I totally missed them on my first trip to Paris. I walked right past them on my second trip. It wasn’t until my third trip that I discovered the covered passages and galleries of Paris and they never fail to enchant me. The passages came about in the early 19th century, when shopping became a recreational activity. For it to be pleasurable, shoppers in long skirts had to able to stay out of the mud and rain. Entrepreneurs tucked boutiques into the passages between buildings and then covered them with glass roofs. Shop fronts evolved to display the goods to best advantage. The passages were decorated with beautiful mosaic floors, elaborate wood paneling, and elegant light fixtures. The entrances, however, are fairly narrow and easily missed if you don’t keep an eye open.
At their heyday, there were about 150 passages in Paris. Almost all of the covered passages are between the Palais Royale and the Grands Boulevards. When Baron Haussman transformed Paris, their day was past. Grands magasins, department stores became the preferred place to shop. There are only about 1/3 of the passages left. Some aren’t worth visiting, full of internet cafés and shops stocking cheap imported goods. Others retain their original charm; you can almost hear the swish of silk skirts and petticoats.
Some of my favorites are the Galérie Véro-Dodat (the interior is particularly pretty), the Passage Jouffroy (where there’s a wonderful embroidery shop Le Bonheur des Dames, Le Comptoir de Famille where you can buy everything you need to bring French style home, and the Hôtel Chopin), and the très chic Galérie Vivienne (there’s a lovely tea room here). Here’s a list of the remaining passages, along with their addresses and the hours they are open.
Today’s expression, un passage à vide (uhn passajh ah veed) literally means “an empty passage,” but figuratively means a bad period in your life. The covered passages went through a bad period when many were destroyed or neglected, but now they are architecturally protected spaces. On your next trip to Paris, they’re well worth seeking out. Even if you don’t buy a thing, they are such calm oases in a busy city.