Looking to buy that special something? Take a stroll away from the big avenues and see some of Paris’s most interesting shopping venues in its historic galleries and arcades, says Carolyn Boyd
Away from Paris’s main shopping avenues, where big brands and bright lights abound, there is a more discreet way to enjoy some retail therapy. Elegant passages and arcades, which are concealed among the grand Haussmann buildings of the 1st and 2nd arrondissements, contain some of the city’s quirkiest and most intriguing boutiques.
These galeries were designed in the 19th century to keep well-heeled pedestrians from the mud-splattering horses and carts that ruled the roads. Yet when Baron Haussmann’s avenues lured the big-name stores away, many fell into decay. In recent years, though, these arcades have been spruced up and offer small, exclusive spaces to independent retailers who have breathed new life into them. A walk between the arcades is a great way to spend a day, and even if your budget is limited, there is bound to be a boutique and price tag to suit you.
In the low light and cool breeze of a winter’s day, my husband and I started our stroll and a search for suitable gifts for friends and family. We began at the most chic of the Parisian passages, Galerie Véro-Dodat, which runs between Rue Croix-des-Petits-Champs and Rue Jean-Jacques Rousseau. A huddle of shoppers stood outside the Christian Leboutin boutique, waiting to try on the world-famous shoe designer’s fabulous footwear.
Appropriately, the original carved wooden sign above the Leboutin boutique read cordonnerie (cobbler). This, and other signs, such as imprimerie and papeterie (printer and stationer), showed the original uses for the shops, but there was no doubt that their current occupants attracted a clientele in search of more sophisticated items. As we wandered along the chequered tiled floor beneath the glass roof, we admired fascinating objects, from enormous Romanesque statues to antique musical instruments. All remained beyond our budget, so we continued in search of our gifts.
It was a ten-minute walk to the next arcade, the elegantly restored Galerie Vivienne, which runs off Rue des Petits-Champs. It opened in 1826 and quickly became a vibrant hub for fashionable Parisians. The arcade was designed by architect François-Jean Delannoy, who incorporated the glass rotunda, Pompeian-style figures of goddesses and nymphs, and elegant arches, which have been preserved in its restoration. These days, its mosaic floor leads you from the elegant tea room À Priori Thé (pun very much intended), close to the entrance, to the Librairie Jousseaume at the rear. The antiquarian bookshop dates from the original shopping arcade and offers a treasure trove of reading material for any Francophone bookworm.
Book-lovers will also enjoy Galerie Colbert, which was built parallel to Galerie Vivienne at the same time. It is now owned by the Bibliothèque Nationale next door, which holds exhibitions and seminars there. Though there are no shops, it is worth a look for the striking rotunda and its statues at the far end. The exit opens out on to Rue Vivienne, next to the intriguing window of fashion designer Jean-Paul Gaultier’s boutique. On the corner is the 1830s-style brasserie Le Grand Colbert, where the library’s senior academics frequently enjoy their dejeuner.
We resisted the temptation to sit among the restaurant’s art nouveau mirrors, bulbous lamps and striking palm trees, and instead walked along Rue Vivienne, past the Bourse – the huge, square former stock exchange building – and on to the south entrance of Passage des Panoramas in Rue Saint-Marc. The unassuming concrete entrance leads into a dark, narrow corridor and opens out into a far more cosmopolitan arcade than those we had already visited. Indian and Kashmiri restaurants, with their red lights, menu boards and linen-laid tables, lined the path and we wandered through, our senses bombarded with sights, smells and an atmosphere more fitting of a souk than a chic arcade.
The first window that caught my eye was that of a hairdresser’s salon, the interior of which had not changed since the 1960s and, as a result, had come full circle to be fashionably mid-century (though presumably the haircuts it does have changed). We shuffled past a few people staring into the window of Tombé du Camion (translated as ‘off the back of a lorry’), a tiny shop filled with items all arranged in neat little trays, shelves and cabinets. With beads, baubles and curious artefacts on offer, it was the perfect shop for those travelling light.
