Saturday, 8 December 2012

Paris Arcades - stepping back in time

Tuesday in Paris dawned in a misty drizzle  - our only rain of the whole tour.  As our only scheduled appointment was to visit the Gobelins Tapestry manufactory in the afternoon, our group decided on individual adventures to fill in the free morning. I had read an article before I left Australia about the elegant, turn of the 19th century suite of arcades that are once again flowering as shopping and eating places, and the Lonely Planet guide has a very instructive little plan of them outlining the route. Conveniently, several of them are situated close to the Palais Royal and the Rue Moliere where we were staying. So Wilma, Caroline and I set off to explore their many delights.

We walked along the Rue Richelieu to the closest one, the Galerie Vivienne, which I think happens to be the grandest and most interesting of them. Built in 1823, the floors are magnificently mosaiced in Italian tiles, its wide entrance opens onto a generous rotunda and the arcade itself glows warmly    stretching into the distance, lit by glass skylights. There are very upmarket fashion shops with the latest knitted fabrics and colour combinations moulded into up-to-the-minute designs. A feeling of sumptuous elegance surrounds the fashion boutiques like Wolff and Descourtis and Jean Paul Gaultier. Curiosities like a maker of silk flowers and well stocked bookshops are thrown into the mix. We lingered in a beautiful toyshop, Si tu veux, which had lovely handmade wooden toys, cloth dolls and everything else to captivate any child. A gallery showed a strangely anthropomorphic feathered being in its window display.

Mosaic floor of the Galerie Vivienne

Curious exhibit

The Galerie Colbert, around the corner from Vivienne and built in 1826, is extremely grand architecturally with very high walls and a walk that leads to a wide, elegant rotunda. It is not a shopping arcade but houses part of The National Library in its upper reaches. Our bags were searched before we were allowed to enter and our exploration of it led to one of the most delightful coincidences of the tour. 

On our arrival in Paris, Betty, one of the participants, asked me if I knew where the restaurant was located that was used in the film Something's Got to Give starring Diane Keaton and Jack Nicholson. "That's a big ask" I responded, "Paris is a very big place!" Well, to my greatest astonishment, as we walked down the street outside the arcade we came face to face with a huge movie poster bearing the images of the actors and the proud announcement that it was, indeed, the Belle Epoque restaurant, Le Grand Colbert, that had hosted the filming of this illustrious company!

We subsequently tried to book twice to have a meal, but of course it was booked out. The maitre d', Francois, was very charming and told us about Le Petit Colbert which is at a little remove at 8, Rue Monsigny.

The rotunda of the Galerie Colbert

The interior of Le Grand Colbert

After our exciting discovery we made our way down the Rue de Petits Champs to the Passage Choiseul that dates from 1824. Smaller, darker and less renovated than the previous arcades, it still offers up a huge array of shops and eateries. There is an excellent art supply shop, Adam and Lavrut, and we were amazed to come across a tiny gallery selling genuine Aboriginal dot paintings!

A further walk in the drizzle down Rue St. Augustin and Rue Vivienne took us to a string of arcades, from Passage des Panoramas, full of philately and restaurants, to Passage Jouffroy. Here there are  tearooms and confiseries filled with delicately crafted and packaged cakes, a shop specialising in comic books - Le Petit Roi - and interior design boutiques that lean towards the baroque and the bizarre. The arcade culminates in The Hotel Chopin built in 1846 and still operating, a glimpse of an elegant past.

Our last destination was the Passage Verdeau for more of the same -  bookshops, print galleries and innumerable places to eat. A morning well spent. On the way back to our hotel along the Rue de Richelieu, I photographed this beautiful fountain dedicated to the nymphs of the Seine in a tiny public garden.

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