MOST travellers from London enter Paris in the evening, and I think they are wise. I wish it were possible again and again to enter Paris in the evening for the first time ; but since it is not, let me hasten to say that the pleasure of re-entering Paris in the evening is one that custom has almost no power to stale. Every time that one emerges from the Gare du Nord or the Gare St. Lazare one is taken afresh by the variegated and vivid activity of it all the myriad purposeful self-contained bustling people, all moving on their unknown errands exactly as they were moving when one was here last, no matter how long ago. For Paris never changes : that is one of her most precious secrets.
The Landon which one had left seven or eight hours before was populous enough and busy enough, Heaven knows, but London’s pulse is slow and fairly regular, and even at her gayest, even when greeting Royalty, she seems to be advising caution and a careful demeanor. But Paris Paris smiles and Paris sings. There is an incredible vivacity in her atmosphere.
Sings ! This reminds me that on the first occasion that I entered Paris in the evening, of course my cab man sang. He sang all the way from the Gare du Nord to the Rue Caumartin. This seemed to me delightful and odd, although at first I felt in danger of attracting more attention than one likes ; but as we proceeded down the Rue Lafayette which nothing but song and the fact that it is the high road into Paris from England can render tolerable I discovered that no one minded us. A singing cab man in London would bring out the Riot Act and the military; but here he was in the picture: no one threw at the jolly fellow any of the chilling deprecatory glances which are the birthright of every light-hearted eccentric in my own land. And so we proceeded to the hotel, often escaping collision by the breadth of a single hair, the driver singing all the way. What he sang I knew not: but I doubt if it was of battles long ago : rather, I should fancy, of very present love and mischief. But how fitting a first entry into Paris !
An hour or so later it was just twenty years ago, but I remember it so clearly I observed written up in chalk in large emotional letters on a public wall the words ” Vivent les femmes !” and they seemed to me also so odd it seemed to me so funny that the sentiment should be recorded at all, since women were obviously going to live whatever happened that I laughed aloud. But it was not less characteristic of Paris than the joyous baritone notes that had proceeded from beneath the white tall hat of my cocher. It was as natural for one Parisian to desire the continuance of his joy as a lover, even to expressing it in chalk in the street, as to another to beguile with lyrical snatches the tedium of cab-driving.
I was among the Latin people, and, as I quickly began to discover, I was myself, for the first time, a foreigner. That is a discovery which one quickly makes in Paris.
But I have not done yet with the joy of entering and re-entering Paris in the evening after the long smooth journey across the marshes of Picardy or through the orchards of Normandy and the valley of the Seine whichever way one travels. But whether one travels by Calais, Boulogne, Dieppe or Havre, whether one alights at the Gare du Nord or St. Lazare, once outside the station one is in Paris instantly: there is no debatable land between either of these termini and the city, as there is, for example, between the Gare de Lyons and the city. Paris washes up to the very platforms. A few steps and here are the foreign tables on the pavements and the foreign waiters, so brisk and clean, flitting among them; here are the vehicles meeting and passing on the wrong or foreign side, and beyond that knowing apparently no law at all; here are the deep-voiced newsvendors shouting those magic words La Patrie! La Patrie! which, should a musician ever write a Paris symphony, would recur and recur continually beneath its surface harmonies. And here, everywhere, are the foreign people in their ordered haste and their countless numbers.
The pleasure of entering and re-entering Paris in the evening is only equalled by the pleasure of stepping forth into the street the next morning in the sparkling Parisian air and smelling again the pungent Parisian scent and gathering in the foreign look of the place. I know of no such exuberance as one draws in with these first Parisian inhalations on a fine morning in May or June and in Paris in May and June it is always fine, just as in Paris in January and February it is always cold or wet. His would be a very sluggish or disenchanted spirit who was not thus exhilarated ; for here at his feet is the holiday city of Europe and the clean sun over all.
And then comes the question “What to do ?” Shall we go at once to “Monna Lisa?” But could there be a better morning for the children in the Champs Elysees ? That beautiful head in the His de la Salle collection attributed to the school of Fabriano ! How delightfully the sun must be lighting up the red walls of the Place des Vosges ! Rodin’s “Kiss” at the Luxembourg we meant to go straight to that ! The wheel window in Notre Dame, in the north transept I have been thinking of that ever since we planned to come.
