Thursday, March 11, 2010

An Afternoon in the 19th Century

We've kept pretty close to home this winter but yesterday we had an appointment in the 9th arrondissement, on the Right Bank, at the foot of Montmartre.  The wonderful bus system (have I raved about it enough before?) took us to Place St. George, where we found ourselves in the middle of la Belle Epoque.  The buildings, the statue in the center, the lampposts, all were as they might have been 120 years ago, were it not for the cars and motorbikes and people pouring up from the Metro entrances under the old hôtels particuliers.

One of these hôtels ( top photo above) had the ubiquitous oar-shaped monument sign in front of it, telling passers-by interested enough to stop and read it that the building now sitting smack atop the Metro exit was the home of the famous courtesan known as La Païva, whose final home is one of the last surviving mansions on the Champs-Elysées, now housing the famous Traveller's Club as well as a club called...Païva (lower photo above).

Moving up the street we came to a classic 19th century square incongruously named for the surrealist poet André Breton.  Although born in 1896, he is so representative of 20th century art movements that naming this place for him might be called surrealist in itself.

This arrondissement is home to several of the famous passages, covered shopping streets that were enormously popular in the 19th century and gave rise to the horrors we know as shopping malls today.  The originals were quite lovely in their day and some of them have been rehabilitated and are quite chic again, such as the Galerie Vivienne near Palais Royal.  The ones in the 9th are by no means fashionable, but they offer a wonderful stroll.  Covered with glass, they shelter shops specializing in stamps, old postcards, cheap clothing, tea shops selling old-fashioned pastries, and some of the hottest new small restaurants in town: Racines and Passage 53 in the Passage des Panoramas.

Many of the passages were elaborately decorated with tiled floors, painted fronts to the shops, and lighting fixtures hanging from the glass roofs.  Some remnants of this remain in the patchy floors and the oldest door surrounds.

On the streets of this quartier are other survivors of its heyday.  One of the most spectacular is the candy shop called La Mere de Famille.

Still selling chocolates and confiseries a l'ancienne, it operates out of the original store and jealously guards the original counters, display cabinets, tile and glass.

Down the street is another survivor, the communal restaurant called Bouillon Chartier.  Originally a form of soup kitchen, it is now a tourist destination known for its preserved setting, cheap meals and rude waiters, where you share long tables with others and revel in the fantasy of returning to earlier days.

The facades of buildings along these streets still carry some remnants of those earlier days.  This bathhouse is another example of the extensive use of tilework in the Belle Epoque, and the entry of the building next door has been made to appear more prominent by the addition of a false front.

An important part of the Belle Epoque at the time were what were known as maisons closes, private houses, i.e. brothels.  These continued to flourish well into the 20th century and were legal in Paris until 1946.  A small gallery in the 2nd arrondissement is having a popular exhibition of photos and other materials relating to these maisons closes.  The gallery, perhaps not only coincidentally, is on rue Chabanais, directly across the street from the most famous of these establishments, the one in which the Prince of Wales, later Edward the VII, had his own suite and specially built chair.

1 comment:

Jo said...

Shelli -

It's wonderful to see blue skies in some of your recent Paris photos and to know that you and Gene are once again able to enjoy more of the magic of Paris out-of-doors. The architectural details you highlighted in many of the photos taken in the 9th also made me nostalgic for that area. May you have many more sunny days.