There are places that inspire stories, and stories that inspire places. In the hidden passageways of Paris, one imagines both are true. From the moment you step foot inside these ornate, historic places, you feel you might slip softly through the windows of time.
It was at the end of the 1700s that some 150 interconnecting passages were built in Paris as a way to provide wealthy Parisians with somewhere they could shop, yet be spared the city’s rain. Two hundred years on and around 20 of these glass-roofed arcades remain open and accessible, hidden pathways off the busy streets that give way to a parallel universe with an atmosphere entirely of its own.
Like a gateway to another world, the second arrondissement provides access to many of these passages, the most impressive of which may well be Galerie Vivienne. Restored to its former neo-classical glory, its mosaic in-laid floors and hand-carved wooden features smoothly transport you to the 1800s.
Jean Paul Gaultier opened his first store here in 1986 and the designer is still very much in residence, as Galerie Vivienne houses his flagship today. Close by, textile boutique Wolff et Descourtis features one-off designs by Didier Ludot; he has outfitted Madonna in his whimsical attires, and has been described by Hamish Bowles, an editor-at-large for Vogue, as ‘the vanguard’ of vintage couture. To celebrate your purchases, visit the wine bar Les Caves Legrand or the tea room A Priori.
Avsh Alom Gur is a designer whose love affair with the city’s hidden passages started when he was working for Chloé more than a decade ago, and he frequently returns to be inspired by ‘unexpected items that could provoke creativity’. ‘In today’s world, it can be difficult to find corners with authenticity, especially when it comes to retail,’ he explains.
Authenticity of a theatrical kind can be found between Saint Martin and Quincampoix, where the buildings that mark the entrance to Passage Molière boast a bold, vibrantly coloured exterior, yet the atmosphere is peaceful and serene. Just 45 metres in length, Passage Molière was named after the 17th century French playwright, whose work was often performed in the theatre here. Today it is called Maison de la Poésie and hosts cultural events, while Librairie Scaramouche sources rare cinema posters.
Passage of time
‘One of the best aspects of the Passage Jouffroy is that the restorers haven’t embalmed it in good taste,’ notes the arts critic Richard B Woodward about this well-loved passage in the ninth arrondissement. It’s home to La Boite à Joujoux which sells items for dolls’ houses, an old-world toyshop called Pain d’Épices, and to Segas which specialises in antique walking sticks.
Like many of the passages, you won’t find Le Passage du Grand-Cerf on a map, yet it’s distinctive: the wooden stag’s head, the dragonfly and the crab that adorn the walls afford it a curious eccentricity. It’s tall, an imposing 12 metres high, and has a quirky vibe that attracts an eclectic mix of proprietors, including jewellery designers Eric et Lydie, whose ornate, colourful designs were discovered by Christian Lacroix. There are also never-ending racks of vintage eye wear at Pour Vos Beaux Yeux while the wittily named Le Pas Sage (The Wise Step) is a bistro with a nonchalant, relaxed feel and is perfect place for a restorative drink or a plate of charcuterie.
While the structural beauty of many passages will always impress, many of the stores also leave a long-lasting impression, like Tombées du Camion (‘fell off the back of a lorry’), a curiosity shop and flea market all in one, in the Passage des Panoramas. Here you’ll find everything from ET masks and dismembered dolls to mannequin heads and coloured buttons.
‘It’s about the journey, about stepping back in time and enjoying things because we don’t shop simply to fulfill a materialist need, we are after an emotional experience too,’ says Gur.
The hidden passages of Paris are perfect for such experiences.