Alysa Salzberg

Alysa Salzberg
Paris, France
December 31
Writer, copy editor, translator, travel planner. Head servant to my cat.
A reader, a writer, a fingernail biter, a cat person, a traveller, a cookie inhaler, an immigrant, a dreamer. …And now, self-employed! If you like my blog and if you're looking for sparkling writing, painstaking proofreading, nimble French-English translation, or personalized travel planning, feel free to check out


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JANUARY 13, 2012 10:34AM

Experiencing the magic of "Hugo" in Paris - and at home

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Cinephiles are rarely disappointed by Paris. But fans of Martin Scorsese’s Golden Globe-nominated Hugo would doubtlessly be let down by the appearance of the real Gare Montparnasse, the train station where a major part of the film’s action takes place.

Though in the 1930’s it probably did resemble what you see in the movie, today it’s been modernized into a drab, concrete shell. When watching Hugo, Paris residents were also surprised by the station’s location, shown in several zoomed-out images of the city: While the Gare Montparnasse is nestled deep in the Left Bank, in the southwest part of the city, the film shows it as being on the Right Bank, very near the Seine.

According to an interview with Martin Scorsese featured in the winter 2011 issue of Trois Coleurs magazine, the director chose to model the station after a composite of other, more aesthetically appealing ones: the Gare du Nord for its façade and the Gare de Lyon for its geographic location and clock tower, an important plot element in Hugo.

Like Paris’ other major train stations (there are six still operating today), the Gare de Lyon’s floor is concrete, its dirty walls painted a dull, unremarkable shade. But there are hints, here and there, of how the station looked when it was first constructed in 1900.  The long, high ironwork ceiling, for example, which is a feature in Paris’ other train stations as well, reveals an unmistakably industrial age aesthetic and might call to mind paintings like La Gare Saint-Lazare by Claude Monet.

But that’s not the only trace of the station’s bygone beauty. Like the rooms where Hugo hides in the Gare Montparnasse, the Gare de Lyon also has a secret in its walls.  But this one is a lot easier to find.  Located just in front of the train tracks, Le Train Bleu restaurant is a splendid sight. 

From the outside, Le Train Bleu’s blue neon signage and potted palm trees make the restaurant look somewhat exotic. Behind them, you might see a nice, somewhat chic bar.


train bleu 1 

But if you climb the staircase to the second floor, you’ll come upon a breathtaking find: a large room covered in gilded decorations and gorgeous oil paintings.

 train bleu 2

The Exposition Universelle (Universal Exhibition) of 1900 was a glorious time for Paris.  The beautiful Pont Alexandre III, the Grand and Petit Palais, and even the first line of the Metro, were all constructed for this seven-month event, which drew over 50 million visitors from around the world. The Gare de Lyon was also built at this time, and its directors decided to welcome travelers in style, with the opulent Train Bleu restaurant, originally called the Buffet de la Gare de Lyon, which opened in 1901. 

train bleu 4 

When you step through the doorway, you’ll probably forget where you came from and marvel at the splendid details of the ornately decorated room. But once you get over your initial surprise, you may notice that the restaurant does refer to the Gare de Lyon; many of the paintings that all those gilded details are framing depict the destinations you can reach by taking a train from the station, like the Alps and the Côte d’Azur.


train bleu paintings 


Declared an historical monument in the 1970’s, Le Train Bleu is like a magical portal to the Paris of the early twentieth century.  Even some of the furniture, like this art Nouveau piece, may very well have been in the restaurant since its opening day.

train bleu 3 


The only thing that might seem out of place is the meal itself, presented in decidedly modern plates, glasses, and bowls. 

When you leave the opulent restaurant, the bustling, drab train station provides a jarring contrast.  Georges Méliès, one of Hugo’s most important characters, might have felt something similar when he was torn from his world of magic and cinematic special effects and dropped into a stall at the Gare Montparnasse where he sold toys to people who had no idea what he’d done before. 

Luckily, as in the film, Méliès’ reputation was revived and some of his work and props salvaged. A short stroll from Le Train Bleu is the Parc de Bercy (Bercy Park), home to the Cinémathèque Française, whose collection of film memorabilia includes several objects that once belonged to Méliès (in the movie, Méliès aficionado René Tabard shows them to Hugo and Isabelle). 

The Musée d’Orsay, which was formerly the Gare d’Orsay, provides another glimpse of train stations from a bygone era. In 1986, it was ingeniously adapted into a museum that holds a fantastic collection of 19th century art. Its enormous clocks inspired Scorsese’s version of Hugo’s Gare Montparnasse, and inside, on the second floor, an elegant reception room, created to house events for foreign dignitaries during the 1900 Exposition Universelle, is usually open for visitors to explore.

Even if you can’t come to Paris, you can still experience an extra bit of Hugo’s magic.  Some of Méliès’ films are available for free on YouTube and other video sharing sites.  These sites also feature footage of the Exposition Universelle of 1900—the event that inspired Le Train Bleu’s construction. Méliès himself shot film of the Exposition; unfortunately, like many of his works, these reels have since been lost. In addition to its usual beauty, the Paris you’ll see in footage from other early fimmakers is full of elaborate temporary constructions, like palaces representing different countries, and fun attractions, like a moving sidewalk. It’s fitting that Méliès captured some of these images; in 1900 the transformed city looked like one of his elaborate, magical movie sets.   

