It is one of the curiosities of the Gare St Lazare that the station concourse is at a lower level than the train lines behind. To enter the station you need to find some stairs, preferably one of the twin marble staircases. Despite the impractical nature of this procedure, it does give a certain taste of the Italian renaissance, where the grand halls were situated up a flight of stairs on the first floor. Take the steps at the Gare St Lazare and you certainly find the monumental, although it’s unclear how grand it ever truly was.
It is a fascinating time to visit the station as large-scale renovations are stripping back over one hundred years of history, and the layers of time are clearly visible throughout the structure. It has been decided that the station does not currently suitably reflect its prestigious past and its role in the urban heritage of the city, and must therefore be upgraded. Naturally this means that it will shortly become a glorified glass and steel shopping centre.
The principle changes will all be in the Salle des Pas Perdus (lost steps). This curious, evocative name is used quite frequently in France, and refers to any area where you are likely to be waiting and strolling around aimlessly. It is therefore somewhat saddening to read that one of the objectives of the renovations is to ensure that people waiting for trains will be able to optimise time spent in the station, which of course means shopping. Browsing, perusing, people watching and simply wasting footsteps are leisure activities that should be encouraged!
Sit in this hall and listen carefully and you may well hear some of the ghostly footsteps that are being washed down from the walls. It is easy to imagine mustachioed gentlemen puffing on pipes, or ladies in travelling dress calling after excited children. Wander around this empty hall and you will be sure to see some of the traces of history behind the trails of exposed wiring and piping. At one end, greasy marks from an old ‘Bistrot’ sign and the remains of a barometer advertising a company which surely no longer exists. Above the old shop fronts, brown smoke-stained windows promoting various towns which were once served by this station but which have long since seen connections moved to other places.
These windows continue through to the twin hall on the other side of the wall, the ‘Salle d’Echanges’. It is in this hall that we finally see the trains, and the flood and ebb of passengers coming and going. More recently modernised, this hall seems to offer less historic interest, but look carefully and you'll find a charming mosaic water fountain. A reflection of the station as a whole, it is cracking with age and has long since stopped offering refreshment.
It is of course also in this hall that we see the impressive glass canopies that Claude Monet famously captured on canvas. Monet was also partial to Cathedrals, notably at Rouen (a one hour train ride from here!), and it is no surprise that he saw similar beauty in these light dappled structures of iron and glass. Indeed, the massiveness of these station constructions led them to becoming known as the modern cathedrals of the city.
Why did he choose this station over another though? Legend has it that he dressed up in his finest clothes and went to see the station director. On finding him, he said "J’ai décidé de peindre votre gare. J’ai longtemps hésité entre la gare du Nord et la vôtre, mais je crois finalement que la vôtre a plus de caractère" (‘I’ve decided to paint your station. I hesitated for a long time between the Gare du Nord and this one, but finally I feel that yours has more character’). Using such flattery, he was sure to get the required permission. Whether this is true or not, it was a subject that he painted 11 times.
It is perhaps also this ‘character’ which has persuaded Hollywood to use the station as the archetypal Parisian Gare. In ‘French Kiss’ Kelvin Kline takes a train to Nice whilst Tom Hanks pretends to take a train to Lille in ‘The Da Vinci Code’. It will surprise nobody to learn that neither city has ever been served from this station.
From the Salle d’Echanges, we can now drop down beneath ground level again, this time to a 1970s addition, a passageway beneath the 27 train lines, running between the Rue de Londres and the Rue de Rome. Curiously, it is this passage that today looks the most dated part of the station, with faulty strip lighting and ceiling tiles ready to fall like leaves in autumn.
It is perhaps this passageway which shows more than elsewhere how this is a station in decline. One hundred years ago it was the capital's principle station, welcoming wealthy Brits and Americans who were breezing in from cruise liners docked in the Normandy seaports. Today it is a station which has slipped behind the Gare du Nord, and which is one of only two stations in the city without prestigious high-speed TGV lines. It’s current role is to serve surburban commuters and weekend voyagers slipping out to their second homes in Normandy. An honourable and useful mission of course, but one that may take this refined old gentleman a little bit of time to get used to.