France From The Inside

France From The Inside: A Provence Vacation Off the Beaten Path from Nice by Train

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Meandering through the mountainous Provence between Digne-les-Bains and Nice is the only meter gauge railway line still in operation in Provence. The track passes through long tunnels, deep valleys, towering gorges, historic castles, perched villages, rich forest, as well as large pieces of lavender and olive fields. It is considered one of the most scenic railroads in France, part of which is inaccessible by car.

Traveling between Digne-les-Bains and Nice by Train

The story of the historic railway began in 1861. Alphonse Beau de Rochas, inventor of the four-stroke internal-combustion engine was the first engineer to dream of linking Nice and Grenoble by train tracks through the valley of Var, Digne-les-Bains and Gap. But the approval of the project came only in 1882.

The narrower meter gauge was adopted for the track because of the steep and mountainous terrain of the area. Construction remained a challenge in the face of landslides and floods. The railway was opened in stage. The track between Digne-les-Bains and Mézel was opened in 1891 whereas the one between Nice and Puget-Théniers in 1892. The complete railroad was fully operating in 1911.

Running of the line has been threatened by the two world wars, heavy rain, floods, snow and decline in business. The line to Meyrargues was closed after World War II. An 18-month closure and reparation of the railroad was needed after the flooding of the River Var in 1994. With a new bridge at Gueydan, train service was resumed in 1996.

The existing railway is 151 kilometers (94 miles) long. The tunnel la Colle Saint-Michel, connecting the valley of Vaïre and the valley of Verdon, is 3,457 meters (11,342 feet) long and 1,023 meters (3,356 feet) above sea level. In addition to the twenty-five tunnels, there are seven viaducts and fifteen metallic bridges en route.

The familiar SNCF trains are not seen there. The railway line is not part of the Réseau Ferré de France which owns and maintains the French national railway network. The railroad between Digne-les-Bains and Nice is owned by the Syndicat Mixte Méditerranée Alpes (SYMA), who received its concession for ninety-nine years in 1972. Founded in 1968, the SYMA is a group of several authorities namely Provence-Alpes-Côte d'Azur, Alpes-Maritimes, Alpes-de-Haute-Provence, Nice and Digne-les-Bains.

A Steam Train Journey in Provence on “Train des Pignes”

Train service is provided by a small rail company called Chemins de Fer de Provence. In addition to the regular daily service of four round trips between Digne-les-Bains and Nice, an urban service is run between Nice and Plan-du-Var 22 times per day. But the most famous train on this railway line is the steam train “Train des Pignes”

Groupe d'Etude pour les Chemins de fer de Provence (GECP), formed by voluntary rail enthusiasts, operates the steam train. It runs between Puget-Théniers and Annot on Saturdays between mid-May and end of June as well as between early September and end of October. For the section between Villars-sur-Var and Puget-Théniers, service is available on weekends in July and August. Only one round trip is provided for each section on the day of operation.

“Train des Pignes” used to refer to the four railways with meter gauge in the Provencal departments of Alpes-Maritimes, Var, Alpes-de-Haute-Provence and Bouches-du-Rhône. Nowadays only the railway line between Digne-les-Bains and Nice is still in operation. The steam train running on this line becomes synonymous with “Train des Pignes”.

Holiday Ideas by Train between Digne-les-Bains and Nice

Starting from Gare de Nice CP, the train ride takes about three and a half hour to reach Digne-les-Bains. Multiple descends from the train are allowed on one single journey. Other day trips suggested by Chemins de Fer de Provence include:

Nice-Puget-Théniers-Touët-sur-Var-Nice

It is a day trip to explore the perched villages, impressive gorges and medieval churches in Puget-Théniers and Touët-sur-Var.

Christmas market at Puget-Théniers

It is a Provencal Christmas experience of truffles, marmalade, bread with spice and herbs, cheese, grilled chestnut as well as Santa Claus, local Christmas delicacies, organ performance, donkey ride and fairy tales for children.

Nice-Annot-Entrevaux-Nice

It is a day trip to explore the medieval fortified village of Entrevaux - the imposing citadel, the ramparts, the bridge over River Var, the Cathedral, bread with spice and herbs and olive oil. Entrevaux is a stop for the steam train between Annot and Puget-Théniers.
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