Mar 29th, 2023, 09:00 AM

An Ode to the Parisian Passage

By Pablo Monfort Millán
The entrance to the passage Jouffroy is packed with people, but there is so much more inside. (Image credit: Modė Cirtautaitė).
These unique commercial streets constitute an often overlooked heritage of Paris.

What people think of Paris when they picture it in their minds has for a long time been quite a distinct aesthetic. There is a sense that everyone knows what the city looks like, and one may even think that they know how it feels like: elegance, glamour, flair... There’s a series of less mainstream places, however, that capture another sort of atmosphere, a quaint mood that diverges from those great avenues and imposing white buildings. 

The Parisian passages are a series of spaces spread throughout the right bank of the Seine, open to the public and with a series of elements that make them just utterly irresistible to those in love with architecture and tradition. Their principle is simple: a private, covered, commercial street, usually with glass vaulted ceilings and multiple types of businesses. The reality, though, is so much more: these are magical places, where one can get a deeper sense of what lies at the heart of Paris.

These covered streets include a wide variety of businesses, from stamp shops to restaurants and art galleries. Image credit: Pablo Monfort Millán

Most of the passages were built between the late 18th century and mid 19th century and there were originally up to 60 of them. Only around 15 survived to today, but it is enough to understand why they remain a crucial element of the city’s identity, having resisted Haussman's well-known reforms that transformed the cityscape. According to the Mairie de Paris, they were places of great diversity from the very beginning, with luxury boutiques, toy shops, performance venues, bookshops and restaurants in the same space, stood side by side. After a 2002 close examination of this peculiar heritage, the Town Hall launched a project to enhance the covered passages of Paris by helping the owners financially, covering up to 25% of the cost of the work needed to conserve them. 

The striking entrance to a restaurant in the passage. Image credit: Pablo Monfort Millán

This effort has definitely paid off, and the passages are now, for the most part, renovated and modernized, all while preserving delightful echos of the past. A Marie de Paris report shows that they are located around five main areas: the Madeleine, the Palais Royal, the Grands Boulevards, the Portes and République—each area has its own set of characteristics. This article focuses on the ones around the Grands Boulevards, which are some of the most famous and visited. It is a great start if you want to delve into this alternative aspect of the city, but make sure to continue exploring the lesser known areas!

General view of the passage Jouffroy. (Image credit: Modė Cirtautaitė).

As one walks into the passage Jouffroy, for instance, one is immediately welcomed into a space that is already fascinating in terms of architecture. The intricate design of the ceiling, a glass and iron structure that covers the length of the passage, is extraordinary both at night and during the day. Coming into it from the noisy Boulevard Montmartre, one is baffled by the change in the atmosphere. Instead of cars and speed, one finds only people, and a sense of calm. There is an encouragement to look at the window shops, picturesque and diverse. Walking along it, an extravagant series of coffee, vintage decor, toys, art and miniature stores stands out, creating a startling mix due to its incoherence.  

A peculiar store where you can find thousands of miniature items for sale. (Image credit: Modė Cirtautaitė).

Following along, there is a turn left and one discovers a series of antique bookstores, with outdoor wooden stands where it is possible to find secondhand art and design books for sale at reduced prices.

One of the many bookstands along the passage Jouffroy. (Image credit: Pablo Monfort Millán).

Cozy art galleries are soon found, and if one gets lucky they may even see someone restoring a historic painting, adding to the sense of wonder and tradition that is so present throughout the passage.

The picturesque window of a small gallery, with a woman restorating a painting. (Image credit: Pablo Monfort Millán).

Across the street is another passage. Much less imposing, the passage Verdeau is the continuation of Jouffroy, and although it does not include a vaulted ceiling, its style is more intimate, its shops more quaint and its essence even more romantic. Some cafes and restaurants accumulate the few people that are in it. 

The entrance to the passage Verdeau, across the street from passage Jourffroy. Image credit: Pablo Monfort Millán

Only a few venture up to the end, where a feeling of melancholia slowly takes hold of the visitors, as they realize how empty the shops are, how striking the contrast is with the beginning, only a few meters before. Some more libraries and art galleries stand silently in the electric light, but this time there is no one to be seen wandering through their stands and windows.

There is also a deep sense of nostalgia for the past in some of the passages. Image credit: Modė Cirtautaitė

There is a paradox in the Parisian passages. Has their time passed? Do they serve just as a reminder of past glories? They are indeed a collection of many of the elements we associate with Paris: gastronomy, architecture, art, design. But they are also usually overlooked and ignored, despite being a unique heritage of this wonderful city. Then, perhaps their beauty lies precisely in this contradiction.