PARIS, March 5, 2016 – In the last half of the 20th century railways were the catalyst for what we know today as “mass tourism.” And from the creativity of Thomas Cook, who recognized the potential and interest for group travel, an entire subset of hospitality services emerged, such as grand hotels and restaurants.
Le Train Bleu restaurant in the Gare de Lyon in Paris is one of the few remaining landmarks that hearkens back to that golden age of travel when getting to a destination was as much a part of a journey as the destination itself.
At the turn of the 20th century, Paris was awarded a new Universal Exhibition scheduled to open in 1900. In order to promote the railway lines to the southwest regions of France, the PLM Company (Paris, Lyon, Marseille) decided to build a prestigious restaurant in the Gare de Lyon that would symbolize travel, technical innovation, luxury and comfort.
Architect Marius Toudoire, who also built the famous 210-foot clock tower and façade of the Gare de Lyon railway station, was given the project which was unveiled in 1901.
For travelers, Americans in particular, it is difficult to imagine such elegance displayed in, of all places, a railway terminal. Le Train Bleu has the appearance of a turn-of-the-20th-century museum filled with carvings, moldings, chandeliers and frescoes covering the walls and ceiling of the restaurant.
Twenty-seven French artists contributed to the amazing unparalleled décor. With 41 canvas paintings by the most prominent artists of the day, historic scenes depict the main cities along the PLM line: Paris, Lyon, Marseille, Orange, Villefrance, Monaco, Nice, Saint-Honorat and even the Mont-Blanc massif itself.
Le Train Bleu (the Blue Train) was a legendary rail line that linked Calais, Paris and the Cote d’Azur (Blue Coast) or French Riviera. Officially known by its formal name, the Calais-Mediterranee Express, the luxury overnight French express train was affectionately called the Blue Train. Following World War II, the formal name was changed due to the dark blue sleeping cars on the train.
Service began in 1886 and ended more than a century later in 2003. During that time, Le Train Bleu gained an international reputation as the preferred train of the rich and famous en route to the French Riviera.
In order to accommodate the lifestyles of its prestigious clientele, the Train Bleu restaurant had to be equal to the luxury of the train itself.
Le Train Bleu restaurant received its official moniker in 1963 when Albert Chazal renamed the buffet. (Railway station restaurants are frequently referred to in Europe as “buffets,” which does not have the same meaning as the word as it is used in the U.S.)
Thanks to the efforts of Jacques Duhamel, Le Train Bleu was designated a Historic Monument in 1972, which will ensure its rich heritage among European landmarks.
Over its storied history, numerous movie scenes have been filmed in Le Train Bleu, and “regular” patrons included Coco Chanel, Brigitte Bardot, Jean Cocteau, Colette, Jean Gabin and Marcel Pagnol, among others.
The décor of Le Train Bleu alone is enough to guarantee an unforgettable dining experience, but the personalized service, exquisite menu and rich wine list enhance a visit to this legendary gastronomic institution. Le Train Bleu is not a place for a quick meal between trains. Rather, it is a site reserved for the art of fine cuisine.
The a la carte menus are changed several times throughout the year to reflect seasonal products and to ensure that the freshest ingredients are used in preparation.
With an average of approximately 500 covers per day, favorite dishes include leg of lamb carved at the table, homemade semi-cooked duck foie gras, homemade smoked salmon, roasted Foyot veal chop and the rum baba cake.
Sadly, the contemporary need for speed has made high-speed rail services the standard for travel throughout France and Europe. Restaurants and services such as Le Train Bleu are becoming anachronisms of a time when people were able to “travel for travel’s sake.”
The Blue Train stopped service in 2003 after being replaced by ultra-high speed TGVs, which greatly reduce travel time between Paris and the Riviera.
But, thanks to the vision of those with an eye for the past, Le Train Bleu restaurant survives and will remain a powerful reminder of that “Golden Age of Travel.”
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About the Author: Bob Taylor is a veteran writer who has traveled throughout the world. Taylor was an award-winning television producer/reporter/anchor before focusing on writing about international events, people and cultures around the globe.
He is founder of the Magellan Travel Club (www.MagellanTravelClub.com)
His goal is to visit 100 countries or more during his lifetime.
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