"AND PARIS is my home town and it is as it has come to be," wrote Gertrude Stein, who got there before us. In Paris, someone always has gotten there before you, but it never seems to matter. It just sits there, a huge hometown with backwaters and byways that wait to be reinvented. It is as it has come to be, and that is enough for most people; enough, like the loaves and the fishes, for the feeding of multitudes.
Most people know by now that the feeding of multitudes in Paris today is not what it used to be: that the neighborhood bistro has become the home of the fast-food brioche and the battery croissant and that the new focus of the city is not the Mona Lisa in the Louvre but the instant culture of the Centre Pompidou. But there still are patches of Paris where nothing seems to have changed, where the pulse of the city of Balzac is still beating.
One of the most accessible of those areas, and the most overlooked, is the trapezium of courts and gardens between the Invalides and the Boulevard Raspail that goes under the name of the Faubourg Saint-Germain. No tourists seem to penetrate these few dense blocks of untouched 18th-century architecture, left today to ministries and embassies and the bearers of some of France's most flowery names.
The area started off as the suburbs to the parish of Saint-Germain des Pres, when Richelieu was building the Place des Vosges and the Marais was the center of town. But in the early 1700s, when the Sun King moved his court to the Palace of the Tuileries on the other side of the river, the Faubourg Saint-Germain became one of the best addresses in town, and for almost 300 years it has stayed there. THERE IS A stretch of the Rue de Grenelle that makes one of the most beautiful streetscapes in the city. Where it crosses the Rue du Bac, looking west, the road curtsies graciously around to the left in a glorious parabola, flanked by unspoiled hotels particuliers, or townhouses--the Hotel d'Estre'es, the Hotel de Bauffremont, the Hotel de Mothe-Houdancourt--and rounded out by the dark dome of the Eglise de Pentemont. None of the houses is the same, and few have more than three stories: Behind heavy wooded doors that used to open for the coachman hide glimpses of a secret Paris.
The Rue de Grenelle is narrow, and hems in the Fountain of the Four Seasons at No. 55. Voltaire, who liked its statuary, showing a languid Paris flanked by her two tributary rivers, the Seine and the Marne, claimed that as a monument it was as good as any fountain in Rome, and said he was sorry it wasn't on a public square.
Next door, at No. 47, in equally cramped premises, is La Froumagiere, and another facet of French creative genius: as good a showcase of French cheese in its real and ideal versions as the connoisseur could hope to find. They do here almost everything it is possible to do to cheese: Wrap it in leaves, dust it with ash, roll it in kirsch-soaked raisins, float it in oil and red-hot peppers. There may not be one for every day of the year, for cheeses have their seasons, but it would be difficult to repeat one.
The other big names in the cheese world are hiding behind counters and chromium, but madame was keen to preserve the feel of an old cremerie. She is proud of the sawdust and the marble cupboards, the dizzy stepladder into the cellar where wooden barrels of cheese are waiting for their turn, of her shopgirls, who have made choosing cheese a profession. They show you the original port-salut made by the monks at Entramme, who sold their name to the industrial producers; the goat cheeses that breathe through a straw; the fougerons wrapped in ferns and the vacherins, rare in Paris, that ooze out of a round wooden frame.
Madame is modest, says she doesn't think they are special, but the diplomats and countesses who shop here know better. ANOTHER PARIS phenomenon that comes in generous helpings is the cinema. But taking a packet of French fries into a movie house on the Champs-Elyse'es isn't always the most transfiguring of experiences. A richer and rarer evening altogether can be spent at Le Pagode, across the Faubourg Saint-Germain at 55 bis Rue de Babylone, which shows a good line in Left Bank art films in a setting of lavish Japonaiserie.
