Take the slow train

Away from the high-speed TGV services, Anthony Lambert enjoys the most scenic journeys along the minor routes of the French railway network

Away from the high-speed TGV services, Anthony Lambert enjoys the most scenic journeys along the minor routes of the French railway networkAsk anyone who has travelled on French railways about their experiences, and nine out of ten will respond with envious compliments about inter-city travel by TGV. Fast, comfortable, stylish and efficient though they are, TGVs hardly allow the time to enjoy the passing landscape. A flash of winding river among the trees, a glimpse of stone ch�teau turrets and you’ve moved on. But travel on France’s secondary lines and it’s possible to relish the beauty of the landscape at a more sedate pace.

Dole via Morez to Saint-ClaudeThere’s hardly a dull moment on this 123-kilometre, two and a quarter-hour journey linking the former capital of Franche-Comt� with Saint-Claude in the Haut-Jura. Marketed as the Ligne des Hirondelles – the Swallow Line – it was one of the most challenging tracks in France to build, taking 50 years to complete, largely due to construction difficulties and the cost of its 36 tunnels and 18 viaducts. Though it’s an easy change at Dole from the Paris Gare de Lyon to Lausanne TGV, it’s worth spending time in the town to see its fine civic buildings and the birthplace museum of its most famous son, Louis Pasteur. Don’t miss the tranquil arcaded courtyard of the Palais de Justice, a former Franciscan convent, or the 16th-century church of Notre Dame with its curious octagonal belfry. It’s best to sit on the right-hand side of the carriage leaving Dole. Veering off the main line the train crosses the Canal du Rh�ne and plunges into the 20,000-hectare For�t de Chaux, threaded by dead-straight roads. Once out of the trees, the Jura mountains can be seen ahead across the gently undulating, pastoral landscape that surrounds the famous saltworks at Arc-et-Senans, though it cannot be seen from the station. From the country junction at Mouchard the line clings to higher ground, following the contours and climbing steeply to give stupendous views to the southwest, into valleys below and across tens of miles of rolling hills. At another quiet junction, Andelot-en-Montagne, the train reverses and takes a southerly course past dense coniferous forest to reach Champagnole where the really dramatic scenery starts. The train is soon on a shelf above the wooded River Saine, weaving through deep rock cuttings with such vertical sides that they are mostly covered in wire netting. A sawmill by the river is followed by the limestone Gorge de la Langouette between tunnels. Great retaining walls and a huge viaduct follow Chaux-des-Crotenay as the train begins a steep descent through the ski resort of Saint-Laurent-en-Grandvaux to Morbier, where you should prepare for the line’s coup de th��tre. The track runs in a large loop, descending through tunnels and across a most impressive S-shaped viaduct from which you can look up and see the line at a higher level. It’s just 1,500 metres between Morbier and Morez, but it takes five kilometres of railway to overcome the 124 metres difference in altitude. The railway joins the valley of the River Evalude and draws to a halt at Morez station, now a terminus but once linked by a line into Switzerland at La Cure.Spectacle manufacture began in Morez in 1796, becoming the town’s major industry and the subject of a modern museum on Quai Jobez. Having again reversed, the train forges along the narrow and sparsely populated Gorges de la Bienne, crossing another nine viaducts and burrowing through 18 tunnels. Its craggy sides of forested hills overlook pasture and the occasional farmhouse in clearings. Lichen covers the sides of rock cuttings in the clean air, and the isolated crossing-keepers’ houses have mostly been turned into holiday homes.The station at Saint-Claude contains an exhibition about the railway and its construction, supervised by the chief engineer of the Paris-Lyon-Mediterran�e Railway, Paul S�journe (1851–1939), whose name was given to a famous viaduct on the railway through the Pyr�n�es from Villefranche to La Tour de Carol. Saint-Claude became famous for the manufacture of briar pipes, and there is a museum devoted to the craft and the town’s other skill, the working of precious stones. The town is dominated by the imposing bulk of the Cath�drale Saint-Pierre, built on the site of a monastery which had Saint Claude as its abbot and once had as many as 1,500 monks. Have a look at the choir stalls (mostly from 1460) which have details such as a mermaid combing her hair and a bishop being pelted with stones by small demons.

