A Taste of the Last Century

The entry from the platform to Le Train Bleu

The Gare de Lyon's 'Le Train Bleu'
Has a Smoking Section to Match Your Havana

Paris:- Wednesday, 19. March 1997:- If you are on the sea on a day like this, you'd rather be in a cruiser than a sailing dingy, and if you are not at sea at all but in Paris, then the métro will do. It is less drafty than a bus, but offers less of the elements to see.

My much-promoted arrival of spring has been the usual false alarm, and a low front from Greenland is over the city. It is that famous grey, but it never lasts long; it is not solid. The showers are serious and then the sun almost comes out. There is a biting layer of damp chill though.

I got a wide-angle view of this in the train above Suresnes. It looked like there was a spotlight on Montmartre, and as I sped towards Le Défense, it turned to murk. The tower at Montparnasse was no more than a faint shadow.

Under the Gare de Lyon, the ocean-liner-size iron girders with their huge rivets are painted bright pop colors. This is usually all I ever see the few times I leave métro here. There is only the cross-town line one, but it is a rat's maze of tunnels with the RER 'A' and 'B' lines, the suburban lines and the long-distance train lines. For once I am going no further, only up to the station itself.

I hit daylight right in front of the departure board. If I had a ticket this could never happen; get to the right place on the first try.

The roof inside the station is high and the glass is letting in enough light to show that weather is doing its stuff outside. This is today, an anyday; no 'grands departs,' no big returns; just the normal business of a SNCF station, slightly between rush hours. On the arrival side there are a half-dozen TGV's in their first-version orange and white, with an old stainless commuter train in between them.

A few travellers are gazing up at the giant's blackboard of a departure table. I forget to look at it closely and I should have because now I have to guess it has destinations View of rain from lounge of Big Ben bar like Marseille, Nice, or Lausanne, Turin, Milan - Venice? Rome? Istanbul?

View from one of the cozy and comfortable 'Big Ben' lounges.

Instead of research I think of Graham Greene's early 'Stamboul Train,' or 'Murder on the Orient Express' or Eric Ambler's inventions of Balkan intrigues. I have even been on the Orient Express. It stopped for a minute when I needed a ride so I got on it and rode in the custody of the conductor from Nis to Belgrade. The last time I saw it, the conductor was chasing it down the tracks as it picked up speed for Budapest.

No, there is not much activity in the Gare de Lyon today - which is okay because I really came here to look at Le Train Bleu, the station's classy restaurant.

But first I have a look at the platform-level Buffet. Unlike the pop-colored iron underground, the train station's interior looks like an old station. I don't mean paint is peeling off the iron girders; I mean they have their original color scheme.

There are some of the usual plastic red-neon kiosks for newspapers and magazines, but mostly it is an old station with faded colors and even the resting TGV's look a bit faded; maybe because it is from here, now fairly long ago, that they started their high-speed lives.

What I do not see is the coal soot that used to be here; that used to be the prime decor of all train stations, everywhere. Like the travel brochures don't show the bugs, I don't suppose there are that many people who remember getting off a train and having to have a pretty thorough wash before doing anything else. Maybe steam-cars were the same and that is why they didn't catch on.

On the platform, standing in the centre with my back to the depart and arrival lines, I face the Buffet. In front is the terrace, right on the platform. On either side there are stairs going up to Le Train Bleu's porch; its station entry.

On the left is the entry to the bar, the station buffet proper is behind the terrace, and on the right, behind a sandwich take-out, is the 'snack' bar. Behind the terrace, the bar, buffet and 'snack' bar are all in a line.

The bar is a working no-nonsense train station 'fast-drink- and-run' bar, probably last done up in 1958. The buffet restaurant has the same look but a bit more tidy, with the tables in booths with fake dull red leather seats. The 'snack' bar is about the same age too, but somebody was in America and they brought back a model from the '50's and put it here, with its curving counter-top and swivel seats, and 'Snack' writ large in neon tubes. Rapid menus are priced at 65 and 75 francs.

The boss of this time-capsule, who is going off duty, tells me all of it is slated for renovation in July and August. I must come back catch the last 'grand depart' in late June before it becomes history.

At the top of the stairs, on the porch of Le Train Bleu entry, I can see all the station and for the first time I see it is not all that big; in most stations you can't see all of them at once for one architectural reason or another - but here you can.

I am surprised to see that Le Train Bleu has a bar. It is called 'Big Ben,' no doubt after the clock tower outside. Inside the restaurant the first surprise is that there is no sign of the recent renovation.

Le Train Bleu is stunningly conserved just as it was conceived, just as it appeared when it opened on 7. April 1901.

"Salles immenses, surchargées de sculptures, de dorures et de vastes peintures," says the modestly-produced A4-sized flyer. Not one French word inappropriate: 'immense rooms, overcharged with sculptures, with gilt and vast paintings.' If anything, all understatement.

If it were in a museum instead of a working restaurant, you'd expect maybe 30 square metres of it and pay 30 francs to see it and come away happy. Here, it covers the vast The Big Ben tower at the Gare de Lyon distance of the bar, buffet and 'snack' below, plus some. 'Vast rooms,' I don't know how many. Overdecorated? The word is an insufficient pauper. If it is only gilt, there must be tons of it. Paintings? Mirrors! Flowers everywhere.

Those arched windows let light into 'Le Train Bleu.'

Wander to the left of the entry and flop into a comfortable leather arm-chair in the Big Ben bar and order a water - for 30 francs, or a whisky to get the imagination going - to have something to sip and be sitting down while you take this in.

You are sitting on an item in a classified historic monument, drinking - maybe a cocktail of gin? - smoking an elegant cigarette, yes, we are talking total decadence here!

Move in. The Big Ben bar goes on forever down a long hallway to the toilets. There are lounges overlooking the exterior front of the station off the hallways, and even rooms to rent for meetings. In one lounge, the newest item was a TV set and it was off.

Cold, tired, thirsty? Come in, take a leather chair near a heater and recover yourself in a comfortable working museum. I suppose there must be a cord to pull for service, or even a discretly-placed 1928 electrical button to push.

The downside of the restaurant part is that it is a bit expensive and it would cost a bit of time and money to eat your way from one end of it to the other in order to get a good look at all the paintings and other extravaganzas; but remember, the napkins are all real cloth ones and the cutlery is railroad-heavy.

The paintings, by the way, and there are 41 of them, are mostly on the ceilings and evoke places served by trains running from the station: Lyon, Mont-Blanc, Marseille, Nice, Monaco and Venice, for example.

Apparently it was the paintings that have been renovated - to rid them of their accumulated coal smoke soot. Unlike most museums, light comes in by half measures from the station side and by full measures from the outside; causing a play of light and shadow and contrasts even on a changing-weather day like today, and it is made odd by the inside light from period lamps.

The whole effect is extraordinary. If you feel like changing your century for a few hours, save up about $100 for two and try the lunch menu here. This will be a much better than blowing it on a scarf because your memory will last far longer.

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