Lunch in Paris, dinner in Lyon: Taking the train from Edinburgh to France's foodie haven

As the Channel Tunnel celebrates 30 years, it remains one of the best ways to travel flight-free from the UK to Europe

Breakfast in Edinburgh, lunch in Paris and dinner in Lyon, the Channel Tunnel affords a a culinary, flight-free feast. Photo: Simon Williams
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On May 6, 1994, the Channel Tunnel was inaugurated, forming a direct link between Britain and mainland Europe and connecting the people of Scotland, England and Wales to a seemingly endless web of railways across the continent and beyond. Three decades on, it’s the perfect way to enjoy a multi-culinary journey to Europe, eating breakfast in the Scottish capital before exploring the foodie haven that is France for lunch and dinner.

Just before 7am on a Saturday morning, a cluster of people with backpacks and trolley bags wait impatiently for the Pret a Manger to open at Edinburgh Waverley Station. I'm one of them – ordering a chocolate croissant – before leaving the cafe to gaze at the departures board through bleary eyes. Bathgate; Dunblane; Tweedbank. It’s wild to think that these regional stations in Scotland are linked by rail to Europe and Asia, all thanks to the Channel Tunnel.

The Edinburgh to London LNER train is the first on my three-leg journey to travel flight-free to Lyon in a single day from the Scottish capital. Sunshine blazes down on the east coast of Scotland as the train skirts the side of towering cliffs between Dunbar and Berwick-upon-Tweed. A denim-blue sea stretches for kilometres on the left-hand side of the train.

The volume in the carriage increases as we stop at Newcastle and speed through the North of England. Day-trippers embark at Darlington, chatting excitedly about the sights of York. Then it’s a straight shoot to London.

We arrive on time at King's Cross and, although an hour and a half may seem excessive for the two-minute walk to St Pancras International, the queue for the Eurostar’s ticket check, airport-style security and passport control eat up the time like a starving man at a banquet. By the time I’m in the packed-out departure lounge, the train before mine – at 12.31pm – is already departing.

The journey on the Eurostar to Paris won’t make any “most scenic train journeys in Europe” list – it’s mostly black tunnel with the odd light whizzing past the window. But it gets you into Paris in a little more than two hours.

Bursting forth from the tunnel after 35 minutes of blackness, the concrete entrance from France is emblazoned with the words “30 years”. Digging for the Channel Tunnel began on both sides in 1987 and the undersea link between England and France officially opened seven years later.

My dad, an avid train enthusiast, was keen to be one of the first through it. I recall taking LeShuttle – the car train from Folkestone to Calais – in 1994, heading over to France and visiting a huge warehouse where we loaded up on frozen snails and other French delights, before returning to England on the same day.

As a seven-year-old, I was severely disappointed that the tunnel was just a long stretch of darkness, not an illuminated glass tunnel like those in an aquarium with schools of fish swirling above our heads, as I had pictured. As an adult – I can balance the visual disappointment with the joy of the culinary delights awaiting on French soil.

Arriving into the Gare du Nord, don't expect to step off the Eurostar and into the Haussmann-style romance of Paris straight from the platform. The train station is in a slightly dubious part of the city, but it's easily connected with a 10-minute journey on the Gare de Lyon. Very soon, I emerge into the bistro-filled, Haussmann-style Paris of postcards and Instagram grids.

The Gare de Lyon boasts one of the most lavish and beautiful train station restaurants in the world, so I’ve allowed enough time for a late lunch at Le Train Bleu, before the final leg of my journey. I can’t stop staring up in awe at the frescoed ceiling with gilded trim, even as my perfectly crisped filet mignon arrives and a trolley of local mature cheese is wheeled up to the table.

The jaunty “ba ba ba ba” of SNCF's (France's national state-owned railway company) announcement declares the platform ready and I board the fast train to Lyon, which takes a little less than two hours. Powering across countryside of vast fields, villages become more and more idyllic in honey-hued prettiness, and church staves pierce the sunset sky.

I arrive in Lyon to a balmy evening, just in time for a nightcap in one of the many cave-like wine bars by the Saone in Vieux Lyon. The Basilique Notre-Dame of Fourviere is illuminated against the night sky, presiding over the old rooftops.

I revel in the fact that I’ve made it all the way to the banks of the Rhone from Scotland without having to go anywhere near an airport. An 8.30pm arrival means I arrive hungry, so I head directly to a rustic cafe-bar on the Soane, to feast on a creamy cheese board and charcuterie platter.

After an overnight stay in the quirky, four-star College Hotel, I step straight into Vieux Lyon to explore the old city streets. The time-worn pavements are sleek with rain, but the weather doesn’t detract from the beauty of the city.

The best way to start the day in France is with a freshly baked pain au chocolat from a local bakery and the buttery layers paired with a rich black coffee, overshadowing my Pret a Manger choice in Edinburgh the day prior.

I wander the streets of Lyon, pop into the marionette museum, where a collection of weird and wonderful stringed characters stare blankly back at me, and poke about in chichi little shops. It seems like every street is home to a vast selection of bouchons – traditional Lyonnaise restaurants serving the delicious, rustic cuisine the city is famous for.

Lyon is home to more than 4,000 restaurants, including 16 with Michelin stars. To work up an appetite, I hike up to the stunning, bone-white facade of Basilique Notre-Dame of Fourviere, visible from nearly every part of the city. The views over the shambling old streets and grand boulevards beyond is worth the climb, and the glorious interior of frescoes and gold inside the basilica offers a quiet moment of respite on my whirlwind tour.

I’ve chosen the traditional Bouchon Palais Grillet for a lunch of pistachio sausage, potatoes dripping with meat juice and rich onion gravy. Full of Lyon’s heartiest gastronomy, I’ve just enough energy to visit the Museum of Cinema for a surreal journey through the special effects of Hollywood and beyond.

Still stuffed from lunch, I opt for a casual bar for dinner, and people-watch as I slowly devour a plate of cured meat, cheese and pâté with plenty of crusty, homemade bread – the perfect ending to a flight-free escape in the foodie haven of France.

Updated: May 06, 2024, 12:05 PM