The undercover guide to Paris

If your idea of an arcade conjures up pictures of high-decibel hyperactive teenagers doing virtual combat with digital demons then a rainy day in the French capital could bring you a new perspective on the great indoors. Jonathan Gregson underwent the rites of the Passages
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The Independent Travel
Nat "King" Cole may have sung "I love Paris in the springtime" but he forgot to mention one important thing. For while Paris can look its best in spring, just as all those brutally pollarded plane trees and poplars burst into leaf along its broad boulevards, half the time it will be raining cats and dogs.

It was on just such a typically Parisian spring morning that I stared out from under a cafe's awnings at the rain coming down, wondering what should be my next move. I lacked the exhibitionism - let alone those necessary accoutrements of furled umbrella and lightweight mac to sally forth into the streets and try out a "Singin' in the Rain" routine (though I have seen students outside the Sorbonne do this with considerable panache). Nor did I feel like visiting the Louvre or the Musee d'Orsay or any of the hundreds of other museums in this city which is in its entirety something of a museum - always looking backwards to some "belle epoque".

No, what I fancied was a cross-town promenade, just looking at all the Parisians looking each other over, stopping for a coffee here or a bit of window-shopping there, soaking up the atmosphere, the sensation of being in Paris in the springtime... The only problem was that unless the skies cleared rapidly I'd be soaking up more moisture than ambience.

Surely Parisians, who rank among the most style-conscious and ingeniously comfort-driven people on earth, must have thought up some way out of this impasse? Then it struck me right between the eyeballs. Those old-world, glass-covered alleyways that I'd accidentally discovered aeons ago, when I was a student in Paris. The Passages.

For the covered passages, the galleries and arcades of Paris, were designed precisely to meet such needs. Mostly they were built in the 19th century, when fashionable Parisians sought refuge from the carriage-clogged, mud- spewing anarchy of their city's main thoroughfares. The passages were an enclosed world, shielded from the elements by their glass roofs, where one could stroll at ease among the most extravagant boutiques, always keeping an eye open for a curious purchase or an even more fascinating conquest. They were the favoured stomping ground of the dandy and the flaneur - those early exponents of the art of cruising. No wonder, for all life was there! And, by and large, these passages still exist, threading their way almost invisibly across the heart of Paris.

On the Right Bank it is possible to walk for hours along this network of covered passages, only popping out into the open to cross a street before ducking back again into the dry and windless warmth of another passage. From the Faubourg Montmartre almost to the gates of the Louvre, a relay of intricate arcades allows the committed pluvophobe to cross the city with only one break into the open around the Bourse, France's sternly neoclassical stock exchange. And it is not only creature comforts that are satisfied by the passages. To enter this enclosed world can be like stepping back in time.

I started my own subvitreous voyage at the Galerie Vero-Dodat, the fruit of a speculative venture between two wealthy charcutiers, Monsieur Vero and Monsieur Dodat. When it first opened in 1826 an unkind commentator declared that "here is a passage built out of cuts of sausage and rolled tripe". The jibe hurt all the more, since the passage linked the old central market of Les Halles (popularly known as "Paris's stomach") and the Palais- Royal's pleasure gardens. But with its entrance opposite the main stage- coach terminus, hordes of provincials went straight into Vero-Dodat's shops to spend their hard-earned francs. It was a capital success.

Nowadays this covered passage is an oasis of calm, only a stone's throw away from the brash shops around Samaritaine and the postcard vendors of the rue de Rivoli. With its Corinthian columns and elegantly arched shop windows, Vero-Dodat attracts a discriminating clientele: musicologists seeking out early stringed instruments at Luthier; grandes dames hunting for antique dolls at Robert Capias - either as a present for that special niece or, more likely, to add to their own collection.

If it had still been raining when I emerged at the far end, I would have simply crossed the street and ducked into the Louvre des Antiquaires, a charmless (but nonetheless covered) shopping mall where some of Paris's more aggressive antique dealers are concentrated. But, with the sun briefly breaking through, I went straight to the Palais-Royal, whose long arcades house all manner of curiosities: stamp-dealers and shops specialising in old medals and military decorations; boutiques crammed with Japanese kimonos or African sculptures; and, for the truly regressive, two shops which are a Mecca for collectors of lead toy soldiers.

Strictly speaking, these arcades do not constitute a passage, although they serve just as well in keeping off the rain. And it was here, in the space now occupied by well-ordered gardens, that the first covered passage in Paris was created in 1784 as a speculative venture by Louis XVI's near- bankrupt cousin, the Duke of Orleans. It was wood-framed, with panes of glass to keep out the elements, and so became known as the Galerie de Bois; and apart from hosting some of the capital's smartest shops, it attracted all kinds of "novelties" and side-shows. There was an enormous Prussian lady more than seven foot tall, and "The Beautiful Zulina" who was supposed to have been dead for 200 years but looked like a young odalisque who'd just emerged from her toilette (the punters later found she was a fake, a wax figure covered in real skin). And, of course, there were also cafes and brothels and even an English beer-house.