Brian�on to GrenobleBrian�on, at 1,321 metres the highest town in Europe, is reached by train from Marseille which covers some of this route to Grenoble, capital’ of the French Alps and the historic capital of the Dauphin�. The more recent parts of Brian�on are unremarkable but the walled old town with its warren of narrow cobbled streets leading up to the citadel is unmissable. Out of season, you feel as though you have stumbled on a film set and will turn a corner to meet cowled monks or a troop of breast-plated soldiers with halberds. The hilltop fortress itself, built largely by Vauban, can be visited only by guided tour. Leaving the terminus at Brian�on (sit on the right), the train descends an impressive gorge to reach L’Argenti�re-la-Bess�e amid rugged hills fissured by weathering with glimpses of higher peaks beyond. Montdauphin-Guillestre is the station for the stronghold built by Vauban as a fortified village, one of his more unusual constructions. Running beside the River Durance, the railway reaches the attenuated resort of Embrun, built along a cliff overlooking the valley with a Romanesque church boasting an organ given by Louis XI, said to be the oldest in France. The line clings to a shelf overlooking Lac de Serre-Pon�on with the tiny island chapel of Saint Michel towards the western end. A broad pastoral valley leads to the large town of Gap, the first major place to welcome Napol�on on his march north in 1815 that culminated in Waterloo.Leaving Gap there is a spectacular panorama to the south as the line climbs towards the large junction station of Veynes-D�voluy, beyond which a line turns south towards Marseille, while the Grenoble line swings north to find a way into the mountains along the Lunel Valley. The line between Veynes and Grenoble is one of the most astonishing sections of railway in France, even Europe. There are 26 tunnels and innumerable bridges and masonry viaducts, mostly on curves, giving passengers a clear view of the line ahead and the chasms below. But it is the panoramic views of the D�voluy mountains and the coxcomb outlines of their limestone peaks that keep one glued to the window.Leaving Veynes, a great wall of rock rises up ahead and there appears to be no obvious route until the train is between cliffs of limestone with imposing overhangs. Pines and conifers flank the line as it climbs parallel with a ridge of eroded peaks that resemble the outcome of a bad day at the dentist. An astonishingly thin fin of rock, like the spine of a dinosaur, descends towards the valley floor before the station at Lus-la-Croix-Haute. Stone villages dot the bowls in the mountains. The line climbs to the lonely summit station of Col de la Croix-Haute near Lalley at 1,167 metres, where the highest point is palpable as the train breasts the climb and begins its descent towards Grenoble, during which the line drops 955 metres, with a continuous one in 40 gradient for 20.8 kilometres.The hills compel the railway to follow repeated U-shaped bends with a great viaduct at the apex. Above the station at Clelles-Mens is the bizarre outline of sheer-faced Mont Aiguille whose summit at 2,086 metres is so difficult to reach that it was long known as  Mont Inaccessible’. It was first climbed on 26 June 1492 at the command of Charles VIII, though Antoine de Ville and his companions reported human footprints as well as chamois and strange birds and plants. After more views over a great arc of mountains, the train arrives at Monestier-de-Clermont, where it is best to move to the other side of the train since the railway crosses the valley. A ridge of peaks resembling gapped, malformed teeth precedes a long tunnel which takes the railway into another valley and Saint George-de-Commiers, junction for the summer tourist service over the equally spectacular La Mure line. A great loop brings the railway into the suburbs of Grenoble.

