France: the Best Train Trips and Cities for Food

by Betsy Autran, posted 16 January 2018 | 2 comments

Yesterday the French rail operator SNCF opened their 2018 spring ticket sales for departures up to May 22nd, so we decided to whet your appetite for travel and feed you a soupçon of inspiration for tantalising train journeys this season.

If you’ve noticed a theme here, it should be said that we’ve got a deadline to get this blog post in before lunchtime, don’t underestimate the power of an empty stomach!

We’d like to suggest that you let your belly be your guide across France, the land of plenty. Here are some suggestions for alluring train journeys and tempting reasons to book them.

Lille

Lille, United Kingdom - August 28, 2013: Panorama of Lille Grand Palais with some tourists in the foreground. There are cobered seating areas outside the restaurants and cars travelling at the bottom of the shot.

Lille, France is a charming city just one hour from Paris by train.

If you’re planning to spend some time in Paris, you’ve perhaps considered a day trip to a nearby city to see what lies just beyond the holy périphérique. Our suggestion for today: Lille!

Lille is only a brief one-hour train ride from Paris Gare du Nord, and there are plenty of coach journeys throughout the day as well, if you want to take it just a tad slower. We have consulted our Lillois colleagues to find the best that Lille has to offer! You can rest assured that there is plenty to keep you busy and sated in this delightful city.

In the north of France, a welcome attitude towards travellers and hearty food is strong. Since spring is still a tad bit chilly up north, you’ll need to get yourself into a cozy traditional French restaurant like Le Chat dans l’Horloge and order yourself Le Welsh.

The Welsh is a French variation on Welsh Rarebit. You’ve got all the important features: bread, cheese, ham, cheese, a little mustard, and more cheese with an egg perched lightly atop it all like a happy little hen. This hot and gooey bowl of deliciousness will heat you up on any drizzly day. Like the people of Lille, it is warm and welcoming and will treat you kindly.

Another Flemish favourite is Carbonnade, a rich and hearty dish of beef stewed in beer with onions, mushrooms, and even spiced bread thrown into the cooking pot. If you’d like to keep it light and you’re feeling less traditional, we’d recommend ordering a side salad instead of fries (we’re just kidding, you can have both!).

If you enjoy strong cheese, you should order anything with Maroilles while you’re in Lille as it’s produced in this region.

A french Maroilles semi-soft unpasturised cheese from Flanders in France

Maroilles, a yummy (strong) semi-soft unpasturised cheese from northern France.

Afterwards you may want to take a walk to see the sights and find a tasty treat for dessert. Gaufres Flamandes (Flemish waffles), are a thinner and lighter cousin of the traditional waffle. Kind of like the crèpe of the waffle world. There are two places where you must try these delectable treats: Meert and Aux Merveilleux de Fred. If you’re low on time, go for Meert. Aux Merveilleux de Fred also has a presence in Paris and it’s not to be missed.

Toulouse

Along the Garonne river at Toulouse city before sunset in France

Toulouse, France: the Pink City.

You may have plans to head to sunnier climates, in which case you should really consider Toulouse, the Pink City. From Paris, Toulouse is a 4-hour daytime ride, or there’s also a night train that departs at around 21:00 and arrives at 06:00—just in time for breakfast!

Toulouse is a charming city with many buildings made from red brick—a far cry from the beautiful but monochromatic Haussmann architecture of Paris. Space science enthusiasts will appreciate Toulouse as it’s home to The National Institute of Aeronautics and Space. But history buffs won’t be left out! Toulouse is also home to two UNESCO World Heritage sites: the grand Saint-Sernin Basilica and the Canal du Midi. It’s a city with one foot in the past and one in the future.

But onto more important matters: what does one eat in Toulouse?

If you curl around the winding streets of Toulouse after dark, your nose may lead you to a door from which emanates the savoury smells of meaty southern stew, braised duck, foie gras, and sizzling sausage. Welcome to the Cave of Cassoulet. Do not be put off by the mysterious narrow and uneven staircase which winds down into a basement closed off by an old curtain from grandma’s closet—trust the olfactory and pass right through to get yourself a big steaming bowl of Cassoulet.

Cassoulet is a rich, slow-cooked stew and a force to be reckoned with. It’s a total inundation of pork sausage, goose, duck, pork skin, mutton, and white beans bubbling up like a veritable cornucopia of cuisine, typically served by the heaping ladleful into an earthenware pot.

Classic French bean and sausage casserole seasoned with herbs de provence in natural light.

Cassoulet comes in many variations, all of them absolutely delicious.

For desserts, the Pink City presents extraordinary sweets in a flavour unlike any other: the delicate violet. From cookies to cakes and candies and liqueurs, you will find a bouquet of goodies with hints of the aromatic little petals of violet flowers.

Lyon

Lyon cityscape from Saone river with colorful houses and river, France

The Lyon cityscape along the Saone river.

Lyon is an incredible city and is just a 2-hour TGV ride from Paris. It sits in the perfect spot in France where you are only a train ride away from skiing in the Alps, sunbathing on the beaches of Côte d’Azur, or hiking in the myriad of national parks that surround the entire region. And when it comes to cuisine, Lyon is considered the food capital of the world. The Lyonnais are a lucky and spoiled bunch.

