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How railroads changed Paris

Map of Paris train stations by arrondissement. Images courtesy of the author.

By Jerry Marterer

In France, all roads lead to Paris — railroads that is. Outside of the Paris area, it is nearly impossible to go from one region in France to another without changing trains in Paris, sort of like if Washington, D.C., were the only airline hub in the United States (except in France everyone wants to go to Paris).

But France was a late bloomer in rail transportation. The U.S. had operating lines in the northeast by 1830. England started a decade earlier. Beginning in 1837, during the next 18 years, separate rail lines were built to reach all the frontiers of France from Paris. As the six stations were opened, the rail network ushered in a wave of immigration from the distant French provinces during a time when most of the country was rural. Bretons, Savoyards, Auvergnats, Alsatians and others were transported to one of the grand terminals in Paris that served their region, bringing their skills, food, customs and patois to the potpourri that makes Paris great. The streets around stations were the most convenient and hospitable places for new immigrants to find friends and relatives, as well as living quarters and jobs. Today the neighborhoods still reflect the influence of regional immigration. By 1920, over 50 percent of the population of Paris was made up of immigrants born in the provinces.

Claude Monet, The Gare St-Lazare, Fogg Museum, Cambridge Mass.

The Gare Saint-Lazare opened in 1837 to link Paris with the port of Le Havre in Normandy, with stops along the way. The emerging Impressionists took advantage of weekends in the countryside to paint what they saw. Claude Monet’s painting “Impression Sunrise” captures the Port of Le Havre. Art critics scorned it, calling his followers mere “impressionists” and unwittingly giving a name to the now famous school of art. The Gare Saint-Lazare was captured in paintings by Claude Monet and Edouard Manet. The area around the station is crowded with Norman oyster sellers in the fall and winter.

The Gare Montparnasse was finished in 1840 and served the region west of Paris to the Brittany coast. Young Bretons in search of work emigrated in droves and settled in the streets surrounding the station, and the area became known as Petit Bretagne (Little Brittany). A one-block street near the station, the rue Montparnasse, is home to eleven Breton crêperies. They all serve Breton crêpes. Many Americans think of crêpes as sweet desserts, but in Brittany they make up a meal. The Crêperie Josselin is our favorite. The Breton lace lampshades light up the wood-paneled dining room, evoking a country inn. Long tables are filled with locals enjoying brown buckwheat-flour crêpes filled with every conceivable combination of meat, fish, cheese, vegetables and eggs. A large garden salad in a wooden bowl accompanies the crêpes, and everything is washed down with pitchers of sparkling cider served in earthenware bowls. To me, the Breton cider tastes somewhere between beer and Champagne. It is light and pleasant. Sweet dessert crêpes usually follow. This is one of the least expensive and most fun lunch places in the city.

The welcoming bustle of Creperie Josselin.

Alsatian brasseries sprung up around the Gare de l’Est after it opened in 1949 and wooden kegs of beer from Strasbourg began arriving by rail. Facing the station is the brasserie La Strasbourgeoise; its name refers to a resident of the capital of Alsace. All the brasseries in the quarter serve choucroute garnie (cut cabbage and pork products) with mugs of beer. The next closest to the station is the Brasserie Flo. It seems out of place on the tiny street in a working-class neighborhood, but the rich interior of the “Cathedral of Alsatian Cuisine” has the feel of a private club. Choose from fresh seafood, choucroute garnie, beef, veal and lamb.

Across from the entrance to the Gare d’Austerlitz is the Relais d’Auvergne, a restaurant named for the region served by the station. The Auvergne was a southeastern coal mining region in the mid 1800s. Coal was shipped to Paris by the new railroad, and many of the Auvergnats came to Paris as sellers of coal and firewood in working-class neighborhoods. Later they opened cafés in their storerooms. The food from Auvergne is a meal for hard workers: cabbage, sausage, lentils and “aligot” made of mashed potatoes mixed with molten Auvergne cheese and garlic, a true stick-to-your-ribs dish. The Auvergnat community is still a tightly knit group in Paris.

The Gare du Nord, the traditional arrival spot from northeastern France and Belgium, faces the Art-Deco Terminus Nord restaurant, which serves up platters of North Sea crustaceans. Today it is the station for the Thalys train to Brussels and Amsterdam as well as for the Eurostar to London train.

It is the Gare de Lyon, however, that stands out as a not-to-be-missed temple of luxury dining. Rebuilt for the Universal Exhibition of 1900, along with the Grand Palais and the Pont Alexandre, it focused on getting wealthy British travelers who arrived in Paris from the North Sea ports to the Mediterranean resort towns of Nice and Monte-Carlo, but not before they dined at its restaurant, Le Train Bleu. It bills itself as the best preserved and most stunning example of Belle Epoque style in Paris. One dines under a vaulted ceiling covered with murals and gold leaf. Paintings of Côte-d’Azur ports grace its walls, and crystal chandeliers illuminate the palatial hall. The original station was completed in 1855.

Le Marmiton De Lutece serves raclette from Savoy.

On one cold October day, we decided to try some raclette, melted cheese over pickles, potatoes and ham or sausages. We did some research and decided on Le Marmiton de Lutece in the fifth arrondissement. (Marmiton is slang for a kitchen boy.) When we arrived in the neighborhood, we found that the streets around the Saint-Severin Church were all lined with fondue and raclette restaurants, many of them having “Savoyard” (a person from Savoy) in their name. We learned that the quarter had drawn immigrants from the mountainous Savoy region during the 18th century. Since this was before the era of railroads, we looked closer. The Savoy region in the Alps was handed back and forth between Austria, Italy and France for several hundred years leading up to the 19th century. Poverty and political strife in the region resulted in the Savoyards, mostly male, becoming the largest immigrant group in Paris in the 1800s. Some came before the railroad. Later others arrived via the Gare de Lyon.

One could take a culinary tour of France by visiting each of these neighborhoods for lunch or dinner, and hopefully the time is fast approaching when it will once again be possible to do so.

Bon appetite!

Reader Responds

Dear Jerry,

I am remiss and apologize that I haven’t told you previously how much we enjoy your articles about Paris and France in the Charleston Mercury. Because of this we have recently subscribed!

We had brunch with friends at Bistro Toulouse, which you recommended in the January issue. The food was outstanding, especially the French onion soup. Service was good, prices are extremely fair (compared to downtown) and the entire brunch was commendable.

We’ll be back — especially considering that Toulouse is about a five-minute ride from our home.

My best,

Conrad Tuza

Mount Pleasant

P.S. — I always thought that a brasserie was something worn by women.


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