The Paris of Hugo may not exactly exist, but it’s there in spirit.  Like the answer to an enigma, you just have to do some searching, but you’re sure to find something that will fill you with wonder.


train bleu 5

A view of Paris during the Exposition Universelle of 1900, from Le Train Bleu. In the foreground is the famous Pont Alexandre III (Alexander III Bridge).  In the background are temporary buildings showcasing history and different countries.  Today, only the bridge remains.  


This article first appeared on HamletHub Westport


For more about Hugo, check out OSer Sally Allen's wonderful review

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Special thanks to Sally Allen!
Alright, Le Train Bleu goes on the list. I'll squeeze it in between the Musée d'Orsay and Shakespeare and Company.
Just beautiful.. I don;t care if it no longer looks like a palace but your words and photos brought back what it once was or could have been,
I love old train stations and this one was great! Thanks for sharing, Alysa.
Splendid treat, Alysa! Wish I'd have known about the "secret" of Gare de Lyon when I spent several weeks in Paris waaaaay back. Now I'm almost inspired enuf to stow away on a tramp steamer and return just to see that - and meet you, of course.
Wow! Great pictures. I wonder how many American movies have been filmed in Paris. I can think of a few. Recently watched Charade.
Most excellent, Alysa. Thanks!
Seth - It's totally worth it!

Linda - Thanks! I'm so glad you liked this.

Harry's Ghost - I love that you and I appreciate so many of the same things!

Chicken Maaan - If you do come back here (and I hope you'd tell me which steamer is easy to sneak onto - I'd love to be able to go to the US via an affordable Atlantic crossing), let's meet for lunch at Le Tran Bleu!

Sarah - I think the Wikipedia article on Le Train Bleu gives a list of movies filmed there. As for how many movies have been filmed in Paris - that would be quite a list! Not only for US films and other foreign films; the domestic film and televisison industry here is quite fruitful, and there are countless productions shot in Paris every year.

Firechick - Thanks for reading! I'm glad you liked it!
There are so many beautiful places to eat lunch in Paris. Between cafes and boulangeries on almost every corner, I wouls weigh about 50 kilos more if I lived in Paris. I remeber a cafe at Musee d'Orsay being particularly striking.
Alysa, what a treat you've given us. I saw Hugo a couple of weeks ago and found it so enchanting I can't wait to see it again. I even decided to spring for the 3-D price, which is a true rarity for me. I look forward to seeing it again with my daughter when it comes to video. I know Paris is romanticized in popular culture and could never live up to all the hype on an aesthetic level, but I have a feeling I would be thoroughly charmed even still. I can't finish reading just now, but I'll be back shortly.
another steve s - There are some beautiful eateries here indeed! And to avoid weight gain, you could walk to and from them - problem (possibly) solved! And you're so right - the cafe at the Musée d'Orsay is lovely.

BB - I figured you'd like "Hugo"! And you're right - this city is still such a gorgeous place, even if the Gare Montparnasse isn't!
When I finally make it to Paris I'm coming back to all your posts to plot my path. Rick Steves be damned.
"you just have to do some searching,
but you’re sure to find something that will fill you with wonder."
well, not much searching, really.
just come to alysa's blog!
i trust your Eye to show
me what i need to see
of Paris.

"ah london is a man's town
there's power in the air;
and paris is a woman's town
with flowers in her hair'
henry van dyke.

paintings on the ceiling!
how ya supposed to concentrate on yer chewing
yer food, and charming your date? i'd be gawking
all thru dinner.
I've taken trains out of Gare du Nord, but never looked around the station much (except for trying to find that damn orange box). That will have to change. The d'Orsay is simply spectacular.
Alyssa you are a great writer and photographer. This is a super post. R
My thanks to you, Alysa, for a great tour and insider info! So fun to see the story with the pictures inserted! That ceiling is really something else. I don't know if I would actually be able to concentrate on food with all that opulence enfolding me. But it does make me want to come back to Paris to test the theory!
You need to get rich as a writer, and send us all to Paris to have you as our guide. Ah, a girl can dream. This was very cool and filled me with yearning, and that's a good thing, I think.
So much luxurious beauty! Thank you.
Sigh.... so the Gare de Montparnasse DOESN'T look as it does in the movie? Another illusion smashed! =o) Not that that's much of a shock. Anyhow, I loved Hugo and how he has his own whole secret life within the walls of the station. And I have a print of the Monet painting on my bedroom wall.

I just gotta get back to Paris!

Oh my, Love to see these places and look forward to the film. Cheers and more.
That restaurant really does look amazing...I hope to see it one day, but meanwhile, your pictures are great!
It was a cool movie. Paris at Midnight was another great one.
Thank you for this wonderful post. I enjoyed every bit of it. I want to go back in time. But the glimpses of the past you gave me will have to do. Paris is on my bucket list. Hope you are still there when I get there again. I know it has changed since I was there as a teen with my parents. Everything changes and then changes again. I loved HUGO.
Thank you, Alysa. Excellent read and photos for a cold and snowy day.
Alysa, i really love the way you expose your thoughts and I like your articles very much and the picture are stunning Papa Johns Coupons