Paris’s Hidden Passages

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When I first moved to this city, I lived in the 9th arrondissement and worked for the Paris bureau of Reuters news agency in the 2nd arrondissement. Imagine my delight when I discovered that the hidden passage located near my apartment connected to other hidden passages that snaked through the city center and led directly to my place of work. Fresh from North America, I was utterly charmed by the historical aspect of these late 18th-century and mid 19th-century conduits. I imagined myself in an Emile Zola novel. In fact, Zola wrote about the passages in his novel, Nana. Here’s a brief excerpt (published in 1880!)

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“One December evening Count Muffat was strolling in the Passage des Panoramas. The evening was very mild, and owing to a passing shower, the passage had become crowded with people. There was a perfect mob of them, and they thronged slowly and laboriously between the shops on either side. A perfect stream of brilliancy emanated from white globes, red lanterns, blue transparencies, lines of gas jets, gigantic watches and fans, outlined in flame and burning in the open. And the displays in the shops, the gold ornaments of the jeweler’s, the glass ornaments of the confectioner’s, the light-colored silks of the modiste’s, seemed to shine in the crude light of the reflectors behind the plate-glass windows.”

Here is the Passage des Panoramas today:
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Each passage has its own character; some a bit shabby and run-down, others well-tended.  Here’s the Passage Verdeau, near rue Cadet in the 9th arrondissement, that was my starting point when I walked to work all those years ago.

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Today there’s a restaurant-deli in the Passage Verdeau called Le Stube which sells divine German pastries (strudels, poppyseed cake, Sachertorte, etc.), pastrami and Black Forest ham sandwiches on rye, hot dishes of sauerkraut, bratwurst, etc., and great coffee. I highly recommend this place. I had a potato and herring salad followed by warm cherry strudel and a double espresso. They sell those irresistible Niederegger marzipan chocolate-covered loaves that I discovered as a teenager and raved over. I still rave over them. (update 2015 – sadly, Le Stube is no longer there.)

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Here’s the next connecting passage. It’s Sunday, so this bookseller’s shop is closed. For several years, twice a day, I walked this route, dawdling in the shops on the way home, never tiring of its appeal.

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Exit the Passage Jouffroy, cross the boulevard Montmartre, and into the next stretch of passageway. For anyone wanting to come here, the nearest metro station is Grands Boulevards.

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Further south, on the other side of the Bourse (the stock exchange) is another, independent passage called the Galerie Vivienne. This is the most elegant and well-tended of the glass-roofed shopping arcades.  At Christmas-time it’s all lit up with fairy lights.

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This is a great shopping area. Inside this passage and outside on the rue des Petits Champs and heading towards the Place des Victoires are dozens of small clothing boutiques. Here’s a high-end, expensive clothing store inside the Galerie Vivienne called Nathalie Garçon which sells original one-off pieces. Directly across from it is another shop that sells exquisite scarves.

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Further up is a second-hand clothing shop called La Marelle where I’ve bought and sold many shoes, handbags, clothes and accessories over the years. You can pick up a gorgeous pair of Prada shoes, a Fendi handbag or items of clothing with Miu Miu, Hermès, YSL labels and other luxury brand names, depending on what’s in stock.

It seems a tad mean to post a photo of a lovely-looking restaurant and then say that you don’t eat there, but I find this one (below) overpriced and a bit precious.

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Instead, I recommend this place which is more down to earth and serves delicious, hearty meals and good carafes of wine. It’s such a success they’ve expanded into the space next door. It’s located just at the entrance of the Galerie Vivienne on the rue des Petits Champs.

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The Café Marly at the Louvre

Here’s a fabulous place to have breakfast, lunch, dinner, afternoon tea, champagne, cocktails, whatever:  it’s open 7 days a week from 8 am to 2 am, it’s stunning, reasonably priced, and it overlooks the courtyard of the Louvre.  Both Parisians and tourists come here, so it’s a nice mix.   Classy, or as the French say, “La classe !”

