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Paris Passageways

Noise and pollution are left behind in the city's 19th- century covered commercial galleries

THINK of the monuments and icons of the City of Lights - from the Arc de Triomphe, the Eiffel Tower, and Notre Dame Cathedral, to famous stores on the grand boulevards and sightseeing boats on the Seine - and what all-too-often infiltrates a pleasant picture is the downside of the urban setting: crowds, noise, and smoke-spewing traffic.

But all of Paris is not like that. Tucked into the financial and commercial neighborhoods of the city's Right Bank are a dozen oases from the urban hubbub, places with names like Colbert and Choiseul, Vero-Dodat, Grand-Cerf, and Panoramas.

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They are the Paris passageways, covered commercial galleries built during the first half of the last century, as high-density developments mushroomed in the city center between the Louvre and the area around the stock exchange.

In some cases they are fresh and smart, with polished brass and restored bas reliefs. In other cases they are dowdy and unkempt, with smudged glass above and worn mosaics underfoot. The arcades are Paris's unsung monuments, where everything from mundane household necessities to old, leather-bound books, from a cheap dress to a designer suit, from a pastry on the run to a good night's sleep, can be purchased - much as when the arcades were built.

The idea even then was to create a new kind of urban environment where the pedestrian would be rescued from all that was daunting outside - crowds, carriages, dirt, and weather - and freed to stroll unbothered among the goods and services offered by a burgeoning, shop-keeping middle class.

Ancestor of today's covered shopping malls, the "passages" were themselves descendants of the covered markets of ancient civilizations. But as an innovative urban concept - using glass to bring in light, and limiting access to pedestrians to keep out the less pleasant aspects of city life - the passageways soon spread to Brussels and Budapest, Cleveland and Chicago, Leipzig, Germany, and Bristol, England. Outside Paris they were called arcades, passajes, and bazaars, even "boulevards" in Australia.

In Paris, the form got its start when Louis XIV moved to the Louvre palace and left the Palais Royal, with its garden amidst a rectangle of colonnaded walkways, to his brother, the Duke of Orleans. All of Paris was scandalized when the money-hungry Duke opened the Palais's ground-floor galleries to commercial occupants - but that didn't stop Parisians from flocking to the shops.

A new form of mixed-use development was born.

Today the city's passageways are the quintessential living monument, offering a picture of life in the past, yet serving a wide variety of needs - and whims - of those living above and around them.

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Some, like the Passage Jouffroy, easily retain the style and atmosphere of another century. Here, shelves of new and used books open onto the walkway; the century-old Musee Grevin wax museum invites visitors through its indoor entrance; the Hotel Chopin occupies a corner. One shop sells nothing but walking sticks.

Across Boulevard Montmartre from the Jouffroy is Passage des Panoramas, once a veritable city-within-a-city with its multiple walkways, but now only hinting at a former glory under layers of neon, plywood, and unadorned cement.

Perhaps most magnificent are the Passage Colbert and the Galerie Vivienne, with faux-marble columns and polished brass lights reaching up from the fine mosaic floors to the arched windows, trompe l'oeil frescoes, and skylights above.

The Grand Colbert restaurant is here, along with art galleries, designer clothing shops, a collectible-toys boutique, and an annex of the national library.

With the stock exchange, banks, and other offices only steps away, the Colbert comes alive at midday during the week, and for a time a customary calm is lost.

But then the lunch crowd clears out, the book browser and lone pedestrian rediscover an almost eerie peace, and the passageway is once again the urban refuge it was meant to be.

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