Three meals in three countries, all in one day, thanks to Europe’s high-speed trains


The high-speed TGV train service that debuted in December connects the French cities of Paris, Lyon, Marseille and Toulouse to Barcelona in Spain. (RAYMOND ROIG/AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE VIA Getty Images)

I like to spend my vacations going to one place and staying put, diving in, digging deep (or as deep as I can in the time I have). A week in Paris. Two weeks in Tokyo. A week in Mexico City. If there’s a side trip, I keep it brief.

But my February jaunt in Europe was different. An anomaly, as I keep telling myself. As I keep telling everybody, in fact, as if it’s a point of pride. This is not. How. I. Usually. Travel.

So why, with just a week to spend, did I change gears and decide to hit three cities — in three countries — all in one day? It was mostly an experiment, to try on this other sensibility for size and see whether I enjoyed the (temporary) fit. Because unlike in the United States, where trains can barely travel between regions in a day, in compact Europe, the high-speed rails can ferry you from culture to culture in the relative blink of an eye.

Oh, who am I kidding? The real reason for my trip was this: A very specific idea got stuck in my head on a loop, like some bad Miley Cyrus tune, and I had to exorcise the demon. This idea had to do with food, and nothing will get me to change my normal style of travel like the prospect of a meal.

Make that meals.

The idea was planted by an item on the Financial Times Web site, detailing the December debut of the new TGV train from Paris to Barcelona, which cut the travel time from 12 hours to barely six and a half. The writer, Mark Smith, described how the route might dovetail with a ride from England to France and ended with this tempting thought: “Breakfast in London, lunch in Paris, dinner in Barcelona.”

Details: London-Paris-Barcelona train trip

Tips for riding the rails in Europe

I read that as nothing short of a challenge. And I responded, immediately diving into research to see if I could line it all up. At first, it seemed too easy: A morning Eurostar from London would get into Paris in time for a long lunch before an afternoon TGV that would arrive in Barcelona in time for a late-night dinner.

Then came the tougher question: Where to eat? Finding a spot for a late bite in Barcelona would be a piece of cake (or, to be more culturally accurate, a dish of crema Catalana). But where could we have breakfast — and not just any breakfast, but something good, something at least somewhat representative of British culture — early enough to make that train? In Paris, the obvious choice of restaurant was the ornate Le Train Bleu, right in the Gare de Lyon, which even Smith suggested. But we’d be arriving several neighborhoods away at Gare du Nord.

Too tight to connect, or not? Time enough for a glass of wine, or two? Room for dessert? I would soon find out, along with the answer to a perhaps more important question: Just because you can do something, does that mean that you should?

* * *

The alarm goes off at 6:15 a.m., an hour earlier than I’m used to, but then again, my jet-lagged body doesn’t really know what time it is anyhow. Rachel, my friend and frequent traveling companion, and I are staying in London for just a night at a true icon of train travel: the Great Northern Hotel, whose curved brick facade stands at the city’s largest transportation hub. It hugs the King’s Cross station, where six London Underground lines converge, and is just across the street from the Eurostar terminus in the St. Pancras station.

The hotel dates from 1854, just two years after King’s Cross station itself was built, in the middle of London’s great steam-train boom. A recent renovation gives the interior the feel of a great ocean liner, and our room’s shutters open onto an abstract view of the curved steel-grid roof over the departures concourse, built in 2012. Staying in one of the small but exquisite rooms was difficult in only one respect: finding the willpower to get up and out.

We manage, and decide to grab breakfast at the takeout window simply dubbed Kiosk, an operation of the hotel’s Plum + Spilt Milk restaurant that you access from inside the concourse. By 7 a.m., when Kiosk opens, commuters are streaming past two workers in mod black uniforms standing at the ready in the little kitchen cut out of the hotel’s brick. Sandwiches stuffed with sausages (and some, thankfully for me, with vegetables), croissants and other pastries, granola and fruit and coffee await. “Butter on your sandwich?” Of course. “Brown sauce?” Sure. And a macchiato to go. Just across the way is M&S, a little convenience store run by Marks & Spencer, so we rush in and buy juices made from Pink Lady apples.

Across the street, just inside the St. Pancras station (which we call “Saint Pancreas,” naturally) await the Eurostar tickets and gates. Now, I realize — and Rachel, queen of organization, reminds me — that I could have printed out tickets in advance to save us some time and stress, but where’s the fun in that?