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More budget hotels in France

For those of you travelling to the French Riviera, Brittany or Normandy, here are some lovely offerings culled from The Guardian newspaper in London:

The Côte d’Azur’s top 10 beach hotels and B&Bs on a budget:

Brittany’s top 10 beach hotels and places to stay on a budget:

Normandy’s top 10 beach hotels and places to stay on a budget:

Cycling holidays in France:

12 Parisian hotels with character:

Paris – random photos

Hello blog readers,

Here are a few pics taken last Sunday afternoon during a ramble around central Paris.  I must admit I’m pretty lucky to be able to jump on the metro and in 10 minutes find myself standing in front of the magnificent Louvre museum.  Another thing I like about this city is its compact size.  You can cover a lot of ground, on foot, in just half a day.

It was a gorgeous, breezy day and as I look at these pictures, I must confess:  Paris is one beautiful city!

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The mother of all flea markets 2013

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Once a year the northern city of Lille holds its annual flea market, and it’s a whopper. The largest flea market in Europe, it’s called La Grande Braderie, it runs over the first weekend of September, and it attracts a million visitors from all over France, Belgium, Germany and the U.K.  The word braderie comes from the verb brader, which means to sell at cut price.  This year, 2013, the dates for La Grande Braderie are August 31st and September 1st.

Over the weekend, the entire city center is closed off to traffic and streets and sidewalks transformed into pavement stalls or pocket-sized plots.  Lille, a city which is already laid-back (compared to Paris), lends itself beautifully to the general atmosphere that prevails which is one of conviviality, goodwill, sociability and just good old-fashioned fun.  Aside from the stalls that sell everything imaginable from bric-a-bric, books, antiques, clothing, collectibles, you-name-it-they-sell-it, there are also food stalls selling mussels and French fries (a speciality of this northern city), beer, barbecued sausages, etc.  There’s also music and dancing in the streets.

Enuff said. The only thing that best illustrates the spirit of this wonderful market are photographs. Here’s a bunch of photos taken from last year’s flea market:

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Here’s a young man I know at his little plot:Lille brocante sept 2011 007And his sister:Lille brocante sept 2011 035And their father:Lille brocante sept 2011 034Lille brocante sept 2011 056Lille brocante sept 2011 070Lille brocante sept 2011 091Lille brocante sept 2011 097Lille brocante sept 2011 073Lille brocante sept 2011 086Lille brocante sept 2011 060Lille brocante sept 2011 100SEE YOU THERE!

YSL Touche Éclat


Here’s a marvellous discovery I made while wandering the aisles and perfume counters of Au Printemps department store on the boulevard Haussmann in central Paris. Accosted by a ravishing sales rep promoting Yves Saint Laurent products, I was asked if I’d like to try the new Touche Éclat – they were offering a 20% discount.  I said “sure.” Or rather, “bien sûr !”

I wasn’t really in the market for foundation because I was quite happy with my Diorskin Nude.  However, after the sales rep had finished with my face, I walked away with a new bottle of Touche Éclat creamy foundation at 44 euros ($59CAD/$58US/£37GPB) minus the discount and I haven’t touched the Diorskin since. It appears that a lot of women worldwide – and some men, too – are raving about this product. Yes, it’s more expensive than other foundations, but I’d say it’s worth the investment.  

So what makes this French product stand out from the crowd?  Firstly, it goes without saying that Yves Saint Laurent is a valued and luxurious cosmetic brand. Secondly, as you apply the foundation to your skin you notice it has a lovely delicate scent which is a pleasant thing to acknowledge as you stand bleary-eyed in front of the bathroom mirror early in the morning. Thirdly, it blends easily into the skin with an almost-moisturizing texture because it’s gel and not water-based like other foundations. Fourthly, it has a super-lightweight consistency (what YSL calls “weightless”) which is great for summer and it has a built-in sunscreen of SPF 20.

Oh, and did I mention it comes in 22 different shades segmented into three complexion groups of pinks, yellows and beiges?

This is an illuminating foundation which means it’s light reflective, hence the name éclat which means Radiant. Bright. Luminosity.

