As tourists snake their way to the Louvre Pyramid, or pack beneath, you may crave some relief in the nearby gardens of the Palais Royal, an arcaded haven of tranquillity, especially in the early hours of the morning.
Between 1784 and 1830, on the other hand, the Palais Royal was the bustling centre of both intellectual and dissolute Paris. Cafés, restaurants, game-houses and brothels flourished under its arcades.
Whores and courtesans came here from all over Paris ‘faire le Palais’, as the saying went, among them the Pompadour’s mother. No wonder Casanova rushed here upon his arrival in Paris.
Palais Royal: Construction
In the late 18th century, the landlord of the palace was Philippe d’Orléans. Deep in debt, he built the arcades with shops running beneath as a rental business, drawing substantial profits in particular from the gambling houses and the brothels.
The newly converted Palais Royal was opened in 1784 to the satisfaction of all. The Palais Royal was the intellectual centre of the capital, studded with cafés where such prominent figures as Diderot used to sup and where dangerous new ideas circulated.
Diderot’s fictitious, beggarly, parasitical, yet delightfully worldly nephew of the composer Rameau tells us in Le Neveu de Rameau that on wet days, when he could not meditate on one of the benches in the garden, he would step into the celebrated Cafe La Régence and watch a good game of chess.
The chessboards were rented by the hour and cost more at night when a candle had to be fixed on either side. In fact, François André Danican-Philidor, composer and co-founder of the Opéra-Comique, and also world chess champion, would take on the world’s best chess players simultaneously at La Régence, and beat them one by one mercilessly.
His Analyse du jeu des échecs, published in London when he was only twenty two, remains a classic.
In 1794 Napoleon, an excellent player too, shared a wretched existence between a grotty hotel on today’s rue d’Aboukir (in the 2nd arrondissement) and Café de La Régence where he spent hours moving pieces on a chessboard, rehearsing for the showdown on the chessboard of Europe soon to come.
A scene for food fare, and fatality
During the Restoration of the Bourbon monarchy (1815-1830), the Palais Royal became the scene of bellicose duels. Having fought the rest of Europe, the French now set out to kill one another.
The monarchists assembled at the Café de Valois, the Bonapartists and Liberals at the Café Lemblin. The slightest provocation led to a fatal confrontation. A neighbour related how between 1815 and 1820 he had been woken up over 20 times by the groaning victims of these political clashes.
However quarrelsome a Frenchman may be, his palate and stomach will bring him back in line, and good fare was available in plenty here, notably at Le Véry, at no. 83, the first Parisian establishment to offer meals at fixed prices, creating a sensation. These however were high enough to ensure a select clientele, among whom was the painter Fragonard who expired here whilst savouring a sorbet.
Le Café de Chartres, at no. 79-82 galerie de Beaujolais, so named after the Duke, is now Le Grand Véfour, although the old name is still inscribed on the wall facing the garden. It was a monarchist stronghold and served a set menu of vermicelle et poitrine de mouton aux haricots.
Today Le Grand Véfour is one of the city’s Michelin-starred restaurants. The premises were magnificently revamped in the post-Revolution years of the Directoire (1795-1799) and have been preserved intact, complete with their period friezes, wall panels and painted ceilings, all of which multiply infinitely in the mirrors around, and were targeted by Leftists to be blown up, in December 1983.
From a bustling setting to old news
In 1830 Louis-Philippe ascended the throne and closed down this seat of vice (and of political threat: after all, the French Revolution had also been plotted here). Some Parisians held on to the place for another generation, and the writer Balzac reported that it was still a popular promenade where art and vice mingled.
The more fashionable Parisians, however, had migrated to the new axis of pleasure, les Grands Boulevards further north. Some frequented both places.
By the time the writer Colette was living at no. 9 rue de Beaujolais, and Jean Cocteau at no. 36 rue de Montpensier, the Palais-Royal had become a closed world of outdated serenity as described by Colette:
‘In the mornings we went out for a breath of fresh air – cat, bulldog and me – on the garden chairs, uncomfortable armchairs of venerable age […] I like to think that a magic spell preserves, at Palais-Royal, everything that collapses and lasts, everything that crumbles and doesn’t alter.’
She goes on to describe its nameless, silent citizens who followed a code of mysterious mutual courtesy: the elderly lady leaning on her stick, the gentleman cultivating little cacti on his window sill, the boy who might one day lay a marble in the palm of your hand. There was also a venerable lady who might one day read out to you the ode she had written to Victor Hugo.
The home of the Comédie-Française
Today the Cour d’Honneur on the southern side of the Palais-Royal is graced (or disgraced) with Daniel Buren’s controversial striped columns, a controversial addition dated from the 1980s.
To the right, as you leave the gardens, is the magnificent home of the Comédie-Française, completed in 1790. The Palais Royal already had a theatre in Richelieu’s palace and was named Le Petit Cardinal. It was situated on the corner of rue Saint-Honoré and the galerie de Valois.
On 17 February 1673, at 10pm, Molière was acting there the part of Argan in Le Malade imaginaire, when he collapsed on its stage and died of a heart attack.