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This is the 11th in a series of walking tours highlighting the sites and stories of diverse districts of Paris.
As soon as I arrived at the Place Colette, via the Palais Royal metro station, I knew I was in one of those special little corners of Paris. The cheerful glass baubles decorating the metro entrance promised gaiety and the Café de la Comédie, just opposite the city’s most illustrious theater, the Comédie Française, was doing a brisk trade. I was immediately intrigued by an information panel saying yes, this had been a royal corner of Paris, but was also one of the places where the revolution began. I ducked through the archway just to the right of the theater, and straight through to the Palais Royal to see what was left of royal Paris.
The Cour d’Honneur is immediately impressive, the black-and-white striped pillars of Daniel Buren’s art installation adding a 1980s touch to the courtyard’s 17th-century regal splendor. But today I went straight through that too, to the palace gardens, where it’s always a treat to stop off, perhaps to sit on one of the benches engraved with a line or two of poetry, maybe to snap the beautiful long rows of trees or the elegant arcades which line the garden. People-watching is always fun and this time I saw a number of ladies d’un certain âge, one dressed head to foot in black complete with leather trousers, blouson, beret and sunglasses, who had brought along their little dogs for a meet’n’yap.
It’s a good place to lose oneself in history. I pictured little Louis XIV, king of France at only five years old, who lived here as a child and played in the gardens. Yet the palace was also the scene of one of the most terrifying episodes of his childhood when anti-monarchists rampaged through the grounds and demanded to be taken up to his bedroom. Louis, only 10 at the time, was told to pretend to be asleep until they withdrew, which fortunately they did, but the incident left him with a lifelong distrust of Paris and was said to have been one of the reasons why he chose to move his court to Versailles when he was older.
During the 18th century, the whole area was kept private for the royals and their favorites, a place to indulge in gambling, to see a play, buy some fashionable trinkets or visit a café, perhaps to engage one of the many prostitutes who lingered under the arches. It was also here that a young Napoleon, newly arrived from Corsica to study at the École Militaire, came to peruse the shops and to pay for his first sexual encounters with women. I could just imagine shadowy figures flitting in and out of the arcades and darting after one another across the garden. Yet exactly here, despite its royal connections, anti-monarchy forces were also at work. In July 1789, the journalist Camille Demoins spoke powerfully to a crowd about the need for reform. Just two days later the Bastille was stormed and the revolution began. Soon the Palais Royal was renamed the Palais d’Egalité, (Equality Palace), and the surrounding gardens became the Jardin de la Révolution.
Today the Palais is occupied by government departments, so you can’t go inside, but there’s another building in the Rue Vivienne just nearby which also has connections to Louis XIV, the newly reopened Bibliothèque Nationale- Richelieu. During Louis’s reign it was the Bibiothèque du Roi (King’s Library), but it too was renamed after the revolution, losing its royal status and becoming the property of the nation. It is fitting then that today entry to the main building is free, although there is a charge for exhibitions. However, a reminder of its royal past lives on in the Grand Colbert Brasserie opposite, named after one of Louis’s most trusted advisers, his First Minister of State Jean-Baptiste Colbert. It was Colbert who decided that the royal book collection had outgrown its previous home and should be moved to this site.
In the nearby Place des Victoires, I found more traces of the Sun King, again with twin messages about royal power and its eventual demise. This square, actually the first in Paris to be built “in the round,” was designed to honor Louis and his military victories and it’s dominated by a huge statue of him on horseback, dedicated in Latin to Ludovico Decimo Quarto (Louis XIV). But this statue is a replacement, because the original, like so many other royal statues, was destroyed during the revolution. The republicans did not have the last word however, because when the monarchy was restored under Louis XVIII, he commissioned a replacement! So, the wooden pyramid bearing the names of revolutionary martyrs was torn down and Louis XIV was reinstalled to watch over “his” square.
Today’s Paris is secure enough in its republicanism to leave Louis in place as a matter of historical record. To one side of the square is Notre Dame des Victoires, a church paid for by Louis XIV’s father – yes, another Louis! – and here too there is a strange connection to royalty. The church is known for its 37,000 marble plaques bearing prayers and messages left by its parishioners. Many date from the 19th century, but some are recent, such as one from May 2010 in prayerful gratitude for “the birth of Charlotte.” And among them I found one dated August 25th, 1944, that is the day Paris was liberated by allied troops, which notes the uncanny coincidence that this took place “on the Feast of St Louis,” namely King Louis IX, the 13th century monarch who was the only French king to be canonized. This square then is connected to four different kings of France, all of them called Louis.
Just past the church, the tiny Passage des Petits Frères led me to an entrance to the Galérie Vivienne, perhaps the most famous of all the city’s covered passages. It was originally built in the 1820s to attract shoppers from the Palais Royal, so it began life with a royal connection of sorts. But by the mid-19th century it was frequented by the new bourgeoisie, becoming the home of the flâneur and of the shopper with time and money to spare who wished to linger in clean surroundings, away from the noise and mud of ordinary streets. Here, he or she could peruse the luxury goods for sale, or perhaps visit a tailor or collect an engraving.
The galerie fell gently into disuse later in the 19th century when more democratic times were signaled by the opening of big new stores like Printemps and Bon Marché. Classified as a historical monument in 1974, the Galérie Vivienne had its fortunes revived by a different kind of “royalty.” When the fashion designer Jean Paul Gaultier opened a shop here in 1986, people took notice. And gradually since then, this and other Paris galéries have enjoyed a spirited revival, famed for their beauty, independent shops and atmosphere of a bygone age.
The Galérie Vivienne is a beauty: mosaic flooring, cream-colored pillars and archways sweeping up to a huge glass roof, decorations of polished wood and wrought iron, cornices carved with plants and flowers, all lit up by chandeliers. The window displays vied for my attention: wine (and wine-tasting!) at Legrand Filles et Fils, exquisite paper and fabric flowers filling the windows of L’Aparté, hand-carved wooden toys at Si Tu Veux, where wooden bears lined the pavement in front of the shop. And best of all, the Librarie Jousseaume, a bookshop which dates right back to the galerie’s original opening, stuffed inside with overflowing shelves and surrounded outside by displays of second-hand paperbacks. I knew that authors such as Colette and Cocteau popped in here as customers.
And then amid all this historical splendor, I spied a sign reading café-croissant €5. That would be an excellent place to pause before returning to the Palais Royal metro station, somewhere to enjoy a little treat at an affordable price and reflect on all those who have flocked to the area around the Palais Royal over the centuries: the royals, the republicans, the bourgeois, the fashionistas and today – vive la démocratie! – anyone who wants to explore this fascinating little corner of Paris.
Lead photo credit : The Palais Royal, view of the galerie de Beaujolais. Photo credit: Mcleclat / Wikimedia commons
More in Bibliothèque Nationale de France, brasserie, café de la Comédie, Comédie Française, Cour d'Honneur, ecole militaire, Flâneries in Paris, galerie vivienne, Louis XIV, Napoleon, notre dame, Palais Royal, royalty