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Travel Stories Blog

Paris: When Skies are Gray

- by Laurel Schmidt

Posted November 12, 2012

In France, early September is known as la rentrée—it’s the official end of summer. Families are back from vacation, restaurants and stores reopen after being shuttered for a month, kids head off to school and the shelves of the bookstores are bulging as authors release their latest titles.

The season of autumn seems to arrive on schedule, too. Sunny days alternate with wall-to-wall clouds and suddenly the sidewalks in Paris are shiny with rain. Tan and gold leaves from the plane trees stick to the sidewalk like huge decals. The air is fresh and the urge to stroll is overwhelming.

You can make the most of a rainy day by heading for one of the many arcades in Paris. Wandering in these covered passage ways is the perfect way to experience a bit of historic Paris, when shoppers flocked to these tunnels of glass and light as a refuge from the noise, traffic and mud of the streets. With gas lighting, cafes, shops and galleries, these early mini-malls were magnets for commerce and culture.

Hundreds of these iron-columned, glass-covered arcades were built in the 1820s and ’30s. They were quickly eclipsed by the huge department stores, but fortunately more than twenty still survive for your strolling pleasure. Some are little more than forlorn alleys with skylights, but several have been renovated and are chic shopping destinations once again. So if the skies are threatening and you’re not up for another museum, treat yourself to a few hours of shopping, 19th century style.

The Passage des Panoramas is the place to start. It’s in the Second Arrondissement off the boulevard Montmartre. The space is tall enough to be elegant. Narrow enough to feel cozy. You can just gawk at the sculpted wooden storefronts, vintage signs, period light fixtures. Or get a glass of wine with a cheese board or a charcuterie plate, then sift through the old postcards and stamps on display.

The Passage Jouffroy on the other side of boulevard Montmartre has more to see and do, starting with the Grévin Waxworks Museum that houses over 300 figures and the actual death masks of French revolutionary leaders. You can browse the antiquarian bookshops or pick out a walking stick. For film buffs, there’s Cinédoc, the city’s go-to spot for film books, posters and other cinema memorabilia.

Right near the Palais Royal you’ll find the elegant Galerie Vivienne and the Galerie Colbert. Both have preserved the original mosaic floors and pillars. If you’ve worked up an appetite your might want to stop in Le Grand Colbert, the authentic old-style brasserie featured prominently in “Something’s Gotta Give” with Diane Keaton and Jack Nicholson. Or if you’re more picnic-minded drop in at Legrand Filles & Fils, one of the best wine merchants in Paris, where you can browse, taste and choose from an assortment of fine groceries for open-air dining.

So the next time you’re in Paris, pray for rain.