So may others talk and act; but I have no hesitancies. My duty is clear as crystal. On the first morning I pay a visit of reverence and delight to the ancient auberge of the Compas d’Or at No. 64 Rue Montorgueil. And this I shall always do until it is razed to the earth, as it seems likely to be under the gigantic scheme, beyond Haussmann almost, which is to renovate the most picturesque if the least sanitary portions of old Paris at a cost of over thirty millions of pounds. Unhappy day may it be long postponed ! For some years now I have always approached the Compas d’Or with trembling and foreboding. Can it still be there ? I ask myself. Can that wonderful wooden hanger that covers half the courtyard have held so long? Will there be a motor-car among the old diligences and waggons ? But it is always the same.
From the street and the Rue Montorgueil is as a whole one of the most picturesque and characteristic of the older streets of Paris, with its high white houses, each containing fifty families, its narrowness, its bar-rows of fruit and green stuff by both pavements, and its crowds of people from the street, the Compas d’Or is hardly noticeable, for a butcher and a cutler occupy most of its façade; but the sign and the old carvings over these shops give away the secret, and you pass through one of the narrow archways on either side and are straightway in a romance by the great Dumas. Into just such a courtyard would D’Artagnan have dashed, and leaping from one sweating steed leap. on another and be off again amid a shower of sparks on the stones. Time has stood still here.
There is no other such old inn left. The coach to Dreux now probably a carrier’s cart still regularly runs from this spot, as it has done ever since the beginning of the sixteenth century. Rows of horses stand in its massive stables and fill the air with their warm and friendly scent; a score of ancient carts huddle in the yard, in a corner of which there will probably be a little group of women shelling peas ; beneath the enormous hanger are more vehicles, and masses of hay on which the carters sleep. The ordinary noise of Paris gives way, in this sanctuary of antiquity, to the scraping of hoofs, the rattle of halter bolts, and the clatter of the wooden shoes of ostlers. It is the past in actual being Civilisation, like Time, has stood still in the yard of the Compas d’Or. That is why I hasten to it so eagerly and shall always do so until it disappears for ever. There is nothing else in Paris like it.
And after ? Well, the next thing is to have lunch. And since this lunch being the first will be the best lunch of the holiday and therefore the best meal of the holiday (for every meal on a holiday in Paris is a little better than that which follows it), it is an enterprise not lightly to be undertaken. One must decide carefully, for this is to be an extravagance: the search for the little out-of-the-way restaurant will come later. Today we are rich.
This book is not a guide for the gastronome and gourmet. How indeed could it be, even although when heaven sends a cheerful hour one would scorn to refrain ? Yet none the less it would be pleasant in this commentary upon a city illustrious for its culinary ingenuity and genius to say something of restaurants. But what is one to say here on such a theme ? Volumes are needed. Everyone has his own taste. For me Voisin’s remains and will, I imagine, remain the most distinguished, the most serene, restaurant in Paris, in its retired situation at the corner of the Rue Sainte-Honore and the Rue Cambon, with its simple decoration, its unhastening order and despatch, its Napoleonic head-waiter, its Bacchic wine-waiter (with a head that calls for vine leaves) and its fastidious cuisine. To Voisin’s I should always make my way when I wished not only to be delicately nourished but to be quiet and philosophic and retired. Only one other restaurant do I know where the cooking gives me the satisfaction of Voisin’s where excessive richness never intrudes and that is a discovery of my own and not lightly to be given away. Voisin’s is a name known all over the world: one can say nothing new about Voisin’s; but the little restaurant with which I propose to tantalise you, although the resort of some of the most thoughtful eaters in Paris, has a reputation that has not spread. It is not cheap, it is little less dear indeed than the Café Anglais or Paillard’s, to name the two restaurants of renown which are nearest to it; its cellar is poor and limited to half a dozen wines; its two rooms are minute and hot; but the idea of gastronomy reigns everything is subordinated to the food and the cooking. If you order a trout, it is the best trout that France can breed, and it is swimming in the kitchen at the time the solitary waiter repeats your command ; no such asparagus reaches any other Paris restaurant, no such Pré Salé and no such wild strawberries. But I have said enough; almost I fear I have said too much. These discoveries must be kept sacred.
And for lunch today ? Shall it be chez Voisin, or chez Foyot, by the Sénat, or chez Lapérouse (where the two Stevensons used to eat and talk) on the Quai des Augustins ? Or shall it be at my nameless restaurant ?
Voisin’s today, I think.