For the historical and contemporary story of Gare de Lyon and Le Train Bleu, see “Not a Station, but a Place”–Gare de Lyon and Le Train Bleu, Paris.
In April 2016, my husband and I headed to Provence for an early spring weekend getaway. We wanted to explore Avignon, the former Papal capital during the Middle Ages. The direct TGV train from Paris’ Gare de Lyon took us there in a little over three hours.
We arrived at the station two hours before departure time and ascended the wide curving staircase to the historic restaurant on the second floor, Le Train Bleu. It overlooks the tracks of incoming and outgoing trains, on one side, and the city of Paris, on the other.
The first order of business was to relax in comfortable ambience before the train departed. The second was to order petit déjeuner à la M.F.K. Fisher who wrote stories about this restaurant from the 1930s-1960s. I wanted to replicate her experience 50+ years later.
Le Train Bleu is always grand, but mostly empty in the early mornings. A few scattered travelers may show up to drink coffee or tea, but the white tablecloth tables and red leather banquettes are unavailable until lunch. We were seated at an unadorned table near the trackside windows.
We invited friends, Sally and John, to join us even though they were not travelling. They were first timers to Le Train Bleu, and we knew they would enjoy the historical elegance with a light breakfast, too.
Fisher’s typical order was thin slices of Italian Parma ham, good bread and butter and a half bottle of brut Champagne. Parma ham is no longer a choice, but whole grain brown baguettes with butter and jam are still traditional. Cappuccino or café noir was our beverage of choice.
We breakfasted leisurely, ordering a second round of coffees. As our friends left to return to their apartment in Montmartre, we boarded the train going south.
Exiting the station, the train picked up speed passing sooty graffiti-walled cityscape. Then came the banlieue [suburbs] with blocky cement apartment buildings and finally pastoral countryside dotted with farms and grazing animals.
Avignon sits on the banks of the Rhône River in Provence, north of the coastal city of Marseille. When the Catholic Church moved the papacy from Rome to Avignon in the 14th century, it became the center of Christianity. The Palais de Papes [Popes’ Palace] was occupied for the next seven decades by a succession of seven popes.
Avignon was still under papal control until the time of the French revolution in 1789. Afterward, it was used as a barracks and then as a prison for many years. Today it is a UNESCO World Heritage site with a must-see museum–the Palace itself.
The Palais de Papes is the largest Gothic palace ever built. Its’ walls are an impenetrable 17-18 feet thick. Immense proportions are filled with cavernous halls, chapels and chambers.
The “Treasure Room” was where all the gold, silver and jewels owned by the Church were kept. Back then it was off limits to everyone except the Pope. Today the room has a glass floor where you can see massive rectangular stones, propped up, under which the treasures were hidden, back in the day. It is impossible to imagine the wealth once secreted under these stones.
We stayed at La Mirande, an historic hotel in the shadow of the Palace museum. Originally it was a Cardinal’s palace, resurrected into a period hotel centuries later. Our room had a small, walkout walled terrace overlooking rooftops and a church steeple.
As often the case when traveling, one of the best experiences we had was stumbling upon an unknown restaurant when rain-soggy wet, tired, and very hungry.
We were lucky to slip into the last table for two in a tiny, terra cotta tile-floored café called Chez Lulu. On a piece of black slate, we were served a small round of Camembert cheese baked in its’ thin wooden container. Around the cheese box there were rolled up slices of prosciutto, tiny roasted potatoes, small green cornichons, and a lightly dressed mixed salad.
That molten cheese into which we dipped bread, potatoes, prosciutto and pickles is as memorable now as it was at first bite. The cold dampness of all-day showers disappeared. Dim interior lighting radiated warm ambience. Provençal wine complimented the peasant-like simplicity of the meal. We ordered a second glass.
There is subtle enjoyment in the harmony of opposites. Early morning spring sunshine in Paris–chilly, all-afternoon rain in Avignon. Beginning the day under the splendor of Belle Époque frescoes in Le Train Bleu and ending it in an unpretentious brick walled café with fogged over windows dripping rain.
Si vous êtes chanceux, alors ça va parfois dans la vie…
If you are lucky, so it sometimes goes in life…
BAKED CAMEMBERT A LA PROVENÇALE
- 1 small round camembert cheese per person or 1 large round for 2 people
- boiled or roasted potatoes, skin on
- prosciutto or any charcuterie [optional]
- tiny pickles, gherkins or cornichons
- raw veggies such as sweet peppers, radishes, cherry tomatoes
- baguette or crusty country bread
- mixed green salad with homemade vinaigrette
- Remove the paper covering over cheese. Line the inside of the wooden box with aluminum foil to keep cheese from leaking out of box. Place cheese back in box. [Box should be held together with staples, not glue.]
- Cut a thin layer off the top rind to expose interior. Insert several slices of fresh garlic, place a few fresh rosemary leaves on top, a sprinkle of sea salt or chili peppers, as desired.
- Drizzle a tiny amount of olive oil over. Place on baking sheet or in cast iron skillet then into preheated oven set at 180C or 350F.
- Bake no more than 10-15 minutes, until cheese is “melt-y”.
- Place box of oozing Camembert on serving plate arranged with prepared potatoes, crudités, pickles, meat, and salad.
- Recipe for best vinaigrette here: Babies and Rice So Very Nice or Hack #5: Finally, The Best Salad Dressing Ever
- Serve with a basket of good bread.
A light red wine [pinot noir], a crisp white [Chablis], a rosé from Provence or Champagne as accompaniment.