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The Gare de Lyon and its renowned restaurant, Le Train Bleu, were built as part of an ambitious project to showcase Paris for the Universal Exposition of 1900. Designed by architect Marius Toudoire to feature the delights of fin-de-siècle France in ostentatious splendour, his giddy extravagance is everywhere apparent.

Once inside Le Train Bleu’s revolving door, the chaos of one of France’s busiest train stations disappears entirely. The cacophony of trains, announcements for passengers, whistles and flapping pigeons all dissolve into a realm of subdued tones. The dimensions of the main dining room are colossal, the light wondrous.

Eleven and a half metres overhead, every last bit of the ceiling is covered with the blessed excesses of France in 1900: groups of statuesque, scantily clad goddesses and nymphs (or are they showgirls?) flanking formally attired men, vistas of the Côte d’Azur, all engulfed in more gold cherubs than even Louis XIV imagined. This place makes Versailles look almost sedate. There is no dress code for patrons of Le Train Bleu. ‘Only the English call ahead to enquire about appropriate attire,’ confides the maître d’hôtel, José Benavente. ‘“Just don’t come naked!” I tell them.’

A partition separates the two main dining areas: the Salle Dorée, or Gilded Room, is resplendent in gold; the adjacent dining area is similar, but its plaster cherubs have all been left ungilded. Parisians of a certain age still recall that during the war, only German officers were admitted to the Salle Dorée; the lower ranks had to do without the gilt. In later years, Coco Chanel, Salvador Dalí and Brigitte Bardot were all regulars, though no doubt they sat where they pleased.

The restaurant was named after the fabled Blue Train, whose indigo-painted sleeping cars took Europe’s wealthy from the Gare de Lyon in Paris to the Riviera, with all the languor of la belle époque. These days, the world’s fastest train leaves from the same station and rockets to Marseille in three hours – a far cry from the leisurely pace of Le Train Bleu’s decadent namesake.

  • Metro: Gare de Lyon

US-born Thad Carhart lives in Paris and is the author of highly acclaimed memoir The Piano Shop on the Left Bank (£8.99; Vintage).

 

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The article ‘Paris, the inside story’ was published in partnership with Lonely Planet Magazine.

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