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Time passages in Paris

The Metro stop Grands-Boulevards is served by both the Number Eight and Nine Metros. Three

bus lines, the 20, 32 and 39, also stop there, all on the Boulevard Montmartre. The word boulevard comes from the word for “bulwark” or defensive wall. Historically, when a city wall was demolished and the moat filled in, a right-of-way opened and wide boulevards were built. Under Napoleon III in the 1870s, Baron Hausmann was tasked with ridding Paris of the “rabbit warren” maze of dirty, winding streets that could easily be barricaded by angry mobs in times of unrest. This led to the creating even more boulevard and subsequently the construction of theaters, hotels, cabarets and indoor arcaded passages with specialty stores and bistros. The genuine sights and experiences in this neighborhood reflect “La Vie Parisienne” and are seldom explored by visitors to Paris. You will see why a full day could be spent in this quarter.

The first covered passages were built near the end of the 1700s. At the time, Paris was not yet “pedestrian friendly,” with horse-drawn transportation, muddy streets and a lot of unheated buildings. There are still more than a dozen such passages remaining in Paris and this neighborhood has three of the most quaint and lively ones. Across from the Metro stop is the entrance to the Passage des Panoramas, built in 1800 with a glass roof and mosaic floor. The first passage to have gas lights, it is the narrowest and most original of the passages. Restaurants spill out into the passage, interspersed with dealers of stamps and vintage autographs.

Across the boulevard Montmartre is the Musée Grévin, a wax museum built in 1882. Every Parisian was sure to have visited as a child. It is an eclectic mix of history, nostalgia and kitsch … Robespierre, Marat in his bathtub, Picasso, Elton John, Mother Theresa and Michael Jackson; there are 482 characters in all. If you have an extra hour or so, it’s great fun. Near to its façade is the Passage Jouffroy, an 1847 version of a shopping mall. Today it is filled with family-owned specialty shops for expensive toys and games, gourmet candy, posters and art books. It even has its own hotel, the Chopin. At the end of the passage and across the street is the Passage Verdeau. Antique and art galleries, framing shops and cafés are the norm here. The passages are relatively unknown to tourists and with the Musée Grévin, they make up our favorite rainy-day option when we have visitors.

One of the city’s most venerable dining spots, the Bouillon Chartier, is a few blocks away on the rue du Faubourg-Montmartre. A monument to Parisian life, it is cavernous, boisterous and inexpensive, with simple old-style cooking. It was founded in 1896. It has that blue collar “we’re-all-in-this-together”= feel that I love. All the French favorites are on the inexpensive menu. Most starter courses cost just a few Euros: poireaux vinaigrette (braised leeks), céleri rémoulade, salade verte and more. The main courses, such as the farm-raised chicken with frites, hover around 10 Euros.

The daily set menu is even a better deal. A starter course, main course, dessert and 1/2 bottle of mineral water can be had, all for around 18 Euros. Wines by the glass start at two Euros. Chartier is open every day from 11:30 until midnight, non-stop. It is best to arrive for lunch shortly after noon when there is no line. The locals arrive en masse at 1:00 p.m. and a line begins to form. One of the advantages of being an American in Paris is being able to beat the crowd for lunch.

You may be sharing a long table with other individuals. You can ask them what they ordered and they will usually reply amiably: The French love to talk about food. Brusque-looking waiters (who are actually very nice) will write your order on the paper table covering. The waiters are charged for what they bring from the kitchen and must settle-up at the end of their shifts, providing the incentive for them to collect from the customers they serve. There are cabinets of small numbered drawers throughout the room. These were for daily regulars to store their napkins which were washed once a week, a practice that was outlawed years ago as unsanitary, though the drawers remain in many old restaurants.

A few blocks away from the Passages is Drouot, the oldest auction house in Paris, dating back to 1852. Here up to 16 auctions may be in progress at the same time. The 1980s era building that replaced the original is not inspiring, but what goes on inside is exciting. Every day, it opens at 11:00 a.m. and the auction rooms open for browsing. The auctions feature everything from masterpieces to shabby chic in fine art, furniture, vintage clothing and handbags, books, china and rugs. Viewing is both the day before and the morning of each auction, but at noon sharp, it closes for lunch and everyone heads to the bistros that fill the quarter. At 1:00 p.m. the doors re-open and the hammers start falling at 2:00 in the afternoon. It is not necessary to preregister to bid, but you need to know your French numbers. Do not raise your hand unless you mean it!

If you are the high bidder, credit cards are accepted. Be advised that a buyer’s premium will add up to 30 percent to the winning bid. I often bid on old paintings when in Paris. Experience has taught me to set three rules when at an auction. First, set a maximum price and do not bid more. This sounds simple but it’s easy to get carried away and chase other bidders. Second, I ask myself, ”Where am I going to hang it?” … this rule actually came from my wife. Finally, I buy only those paintings that are well-framed. Having it framed can cost three-to-five times the purchase price!

Whether you are a bidder or not, just going from room to room and watching the action is worth a visit. Upcoming auctions may be previewed online in English at Drouot.com.

Jerry Marterer is the author of Paris 201 — Uncommon Places in the City of Light. He and his wife, Suzanne, divide their time between Charleston and Paris.

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