Panoramas (the first arcade, built in 1800) to Jouffroy and Verdeau. Originally, the arcades featured entertainments as well as shops. The Paris waxworks, Musee Grévin, still trades in Passage Jouffroy. Halfway down Jouffroy there's a concentration of interesting shops: Le Comptoir de Famille for household items; M and G Segas's walking stick collection; a cinema collector's shop; a dolls' house shop. Passage Verdeau continues the theme with a shop for old photographic equipment and another cave de curiosité for old books.
It was time for lunch at Chartier, the last surviving 19th-century workingmen's café in Paris with its soaring mirrored and cast-iron interior and a corps of veteran waiters. Conveniently, it's 150 yards from the end of Passage Verdeau, in a courtyard off Faubourg Montmartre. Go early, sit at the back (tables are shared) and forget the bill. At around €30 (£21.50) for steak and frites for two plus starters and vin de table, how can you go wrong?
After lunch, I headed to Faubourg rue du St Denis, a 10-minute walk but a world away. Three arcades, Brady, Caire and Grand-Cerf, run off St Denis. Brady contains what seems like every cheap Indian restaurant in Paris. Caire is given over to shops for the surrounding garment district. Grand-Cerf has been restored and houses some nice boutiques, one selling thousands of Oriental doorknobs. Visiting these arcades involves walking down rue St Denis, an education in itself, full of garment porters with their handcarts, tough-looking dudes gathered around parked superbikes, and girls in every doorway, either shop assistants or for sale.
All this was part of Walter Benjamin's world. The old revolutionary delighted in its variety at the same time as seeing that the citizens, spellbound by capitalism, were sleepwalking through inequality and injustice. The spell was first cast in the arcades. His Arcades Project was a book of counterspells, a way of waking up.
GIVE ME THE FACTS
How to get there
The writer travelled as a guest of Eurostar (08705 186186; www.eurostar.com), which offers return fares from London Waterloo to Paris Gare du Nord from £59.
Where to stay
Le Faubourg Sofitel Demeure Hotel, 15 rue Boissy d'Anglas, 75008 Paris (00 33 1 44 94 14 14; www.sofitel.com). Double rooms start at €495 (£350) with breakfast.
Paris Ile de France (00 33 1 44 50 19 98; www.pidf.com).