(Our train awaits)
Up in the mountains of the Eastern Pyrenees about forty kilometres from where our house is on the Mediterranean coast, is the start of one of the famous little railways of the world. From the station at Villefranche-Vernet-les-Bains-Fuilla to that at Latour-de-Carol-Enveitg the track of this pride and joy of the Catalan Pyrenees wends its way along sixty three kilometres serving twenty two stations, at fourteen of which the train only stops if a request has been made before the journey begins.
(Two of the trains in the sidings at Villefranche)
This bright little train decorated in the Catalan yellow and red, or gold and blood as the locals describe it, looks like it has stepped straight out of the 1950s as it chugs its way slowly through mountain valleys, clinging precariously to its track through spectacular scenery, as it leaves behind houses built in the Mediterranean style, replacing them with Alpine chalets built for severe winters with heavy snow.
Last Friday I made another journey on the Little Yellow Train and saw again for myself the beautiful scenery of this part of the south of France. Our journey began from the SNCF Station in Perpignan, where we boarded the regional express train to Villefranche, a distance of thirty kilometres, for the princely sum of one euro! At Villefranche, where the main line train terminates, we crossed the track to the platform of the narrow gauge railway and boarded the train having previously bought our tickets online. We were only going to travel part of the way to the ski resort of Font-Romeu, and the fare was around twenty four euros for the return journey, or aller retour as the French say.
(The very impressive rail bridge at Planès)
Soon the train set off following the course of the River Têt, which we were able to see, first to the left and then to the right, way below us, as it meandered over rocks in places and flowed very fast in others. The valley widened and, passing through the Parc Naturel Régional des Pyrénées Catalanes, we came to the first main station of Olette-Canaveilles. It was after this point on my first visit that, on a not too sunny day, we passed through the clouds and found ourselves in glorious sunshine. Our journey continued through Fontpédrouse, Mont-Louis and Bolquère-Eyne, which, at 1592.78 metres, is the highest station in the French railway network.
(The station at Bolquère-Eyne, the highest station in France)
Then as we rounded a bend, high above us to the right was the town of Font-Romeu with its large hotels for the skiers who flock here between November and March. To the left across the valley we could see the ski lifts and the clear runs between the trees, all green now in the hot summer sun.
Font-Romeu-Odeillo-Via is famous, not only as a winter sports’ resort, but also because it is home to the world’s largest solar furnace in Odeillo, which can reach temperatures up to 3,500°C (6,330°F).
(The solar furnace at Odeillo)
Our stay in Font Romeu was short, just time for a little wander, maybe a cup of coffee, before taking the train back down the valley to Villefranche. Up here it is almost like being in another world, so different from the Mediterranean lifestyle on the coast. The buildings have a totally different style, the air is fresher, and is filled with the sound of cowbells. Here you are just a few kilometres from the Spanish border, but you could imagine yourself in the Alps.