Best train journeys in France – off the beaten railway track
Away from the high-speed TGVs lies a network of trains travelling at a leisurely pace through la France profonde, says Anthony Lambert
The sight of a blue and grey TGV streaking across the countryside at 300km/h has become an emblem of France. Yet away from these corridors of technical wizardry, there are railway experiences to be enjoyed at a much more leisurely pace. In common with most countries that put their reliance on road transport, France lost many of its chemins de fer secondaires, but outstanding scenic journeys still survive along the rural byways.
SNCF doesn’t always make it easy: one of the most spectacular lines, between Neussargues-Moissac and Béziers, has just one train a day in each direction, for example. The railway is the equivalent of England’s Settle to Carlisle railway through the Pennines, which was once threatened with closure, but is now busy with service and special trains, some steam-hauled, thanks to energetic promotion.
Clermont-Ferrand – Neussargues-Moissac – Béziers
Trundling over this line today in a two-car diesel train, it is hard to believe that the Barcelona Express from Paris once came this way hauled by an electric locomotive, and that the modern Corail carriages ran on the line until September 2010. Why SNCF does not make more of this magnificent railway line is a mystery: not only does it traverse some of the most spectacular landscapes of the Massif Central and Languedoc-Roussillon, but it crosses engineer Gustave Eiffel’s Viaduc de Garabit, which was admired as a wonder of the modern world at its opening in 1885 and helped to attract the first tourists to the rugged Cantal département.
The line proper begins at the rural junction of Neussargues-Moissac, but most travellers approach from Clermont-Ferrand, capital of the Auvergne. On the route south, impressive cliffs tower over the railway and the River Allier to the south of Vic-le-Comte, and passengers have views over farms and wood-covered hills as far as the eye can see. The railway then weaves through the Gorges de l’Alagnon past the ruined, precipitous 14th-century château of Léotoing.
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The landscape broadens, with panoramic views to the west as the line clings to a ledge high above the River Alagnon to reach Neussargues. The line south to Béziers begins with a fierce climb to a tunnel under the Col de Mallet which masks a sudden transition to a level agricultural plateau. Shortly before Andelat lies the Château du Sailhant with seven conically roofed towers overlooking cliffs on three sides and a moat on the fourth. The castle frequently changed hands between the English and French during the Hundred Years’ War, and has now been restored by New York architect Joseph Pell Lombardi.
Descending through picturesque farming country with trees along the field margins and threaded by small rivers, the landscape gradually becomes more remote and wooded. Soon after Ruynes-en-Margeride, the train clatters over Eiffel’s immense Viaduc de Garabit, opened four years before his famous tower. To the west of the viaduct, the River Truyère opens out into such open water that it is used for water skiing.
Running high along the valley slopes, the train offers panoramic views east over the Monts de la Margeride as the country becomes pastoral, splashed with yellow gorse. Still descending, the line curves across a series of stone viaducts before joining the River Lot south of Marvejols. Fields of poppies brighten the bucolic farmland as the line enters Aveyron to reach Sévérac-le-Château, dominated by the huge 13th-century castle rebuilt in Renaissance style in the 17th century.
The descent to Aguessac through the Gorges du Tarn is one of most impressive sections, with an immense escarpment of sheer cliffs to the east. Once famed for the glove-making industry that began in the 12th century, Millau is now better known as the site of the world’s tallest road bridge, designed by Norman Foster to carry the Paris-Montpellier autoroute. Passengers get an unusual view of this imposing structure as the train passes underneath the viaduct. The leather for Millau’s gloves was provided by ewes whose milk goes into the famous cheese made in Roquefort-sur-Soulzon, close to the railway.
The first Languedoc vines appear before Bédarieux and soon become almost ubiquitous, the soil shared only with olive trees before the urbanisation of Béziers takes over and the journey ends within sight of the Mediterranean.