The man who made his fortune with the Au Bon Marche' department store not far away, shipped the Pagoda--it is really a temple--over from Japan in the 1890s, fully fledged with fluted eaves and golden mosaics and frescoes flying with ibis. It was a present for his wife, who filled it with the dinners and costume balls and fe tes mondaines of the Belle Epoque: Today there is a modest teahouse with rattan furniture and a choice of exorbitant teas, installed by the film director Louis Malle 10 years ago when they tore down the wall that hid this jewel from passers-by. Now anyone can wander in off the street into its tiny garden and peer at the Japanese masks of comedy and tragedy embedded in its walls in sea-green intensity. FOR SCULPTURE in its more classical French form, the Metro at Varenne, one stop away, is worth an underground visit. Andre' Malraux's staging of Egyptian antiquities in the station at the Louvre is better known, but Varenne, installed more recently, has its own surprise value. Rodin's "Le Penseur," chin in hand, dominates the platform: Balzac, cloaked and massive, gazes past the importunate trains. They give only a foretaste of the Muse'e Rodin above, where drawings and sculpture are set in the airy premises of Rodin's town house, the Ho tel Biron, but it is an inspired answer to the question of how to bring art down to the commuting masses. BUT IT IS dangerous in Paris to give in solely to the lure of the Metro. The initiated use the buses, and not far from Varenne, threading its way along the Seine at the bottom of the Invalides, is the magic 63 bus route, a pilgrimage in its own right. It starts by the Bois de Boulogne and the Muse'e Marmottan, with its Monet waterlilies, and it streaks past the baldfaced Trocadero and down to the Seine. At the Invalides, it gives a magnificent view over to the glassy Grand Palais from the gilt arabesques of the Pont Alexander III. It slices down the Boulevard Saint Germain past the colonnades of the National Assembly and into the parts of Paris that count.
One stopover, at 12 Rue de Buci, just by the heaped scarlet stalls of the Seine-Buci Market, is an excellent little patisserie. In confectionery, in ice cream and in its whirlpools of cream pastry, La Bonbonniere de Buci does its inventive best to expand the limits of quality in a city where there is still art in the day-to-day. They are good at millefeuille pastries, at lemon tarts. They build whole ideas on almonds. They coat liqueurs in chocolate. It's not unusual in Paris to pack sherberts into orange and lemon shells: But here they take waxy apples and pears and freeze the pulp inside the fruit. They take the technique and then add imagination. Tourists on the Left Bank who stumble upon this may not realize how spoiled they are.
Back on the bus, past that repository of French intellect, the College de France, and the more lowly small mammals in the zoo of the Jardin de Plantes, the No. 63 winds up at the Gare de Lyon, home of one of Paris' more astonishing restaurants, Le Train Bleu. Salvador Dali loved it here, because, he said, he liked the men's room, and being able to watch the trains leave the station. Its real fascination, however, lies in the rococo splendor of the decoration: two rooms like football fields that swim in gilt maidens and red velvet.
The turn-of-the-century frescoes paint an eloquent picture of the attraction of the Mediterranean, where the trains outside are headed: This is the railway age in its heyday. Sarah Bernhardt is there, on a panel showing a bevy of bustles and cravats in the Roman amphitheater at Orange. The moony young man with a basket of oranges is the actress' half-wit son, who had to disguise himself as a fruitseller because his mother didn't want him to see her on stage.
This is Paris of the Belle Epoque--and as far as the gastromony goes, there is no room for nouvelle cuisine fads here. But for sheer sensual overload, even for those who have no intention of leaving for Nice or Cannes, Le Train Bleu is a trip in itself. AT L'ARSENEL, just below the Bastille, begins a Paris experience that even residents often don't know about: the Canal Saint Martin. Under the Bastille column, melted down from the cannon of Napoleon Bonaparte's enemies, the canal heads north underground for over two kilometers, punctuated at intervals by round vents whose reflections wobble in the water like globules of mercury. But from the Faubourg du Temple near the Place de la Republique, the canal comes into its own, a quiet, dusty stretch of water lined with poplar and chestnuts--and spanned by green cast-iron footbridges.
Clans of fisherman group on the water's edge edge, and the occasional barge slithers by, helped on its way by the rushing water of the locks. The Ho tel du Nord that gave its name to the 1938 film by Marcel Carne' still looks melancholy, and a small detour down the Rue Richerand to the Hopital Saint Louis, built in the early 17th century to care for plague victims, is a treat for the unsuspecting. Under the pointed roofs of its gateway reads the slogan "Liberty, Fraternity, Equality," and through the stone cloister one comes upon the hospital's tranquil courtyard, an enclosed space dotted with trees and flowerbeds that seal the visitor from the confusion of the city.
And to finish off with a basic French essential that masquerades everywhere in its unsatisfactory modern form, it is worth pointing out a tiny bakery five minutes away where they still make baguettes as baguettes should be made. Most Parisian bakers steam their bread, which leaves it dry and cardboard-tasting after its first hour of shock exposure to the real world. But at 103 Avenue Parmentier, the Dubos still use an ancient oven whose stone floor is part of the foundations of the building, and the result is mouthwatering.
They do not try to improve on the flour, the water, the yeast and the salt, and they shape the loaves themselves. Each baguette has its own warp and a nutty springiness and texture. It is self-respecting bread. It is the kind of bread a hometown can be proud of.