As we wandered through, the colourful windows of stamp collectors’ shops, an autograph agency and café named L’Arbre à Cannelle – with striking carved wood panelling and a cosy interior – added to the vibrant, global atmosphere. While the multicultural occupants of the shops might suggest that Passage des Panoramas is one of Paris’s newer shopping havens, it is actually the oldest and is surprisingly true to its origins. Built in 1799, it was inspired by oriental prints depicting the souks of the Middle East, and had two amazing glass rotundas, the views from which offered impressive panoramas of the city from which the passage takes its name. Although the rotundas are no more – they were destroyed in 1831 – the arcade was occupied by stamp collectors and engravers in the 1830s.
Such was the variety of shops and cafés, it was hard to tear ourselves away and continue our walk across Boulevard Montmartre into the 9th arrondissement and the glass-roofed Passage Jouffroy. It was built in 1845 on the back of the Passage des Panoramas’ success and also has a wide selection of shops, as well as galleries and a photography studio. Before we could admire them, a woman in period costume, including a feather headdress, sauntered past. She was presumably an actress from the Musée Grévin and drew our attention to the window of this 19th-century spectacle, where a waxwork face grinned through a gap in a curtain. The museum was set up in the 1880s by Arthur Meyer, founder of Le Gaulois newspaper, and cartoonist Alfred Grévin, to display waxworks of famous people of the day, a tradition that continues. Inside there is also a hall of mirrors exhibited at the Exposition Universelle de Paris in 1900.
Passage Jouffroy leads on in turn to Passage Verdeau, opened in 1847. This elegant galerie was a treasure trove of stamp collections, comic book shops and antique books. Some first-edition Jules Verne volumes in the window of Librarie Santon caught our eye before the smell of freshly brewed coffee from the modern-fronted, German café Le Stube enticed us away for a bite to eat.
Our line of three linked passages ended at the exit of Verdeau, in Rue du Faubourg-Montmartre, so we double-backed to take a quick detour into Passage des Princes, off Rue de Richelieu, in the 2nd arrondissement. This small arcade was the last to be built before Baron Haussmann’s grand scheme for Paris took shape, and these days it is the perfect one for children. Most of it is occupied by the large toy store JouéClub, which has spread among the dozen or so individual shops so as to preserve the arcade’s original style. Unsurprisingly, the adult chatter and brouhaha of the other arcades is replaced here by the shrieks and squeals of a more junior clientele.
As the daylight faded and darkness fell, we reached our final destination. Passage du Grand Cerf was a 20-minute walk away to the east, leading between Rue Saint-Denis and Rue Dussoubs. The three-storey, glass-roofed arcade, with its elegant wrought-iron work, was built in 1825 and has a little more spit and polish than the others. Its red-carpeted corridor leads you through a selection of chic boutiques with charming, wood-panelled facades. Close to the entrance, we peered into the atelier of a joiner and carpenter working into the evening. Nearby, in the eclectic Rickshaw, we browsed the knick-knacks imported from India, before being tempted away by the elegant clothes and homeware in SO. It was in Le Labo & Filf, however, that we finally found the perfect presents for friends and family. The playfully illustrated kitchenware by the artist Filf had that je ne sais quoi that we were seeking, and we left the tiny shop with more than one shopping bag.
As the shops began to close for the day, we headed back to Saint-Germain, with rosy cheeks and aching feet. Having shopped, it was then time to drop – with a glass of wine in our cosy apartment with its own windows overlooking Paris.
By rail: Carolyn travelled to Paris on Eurostar from London, booked through Rail Europe. Tickets cost from £69 standard class return. Tel: 0844 848 4070, www.voyages-sncf.com
WHERE TO STAY
Renting an apartment is a great way to enjoy Paris. Carolyn stayed in the beautiful three-double-bedroomed apartment Saint-Germain Château, in the Latin Quarter, from €4,000 per week.
Email [email protected]
WHERE TO EAT
Le Grand Colbert
2 Rue Vivienne
Tel: (Fr) 1 42 86 87 88
L’Arbre à Cannelle
57 Passage des Panoramas
Tel: (Fr) 1 45 08 55 87
16 Passage des Panoramas
Tel: (Fr) 1 40 26 41 24
23-27 Passage Verdeau
Tel: (Fr) 1 47 70 08 18
Le Labo & Filf