Just a five-minute walk from the Louvre and the shopping mile Rue Saint-Honoré, places where even in August the crowds are overflowing, there is an oasis of calm: Palais Royal and its sheltered garden where you can forget the noise of the city and where the only sound is that of tweeting birds. Beneath the shady arcades you will find a few cafés and restaurants, the most relaxed place in the area to enjoy food and drinks, or simply read a book on one of the benches in front of the colourful flowerbeds. Children are playing on the art installation of Daniel Buren, black and white striped marble columns that shoot out of the earth like lollipops, which triggered a veritable art scandal when they were erected back in 1986.
One thing I didn’t already know: Paris and its history as the “City of Lights” began right here: it is here that the first gas lamps were lit at night, which led to this enclave in the middle of the city becoming the hub of Paris night life. Long before the mills of Moulin Rouge in Pigalle were turning their sails, girls from all walks of life wandered through the dimly lit arcades, and even high-class ladies are said to have prostituted themselves, driven by their sense of adventure. The “Allée des Soupirs”, alley of sighs, became an infamous topic throughout Europe, and early on it earned Paris the reputation as a den of iniquity. The whole site, built in 1624 by Cardinal Richelieu, was initially dubbed Palais Cardinal. It wasn’t until later that the members of the royal family resided here. Philippe d’Orléans, brother of the Sun King, was a notorious bon vivant who was responsible for the opening of the first gambling dens, dives and homosexual rendezvous here under the light of the gas lamps.
There is no longer any sign of this in today’s Palais Royal, which has become a sanctuary for the upper middle classes and impressive architecture. Today, only very rich people can afford to live in the immediate vicinity of the Council of State, the Comédie Française and the Ministry of Culture. Writer Colette and artist Jean Cocteau resided here, and today it is the home of the financial aristocracy who prefer to remain discreet about this. With a bit of luck you’ll still bump into someone from showbiz because the arcades are the location of fashion’s most famous “antiques dealer”: Didier Ludot (24 Galerie Montpensier). In Paris he hardly needs an introduction. His name is known to fashionistas around the globe: from Julia Roberts to Reese Witherspoon to Kim Kardashian.
They all visit his vintage boutique at the Palais Royal to go shopping or simply to dream. Right next door is the boutique of perfumier Serge Lutens (142 Galerie de Valois) who caused a stir in the perfume world with his unisex scents back in the 1990s. The very first couture atelier of Jean Paul Gaultier is also situated here outside one of the hidden entrance gates of the Palais Royal. It is here that the cult-status fashion designer began his career. Today, the impressive building is home to Italian hipster brasserie Daroco (6 Rue Vivienne), whose waiters pay a fashionable tribute to the spirit of the place in their Breton sailor T-shirts. Today, at the Palais Royal you are in the best of company.