Saint-Gervais-les-Bains – Vallorcine – Martigny
The Alpine ski and health resort of Saint-Gervais in the Haute-Savoie is the terminus of the standard-gauge line from Aix-les-Bains and the start of the international metre-gauge line east into Switzerland. Saint-Gervais is also the start of the uncompleted Tramway du Mont-Blanc.
SNCF trains operate as far as the lupin-covered platforms of Vallorcine or the frontier at Le Châtelard-Frontière where Swiss trains take over for the steeper rack-operated section down into the Rhône Valley at Martigny. The line climbs out of Saint-Gervais to serve a series of stations popular with skiers, climbers and walkers, depending on the season. There are splendid views of the Mont Blanc and Aiguilles chains, from which spring-melt water cascades across the railway along a huge aqueduct near the station at Les Houches. The graves beside the English church near the station in the principal resort of Chamonix-Mont-Blanc are a sobering reminder of the risks attached to attempts on western Europe’s highest mountain.
The character of the line changes dramatically after Chamonix, entering more sparsely populated country with forests of spruce and silver birch, and opposite the station at Argentière a glacier twists down from Mont Dolent. The summit of the line is reached in the tunnel under Col des Montets, and soon after Le Buet it joins the Trient Valley for the spectacular descent over the frontier to Martigny. The scale of the sheer drops beneath the ledge on which the train is perched is breathtaking. The final flourish is the twists through tunnels and cuttings to the floor of the valley to join the Geneva-Brig main line and a rare level canter to journey’s end at Martigny.
Villefranche-de-Conflent – Mont-Louis – Latour-de-Carol
Many passengers reach the start of this rollercoaster journey through the Pyrénées by train from Perpignan station, whimsically dubbed ‘the centre of the universe’ by the Catalan Surrealist artist Salvador Dalí. The standard-gauge train arrives at the walled village of Villefranche-de-Conflent beneath the fortifications created by the great military engineer Vauban to cement France’s territorial gains in Roussillon under the 1659 Treaty of the Pyrénées.
Travellers must then change on to the metre-gauge Petit Train Jaune de la Cerdagne – or ‘Yellow Canary’ as the railway is affectionately known. The unusual yellow and red livery of the trains is derived from the gold and blood-red emblem of Catalonia, once ruled by the medieval counts of the Cerdagne.
The train, which has open carriages in summer, heads up hill and down dale in its meandering course over the pastoral countryside with mountains high enough for ski resorts as a backdrop. It crosses two of France’s most spectacular viaducts: the two tiers of granite arches forming the Viaduc Séjourné across the River Têt, which took 1,500 workers three years to build in the early 1900s; and the Pont Gisclard suspension bridge, surrounded by densely forested hills. Railway stations en route include Bolquère-Eyne, the highest in France at 1,592 metres, where the altitude and name of the Pyrénées-Orientales département are engraved in the stonework.
The best place to break the journey is Mont-Louis, where a short but stiff climb to Vauban’s walled garrison town sets you up for lunch in one of the restaurants lining the narrow cobbled streets. It is France’s highest fortress, at 1,600 metres. The train also calls at Bourg-Madame, named in 1815 after Marie Thérèse, eldest daughter of the ill-fated Louis XVI and his wife Marie Antoinette.
The journey ends on the border with Spain beside the huge station building at Latour-de-Carol, a rare international interchange where three track gauges meet and there are trains for Toulouse and Barcelona.
Nice – Digne-les-Bains
A huge amount of investment has improved the track and trains of this metre-gauge line which climbs into the foothills of the Alps. The train used to leave from the magnificent roofed Gare du Sud, which shut in the early 1990s. A public outcry prevented its demolition, but a new use has still to be finalised for the shell that remains.
To begin with, the railway acts as a commuter service for Nice, but beyond the suburb of Lingostière it joins the River Var, following the beautiful valley north and west for half the journey. The valley narrows after Saint-Martin-du-Var to become the Défilé de Chaudan, the train dwarfed by craggy cliffs with fascinating rock strata.