I go up to a machine and punch in my confirmation code, and it tells me: Nope. Error. Go to the ticket window. Rachel is just starting to form the words “I told you so” when a friendly clerk working the line comes over and shuffles me to the next screen. “Let’s try this one — sometimes it’s the machine. I’d hate for you to have to go to the office, love.” She would? Where do they get these people, and can we take some of them back home?

The tickets pop right out.

It’s now about 7:30 a.m., so we have time to sit in the station and tuck into our breakfast before our train starts moving at 7:55. The sandwich has soft bread, gooey melted cheese, thin slices of marinated portobello mushroom, roasted tomato — and a tang of that brown sauce, sort of like a cross between ketchup and tamarind chutney. British through and through.

Before we can get to the track, we go through security screening, putting our bags and coats on the conveyor belt and going through metal detectors. Rachel sets off the machine (probably those stylish boots), and the security guard who has to pat her down says with a smile, “This is your morning massage. Thanks, sweetie.”

Finding our reserved seats on the Eurostar is easy, too, because the sections are labeled on the walkway next to the tracks. Even the sound system inside is effective: quiet enough to stay pleasant but loud enough to be articulate. And friendly! “We will arrive in Paris at 11:17 local time. All that remains is for me to wish you a very relaxing journey today on Eurostar.”

Note to TSA, note to Amtrak, note to 7-Eleven: Be more like the Brits.

* * *

The world outside the windows is a blur — especially since we’re sitting backwards and are still in the tunnels leaving London. Once out, the blur gives way to windmills, smokestacks belching white clouds, power lines, wetlands, warehouses and fences, berms and dead grass. The morning clouds glow. Within another 20 minutes, the sky is clearing, and all we see are rolling green hills dotted with clumps of trees here, houses there: some farmland, neat rows of bushy growth, some hoop houses, then the white tents and orange poles of — was that a carnival?

There’s no WiFi on the train (advantage: Amtrak), so I give up my impulse to work and sit back to enjoy the scenery and read. By 8:40, the view has turned black: This would be the Chunnel. But 20 minutes later, the world lights up again, and we’re in France. The clocks on our cellphones jump ahead an hour, and the scenery starts to include terra cotta roofs.

The countryside flows by in rhythmic patterns: an allée of tightly spaced trees, power lines near and far, blocked-by-the-hills views and open vistas. The hypnotic view and the noises — the soft squeaks and rumbles and whooshes of the train and the wind as we glide along, the clicks of a neighboring passenger’s nails on her laptop keyboard, even another passenger’s periodic coughing — lead us to . . . nap. Rachel is already out, and I pull down the shade, whose pixelated-looking fabric turns the scene outside into an animated Seurat painting, and close my eyes. By the time I open them, we’re just 20 minutes from downtown Paris.

We arrive at Gare du Nord right on schedule, and I start thinking that we won’t need to race to make our noon reservation after all. Then we herd into a long taxi line outside, passing boys swooping their Bieber hair to one side and 20-something women complaining about the thickness of their jeans. By the time we step into the cab it’s 11:40, and the race is back on.

Culture shock sets in. Were we really in London just this morning? The gare-to-gare cab ride seems almost as abstract as the train trip, but at least I recognize more of what I’m seeing. The angle is perfect for spotting monuments, from the bronze statue of Marianne at the Place de la République to the gilded, star-crowned Génie de la Liberté topping the July Column at the Place de la Bastille.

At Gare de Lyon, the unassuming entrance to Le Train Bleu leads to a gritty little staircase and a lift; we cram into the latter, then back out and through a turnstile door and — whoa. This is the grandest room possible, with soaring gilded ceilings covered in murals, giant chandeliers, big arches, white tablecloths, sparkling silver, embossed dishes and tuxedoed waiters streaming around carrying trays that appear glued to their fingertips.

After Didier, our waiter in mod glasses, takes our order — we start with Kir cocktails and a little amuse-bouche of artichokes and prawns en croute — we ask him whether we can be out by 1:30. He looks at his watch and says, “But of course!” When Rachel explains that we have to catch a train, he laughs, looks out the big picture window into the attached station and says, “What? Not a plane?”

Another waiter brings over Rachel’s appetizer — a crispy pig-and-escargot terrine, which she loves (“I’m in heaven over here”) — along with the cheese cart, which I’m choosing from for my first course, breaking every rule of French dining. One taste of the Camembert’s tang and slight funkiness, and memories of Paris meals past come flooding back.

