In May 2013 I took a guided walking tour of the Palais Royal area in the 1st and 2nd arrondissements of Paris. The guide turned out to be a man named Eric Bourde, who is described as an art historian and an actor. He gave us an interesting and entertaining tour, not only of the Palais Royal itself, but also of the neighborhood behind it.
This tour was in French. There are also a number of people who offer guided walking tours in English, but I have never tried any of them, so I can’t make any recommendations. When I am in France I try to do as many things as I can in the French language, because I need all the practice I can get.
These arcades at the back end of the Palais Royal, around the gardens, have a long and checkered history. Some of the shops are now in use, some are awaiting renovation. At least one is used as a café.
The National Library (Site Richelieu-Louvois), behind the Palais Royal, was undergoing renovation when we were there in 2013. In fact it still is, but but the building remains open for researchers, students and the general public.
See also: Richelieu-Louvois Library.
Location, aerial view and photo of the library on monumentum.fr.
One of our stops on our guided walking tour was the Galerie Vivienne, an elegant glass-covered passageway dating from 1823.
The Galerie Vivienne has been lovingly restored in recent years. It now houses a bookshop as well as a tea salon, several fashion shops, an upmarket delicatessen and a toy store.
Location, aerial view and photo of Galerie Vivienne on monumentum.fr.
The upstairs apartment at number 13 of the Galerie Vivienne was once the home of Eugène François Vidocq (1775-1857), a French criminal who had a turbulent life including several months imprisonment at hard labor in the bagne, the notorious prison colony in the port city of Toulon on the southern coast of France. Vidocq arrived in Toulon on August 29, 1799. He had by this time escaped from several other prisons, so he soon attempted to escape from the bagne. His first attempt was a failure, but on his second try he succeeded in escaping on March 6, 1800, with the help of a prostitute. He went into hiding, but then under an assumed name became a successful businessman before he was recognized and again arrested.
After another escape and another arrest, he finally decided to offer his services to the police as a spy. This led to a long police career in which he founded a plainclothes police brigade consisting of ex-criminals like himself, who worked as undercover agents.
Both of the main characters in Victor Hugo’s novel Les Misérables, Jean Valjean and police inspector Javert, were based on different aspects of Vidocq’s life. Jean Valjean, in the novel, became a successful businessman after escaping from the bagne in Toulon, but like Vidocq he was eventually recognized and re-arrested. Javert, in the novel, was born in Toulon as the son of a former prisoner.
Usually M. Bourde also takes his tour groups through the adjoining Galerie Colbert, but when we were there it was closed because the day was May 8, which in France is a national holiday to commemorate the end of the Second World War.
Our guide on the walking tour told us that the Rue de la Banque used to be the center of French financial power, with the Bank of France at one end and the stock exchange (Bourse) at the other. The stock exchange building is also known as the Palais Brongniart, because it was built by an architect named Alexandre-Théodore Brongniart (1739-1813).
Floor trading took place at the Palais Brongniart for exactly 172 years, from November 6, 1826 to November 6, 1998. Since then, stock trading in France has been fully computerized. Unlike the stock exchanges in Frankfurt and New York, which have retained a semblance of floor trading if only as a backdrop for the daily television reports, there is no longer any non-electronic stock trading in Paris or anywhere in France.
See also: Bourse (Palais Brongniart) in Paris.
Location, aerial view and photo of the stock exchange on monumentum.fr.
Although Alexandre-Théodore Brongniart was a prominent and influential architect during his lifetime — Napoléon thought highly of him, for example — his buildings are now generally considered to be somewhat mediocre. Today he is perhaps best known as the designer of the Père Lachaise Cemetery in the 20th arrondissement.
The restaurant Le Bougainville at 5, rue de la Banque is named after the French navigator, mathematician and author Louis-Antoine de Bougainville (1729-1811), who used to live at this address. He was the commander of the first French ship to sail all the way around the world, and he later wrote a book about his voyage that was popular in the eighteenth century.
The last stop on our guided walking tour was the Place des Victoires — which strangely enough I had never seen by daylight before, even though it is very centrally located on the border between the first and second arrondissments.
Before this I had only come through the Place des Victoires several times at night on my bicycle, usually by mistake because I had taken a wrong turn somewhere while riding home from the opera. So to me it always seemed like a dark and mysterious place.
By day this is a quiet, elegant circle surrounded by beautiful six- and seven-storey buildings. It is not very lively, because there are no cafés or restaurants. At ground level there are some discreet up-market fashion shops.
We learned that the equestrian statue in the center is of the French King Louis XIV and that the “victories” being commemorated were those of his armies in the War of Holland from 1672 to 1678. What I like about this statue (from the year 1828) is the way it manages to remain stable even though the front legs of the horse are in the air. Evidently the horse’s tail supports some of the weight and keeps it from falling down.
Location, aerial view and photo of Place des Victoires on monumentum.fr.
My photos in this post are from 2013. I revised the text in 2018.
See more posts on guided walking tours.