On the rails: The 10 charming railway lines traversing 'La France profonde'

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

St-Gervais-les-bains – Le Fayet – Vallorcine – Martigny

The standard-gauge railway taking 19th-century tourists to see Mont Blanc terminated at St Gervais as the terrain beyond would have made anything but narrow-gauge too expensive. The train winds through deep rock cuttings and gingerly edges along shelves as it weaves through the Arve Valley to Chamonix. From lofty viaducts there are views of Mont Blanc and the Aiguilles to the east. The line then climbs through fields of lupins and cow parsley, edged with silver birch and spruce. It then descends towards Vallorcine, the last station on French soil, before the line crosses the border with Switzerland and drops down into Martigny.

Journey time 75 minutes; from £14

Beziers–Neussargues

Few lines venture as deeply into La France profonde as this switchback journey into some of the loneliest parts of the Massif Central. The line’s nickname of La Ligne des Causses comes from the arid limestone plateaux where orchids thrive. Near Tournemire-Roquefort are the limestone caves from which cheeses have been dispatched since the time of Roman emperors. Continuing along the Tarn Valley, the train passes beneath the ruined castle of Séverac-le-Château before descending into the Lot Valley. After historic Marvejols the line climbs to the Aubrac, an area of woods and stone-walled pasture. Near journey’s end is one of Eiffel’s most impressive structures, the Garabit Viaduct.

Journey time 5 hours; £31.50

Clermont-Ferrand – Limoges

A good line from which to see some of the extraordinary volcanic plugs (puys) in the Auvergne National Park. The highest, the Puy-de-Dôme at 1,463m, is clearly visible. The region has been a source of mineral water since Roman times (the line passes through Volvic) and at Laqueuille a branch goes off to the spa towns of La Bourboule and Le Mont Dore, while Limoges trains continue to Ussel. From Meymac, with its fine medieval houses and church with Black Madonna, Limoges trains head north-west through forested country, following the River Vienne to Limoges.

Journey time: 4 hours; £25.50

Villefranche – Vernet-les-Bains – La Tour de Carol

This 63km (39-mile) narrow-gauge rollercoaster journey connects two remote junctions on SNCF. From snow-melt to autumn, trains include open carriages from which to enjoy the impressive gorges, forested mountains and rolling pasture of the Cerdagne. The line crosses two spectacular viaducts: the two-tiered stone Sejourné viaduct across the River Têt which occupied 1,500 workmen for three years; and the astonishing suspension Pont Gisclard, situated in a great bowl of densely wooded hills. Trains slow across the bridge so that passengers can appreciate its construction and the precipitous view into the river valley. The best place to stop for lunch is Vauban’s Mont-Louis-la-Cabanasse, France’s highest fortress at 1,600m.

Journey time: 2 hours 45 minutes; from £17

Clermont-Ferrand – NImes

This is a leisurely journey through the Cévennes, the remote, wild country explored by Robert Louis Stevenson on the back of his donkey, Modestine, during the 1870s. Though only 303km long, the line burrows through 106 tunnels and crosses almost 1,300 bridges, including some of the most impressive viaducts on French railways, such as the edifice at Chapeauroux and the near-semicircle of Chamborigaud Viaduct. Long sections of track are built on a masonry ledge above the River Allier with glorious views along the sinuous valley. From the summit at La Bastide (1,023m) the line drops down past scant remains of coal mines to the vineyards of the coastal plain to reach Nîmes and its Roman amphitheatre.

Journey time: 5 hours 30 minutes; from £34

Chemin de Fer de la Baie de Somme

One of France’s foremost tourist railways forms a Y-shaped route astride the Baie de Somme where Jules Verne once had a holiday home. It is a perfect survivor of the hundreds of lines that served small rural communities across France in the first railway age. The trains depart from the forecourt of the SNCF station at Noyelles-sur-Mer, between Calais and Amiens. The line splits, the northern arm heading across reclaimed marsh and dunes to the fishing village of Le Crotoy and its bird sanctuary. The southern arm crosses the canal linking the sea with Abbeville to reach the resort and fishing port of St-Valery-sur-Somme, from where William the Conqueror launched his invasion of England.

Le Crotoy – Cayeux-sur-Mer: 1 hour 45 minutes; £12; 00 33 3 22 26 96 96; chemin-fer-baie-somme.asso.fr

Grenoble – BrianCon

It’s about 83km as the crow flies between the capital of the French Alps and Europe’s highest town, at 1,321m. But by rail, it’s 218km. The great detour around the highest mountains takes the line south via Aspres-sur-Buëch before turning east. At St Georges de Commiers, the extraordinary tourist railway through the Drac gorge to La Mure begins. So tortuous is the route that, at one point, a chasm is spanned by two viaducts at different levels. Later, the Briançon line crosses the Trièves plateau through alpine meadows with spectacular views of Mont Aiguille. The line skirts the Lac de Serre-Ponçon before following the valley of the Durance to Briançon.

