Little Yellow Train – Tour the French Pyrenees

The Yellow train is one of Europe’s truly eccentric and quirky railways. It is also known as the Pyrenees metro or the Yellow Canary and has run between Villefranche de Conflent in the foothills of the French Pyrenees up to La Tour du Carol in the Cerdagne since 1910. All in all 63 km, 19 tunnels, two major bridges, and some of the best views you could wish for the south of the Alps.

This is more than just a tourist train–it is also a vital lifeline for many of the small hamlets and villages on the Cerdagne. After all, this is snow country and in winter the snow comes by the bucketful.

Your journey starts at Villefranche de Conflent. Usually, travelers will overnight at the nearby spa town of Vernet-Les- Bains. With its shaded streets and ancient squares, this is a pleasant stopover. Also, close by, you have the Monastery of St Martin du Canigou on its rocky outcrop overlooking the valley below (in the novel The Historian, it is the birthplace of Dracula).

Back on the Yellow Train, you have a choice of open or closed carriages, and your journey is soon underway. The train stays below 60 km per hour, but if you are in the open side carriage then this is quite fast enough. The first part of the journey winds through forests and the views are limited. But this is where bears and wolves roam, and soon you will pass the stop for Les Gorges de la Caranca. This is the kind of place whereas children you would dare your friends to explore the narrow rocky route with its steep drops and vertigo-inducing views. As an adult, I recommend that you stay on the train!

Slowly, the train starts to reach the tree line and you emerge into bright sunlight and the uplands of the Cerdagne.

This is a wide open country with the Pyrenees in the background. It is sunny here, in fact so sunny that the French built a large solar oven at Odeillo.  The train now winds over the relatively flat countryside with open vistas and eventually will stop at La Tour du Carol. This is effectively a terminus, and there is not much to see or do other than to await the return train back to Villefranche.

Advice for the trip? Unless you are planning an overnight stay, it is unlikely that you will want to get off the train and explore. None of the stations are particularly convenient for towns or villages, so you need to take your own food and water. Don’t forget the camera and an extra sweater.

These are the stations along the way:

  • Villefranche de Conflent, 427m, is a  fortress town known for its pink marble bricks.
  • Serdinya at 520m has a 12th-century church to see.
  • Olette at 607m is known for its suspended houses overhanging the Tet Valley.
  • Thues-les-bains at 747m is Europe’s warmest hot spring with water measured at 80 degrees centigrade.
  • Thues-Caranca at 789m. Stop here for the gorge.
  • Fontpedrouse at 1050m has more sulfurous baths.
  • Planes at 1373m.
  • Mount Louis at 1510m. This is a small city with important architecture.
  • Bolquere-Eyne at 1592m is the highest railway station in France.
  • Font Romeu at 1533m has a 9th-century church at Odeillo and of course the solar oven.
  • La Tour de Carol is the terminus.

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