Any of the station stops can be chosen for an exploration of the surrounding area: perhaps Villars-sur-Var for its car-free village, or Touët-sur-Var for the monumental Gorges du Cians. Some choose Puget-Théniers for the summer-time steam excursions on the Train des Pignes, while others press on to Entrevaux for the spectacular Vauban-built citadel, reached by a zig-zag path and the only stronghold in south-east France to have remained virtually intact.
Around Pont-de-Gueydan, olive groves give way to meadows and sweet chestnuts. Sandstone outcrops surround the village of Annot, after which two horseshoe curves help to lift the line towards a long tunnel and entry into the valley of the River Verdon before the train arrives at Thorame-Haute. Beyond Barrême the line joins the River Asse to share the valley with the Route Napoléon, the path taken by Bonaparte after escaping from the island of Elba in 1815 and on his way to ultimate defeat at Waterloo.
Finally the train arrives in the elegant spa town of Digne-les-Bains, the setting for the opening chapters of Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables and a centre for the lavender trade.
Gare de Tournon-Saint-Jean – Lamastre
The Chemin de Fer du Vivarais was a major attraction in the Ardèche département from its revival as a largely steam-worked heritage railway in 1968 until its abrupt closure in spring 2008. For decades the restaurants of Lamastre had relied on the trains from the town of Tournon-sur-Rhône to fill its summer lunchtime tables, so the closure was a blow to small businesses along the Vallée du Doux.
Thankfully, the local political wranglings that led to the railway’s suspension have been resolved and the line reopened in early July, starting at the new station of Tournon-Saint-Jean just outside Tournon. Trains are again a mix of steam-hauled coaches and venerable Billard diesel railcars dating from 1937.
The journey into the heart of the Ardèche begins among the vineyards of Saint-Joseph, which produce some of the best Côtes-du-Rhône wines. The valley narrows into a gorge where the river is crossed by a magnificent stone-arched bridge built between 1470 and 1583 with the patience required of cathedral-builders, due to the efforts of the raging River Doux to frustrate the masons’ work.
The railway forges up a wooded valley on ledges cut into the hillsides, occasionally burrowing into tunnels, and at Troye curving over an elegant viaduct.
Both the villages served by the station at Colombier-le-Vieux/Saint-Barthélémy-le-Plain have claims to fame: the former was a centre for the Resistance operating in the Rhône Valley and the latter was the location for the BBC TV’s 1972 adaptation of Clochemerle, Gabriel Chevallier’s 1934 comic novel about secular and religious rivalry in a French village.
The pace of the river abates as it broadens, and beyond the station at Le Garnier it meanders around a ‘trembling rock’, said by legend to rotate once a century. The market town of Lamastre has plenty of restaurants for lunch before the return to Tournon by train or – a popular alternative – by bike.
1. Clermont-Ferrand – Neussargues-Moissac – Béziers
Ticket price: €51.20 single.
Journey time: 6hr 45min.
Train operator: SNCF (www.ter-sncf.com).
A coach service is replacing the train between Neussargues and Béziers until 17 December 2013 due to work on the track.
2. Saint-Gervais-les-Bains-Le Fayet – Vallorcine – Martigny
Ticket price €20.90 (single or return).
Journey time: 2hr 30min.
Train operator: SNCF/Mont-Blanc Express (www.tmrsa.ch).
3. Villefranche-de-Conflent – Mont Louis – Latour-de-Carol
Ticket price: €20.90 single.
Journey time: 2hr 30min.
Train operator: SNCF (www.ter-sncf.com).
4. Nice – Digne-les-Bains
Ticket price: €23.30.
Journey time: 3hr 15min.
Train operator: Chemin de Fer de Provence (www.trainprovence.com).
5. Gare de Tournon-Saint-Jean – Lamastre
Ticket price: single €18 adult, €9 child (four-14); return €20 adult, child €11. Journey time: 2hr.
Train operator: Le Mastrou (www.mastrou.com).
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