Little Yellow Train of the Pyrenees

A quarter to nine on a clear crisp September morning, and people are gathering at the Villefranche Vern railway station to board the 9.55am Petit Train Jaune, or Little Yellow Train of the Pyrenees. Competition for the open carriages is keen, but despite the fact that it over an hour until the train goes and the holiday season is over, a tour bus has scooped the pool and only inside seats remain. However given that the temperature is 9 degrees, the Solo Lady Traveller thinks that perhaps that is not altogether bad.

I find myself in a coach with 10 other women and a lone man, all part of the tour, all somewhat older than me (it makes me feel so young!) and all wearing horizontally striped shirts of different colours, as one of them points out. We depart only 15 minutes late with a very story-book "toot-tooot" and pass by Villefranche de Conflent and below Fort Liberia. Within minutes we are climbing steadily under ragged cliffs of tortured and compressed sedimentary rocks thrust up when Spain and France collided about 50 million years ago (a collision which has persisted throughout human history as evidenced by the fortifications of Fort Liberia and Villefranche de Conflent). little-yellow-train Forest grows right up to the train, thick stands of oak, ash, cassia, beech, and chestnuts covered in nuts. The passengers stand and peer as we trundle above the energetic little Tet river and clack over stone bridges. We pass through tunnels with a 'toot-toot' and slow to a crawl as the train grunts up steep sections, up to 6 degrees gradient in places. After 20 minutes we stop at Olette (608 metres altitude) beside the pretty Tet, its bed filled with large white rocks showing that it is not always so genial, then on to the extravagantly-named Fontpédrouse-St-Thomas-Les-Bains where we stop beside another Little Yellow Train which is returning from Font-Romeu. Ours is the only train each day which goes all the way return to Latour de Carol 62.6 km away, so the adventurers on our train naturally engage in some good-natured banter with these short-trip people. little-yellow-train We travel ever upwards, past villages crammed into valleys or clutching onto steep cliffs, below a couple of forts and a monastery, diving through little tunnels and crossing stone bridges as well as Pont Giscard which is the only railway suspension bridge in France. The entire track as far as Font-Romeu-Odeillo is an engineering masterpiece, and certainly there are times when I find it convenient to close my eyes as we slow to a crawl on the crumbling edges of precipitous drops. The mountains at times appear to be decaying, with vast slip trails and avalanches running down their faces like a melting icecream. imageAt Mont-Louis, at 11.30, the entire tour disembarks, so I find quickly a seat in the 2 open carriages with what turns out to be very pleasant company. It is brilliantly sunny and everyone peels off layer after layer of clothing, scarves, jackets, caps, and on go hats and sunglasses. I wish I had worn a lighter shirt under my sweaters. The mountains are blue behind a gauze of mist, and the land becomes steadily less steep and we pass into alpine meadows of gloriously green fields lavishly dotted with yellow and bright pink flowers. We see timber chalets with varnished wooden shutters instead of the stone houses from earlier in the journey. At a quarter to midday we are flagged down by two hikers at Bolquere-Eyne, at 1,592m the highest railway station in France. We have climbed almost 1,200 metres from Villefranche, and the air is utterly clear, with the scent of recently mown meadows and some sort of herbs. The rail line is fringed with blackberries, still ripe at this altitude, and scrubby bushes bearing masses of little blue-purple 'prunelles' which, my companions tell me, can be used to make a preserve.We see trees covered with crimson clumps of berries which, they kindly inform me, are sorbier des oiseaux, or bird sorbus, the fruits of which are extemely bitter and make humans vomit, but boiled they are made into jams and liquers. Occasionally we pass an apple tree dropping carpets of ripe fruit. In places leaves are just starting to turn lime and russet, and the whole landscape has a gentle autumnal glow. image By about midday we reach Font-Romeu-Odeillo, a popular ski resort and thermal baths; there are numerous thermal baths in the region ranging from very civilised to completely "sauvage". Most of the remaining passengers leave the train and we settle in for a long descent to Saillagou, the little train rattling along through fields and tunnels after its hard climb. By a little after 1pm we reach Bourg Madame, where I descend. The half-dozen of us who get off mill around uncertainly for a few minutes; there is no indication of which way to go, but after a few minutes I head down the hill, to the right, and the others straggle along. I had intended to walk the purported 1km to Puigcerda in Spain for lunch, but I pass 2 restaurants which are, get this, closed for lunch, but re-opening later! After crossing the river I find a town closed up like a bank, and spotting a little restaurant in a square I decide not to walk to Puigcerda in case the restaurants there are also closed.  The waitress speaks no French and I speak no English but I manage a very unprepossessing lunch of "peas in lard" (mmmm, appetising, but from past experience I guess correctly that it is actually with ham bits) but the peas are tinned, then a skinny roast chicken leg.  A group of cyclists, Scottish and English, are click-clacking around and eating piles of pasta and making unattractive comments about the nice little waitress, who might not understand English but she understands condescending sexism alright. image   I drink a capairinha cocktail as a bulwark against the cyclists and the poor food; imagine what the wine would be like!  The sun is hot and the cocktail and the altitude do their work and I really feel like a sleep. After an hour or so I stroll back up to the station and, bang on time at 3.17, the train comes in, and waving at me from the open carriages are the nice couple I travelled with on the outward journey, who went to the end of the line at Latour de Carol. I step quickly along the platform and climb in and we share experiences of rather depressing lunches. We agree that the best idea would be to bring a picnic and lie in the grass in the shade of a tree. The return journey could be an anti-climax, and I think that perhaps one would be better to take the bus and be back in 45 minutes, but there is such an air of jollity and cameraderie that it feels very nice to be sitting in the sun laughing and clanking and toot-toooting through the alpine meadows. I am reminded of Heidi, but see no goats and only one herd of cows in all this lushness. The weather threatens to close in, and we all exchange meaningful glances when a few random fat drops of water strike. However nothing comes of it and half an hour later it clears quite a bit, and we roll on under dramatic purple and grey cloudscapes in a blue sky. image At Olette my companions, a lovely lady from Bordeaux where I was a few days ago, and her friend, leave the train. I have only half an hour to go as the train rattles briskly downhill, tooting through tunnels and flashing over countless bridges, before sighing into Villefranche Vern at 6.10. Facts, and Some Important Notes The return ticket from Villefranche Vern return to Bourg Madame was €29. There are some errors in the official website for the Little Yellow Train, and on various commentaries on other sites. You CAN NOT pre-purchase tickets from within France, either online or at an SNCF station, although the official website says you can. I have checked this at two SNCF stations. You can book and purchase online from England and I think USA, but they can not be delivered within France. You have to take your chances, and if you are travelling in the peak holiday seasons, you want to be at the station very early. There is only one train which does the return journey all the way to Latour de Carol each day. There is also an evening train leaving at 5.35 pm arriving at Latour de Carol at 8.38. You can stay overnight at Puigcerda and return on the 8.28am train. There are three other trains, commencing at 8.55am, which go as far as Fort Romeu, and these may be easier to get onto in busy periods. The published train timetable is currently the one for 2014. I was not able to get a timetable except at Villefranche Vern station. This photo is for the timetable up to end August, but was still correct on 9 September. image If booking online, you need to enter Villefranche Vern, not Villefranche de Conflent which is the village where the station is. The official website says that there are no hotels in Villefranche de Conflent, that the closest is 6km away at Vernet les Bains. This is not correct, there at least 2 Chambres d'Hôtes including the very comfortable Chambres d'Hôtes de l'Ancienne Poste, and there is another about 150 metres from the main entrance to the village. image                            
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