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Destination: France : Paris Covered : In a hidden world of passages and galleries, filled with shops, the city's history unfolds

November 20, 1994|Barbara Shortt | Shortt is a New York architect who writes frequently on French topics.

PARIS — We all love strolling through Paris when the sun is shining and the chestnut trees are in bloom--never knowing what delights will reveal themselves. But alas, sometimes it rains cats and dogs; sometimes it is perishing cold and damp; sometimes in a heat wave the streets become suffocating. Don't despair. Paris' 19th-Century builders, alert to the importance of comfort to pleasure-seekers and consumers, created a solution that allows all the urban joys of strolling while shielded from weather and traffic: a hidden, interior city of skylight-covered passages, arcades and galleries.

A chain of passages stretches from the First and Second arrondissements near the Louvre, up north to the Grand Boulevards in the Ninth. You can spend the day, window-shop ("window-licking" it's called in French) for clothes of all descriptions; lunch; go to the hairdresser; select a walking stick, or toy soldiers, antique dolls or masks, engraved calling-cards, expensive bed-linen, cosmetics, flowers; dawdle over bookstalls or in art galleries; sit in a sidewalk cafe and sip tea or an aperitif; go to a theater or a museum, a sauna, a hotel; dine elegantly, hardly ever emerging into the open weather. Some of the oldest and most interesting shops in Paris are in these galleries. In your progress, you can see Paris unfold its social history, pass from chic opulence to popular pleasures, from luxury to quaint, dusty charm.

Start at the northeast corner of the Louvre. Just north of the Rue de Rivoli, the Rue Saint-Honore intersects Rue Jean-Jacques Rousseau, which goes north past the tiny Rue du Pelican, and arrives at the entrance of the Galerie Vero-Dodat.

Step inside, and you are in another world, almost untouched, 200 years old. One of the elements contributing to the magic of the passages is the quiet: no traffic noises or odors. This gallery was built in the early 19th Century by two enterprising pork butchers, Messieurs Vero and Dodat, who kept shops here. All its original wooden shop fronts are intact, with their multiple brass-arched window frames, and little engaged colonnettes. Although gas lamps have been replaced by electric bulbs, the light through the long, pitched skylights is gentle, reflecting off the diamond-pattern white and black mosaic tile floor. The wood ceiling between the skylights is coffered and gilded and painted with rustic scenes, garlands and cherubs.

The mezzanine level looking into the passage, also heavily decorated and painted, has apartments. The great tragic actress Rachel lived here in the 1840s, a stone's throw from the Comedie Francaise, where she was a star. At No. 2 is a printer's shop that looks as if it has been there the whole time; it is followed by a gemologist's, a leather-goods shop, a lutemaker's (mandolins and violins also) at No. 17, and at Nos. 23 and 24 a shop specializing in antique dolls and old gramophones, reputed to be a favorite of actress Catherine Deneuve. At No. 19 is the modestly priced but chic Restaurant Vero-Dodat, with a mezzanine dining room looking into the passage. A designer furniture gallery, clothing stores and an attractive cafe- brasserie , with lace curtains and outdoor tables complete the gallery at its west end.

Follow your nose west, under an arch to the tiny Place de Valois, and on through to a quiet side entrance to the Palais Royal. Through the forecourt, turning right brings you to the eastern arcade of the Palais Royal. At first it looks unpromising, but keep walking under the arcades, and soon you will be in a wonderland of shops, some dating back to the 18th Century.

Most visitors today come here for the beautiful garden but neglect the arcades with their graceful lanterns hanging in each arch. Louis XIV left the original Royal Palace of 1639 to his brother, whose artistic, high-living and dissolute heirs turned the Palais Royal into an arty and hot neighborhood. The garden and arcades were built during the period 1781-86 for speculation by debt-ridden Philippe, Duc d'Orleans, who rented or sold the 180 shops with elegant apartments above. Emulating Venice's Piazza San Marco, the arcades had stylish coffeehouses, restaurants and aristocratic gaming clubs. Common soldiers, women in aprons and delivery boys weren't allowed in. Thomas Jefferson and Washington Irving were among early American strollers here.

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