Skiing was not the only highlight of my trip to Font Romeu. There was also a train: Le Train Jaune, to be exact, a small old-fashioned train that feels like the Wild West and takes you through the valleys and up into the mountains, clinging to steep cliffs as it goes.
I had seen a brochure advertising this train in the station when we went to Carcassonne, and that’s actually what gave me the idea to go skiing in the first place. On the cover it loudly proclaimed: “Une autre façon de découvrir la montagne!” Huh, I thought. The train goes straight to the snow. Sweet deal.
So I tried to buy a ticket. Apparently this train is not all that popular, because the woman behind the counter had a very difficult time binning it together with the tickets to get to where the train leaves from… that should have been my first clue. (Don’t worry, in the end it worked out fine and I loved the train!)
On Friday when I left, I hopped on the regional train in sunny Montpellier with my skis, feeling silly because of the disconnect in seasons. I got to Perpignan, where I was supposed to connect to another train, but that train was canceled. I didn’t have time to ask why as I sprinted out to the “gare routiere” or bus station, where they had arranged a bus to take us to our destination. It’s a lot less efficient to take a bus that stops at each train station – you have to navigate multiple roads, intersections, villages with tiny streets where I swear we had only an inch on either side of the bus and I was worried we might crush parked cars. I worried that we wouldn’t get to Villefranche in time for me to make my connection to Le Train Jaune.
We finally made it. After dropping off everyone else, there were just eight of us left going to Villefranche, a small town already far up into the valley. It turns out that only two trains go to Villefranche: one from Perpignan, and Le Train Jaune. And here I discovered why our last train had been canceled. Snow. Le Train Jaune was not running. I began to wonder if I had made a horrible, terrible mistake.
After waiting in the station for an hour or so – and we were already quite late when we arrived – they finally arranged a bus for us.
I had originally planned to ski that afternoon – it is why I skipped class that morning instead of simply traveling later in the day – but with all of the delays it had become impossible. And as we climbed over the passes and up and up and up in elevation, things got slower. With all of the snow on the road, cars had to stop and put on chains. But there was nowhere to pull over to do so, so people would just stop in the middle of the road and chain up. There was also no room to pass, so we sat at a standstill for ten or fifteen minute stretches at time. Finally, we got to the point where everyone had chained up or turned around, and things began to move faster. Our bus driver was aggressive. I tried not to be scared.
When we arrived at the train station in Font Romeu, it was closed, since we hadn’t arrived on the last train but instead long after it. That presented a problem, because it’s four kilometers straight uphill to get to the actual town. I had asked my hotel what the best way to get there was, and they said, “there will be taxis.” Well, there were no taxis. Everyone else who lived there quickly talked among themselves and arranged carpools with each other, and left.
That left me and one other girl, who turned out to be from Quebec. There was a taxi number posted on the side of the building, but when I called it, it was a wrong number. She said she was waiting for a friend – well actually, a friend of a friend, someone she had never met – to pick her up, and she’d ask if I could get a ride too.
The funniest thing about this was that she hadn’t had a phone that worked in Europe, so she had borrowed one from another woman on the bus to call her ride. But while she was talking, the woman got in a car with another passenger and drove off! So we were left in the cold, outside of the locked train station, with a random women’s iPhone.
Luckily, the friend of a friend, who turned out to be Scottish, agreed to give me a ride. Thank God. When I left, the girl from Quebec still had the iPhone, and wasn’t quite sure what to do with it – there had been at least fifteen minutes before we got picked up, and the woman apparently hadn’t realized that she didn’t have her phone….
So that was Le Train Jaune part 1.
I was understandably concerned when it was time to leave Font Romeu that maybe there would be a repeat of this situation. But there wasn’t – it was a beautiful warm sunny day and things were running right on time. I took a taxi down to the train station and basked in the sun for 20 minutes waiting for our chariot to arrive.
And it turn out to be absolutely as fun and beautiful as I had imagined. The train tracks went places that roads did not: hugging the sides of steep valleys, traversing huge bridges across canyons, offering glimpses up other side valleys towards unidentified snowy peaks. The people on the train ranged from babies to octogenarians, and we all oohed and aahed along together. At one point or another everybody stood up and pointed their cameras out the window. Even the teenager who made sure to sit in a seat separate from his family.
In particular I watched a girl, maybe five years old, who was traveling with two older women – I imagined them being her two grandmothers, or maybe a grandmother and a great aunt, or something like that. First the child stared at my long ski bag and her grandmother asked me what they were. “Les skis de fond,” I said. The girl looked confused. Her grandmother then described how you don’t always ski downhill, sometimes you have other skis, and you can go uphill, downhill, wherever you want! The girl was delighted.
But more than eavesdropping, I just watched how they interacted. The grandmothers had little napkin-wrapped items of food that they pulled out of their bags, cookies and apples, and a thermos full of hot tea which they poured out into little mugs. As we passed by different views, they would point out things to their granddaughter: do you see the animal tracks? Look what those people are doing! They seemed to be enjoying it every bit as much as she was.
It reminded me of what it would have been like to travel with my grandmother McIntyre, right down to their warm but well-worn jackets and sensible pants. My grandmother loved speaking French and I think of her often when I’m here, whether it’s wandering in the market or walking to school. I once went with her to Quebec, but how wonderful would it have been to go to France? We are so lucky to have grandmothers.
When I wasn’t thinking about that, I was looking around. There were traces of people everywhere, even though the slopes were steep and rocky and I can’t imagine how they would support much of a population. I wondered: what did people do here, for thousands of years? You could see the forms of old roads leading off into the woods, or stone walls delineating – what? At one point I saw that some areas had been terraced, with stone retaining walls holding back each layer of soil. In one place, someone had begun to restore the terraces and planted an orchard. This would be a hard place to farm, much harder than any hill farm in New England. The land is practically vertical, and so many rocks.
Of course, the rocks are useful too. On the seemingly most improbable of ridges, even up on some small peaks, you could see defenses or, more likely, a church. They were made out of the hillside themselves, blending in with the rocks that were harvested to build them.
Or sometimes you’d come across a village deep in the valley, the crook between two slopes. Perpetually shaded from the sun, it seemed – but also protected from the wind and elements, and with easy access to the water that flowed out of the mountains.
Again, I tried to imagine. There had clearly been civilization here for years and years, networks of connected villages and farms and churches. It seemed like such a hard place to make a living, and yet rewarding, apparently, too. What was it that made it inhabitable, besides the beautiful scenery and the summer sun?
When we reached Villefranche – which is amazing, by the way, I hadn’t seen much the first night but it turns out to be an old fortified city with walls and towers and ramparts… what? – I had to get back on a normal train and go back to normal life. But I was left with some photos of the beautiful scenery from Le Train Jaune – a great way to travel, as long as it’s not snowing.