The Palais-Royal: A ‘well-kept secret’ hidden in plain sight
It’s here that the disparate elements that make up Paris — tourists, transplants and natives — meet and interact naturally.
Every adoptive Parisian has that one (and sometimes more than one) spot that feels like their home away from home. For Charlotte de Charentenay, a professional guide, art historian and Parisian who now lives in the center of Paris, this spot is — and has been since her childhood — the Palais-Royal.
Charlotte grew up on a farm in the countryside about an hour away from Paris, along the route to Reims. She remembers, however, coming to the city as a child to see theater performances at the Comédie Française with her grandmother. Afterward the two of them would stroll through the gardens of the Palais-Royal, the palace and adjoining garden in the center of Paris’s first arrondissement, across from the Louvre.
“It’s somewhere I feel at home,” she says. “I feel like I’m in my place — as a French person, as a transplant to Paris.”
Over the years, Charlotte has become an expert on the Palais-Royal, and now its passionate Secret Journey storyteller. She talks eloquently and emphatically about the history of the building and gardens: how Napoleon met his mistress here, the restaurants and cafes that became known as dens of gambling and prostitution at the beginning of the 19th century, the hotly disputed Contemporary art installation by Daniel Buren from the 1980s that remains to this day.
Originally designed in the 17th century for Cardinal Richelieu and later converted into the residence of the king, the Palais-Royal has since undergone a number of evolutions, charting alongside the major political developments of France itself. Toward the end of the 18th century, when it had been completed by three majestic wings, its courtyards and gardens became a meeting spot for revolutionaries. At the same time, it became a center of commerce, by day, and vice, by night.
Today, the Palais-Royal looks rather the same as it did in the early 19th century, give or take a few selfie sticks and Instagram influencers posing on the black-and-white striped columns of Buren’s “Les Deux Plateaux” in the Cour d’Honneur. For Charlotte, it remains one of the few places in Paris where visitors and residents mix in an organic fashion as they enjoy the garden and its relaxed atmosphere.
Charlotte’s Secret Journey weaves together the rich history of the palace with its present. By taking guests not just through the gardens and halls of the palace, but also to a number of shops that have operated out of the Palais-Royal for centuries, she is also — at least in a sense — keeping its traditional element alive.
She makes stops in Bacqueville, a shop selling medallions that’s been in existence since 1790; Didier Ludot, a luxury vintage clothing store; and the more recently installed Delvaux boutique, the oldest fine leather goods house in the world. Her aim is to bring Secret Journeys guests along with her on a deambulation — or stroll — of the garden and its galleries, she says.
“You’re right in the center of Paris, but it’s still somehow a bit of a ‘well-kept secret,’” Charlotte says of the Palais-Royal. “The idea is really to present this hidden spot, to evoke the melting pot of modern life at the heart of the city.”
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