Switching trains in Paris can be a tortuous process but it is worth your while taking your time moving between stations.
If you pay a little attention you can discover some jewels from the golden age of railway travel.
No other European city has mainline railway stations quite like those in the French capital. Long distance trains depart and arrive at six different terminus railway stations spread around the city centre. If you plan on catching another train you will need to take the metro, a bus or a taxi and travel through the city.
“In the 19th century the privately owned rail companies decided to lay the tracks to the provinces from a star-shape pattern in Paris.
Each company built its own railway terminus,” explains Gustave Mercier, a frequent rail traveller from Alsace.
Railway enthusiasts the world over rave about these constructions that resemble aristocratic residences from the feudal era. The opulent architectural style was deliberate as rail travel was the preserve of the well off 150 years ago. Passengers waited in salons beside the platforms and ate in pompously decorated restaurants.
One of the railway stations is a haven for art lovers. The former station the Gare d’Orsay on the left bank of the Seine is today the Musee d’Orsay and houses impressionist paintings. “It is unimaginable that 40 years ago they wanted to demolish this beautiful building,” says art student Therese Roussel.
A company built the railway station for passengers from south-western France attending the 1900 World Exposition. There were no smoky locomotives as the engines were powered by electricity -- a sensation at the time. Adjoining the station was a luxury hotel.
Impressionist artist Claude Monet was fascinated by the Gare Saint Lazare. “He painted it 12 times,” says Roussel. It still services passengers travelling to the seaside resorts and ports along the English Channel.
The Gare de l’Est and the Gare du Nord are the arrival points for passengers travelling from foreign cities to the east and north. Many tourists like to photograph the neoclassical facade of the Gare du Nord which was constructed in 1864.
If you’re planning on travelling on to the Mediterranean from here you will need to go to the Gare de Lyon. “Hopefully you have planned enough time to change trains,” says French railway conductor Alain.
“An hour will be enough.” The easiest way is to go by taxi.
Businessman Sean Peters from London frequently travels on to Marseille and likes to take his time when changing trains. “The Gare de Lyon has the most beautiful and best railway restaurant in Europe,” he says. The gourmet temple is called Le Train Bleu, the same name given to the luxurious express train that once travelled to the Cote d’Azur. The Belle Epoque is alive and well here in the railway station’s first floor.
Dozens of huge wall and ceiling paintings, chandeliers, period furniture from the turn of the 20th century, tables decked with white cloths and traditionally attired waiters help to generate the elegant atmosphere of the past.
Travellers going to France’s central regions and the south-west will need to visit the Gare d’Austerlitz. The overnight sleeper trains to Madrid and Barcelona originate here.
The only railway station that has done away with its architectural heritage is the Gare Montparnasse. France’s high-speed TGV trains depart from here to destinations along the Atlantic and 20 years ago it was given a modern glass facade -- to the horror of the country’s railway enthusiasts.