N�mes to Clermont-FerrandThere is a strong sense of the Mediterranean about the landscapes that begin this journey from the Roman city into the desolate uplands of the Massif Central and through the Cev�nnes to the Auvergne. After some deep limestone cuttings, the train canters across a plain strewn with gorse, Lombardy poplars and Aleppo pines. By Fons-Saint-Mamert, the first vineyards appear, and for mile after mile, there is little to divert the eye from vines until V�z�nobres, where you can see fragmentary remains of the coal mines that encouraged construction of the railway.There’s not much to commend the first stop of Al�s, where Robert Louis Stevenson boarded the train after his journey through the C�vennes that culminated in the classic 1879 Travels with a Donkey in the C�vennes. Leaving the town the gradient steepens with the start of the climb into the C�vennes. It is astonishing that a railway should have been built through such sparsely populated and difficult terrain, which required 106 tunnels and 1,300 viaducts and bridges in 300 kilometres. The hillsides grow so steep that they have to be terraced for agriculture. The greatest arc of masonry carries the railway above the small town of Chamborigaud with views over the folds of purple hills that stretch to the horizon. The high level of the railway continues to give panoramic views over the woods and the huggermugger houses of the little town of Villefort filling a trench in the valley below. Emerging from a tunnel soon after Villefort, the train bursts out of the dark on to a viaduct across the Lac de Rachas reservoir. Through forests of pine and larch and along hillside ledges the train climbs to the line’s 1,023 metres summit at La Bastide, close to the source of the River Allier and the watershed that separates rivers flowing into the Atlantic and the Mediterranean. Beginning a long companionship with the waters of the Allier, the railway reaches Langogne, its Romanesque church protectively encircled by houses and five rampart towers. As though the scenery had not been captivating enough, the line delivers its pi�ce de r�sistance with a series of stunning views along the gorges and narrow valley of the Allier as the river rushes and glides towards the north. Occasionally huge rocks from the heights frustrate the flow, explaining the need for the avalanche wires above the railway to alert neighbouring stations of danger. Passengers enjoy a grandstand view of this beauty, since the train is almost continuously on a shelf created by a retaining wall directly above the river, only deviating from the water where the train burrows into a tunnel through the promontories. Past Alleyras there is another gorge so narrow and deep, that in winter the sun hardly penetrates the bottom.After this spectacular section, the train parts company with the Allier as the valley flattens into a landscape of orchards and pasture before a final climb after Langeac to reach a plateau of bracken-covered heath. Digital platform indicators at Arvant herald the approach to Clermont-Ferrand, though there is a final flourish with the sight of the volcanic plugs for which the area is famous. Even the city’s double-spired cathedral was built out of black volcanic rock, though the city is probably best known for its links with road rather than rail transport – it is home to the Michelin man, Bibendum.FRANCOFILEHOW TO GET THEREEurostar is the only proper way to begin such a journey. Rail Europe offers a range of advance tickets and passes. Tel: 0844 848 4070 www.raileurope.co.uk

For independent pre-arranged packages, French Travel Service has 45 years’ experience in offering short breaks and holidays using rail to France, including a seven-day Allier Gorges tour.Tel: 0844 848 8843www.f-t-s.co.ukFor escorted journeys Ffestiniog Travel offers a French Alps and Pyr�n�es trip on rural trains with travel out and back on Eurostar.Tel: 01766 772 957www.festtravel.co.uk

WHERE TO STAYAu Moulin des �corces 14 All�e du Pont Roman39100 Dole Tel: (Fr) 3 84 72 72 00www.aumoulindesecorces.fr A modern hotel in an old mill beside the River Doubs with an outstanding restaurant.Hotel Restaurant de la Chauss�e, 4 Rue Centrale05100 Brian�on Tel: (Fr) 4 92 21 10 37www.hotel-de-la-chaussee.comThis hotel has a delightful interior fashioned after a mountain chalet. It’s been in the same family for five generations. Good restaurant.

Hotel Cesar, 17 Avenue Feuch�res30000 N�mes Tel: (Fr) 04 66 29 29 90www.hotel-nimes.netA well-appointed two-star hotel about five minutes’ walk from the station.

ADDITIONAL?INFORMATIONParc Naturel R�gional du Haut-Jurawww.parc-haut-jura.fr

Office du Tourisme du Brian�onTel: (Fr) 4 92 21 08 50www.briancon.com

Office du Tourisme du N�mesTel: (Fr) 4 66 58 38 00www.ot-nimes.fr