The Palais-Royal attracted illicit political clubs as well as pleasure- seekers, for the police were not allowed to enter the private property of a royal Duke. It was on this protected turf that the French Revolution started, with Camille Desmoulins standing on a cafe table, waving his pistol and urging the crowd "to arms!" - a historic moment I was able to enjoy thanks to having a Walkman with me and an audio cassette that re-enacted the scene, rather like the soundtrack to a son et lumiere show. It was a bizarre experience, standing motionless under the arcades while a pair of courting pigeons circled my feet, to hear Desmoulins declare his willingness to die for liberty and the crowd roar its approval. My only disappointment was that the Galerie de Bois, the reason why so many of the crowd had gathered here in the first place, wasn't mentioned.

I left the gardens by the Passage du Perron, an abbreviated arcade up the north end (Colette used to live above it). Near by is the Grand Vefour, a restaurant that's been around since before the Revolution and whose interior is little changed since those days. Directly across the rue de Beaujolais stands another small arcade, the Passage des Deux Pavilons - and beyond that is the entrance to the most fashion-conscious of all passages, the Galerie Vivienne, home to Jean-Paul Gaultier and Japanese designers who use its mosaic pavement as a cat-walk to show their collections.

The Galerie Vivienne, with its neoclassical bas-reliefs and airy atmosphere, has always attracted the smartest shops. The window display at a merchant of fine wines is composed entirely of corkscrews, some so weird and wonderful in their operation that Heath-Robinson might have dreamt them up. The salon de the has hydro-grown flowers, their roots floating in glass receptacles, as its sole table adornment. "Beautiful people" wander in from the fashion houses around the nearby Place des Victoires. It was all a bit precious for me - but since its inception in 1826, the Vivienne has always been more fashionable than its neighbour and rival, the Galerie Colbert. Not that this is any less imposing: its lofty Corinthian columns, its rotunda, its clustered light-globes, are just as elegant; but it never really caught on. When I first saw it in the 1980s it was being used as a garage. Now it is mostly an annexe of the Bibliotheque Nationale, who have restored it while giving the place a solidly institutional character.

From here I had to break cover, a good five minute's walk in the open before reaching the Passage de Panoramas beyond the Bourse. On one side of its entrance is a Turkish baths, a reminder that, in the 19th century, public baths were a hugely popular feature of the passages; on the other, a modern sandwich bar called Bread & Best, founded by one David Best who has had the temerity to convert Parisian stockbrokers from their baguettes stuffed with pate to English-style sandwiches filled with bacon and eggs.

The Passage de Panoramas runs all the way up to the Grands Boulevards, but it is not so much a single passageway as an enclosed city, with other galleries running off at right-angles. It earned its name because of the fad around 1800 for seeing "panoramas" - vast circular paintings, exact to the minutest detail, reproducing the view of Paris as seen from the top of the Tuileries palace or, to stir national pride, the city of Toulon while it was being evacuated by the English army. The twin rotunda in which these spectacles were shown have long since disappeared, but the complex of passages retains a strongly populist feel, its neon-fit creperies sitting cheek-by-jowl with antique booksellers and stamp-dealers. At No 47 is the engravers and printers Stern, whose clientele included Russian emperors and surrealist poets, its interior scarcely changed since it was established in 1830.

Artists and poets have been some of the biggest aficionados of the passages, which offered them a self-contained world, complete with print shops that would reproduce their sometimes scandalous offerings and booksellers who would clandestinely distribute them. Baudelaire, Breton, Aragon - all had their love affair with the passages; for within this world you could find both the popular and the arcane. The blatantly popular is there at the entrance to the Passage Jouffroy, just across the Boulevard Montmartre, where the wax-works of the Musee Grevin - Paris's answer to Madame Tussaud's - holds pride of place. But once you enter this dog-legged arcade another world opens up: shops selling fancy walking sticks, complete with little phials for absinthe or snuff, which would have satisfied the most discriminating flaneur, or, in the continuation of this arcade, the Passage Verdeau, booksellers galore and a specialist in pre-war cameras.

When I finally emerged on to the street it was still raining. But I had walked across half of Paris without getting my shoes wet, browsing and ogling and sipping to my heart's content, meandering through a time-capsule that took me back to the "glory days" of the 19th century. A far, far better thing, I think, than trying to emulate Gene Kelly's singin' and dancin' in the rain.


Further reading

The best guide book in French is Patrice de Moncan's 'Les Passages Couverts de Paris' (Editions du Mecene), available from bookshops in the passages for around pounds 13.00.

Dana Facoros & Michael Pauls 'Paris' (Cadogan City Guides, pounds 10.99) has a section on the covered passages.

The audio-guide for the Palais-Royal was The Paris Tapes (pounds 9.90), produced by Murchison's Pantheon and narrated by Juliet Stevenson.