What’s really special about this product, as if the above features aren’t enough, is that it’s a long-awaited follow-up to – and has the same properties of – the iconic Touche éclat stick which came out in the 1980s and caused a sensation among makeup artists and models.  A lot of people, however, don’t know how to properly use this stick.  I’ve had several over the decades and was initially baffled by it.  The stick is called a complexion highlighter and claims to illuminate your skin and make dark circles, lines and signs of fatigue disappear with a few strategic strokes.  It is also light reflective.  All this interested me because I’ve had dark circles under my eyes since I was 6; as a result, I think I’ve tried every concealer and highlighter on the market.

Here’s a video of a French makeup artist (looking quite pleased with himself) using the two above products on a model who looks like she’s walked straight out of The Stepford Wives. Only a Frenchman would say “long strokes that caress the skin”, and I’m guessing that the YSL brush he’s using costs more than the foundation itself (why are those brushes so expensive?)  

But the video serves as a tutorial on how to correctly apply skin foundation, as well as that Touche Eclat stick.  I found it informative and maybe you will too.  Applying foundation to your face with a quality brush seems like a good idea.  One last thing – at the beginning of the video he explains how to select the right shade for your skin.  You shouldn’t be doing this (because we always get it wrong.)  YSL sales reps are trained to select the right shade for you.

France worse off than the UK in the 1970s

France is in a bad state.  Last week a British newspaper (The Telegraph) wrote that France is in a worse state than Britain was at the time of its 1976 bail-out by the International Monetary Fund.

And it’s true.  As I mentioned in a previous post, since the recession has hit the Eurozone, the atmosphere here is full of tension.  Last week an anti-fascist campaigner and university student, Clément Méric, was killed by skinheads on a Paris street in broad daylight during a clash. The French government is now taking steps to break up the far-right group allegedly linked to the death of the left-wing activist. Unemployment is at record levels, especially amongst young people, and the current government is short on ideas in terms of remedial solutions.  That’s putting it mildly. The current government seems to be paralyzed by ineptitude as to how to tackle the problem.  Men and women in their 20s are flocking to the U.K., Canada, Australia and Asia in search of work because there’s nothing for them here.

Today I watched a news report on TV showing images of French retirees fleeing the country.  And guess where they’re going?  To my country. Yes, they’re fed up with France and they’re going to give Quebec a try.  I think human migration patterns are fascinating.  In a surprising reversal and because of the dire situation in Spain, Spaniards are now seeking work in Morocco.  And Portuguese workers are trying their luck in former colonies in Africa.  They are also flocking to Brazil.

On Planet France, the majority of the French population, along with trade unions, dig in their heels and resist all attempts at reforms.  When President Sarkozy pushed for raising the retirement age from 60 to 62, there was rioting in the streets.  Coming from a country where the retirement age, for as long as I remember, has always been 65, I find this behaviour not only incomprehensible but archaic.  Because we are no longer living in a baby-boom era where a sufficient number of children today will pay our pensions tomorrow.  It’s as if the French have blinkers on.

There’s a term you hear a lot here: “l’exception française”….”the French exception.”  What does that mean, exactly?  It means that the French believe they are special and apart, sort of like an exalted race, and that whatever the rest of the world is doing to adapt to changing times, they need not conform to any general rule….especially rules dictated to them from Brussels or Berlin.

Last week, the European Commission told France to cut labour costs, reform its pensions system and open up its protected markets in exchange for a two-year window to bring its budget deficit under 3 percent of its GDP.

The average French citizen associates globalization with “Americanization” and believes it threatens their national identity.

Deep down, the French are romantics, not realists.  Wake up, France, and smell the espresso!

That said, when the chips are down I have confidence in the French.  In the twenty years I’ve lived here, I have seen again and again the nation strongly resisting all kinds of foreign imports, at first treating them with extreme suspicion, not to mention disdain – i.e. the arrival of the Internet, culinary trends other than their own, Eurodisney and McDonalds, the learning of foreign languages – and then slowly slowly coming round and accepting them, but only because these foreign imports create jobs for the French and are profitable.

The French love their country too much to let it go to ruin.  It’ll take time, but they’ll eventually rise out of this quagmire.  Self-preservation is critical.  They might be intractable, but they are also inventive.