Ask anyone who’s ever been to Paris and they’ll tell you what a beautiful city it is. The many well-known monuments—such as the Cathedral of Notre-Dame and the Arc de Triomphe—seem to spring from their setting, easy to admire from afar. The metropolitan area as a whole has a uniformity of style to it. Elegant buildings abound, some with special touches like caryatids (pillars in the shape of human figures) or sculptured grapevines on the façade. The two people responsible for transforming mid-nineteenth century Paris into the city that it is today are Emperor Napoléon III and the city prefect Georges Haussmann. The emperor, wishing to beautify the French capital after a visit to London, wanted to create a more healthful environment following the cholera epidemic of 1832 as well. His idea was to clear out some of the medieval structures to allow air to circulate better downtown. Napoléon III also knew the political advantage of sending the rebellious poor out to the suburbs and bringing wealthy Parisians intra-muros, that is within the city walls. He gave the onerous and lengthy task of renovation to his prefect. Haussmann, obsessed with creating perspectives through the use of right angles, spent eighteen years destroying thousands of old houses, putting in broad boulevards, gardens, squares, and new parks. The destruction of certain buildings and the high cost of the project were, and for some continue to be, quite controversial. The very strictly imposed architectural style, now referred to as haussmannien, accounts for the distinctive appearance of Paris today.
While it is quite unusual to find remnants of what Paris was like before Haussmann, it is still possible. Take covered passageways, for instance. Built to protect shoppers from the filth and mud of old Parisian streets, they numbered in the hundreds before the Haussmannian transformation. The twenty or so which remain date from the first half of the 1800s. Many can be found between the ninth and second arrondissements. Some of them, like Verdeau, Jouffroy, and Panoramas, follow in quick succession; you don’t have to stop and orient yourself before going on to the next one. Strolling down these walkways is like stepping back into the past. Besides the nineteenth-century clocks, signs, and woodwork, many of the passageways have glass ceilings, allowing in lots of light. Shops and eateries of all kinds line the sides of each passageway: bookstores, tourist shops, even an Internet café.
Perhaps the nicest passage of all is the Galerie Vivienne, built in 1823. Even the use of the word galerie in its name indicates its higher standing! Situated between the Palais Royal and the Bourse, it has three entrances—off the rue Vivienne, the rue de la Banque, and the rue des Petits-Champs. The Galerie Vivienne attracted many customers before the construction of the big department stores began under Haussmann. It is still a beauty to behold. The mosaic floor is outstanding, as are the glass rotunda, the wooden pilasters, arches, and molding.
The loveliness of Paris has many sources; it’s fun to discover as many as we can.