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“She adored the Passage des Panoramas. The tinsel of the “Article de Paris”, the false jewelry, the gilded zinc, the cardboard made to look like leather… And when she passed the shop-windows she could not tear herself away from them. She fell into reveries in front of the chocolate maker’s sweet-stuff shows, or stood listening to a musical box in a neighboring shop, or fell into supreme ecstasies over cheap, vulgarly designed knickknacks, such as nutshell workboxes, rag pickers’ baskets, Vendome columns and Luxor obelisks with mounted thermometers…”

                                                                                        Émile Zola, “Nana”

Panorama of Galerie Vivienne. Picture courtesy of Behn Lieu Song, Wikimedia Commons

The meaning:          “passage” = a covered shopping arcade

The atmosphere:  

A Parisian passage is not a place, it’s a spectacle! The light pouring down from its skylight ceiling, the picturesque charm of old Paris, its inherent glamour, mosaic tiled floors, vintage boutiques and yesteryear tea rooms – this is the place to live Paris! Whether superbly restored, trendy and chic or shabby and a bit eccentric, the shopping arcades of Paris offer the best itinerary for Christmas in Paris!

The beautiful lighting of Passage Jouffroy, Paris

The history:        

Precursors of today’s shopping malls, Parisian passages were built in the beginning of the 19th century to protect visitors from bad weather and the horse-drawn vehicles in the dirty streets. The galleries of Palais Royal, built around the garden of the Duke of Orléans in 1786, gave the prototype of the future passage.

Passage Choiseul in 1829. Picture: mallsenchile.wikispaces.com

Modern symbols of urban life, many of them were ostentatiously decorated with cast iron gates, marble pillars, mosaic floors and ornate clocks. As such, they were an ideal place for hanging out, walking or flirting.  Of more than 140 passages built during the 19th century, about 20 have survived today, mostly in the center of Paris, in and around the 2nd arrondissement.

Passage Jouffroy. Picture: Nina Aldin Thune, Wikimedia Commons

The Anatomy of a Passage:

Besides their practical function (serving as a shortcut between two streets or even quarters), passages encapsulate their own micro-universe, harboring a singular realm, whose noncurrent charm transports you eons away from the heartbeat of neighboring streets.

A staircase in Galerie Vivienne, Paris. Picture courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Full of architectural treasures, antique boutiques, old tea rooms and hidden staircases, the passages hole up an eclectic collections of quaint shops (selling coins, stamps, old toys, maps and other curious bric-a-brac), tiny cafés and restaurants (offering a breather ”away from the maddening crowd”) or passage theatres, museums and even hotels! Yet beware when you enter a passage, as where you emerge at the other end could be quite a surprise!

The passage paraphernalia – coins, old postcards, key rings, and bottle taps – find your own thingie in this lost paradise…

The passage “society”: 

As in a genuine 19th century theatre, the typical passage, too, had its own cast of shady characters rambling around and serving as a reflection of former-day society. On a passage stroll, under the same glass roofs, it wouldn’t be rare to come across bourgeois and prostitutes, strollers and rascals, aristocrats and shop-keepers, dandies and illegal immigrants, all rubbing shoulders together, yet sometimes pretending not to know each other.

19th century prostitutes were common passage ramblers

Not to be missed:

For a blend of old-fashioned chic and workaday buzz, head to Passage des Panoramas. One of the most active in Paris, it has a lot to offer to its visitors. The second oldest in the capital and the first to be equipped with gas lights, the Passage was built in 1800. The name “Panoramas” comes from the pre-cinematic attraction of showing panoramic pictures of cities, very popular at the time.

The beautiful restaurant “L’Arbre à Cannelle” in the magical atmosphere of Passage de Panoramas. Picture courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

This maze-like passage has numerous entrances and is full of little wonders. Stamp dealers, hip wine bars (Les Racines), an astonishing restaurant (L’Arbre à Cannelle / The Cinnamon Tree) and a one-of-a-kind bric-a-brac shop (Tombées du Camion – literally “fell off the back of a truck”), selling weird and wonderful collectibles – are just some of the places you’ll chance upon on your panoramic stroll.

The “weird and wonderful” shop window of the curious “Tombées du Camion”

Particularly charming to visit when it rains, this passage is one of those old hidden places that make Paris what it really is…

How to get there:                         

Metro: 8 & 9, Grand Boulevards

11, Boulevard Montmartre – 151, Rue Montmartre