The other cones hotline

Provence's Pine Cone Line was out of action for over a year due to storm damage, but now Peter Fairley can recommend a trip on the restored tracks
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THE TWO MONGREL DOGS whose wanderings on the track had halted our train yawned impudently, as out of the massive cabin-trunk toolbox came an instruction manual and two spanners. Levers were moved this way, then that, nuts loosened, buttons pushed with increasing ferocity. The guard, sporting a Poirot moustache, came forward to pool his wisdom, though it stopped at "Ooh la la."

Then came the inevitable bang of the fist on the control panel. With a roar, the diesel came to life. "Aha," the driver exclaimed. "Pas de probleme." The train inched forward, nosing the dogs out of the way. La Ligne des Pignes, The Pine Cone Line, was back in action.

We had opted to ride the Pine Cone Line, between Nice and Digne-les-Bains in the Hautes Alpes, to avoid the stress of driving along wriggling roads with sheer drops - the area contains some of Provence's most spectacular scenery, vast canyons, rock formations and a sprinkling of well-fortified, mediaeval villages. We could have taken the Lavender Route, the Olive Route, the Sundial Route, the Victor Hugo or even the Cezanne Route (he drew much of his inspiration from the colours and lighting of the region.) But we chose the train because trains - normally - "take the strain."

First hint that this particular train journey might not be a routine one came at the terminus when a television monitor flashed the news that 115,556 people had signed a petition to keep the line in existence. This was followed by a platform poster stating that buses would carry us between Entrevaux and Annot - 15 km or one-tenth of the whole, single-track railway. Then we heard about le deluge.

Compared with the problems caused by le deluge, our 20-minute halt for dogs on the line was a hiccup. That night - Guy Fawkes night, November 1994 - thunder, lightning and torrential rain had swept away great stretches of embankment, rupturing the track in 43 places, uprooting pine trees by the hundred, and sending mountainsides of limestone into the river, below. A steel bridge had twisted like a cheese straw; boulders as large as cars had rolled down the escarpments. The normal trickle of clear water was transformed into a milk of magnesia torrent, which persists even today.

To the Chemin de Fer de la Provence (CFP) , the private company which has operated the railway since it was de-nationalised in 1974, it seemed like a death-blow. But the Pine Cone Line has friends, both in high places and among the 30 communities which it serves. They came forward armed with petitions and cash.

The cost of repairing the damage - set at 53.2m francs (pounds 7m) - is to be shared, with CFP and the municipalities of Nice and Digne paying just under 10 per cent and the government and regional authorities stumping up the rest. The money is hiring bulldozers, cranes, lorries, dumper trucks and an army of construction workers, who started work the very next day and have been restoring the line ever since. It is due to be fully operational again this summer.

Someone had told us that La Ligne des Pignes was one of Provence's secret attractions , a railway largely of interest to railway buffs, ignored by the Riviera set and only of practical use to a few village "locals". How wrong. If it is a secret, it is one shared by 400,000 passengers a year. It is true that the track was built at the turn of the century and that steam engines still chug along it on special days in spring and summer. But most of the donkey work is done by a fleet of 10 diesel autocars, of no great vintage and which rarely, we were assured, break down.

The railway is operated by some 150 staff and you soon get the feeling that you are in the middle of one large happy family, all on first-name terms, each prepared to be a Jack- (or Jill- ) of all trades to keep the trains running and the passengers satisfied. Kisses on the cheeks often follow as a "local" boards. At many of the 44 stations, all you need do to stop the train is put out an arm. "Station" is a hyperbole for some - they are halt points, comprising little more than a low platform, a wooden shelter, a flower bed or two. At the grander ones, a station buffet offers not only coffee but boules for passengers and staff to pass the time between trains.

There is still argument over the line's nickname - La Ligne des Pignes. Some say it stemmed from the 1939-45 war, when coal was so short that the locomotives' fireboxes had to be topped up with pine cones. Others insist that it was because the train moved so slowly that the passengers could get off and forage for cones for their home fires. Certainly, there are forests of pine, where the wolf has returned and wild boar are hunted. But today the autocars clatter through so fast that only a potential suicide would consider jumping off.

Nature, in the Hautes Alpes, is a mixture of the soft and the spectacular. One moment you are passing olive groves and vineyards, edged with rosemary and aromatic thyme and buzzing with gaudy bee-eaters, butterflies and moths, the next you are facing a stark limestone mountain, eroded into weird shapes, where only ibex and eagles dare.

All the time, your gaze is drawn back to the river and the legacy of destruction caused by le deluge - until the train stops at a picturesque, mediaeval town. Trains run four times a day, which allows time for the visitor to hop off, explore and catch a later train. In that way, we saw the best and most picturesque - Puget-Theniers, Annot, and Entrevaux.

For centuries, that part of Provence was in the front-line of French political upheaval until, in the second half of the 17th, Louis XIV invited his chief military engineer, General Sebastian Vauban, to protect his kingdom with a chain of fortified towns. Some, known as the "poor, perched communities of Provence", were originally only accessible by mule-track until the railway came.

At Entrevaux, Vauban shut the whole town behind ramparts and used the river as a moat. The only entrance was across a drawbridge and through a keep with twin towers. To reach his fort - Le Citadel - we had to climb to 1,200 feet, up nine endless zigzags of fortified path and pay 10 francs at the top. But the views were, as the brochure said, "stunning".

A coach, not the train, took us to Annot, past the worst of the damage, including the "cheese straw" bridge. The town had acquired its wealth through processing nuts and lavender and there was a constant sound of running water. Small streams from the mountains rushed past or under the maze of narrow streets, alleys, steps, tunnels and ancient houses in the old town, leaving only the grand square and its shady plane trees quiet.

From here we took a bus to Colmars les Alpes, which boasts not one fort but two (one French, the other Savoyard) just outside the ramparts, both in excellent nick. There were also two bars, one dedicated to le football, the other to les boules, with garish trophies offset by sepia photos of old Colmars, a stuffed fox, and a clock whose hands went backwards.

At Puget-Theniers, 13th century headquarters of the Knights Templar, where many houses still sport the knights' insignia, we found the whole town celebrating a festival of boules. Hospitality was flowing. Outside one cafe, to a background of accordion music and raucous cries from the boules players, we were invited to sample a whole range of lesser-known Provencal wines, glass by glass, without charge.

During our travels up and down the Pine Cone Line, we saw a variety of freight come aboard - a caged bantam, new tyres for lorries, medical supplies, a range of cold meats for a charcuterie, giant sheaves of bullrushes and many items anonymously boxed in brown cardboard. At one of the forest halts, an old woman in black dress, black headscarf and carrying a black plastic sack, boarded the train. Shortly afterwards, the driver braked suddenly. The sack spilled some of its contents. Rolling towards us across the carriage floor came - what else? - a load of pine cones.

! Reservations for the Nice-Digne railway (La Ligne des Pignes): Chemin de Fer de la Provence, 40 Rue Clement Roassal, Nice Cedex 1 (0033 93883472, fax 0033 93162871), or any station, single fare FF103, return FF185. B&b and dinner for two at the Hotel Vauban, Entrevaux (0033 93054240) costs pounds 68.