One of my favourite words in the French language is flâneur (or flâneuse, to describe myself). “Flâneur” became a popular word in the nineteenth century for describing a very specific kind of Parisian. A flâneur is someone who wanders at a leisurely pace throughout the city. The word describes the walk; unhurried, indulgent, with frequent stops to admire the surrounding sights. Flâner became a kind of cultural sport, a symbol of cultural status. Some flâneurs even took the sport and elevated it to an art, walking their pet tortoises on a leash to show just how leisurely they could afford to be.
There is no direct translation of flâneur in English. “Wanderer” or “meanderer” describes the act quite well, but doesn’t capture the extravagant dandy-ism that is also attached to the French word. For a flâneur does not simply wander; he wanders in style. He meanders not just to see the city, but to be seen by it. For context, Oscar Wilde is considered the ultimate personification of the term. And if his iconic character Dorian Gray had been French, I’m sure he would have been a flâneur, too.
The flâneur appeared, by no coincidence, at a time when the city of Paris was reinventing itself on an unprecedented scale. As Napoleon III commissioned the Baron Haussmann to reconstruct vast swathes of the city, bulldozing labyrinthine quarters and installing wide, regal boulevards, the nature of street life changed accordingly. Think of the spacious footpaths with room for café terraces and wicker chairs facing the street, for optimal people watching. Think of the intricate iron street lights, or lampadaires, that illuminated Paris by night and not only made evening strolls safer, but panoramic. And think of the gorgeous treasure troves of the passages couverts, the flâneur’s true habitat.
There are a number of passage couverts, or covered passageways, scattered around Paris, their mosaic walkways protected from the elements by Eiffel-esque glass and iron ceilings. Designed for foot traffic only, only a few metres wide and lined with little boutiques and large window panes, the passages couverts practically invented the concept of window shopping. There are a number of passages throughout central Paris, but most are located in the dense and tiny district of the second arrondissement, just north of the Louvre.
You can find a guide to the individual passages here, but perhaps the most beautiful is the Galerie Vivienne, located right near the Palais-Royal, and home to numerous sweet cafes, shops and a particularly charming second-hand bookshop. Stop here to stock up on classic novels and quirky vintage postcards to use as bookmarks. A little further north-east, the Passage du Grand Cerf (named after the large stuffed deer head on display) houses Le Pas-Sage (a word play on ‘passage‘, ‘le pas sage’ means ‘the unwise’), a lovely spot to recharge with a petit café. Closer to the Grands Boulevards, several more passages are hidden away, such as le Passage Jouffroy, which is home to le Musée Grévin.
However, one thing I don’t love about the concept of the flâneur is its connection to class. Flâner was for the wealthy, for who else could afford to do nothing and move at a tortoise’s pace throughout the city, while the industrialised nineteenth century hurtled everyone else into a future of modernism? Like Dorian Gray, the flâneur was upper-class. But today, I think the concept has evolved. You don’t need a tortoise, a gold watch or an entire day off work to flâne today. After all, wandering doesn’t cost a thing; it is open to everyone.
The original cultural context of the flâneur has faded away. There are no more tortoises treading the tiles at a glacial pace. But the passages couverts are still going strong, their narrow laneways still lined with treasures, tucked away from the bustle of the streets and waiting to be explored. Next time you’re in the second arrondissement, step off the well-trodden boulevards, put your phone on silent, slow down your pace just a little, and meander.
Xx la Muséophile
Les Passages couverts de Paris, 2e arrondissement 75002, métro: Bourse (line 3) or Grands-Boulevards (lines 8 and 9)
Wheelchair accessible, free access, open during business hours throughout the week