Tag Archives: Palais Royal

Homeless in Paris

They call it the city of light, but Paris can be a dark and ugly place, especially for the homeless.

Homeless in Paris
Homeless in Paris

History, monuments, palaces, chic boutiques, bars, restaurants, gardens with gravelled paths, sculpted trees and hedges, fountains – this is Palais Royal. It’s a quaint little quartier, steeped in the ambience of old Paris. But charm and atmosphere mean little to the SDF or sans domicile fixe (without fixed address, or homeless) of the Premier Arrondissement. An eighteenth century colonnade, an arched passage, a Galerie from the Belle Epoque, is just a place to shelter from the sun and rain, or to sleep under shadow of the night.

He sits all day on the pavement in front of the colonnades outside Galerie Colbert on Rue des Petits Champs, with his cases packed beside him. People and cars pass, buses stop, but not for him. As I stoop to drop some coins in his little basket, the kind that might sit on any French table filled with bread, his eyes lock on mine accusingly. I can’t look away. He’s talking, pointing, angrily, urgently. I don’t understand his words, they’re rushed, garbled, neither French, nor English, but his story is plain, it’s one of pain, loss, grievance, blame and grief. I tear myself away, feeling useless, sorry, guilty. He shouts after me as I hurry across the road. From a corner table in chic Café Pistache, I watch him, still muttering and gesticulating furiously, spread his grubby bedding against the back wall, under the arch and stack his cases close around him for the night.

It’s summer in Paris at present, the nights are warm and the days are long so, although no less miserable the homeless are not quite so vulnerable, at least not to the elements. But in a few months the days will draw in, the nights will lengthen and the plight of the people on the streets of Paris will be desperate.  

Rue de Montpensier, a hidden Paris gem

Tucked in between Rue de Richelieu and le Jardin du Palais Royal, in the Premier Arrondissement of Paris, Rue de Montpensier is short and narrow, little more than a lane, not big enough even to feature on the standard hotel publicity map.

In the daytime Rue de Montpensier is thrown into shadow by the tall buildings on either side; little traffic passes on the one-way thoroughfare, just slow cars cruising for a park or cutting into and out of the surrounding main roads; few shoppers pass through the back entrances to the Antiquaires and the chic boutiques which face the colonnades of the Palais Royal on one side and only a few more browse in the basement Art Gallery and the workshop of Couturier, Louise Piquant on the other. The restaurants and bars, if they’re open, do a quiet day-time trade. A steel-shuttered shop-front, some faded signs, dates and inscriptions on buildings hint at the street’s past lives.

But Rue de Montpensier is not dead. This is the heartland of Paris theatre, with La Comedie Francaise at one end of the street and Le Theatre du Palais Royal at the other. And when the theatres come to life so does Rue de Montpensier.  In the late afternoon doors and shutters open on bars and restaurants, waiters in waistcoats and long aprons plant tables and chairs on the pavements, signs light up and blackboards with menus avant et après spectacle come out. In the early evening people begin to trickle into the street, squeezing their cars into improbable spaces, chaining their bikes to unlikely places or clicking sharply on impossible heels over the worn cobble-stones. As the sky begins to fade, doormen in evening dress take a last smoke outside Le Theatre du Palais Royal. Neon letters flick on spelling out the play of the season.

Across the road, wedged into the corner next to the arched stone passage through to Rue de Richelieu, the tiny Bar Entre’acte serves aperitifs “avant spectacle” with snacks of bread and goats cheese. Here, thespians sit at tables on the pavement, surrounded by potted geraniums, until the theatre bell calls them to their seats.

Just around the corner the restaurant Les Reflets de Scene offers a menu of old French favourites like Salade Lyonnaise, Canard a l’orange, Coquilles St Jacques, Crème Brule and mysterious tartes, at 20 euros for two courses and 25 for three – avant et après spectacle, bien sur! The friendly, funny and helpful waiter Tom will cheerfully guides the confused to a choice of both food and wine.

Hidden in the alleys, under the arches and up or down the stairways around Rue de Montpensier, are bars and cafes, just perfect for a post theatre nightcap.

Palais Royal

Just opposite the Louvre, are the magnificent buildings and beautiful gardens of Palais Royal. They are steeped in history, whispering with a thousand stories and  haunted by hundreds of ghosts.

The Gardens of Palais Royal
The Gardens of Palais Royal

Built in 1624 by the architect Jacques Le Mercier for Cardinal Richelieu, the palace was first known as the Palais du Cardinal. When Richelieu bequeathed it to the Crown, it became the Palis Royal and was in turn home to Louis XIII, the young Louis XIV, the Dukes of Orleans and the seat of the House of Bourbon.

In 1641, Cardinal Richelieu established the Theatre du Palais Royal, which still operates as a theatre today, at the far end of  the palace, on the corner of Rue de Montpensier. Here, Moliere staged his plays and Lully performed his operas to entertain the Sun King, Louis XIV. Le Theatre du Comedie Francaise at the other end of the complex, on the Place du Palais Royal, facing the Louvre, has been centre of French theatre since the time of Napoleon

In 1784 Louis Phillippe II, Duke of Orleans, opened the palace gardens to the public. The architect Victor Louis restructured the surrounding buildings and enclosed the gardens with colonnades.

From the 1780s to the mid-1800s, Palais Royal was a hub of Parisian social activity and political intrigue. Businesses flourished under the colonnades. Cafes sprang up, among them the one where, in July 1789, Camille des Moulins leapt onto a table and exhorted his fellow revolutionaries to take arms and storm the Bastille. Restaurants were established, like Le Grand Vefour, which still operates today as a grand and rather expensive Bar Americain, Bar Anglais, and Brasserie. There were businesses and shops, like the one where Carlotte Corday bought the knife she used to stab Jean Marat. Gambling dens, bordellos and prostitues also plied their trade under the arches.

The apartments around Palais Royal, have been home to many famous Francais and Francaises, like the novelist, Colette who lived here in the early 1900s.

Palais Royal today houses the offices of the French National Government, the Conseil d’ Etat, the Constitutional Council and the Ministry of Culture. Across its forecourt Daniel Burens 1986 sculpture stretches like a forest of black and white stone stumps, where people sit and rest in the sun while children jump and dance precariously.

The Palais  garden is a tranquil spot where couples stroll beneath the trees, workers on lunch breaks read on benches, mothers and au pairs watch children potter in the fenced playground. There are still restaurants and cafes under the colonades and sumptuous shops, selling art, antiques, fashion and exquisite toys.  Buskers entertain passers by and the homeless find a refuge for the night in secluded doorways

And every day at 12.00 midday,  at Palais Royal, the Noon Canon, set up in 1786, captures the rays of the midday sun, ignites and fires a shot.