Journey time: 3 hours 45 minutes; £26

Dijon – Morez – St Claude

This route from the historical capital of Burgundy takes you through the Jura and on to the central plateau with its excellent walking and many cave systems. It is worth pausing in Dole, birthplace of Louis Pasteur, to climb the clock tower. The highlight of the journey is the exceptional series of viaducts and tunnels that takes the railway through the spectacle-making town of Morez. The wooded hills around the town are at their most spectacular in autumn. Trains from Dijon terminate at St Claude, the world centre for briar pipe manufacture. The 14th-century cathedral of St Pierre was built on the site of the old monastery.

Journey time: 3 hours; £22

NIce – Digne

Operated by Veolia, the Chemins de Fer de Provence train threads spectacular gorges and links several places worthy of exploration over 151km. It follows the River Var for a time, the scrubby valley slopes reaching ever higher as the line climbs inland. The valley floor is often filled with lavender. In the village of Entrevaux, a zig-zag path takes you up to Vauban’s hilltop fort, used to hold German prisoners during the First World War. Huge sandstone outcrops tower over Annot, and the terrain demands steeply graded horseshoe curves to gain height. A chateau just outside Digne houses an exhibition of Tibetan art and crafts created by the explorer Alexandra David-Néel.

Journey time 3 hours 30 minutes; £14.70

Bastia – Ajaccio

Corsica’s railway network forms a lopsided Y, the left-hand fork forming a branch to Calvi off the principal Bastia-Ajaccio line. It forges a difficult passage through the island’s mountains, traversing roadless valleys and offering stupendous views of the mountains that reach over 2,500m. The heavenly scent of the maquis – a mix of arbutus, heather, juniper, laburnum, lavender, myrtle and rosemary – wafts in through the windows. Horseshoe curves help lift the line up fierce gradients – the distance, as the crow flies, between kilometre posts 91 and 98 is just 200m. Lofty viaduct abound, one across the River Vecchio designed by Eiffel. From the railway’s summit at 906m at Vizzavona station, the line drops down through chestnut forests to join the River Gravona and follows it to the sea at Ajaccio, Napoleon’s birthplace.

Journey time 3 hours 30 minutes; £19.90

More information

All fares are one way. Rail Europe (0844 848 4070; www.raileurope.co.uk); Rail Europe Travel Centre, 1 Regent Street, London SW1

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
Michael Corleone, played by Al Pacino, goes back to his family's Sicilian roots in the first 'Godfather' film
film
News
Kim Kardashian speaks on the Today show about her step-father's transition
PEOPLE
Arts and Entertainment
Kermit and his doppleganger Hyalinobatrachium dianae
film
Sport
Wenger and Mourinho square-up to each other earlier this season
All the action from today's Premier League, including Everton vs Man Utd and Chelsea vs Arsenal
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Guru Careers: MI Developer

    £35 - 45k: Guru Careers: An MI Developer is needed to join the leading provide...

    Recruitment Genius: Fitness Manager

    £20000 - £22500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This leisure organisation manag...

    Recruitment Genius: Visitor Experience Manager

    £25000 - £28000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Delivering an inspiring, engagi...

    Recruitment Genius: Learning Team Administrator

    £17500 - £20500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They are looking for a great te...

    Day In a Page

    General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

    Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

    The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
    Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

    Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

    Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
    Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

    Marginal Streets project documents voters

    Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
    Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

    The real-life kingdom of Westeros

    Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
    How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

    How to survive a Twitter mauling

    Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
    Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

    At dawn, the young remember the young

    A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

    Follow the money as never before

    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

    Samuel West interview

    The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
    General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence
    Public relations as 'art'? Surely not

    Confessions of a former PR man

    The 'art' of public relations is being celebrated by the V&A museum, triggering some happy memories for DJ Taylor
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef succumbs to his sugar cravings with super-luxurious sweet treats

    Bill Granger's luxurious sweet treats

    Our chef loves to stop for 30 minutes to catch up on the day's gossip, while nibbling on something sweet
    London Marathon 2015: Paula Radcliffe and the mother of all goodbyes

    The mother of all goodbyes

    Paula Radcliffe's farewell to the London Marathon will be a family affair
    Everton vs Manchester United: Steven Naismith demands 'better' if Toffees are to upset the odds against United

    Steven Naismith: 'We know we must do better'

    The Everton forward explains the reasons behind club's decline this season
    Arsenal vs Chelsea: Praise to Arsene Wenger for having the courage of his convictions

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Praise to Wenger for having the courage of his convictions