The Gare de Tours is quite simply wonderful.
It was built between 1896 and 1898 during what is now known nostalgically as La Belle Époque, a time of peace and prosperity when France was the cultural centre of the world.
In Paris, this was the time of Le Moulin Rouge, Les Folies Bergère and Le Can-Can. La Goulue and Jane Avril were modelling for Toulouse-Lautrec's iconic posters. Le Tour d’ Eiffel, the symbol of the city, was known the world over and Haussmann had completed his re-remodelling of Paris.
The new railways linked Europe to fashionable spa towns in France such as Biarritz, Deauville, Vichy, Arcachon and the French Riviera.
When Tours needed a new, prestigious station to reflect its importance it commissioned Victor Laloux, a son of the city. Born in Tours, he trained at the prestigious École des Beaux-Arts in Paris. He had also won the much coveted award the Prix de Rome.
Laloux had already rebuilt the Basilica of St. Martin in Tours. The tomb of the saint is in the crypt. Completed in the 1100s, the original, magnificent, church was destroyed by French Revolutionaries. The monumental bronze statue of Saint Martin on the dome was by the sculptor Jean-Baptiste Hugues.
French architects were, probably still are, more than just designers. They were trained civil and structural engineers. Although Laloux was fond of stone facades in the traditional neo-classical style he was also an ardent fan of new innovations in architecture. He used cast-iron supporting columns to allow high interior spaces, huge windows and glass roofs. His stations resemble cathedrals.
He collaborated with sculptors and muralists trained in the Beaux-Arts tradition. The façade has four massive limestone statues representing French cities. Jean Antoine Injalbert sculpted Bordeaux and Toulouse, Jean-Baptiste Hugues, with whom Laloux worked on the Basilica of Saint Martin, received the commission for Limoges and Nantes.
Injalbert, the son of a stonemason from Beziers, taught at the École des Beaux Arts. Hugues was from Marseilles. Both won the prestigious Prix de Rome.
Inside Gare de Tours are decorated panels of faïence tiles, designed by art nouveau artist Eugène Martial Simas from Paris. Each is signed M. Simas. He also designed for the Sèvres porcelain factory and theatrical sets for the Paris Opera.
Illustrators of travel posters today would be hard pressed to compete with these works of art. They advertise local châteaux such as Amboise, Azay le Rideau, Langeais, Loches and Chinon. Other tourist attractions, such as Carcasonne, are further away.
Some have unfamiliar names such as Josselin and Menhirs d’Erdeven which are in Brittany and Mont Dore and Vic sur Cere in the Auvergne. Further afield is: Luchon in the Pyrenees, a favourite with the aristocracy; Biarritz and St. Jean de Luz which border Spain; the famous sand dunes of Arcachon are near Bordeaux and Le Pont de Cahors is in the south of France.
Few will be lucky enough to visit all these places but the panels give much enjoyment to the arm chair traveller who can go via the Net.
After the Gare de Tours, Monsieur Laloux built the Hôtel de Ville in Tours. Sculptures on the façade representing the Loire and the Cher are by Jean-Antoine Injalbert.
The awesomely talented Victor Laloux went on to build the magnificent Gare d' Orsay (now the Musée d'Orsay) in Paris.
Gare de Tours is still the jumping-off point for tourists visiting the Loire Valley. Many arrive from Paris on the TGV. From here one can still travel to Bordeaux on the west coast of France, to Spain via Avignon or to Lyon, Strasbourg and Lille. There is a shuttle service to th station in St. Pierre des Corps from where passengers can travel right into Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris.
If Messieurs Laloux, Simas, Injalbert and Hugues turned up today they would surely still be proud of their lovely station.
M. Laloux has done his home town proud. He gave it a beautiful church, an elegant station and an extremely elegant town hall befitting the elegant city of Tours.