Massive, elaborately decorated, built to impress, many of them are almost works of art in their own right.
The first passenger train in France began operating in July 1830, between Givors (Rhône) and Rive-de-Gier (Loire). But it was hardly a luxurious experience; passengers sat in horse-drawn coal wagons. In August 1837, however, the first specially-built passenger line was inaugurated from Paris to Le Pecq, near Saint-Germain-en-Laye. It served 18,000 passengers on its first day.
By 1841 it was possible to travel from Strasbourg to Basel by train and it was clear that railways would advance the Industrial Revolution in leaps and bounds. Not only would it facilitate trade but it would make people more mobile.
A plan was presented by Baptiste Alexis Victor Legrand, the nation’s Superintendent of Civil Engineering, for a railway system laid out as a five-pointed star; all rails would point to Paris.
From the Belgian and German borders, the English Channel, the Atlantic and the Mediterranean, trains would take cargo and passengers to Paris using five new railway lines: Paris-Lille, Paris-Strasbourg, Paris-Le Havre, Paris-Lyon-Marseille, and Paris-Bordeaux-Hendaye.
It was a massive endeavour and as the great railway companies were founded, they competed to construct the most elaborate, monumental railway stations in the capital.
The Gare du Nord opened in 1846, the Gare de l’Est and the Gare de Lyon opened in 1849, the Gare Montparnasse in 1852, the Gare Saint Lazare in 1867, and the Gare d’Austerlitz in 1869.
All over France, provincial cities followed suit, constructing some of the most impressive public buildings ever built without a religious or a royal purpose. If you look up, above the generic plastic counters, the sandwich stalls and the ticket machines, in many places much of their grandeur and beauty still exists.
Many are listed as historic monuments, and some have clock towers that have become iconic landmarks in their cities.
The current Metz-Ville station (above, in Lorraine) was inaugurated in 1908, a massive neo-Romanesque construction designed by Jürgen Kröger. Look closely and you will see that it is splattered with symbols lauding the German Empire.
The current Gare de Lyon in Paris was opened in 1900. Built for the 1900 World Exhibition, it is probably the most beautiful station in Paris. It has a 67m clock-tower and includes the ‘Train Bleu’ restaurant, decorated in Art Nouveau style.
The Limoges-Bénédictins station is also a stunner (pictured, above); inaugurated in 1929, Roger Gonthier’s creation is evocative of a royal palace. It is named after the Benedictine Monks whose monastery stood on the site until it was destroyed during the French Revolution. The 60m clock tower is similar to the one in the Gare du Lyon.
The Gare du Nord in Paris (1865) was designed by Jacques Hittorff and is used by 215 million passengers per year, making it the busiest station in Europe. The façade features 23 statues which represent the destinations served – including London, Berlin, Frankfurt, Warsaw, Amsterdam, Vienna, and Brussels.
The station in La Rochelle in Poitou-Charentes (1922) was designed by Pierre Esquié and features a 45m Italian bell tower (campanile) higher than the city’s Medieval towers.
The Gare de Strasbourg-Ville in Alsace was inaugurated in 1883 and handles around 18 million passengers a year. Like the station in Metz it was constructed by German authorities to serve the Second Reich. The Renaissance-style façade (now covered by a huge glass roof) is 128m long, and the platforms are 300m.
Marseille-Saint-Charles (1848) was designed by Joseph-Antoine Bouvard and welcomes more than 12 million passengers per year. As it is built on a plateau overlooking the city, in 1926 a flight of 104 stairs was constructed to connect the station to the city centre.
Rouen-Rive-Droite in Normandy (1928) is a beautiful Art Nouveau station featuring a 37m clock tower. It has suffered some strange additions and alterations over the years, but the original design is still discernable.