A small bright yellow train with cherry red trim has meandered its way through the French Catalan Pyrenees in the Languedoc Roussillon region near the Spanish border, connecting remote and isolated mountain villages for over 100 years. Popular with travellers, le train jaune tracks through dramatic alpine scenery over towering bridges, tunnels gouged through the mountains and a number of viaducts.
The train departs from the travel wonder medieval village of Villefrance-de-Confluent. Before boarding the train, a short walk to Fort Liberia that stands guard over the town helps stretch the legs. Offering a stunning view of parenthesis-shaped Villefrance, the view shows the tightly packed stone houses, narrow streets and intact (and UNESCO heritage-listed) medieval defensive walls that protected the small town for centuries from Spanish sieges. The village has lots of witches and broomstick models dangling from doorways and shop windows, protecting the population from the evil mountain spirits.
While chilly at first, the train includes two open carriages (they were referred to as les bains or the bathtubs) that gives the full effect of the fresh mountain air and the engineering marvel (built before World War 1) of getting a line through this mountainous countryside. The track bends and curls between mountains, ploughing into the inky darkness of a tunnel when no other paths are available. At several points on the journey, the train travels high via bridges and viaducts over the forested valley floor including the vertigo-inducing Séjourné Viaduct with its dramatic double-decker arching.
Tiny stations whisk past, the train only stopping at more major stops unless signalled by a passenger to stop. The lion’s share of travellers stay on the train for the entire return journey. The village of Olette features tall narrow houses that cling to the cliff edges with the confidence of mountain goats. Several of the villages appear frozen in time, their grey stony houses having weathered centuries of harsh winters.
The train is powered by an electric current along a third rail, produced by a hydro plant from a nearby dam (so it is a green train too!). And the train needs all its power too as it climbs to Bolquère-Eyne, France’s highest rail station at almost 1600 metres, with all the spirit of the “I think I can” children’s story.
More reassuredly, as the little yellow train crosses a plateau and tumbles down into the final stop at Latour-de-Carol, is the news that the train boasts three separate braking systems each capable of stopping the train alone. The train travels through lush farmlands, dotted with caramel-coloured cows and large rolls of hay readying for the harsh mountain winters.
It was strongly recommended to get off at Bourg-Madam (a hotel owner reassures me “Latour-de-Carol is boring”), three stops from the end, walk through scenic surrounds for around half an hour (up hill) across the Spanish border to the quaint town of Puigcerdà with its historic belltower and return in time to pick up the train on its return leg.
Operated by French rail (and so available on rail passes), the Yellow Train offers a refreshing and relaxing day among stunning mountain scenery and tiny medieval villages of yesteryear.