South-western France offers one of Europe's finest train rides, says Anthony Lambert

Yellow trains lined in red are seldom found anywhere in the world, but the cheerful wooden-bodied carriages that wind across the Cerdagne are synonymous with this part of south-west France. They provide what is unquestionably one of Europe's great railway journeys, though they also remain a lifeline for many of the remote villages that dot the broadest and sunniest valley in the Pyrenees. The colour scheme of the Train Jaune is derived from the gold and blood on the emblem of Catalonia over which the medieval counts of the Cerdagne held sway.

A line from the Catalan capital of Barcelona is one of three ways to approach the 62.5km narrow gauge electric railway between Latour-de-Carol and Villefranche-Vernet-les-Bains; the others are from Toulouse and Perpignan. All offer pleasant approaches through the foothills of the Pyrenees, though the most striking is the easterly prelude from Perpignan where the eastern end of the mountain chain rears up from the coastal plain.

Hilltop towers foreshadow the fortifications that surround the junction town of Villefranche-de-Conflent. Military engineer Vauban was busy in these hills, cementing the territorial gains made by France under the 1659 Treaty of the Pyrenees by strengthening the gate-towered walls of Villefranche.

Since you have to change here anyway from normal to narrow gauge train, it's worth breaking the journey to wander the narrow streets of the village, lined with stone houses. For the energetic, there is a 1,000-step climb through a rock tunnel to Fort Liberia, which Vauban constructed to offer protection to the vulnerable village below.

The railway begins to climb almost as soon as the Train Jaune rattles out of Villefranche alongside the River Têt, the railway held in place by great buttresses of stone as it struggles to find a course up the narrow valley. Even more confined side valleys meet the Têt, one served by a request stop at Thuès Carança where an exhilarating trail up the Carança gorge negotiates ladders, catwalks and wobbly bridges. Bridge-building on a very different scale was required for the majestic Sejourné viaduct which takes the railway across the Têt. The two-tiered stone viaduct occupied 1,500 workmen for three years.

After the station for the open-air thermal baths at Saint-Thomas-les-Bains, the line crosses Pont Gisclard, a confection of steelwork and wires surrounded by wooded hills and carrying the railway 80 metres above the Têt. The best views are from the open-topped carriages in the middle of the train between spring and autumn.

The best place to interrupt the journey and perhaps have lunch is at Mont-Louis-la-Cabanasse, where the 10-minute walk uphill to France's highest fortress at 1,600m will develop an appetite. The dry-moated garrison town is another of Vauban's works, built in 1679-82 and still occupied by the army, who use it for training in the mountains and to protect the solar furnace, or Four Solaire, near Odeillo. (Built in 1953, the furnace's huge mirrors can produce temperatures of 3,000C to melt materials in scientific experiments.)

The climb ends at the summit station of Bolquère, the highest on SNCF at 1,593m. The altitude and the name of the departément - Pyrenees Orientales - are engraved in stone on a lower stone course of the station buildings.

As the train begins its descent, the character of the country changes to a bleak upland area with a few self-seeded trees and few houses. The pace is brisker over the gentler gradients, and you understand the reason for local railway joke that you're travelling on a TGV - Train à Grand Vibration.

After passing the ski resort of Font-Romeu on the hillside above the railway station, the train dives through a tunnel under the Coll Rigat and emerges to broad vistas over an area of fertile pasture cropped by cattle. The train twists and turns with the contours through tiny stations serving small farming communities before reaching Bourg-Madame. This town was named in 1815 in honour of the Duchess of Angoulême, eldest daughter of ill-fated Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette. She lived in Buckinghamshire and Edinburgh during her many periods of exile. Located on the border with Spain opposite Puigcerdà and once the home of the counts of the Cerdagne, Bourg-Madame was prosperous in the 18th century thanks largely to smuggling, but its main attraction today is the beautiful 11th-century Romanesque chapel in the suburb of Hix.

Just to the north is the curious remnant of Spain in France, the enclave of Llivia. Those drafting the Treaty of the Pyrenees ordained that Spain must give up its villages in the Cerdagne, forgetting that Llivia had the legal status of a town. The oversight has happily never been rectified. This attractive town has one of the finest preserved pharmacies in Europe, dating from the 16th century.

After a final climb, the train drops down to that railway oddity: a station with three different track gauges: the line from Toulouse is standard gauge; from Barcelona, Iberian gauge; and from Villefranche, narrow gauge.

Anthony Lambert is co-author of the Insight Guide 'Great Railway Journeys of Europe'


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