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Winding its way through the country
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Getting on the train
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Going over a bridge
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The train track runs past streams and rivers
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Le train jaune
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The train runs through the midst of a lot of trees
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The yellow train in all its glory
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Winding its way through the country
Nostalgia is a funny old thing. We think that the past must have been better, as we look back to our childhood/twenties/forties and only remember the good bits. Newspapers have regular contributions from columnists pleading with readers to use the English language properly, as it was in the past, while idyllic images of unlocked front doors and children playing contentedly in the street provide fodder for satirists and television pundits alike. But it is still possible to find places where time has apparently stopped moving forward, and provide an opportunity to discover whether the good old days really were so good.
In the Pyrenees, for example, several times a day, a small yellow train operated by French company SNCF chugs its way along a line that stops at 22 small French mountain towns and villages—although only eight of these are standard stops. The rest require either notifying the conductor well in advance that you want the train to stop, or, if you’re at the station and want to get on, standing at the far end of the platform, sticking your arm out and hoping the driver sees you.
Construction of the 126-kilometre train line started in 1903, with the section that runs east to west from Villefranche to Mont-Louis. However, it wasn’t until 1927 that it was completed, arriving at La tour de Carol, near the Catalan border. Its aim was to connect these mountainous enclaves, and naturally the technical issues were not easy to overcome. Fifty bridges, 16 viaducts and 19 tunnels are necessary to help the train jaune reach its destination.
Coming from the Costa Brava, the easiest place to pick up the train is at Villefranche, which in itself is worth a quick visit. The medieval walled town, currently a candidate to be a UNESCO heritage site, has ramparts that can be visited, as well as a number of craft shops and restaurants. Villefranche sits at the entrance to the Cerdanya plateau and is surrounded on all sides by impressively steep slopes.
Keep a careful eye on the time though, particularly in low season, because the trains are few and far between and if you miss one, it’s a long wait for the next. At this time of year, all the carriages are closed, a necessary respite from the sharp winds and snow, but in the summer months, some of them are open, a reminder of the very first days of the railway when all passengers travelled standing up in open carriages, engulfed by the black steam pouring out of the engine. If planning to take photos, it’s best to be at the back, because from there you can get some excellent shots of the whole train as it winds its way across precipitous bridges and heads into tunnels.
The entire journey lasts two and a half hours and is a pleasure from start to finish. The first half, up to Font-Romeu, takes you through the treetops of the forests covering the steep valleys while the train line crosses bubbling brooks and streams far below. To get some idea of the heights involved, the stop before Font-Romeu is Bolquere-Eyne, which at 1,592 metres is the highest station in France.
One less positive aspect of the trip is that most of the stops along the route are in a sad state of repair—signs are rusty, waiting-rooms are missing walls and rooves. And next to no passengers get on or off.
Once past Font-Romeu, the line begins to skirt around the edge of the Cerdanya valley, which is divided between France and Catalunya. The views are incredible—the area is filled with small villages, grey and caramel-coloured cows and the local Cerdanya horses. On this part of the journey there are no tunnels; instead the train crosses fields and winds through woodland; indeed the proximity of nature at all stages of the journey makes it feel like taking a lazy country walk.
Getting off at La tour de Carol, there is little to see. Enveigt, the nearest village to the station, has nothing to attract visitors, not even a bar for a café au lait. Instead, it’s advisable to get off at Bourg-Madam, three stops earlier, walk across the border into Catalunya and visit the town of Puigcerdà, about 20 minutes rather steep, but pleasant, walk away.
So was it better years back? Maybe, but taking a slow, nature-filled train trip through the Pyrenees today, shows that modern times aren’t all bad.