Sit down for lunch in any traditional Lyonnais “bouchon” (a type of restaurant specific to this region) and you won’t be disappointed by the food and wine. Lyon will also surprise you with a handful of excellent beer bars boasting a massive selection of brews. It’s a city without limitations as far as gastronomic pleasures go.

Brioche aux pralines roses ( spécialité culinaire de Lyon, dessert)

Brioche aux pralines, a speciality of Lyon.

But what we’d like for you to try are the dazzling pink gems found on fluffy pastries in the display windows of Lyonnais bakeries: pralines. Carmelised almonds that come in a vivid shade of hot fuchsia pink, supposedly inspired by rose gardens of the Rhône region. If you have a sweet tooth, any brioche aux pralines will set your tastebuds ablaze with sweet pink passion. The treat is so popular you’ll find many other delights coming in variations à la praline including ice cream, meringue (another typical French treat), and chocolate mousse.

Bonus: Picturesque Picnics

If you’ve ever walked past a French park or green space on a good weather day, it’s no secret that the French will seize any opportunity to throw a good picnic. And picnic food is something else they’re doing very right: baguettes, cheese, charcuterie, wine, and pâtisseries lurk around every corner of any city.

If you’re interested in taking your train travel experience to the next level, consider one of France’s many picturesque train routes like the La Ligne Cévenol or La Ligne des Hirondelles.

La Ligne Cévenol

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Viaduct of Villefort on La Ligne Cévenol between Clermont-Ferrand and Nîmes.

This train between Clermont-Ferrand and Nîmes will bring you through breathtaking landscapes of the Cévennes, a mountainous region in south central France. The route is famous for the majestic views that can be seen from its windows, and it slows down during certain parts of the journey to allow passengers to fully enjoy the experience. It passes through tunnels and over stunning viaducts like those of Fontannes and Chapeauroux, through the remarkable Allier Valley, past the dazzling gorges of Langeac, up to its highest point at La Bastide-Puylaurent, and then downward into the extraordinary and historical city of Nîmes.

It is permitted to eat on this train, so you could swing by a cheese shop, a charcuterie, and a bakery in Clermont-Ferrand before departure and fill your basket with plenty of gourmet enticements for the ride. Or alternatively, you could have a picnic in the departure or arrival cities: there’s Jardin Lecoq in Clermont-Ferrand and Jardins de la Fontaine in Nîmes,  surely one of the most impressive parks in all of France.

Note: due to rail work on La Ligne Cévenol from February 18th until March 2nd, the final three stops between Alès and Nîmes are temporarily operated by bus. The train still provides a 4.5-hour ride through the majesty of the Cévennes.

La Ligne des Hirondelles

High angle view landscape of Bugey mountains, from beginning of Jura in France, Auvergne-Rhone-Alpes region. There is an old stone viaduct from Cize-Bolozon villages crossing Ain river in the valley. Arch bridge architecture under bright full moon, moonlight in summer with beautiful blue clear star sky, with milky way from space. This viaduct is a combination rail and vehicular, connecting the communes of Cize and Bolozon. An original span built in the same location in 1875 was destroyed in World War II. Reconstructed as an urgent post-war project due to its position on a main line to Paris, the new viaduct reopened in May 1950. It carries road and rail traffic at different levels.

The Viaduct of Cize-Bolozon located in Jura, France.

This route is called “The Line of the Swallows” in French because those who watched the workers build the viaducts of Morbier and Morez said that workers were befriending the swallows at such great heights!

This train that runs between Dole and Saint-Claude provides a gorgeous ride through 36 tunnels and across 18 viaducts nestled in the impressive forests and mountains of Jura. You are guaranteed outstanding views of sweeping hills, rivers, vineyards, and valleys as well as the admirable architecture of the historic viaducts. It is an otherworldly experience that too few tourists get to see during their stay in France.

Just like most French trains, you can pack a lunch to bring along if you wish. Consider gathering goodies at Les Halles de Dole, a covered market that opens on Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday mornings where you can find fresh fish caught in the local rivers or buy products from local honey producers like pain d’épices, a sweet spice bread most popular around Christmas.

Around Saint-Claude, you have many paths to explore where you can find a quiet spot under the lush forest canopy and eat to your heart’s content. If you’re not feeling so green, there are charming little restaurants freckling this town, you won’t go hungry.

Every good meal must come to an end

We hope that this full course meal has satisfied your hunger for ideas and that you’ll find yourself on one of these trains very soon, propelled towards the promise of great food, superb views, and even better desserts.

If you have any questions about booking these journeys, don’t hesitate to contact us.


2 comments

Nice article, but the picture for Toulouse is actually showing Albi 😉

by Zelostin, posted 16 January 2018 on 22:34. Reply #

Thank you for your comment! The photo has been updated to something a bit more Toulousian. 🙂

by Betsy Autran, posted 17 January 2018 on 7:01. Reply #

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