Tableside activity commences all around us — steak tartare being folded with egg yolks, shallots and more in a glass bowl, a steaming something being lifted from one vessel to another. Silver domes raised to display some leg of some beast, ready for the carving. I get a bowlful of vegetables, each one separately stewed and perfectly tender, sitting over creamy potato puree spiked with saffron, onto which I drizzle some Italian olive oil. Rachel gets a baked scorpion fish over those same potatoes, and we toast with glasses of Pouilly-Fuissé.

For dessert, there’s no debate except perhaps about my fumbling pronunciation as I order. “Meel-FOO-ee.” Our waiter asks me to repeat. “Meel-FOO-ee.” He corrects me: “Meel-FUR-yeh,” the subtlest difference to me — and the most glaring, no doubt, to him. He brings our millefeuille, puff pastry layered in this version with scoops of caramel cream and sitting in a pool of vanilla sauce. I take a bite, look around, and finally feel it.

Now we’re in Paris. But not for long.

* * *

We look up, still finishing our espresso and financiers, and it’s 1:25 and — “L’addition, s’il vous plait!”

Our lingering turns to rushing, especially in the station, where the first, second and third machines don’t take our reservation numbers. We realize that we’re not at TGV machines, so we hurry around, asking a security guard to point us to the correct office, and now it’s 1:55 and our train leaves at 2:07, and I am almost — almost— ready to admit that I should have printed those tickets at home.

Once again, an agent comes to our rescue. She’s more curt than our helper in London (no surprise), but she gets the job done, printing our tickets and pointing us to the train. We race-walk with our roller bags until we’re safely ensconced on the train and it pushes off.

Phew.

This leg of the trip, simply put, isn’t nearly so much fun as the first one. Of course, it’s almost three times as long, which has something to do with it, but we’re also stuck behind a woman with four young children chattering and playing cards in a way that’s all fine and good until one of them — usually the scraggly haired boy — periodically lets out a startling yelp and the mother responds with a shush. It’s too much for even my iPhone music, turned as loud as possible, to cover up.

Outside, the scenery has gotten positively dreamy, with deeper slopes to the hills and valleys. The beige houses look as if they’ve been put through a giant Instagram antiquing filter — or maybe it’s just the suddenly golden quality of the sun as it drops in the sky by 4 p.m.

By 7 p.m., the are-we-there-yet jitters have hit, big time. Is this really the high-speed train? Not having experienced the previous, longer trip, it’s hard for me to appreciate the relative brevity of this one. My legs are cramping, so I start pacing the aisles. By 8 p.m., the view from the window is mostly black. As we near Barcelona, abstract lights stream past, and those little French hellions have started chanting some repetitive rhyme.

Through one last tunnel — and this must be the end, right? Please? When the conductor announces “Barcelona Sants,” cheers and applause break out.

Unbelievably, we feel pangs of hunger as we taxi to meet the owner of our Airbnb apartment on a bustling little street in the Raval neighborhood. Then, finally, we’re here, relieved to be able to unpack our bags. Well, not quite yet. First we have to get to dinner. We stroll about 15 minutes to Sesamo, a vegetarian place that I’d read excellent reviews of, including some praise in the New York Times.

The praise is undeserved, at least on the night we visit.

The tiny place with red-and-white walls, gray floors and purple glass lamps seems charming, but soon enough we realize that we’re surrounded by Americans. Not a good sign. Our expectations start dropping, but not quickly enough to keep pace with our declining experience of the food. By the time we make it a few courses into our seven-course dinner, to a plate of simply boiled potatoes that we’re supposed to swipe through flavorless purees of eggplant and spinach, the disappointment is crushing. This is the crowning culinary experience of our three-city, three-country, three-meal day?

If we weren’t so tired — and full — we would have gone somewhere else afterward. In Barcelona, that wouldn’t be unheard of.

Thankfully, we have 48 more hours here to make up for it. And we do, reminding ourselves at every subsequent meal that Barcelona deserves its reputation as a culinary capital.

I even manage to shake off the feeling that we should really be staying put and digging deeper. After all, it’s not the last time I’ll get to Barcelona, Paris or London. In fact, in just a few days we’re headed back to the City of Light — for a jampacked weekend. It’s not the same as staying there, or anywhere, for a week or two. But it’ll certainly do.

Joe Yonan is the Food and Travel editor of The Washington Post. He got the cooking bug from his Indiana-born mother who let him use her stand mixer when he was 8 years old because it was cool.
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