Passage Through the Pyrenees

Wide valleys and flower-laden peaks await travelers aboard France’s Le Petit Jaune.

By Adam H. Graham

One of the most romantic ways to travel across Europe is by train, and France’s historic Le Petit Train Jaune (Little Yellow Train)—petit in speed, length and journey time—is no exception to the rule. The short train runs a stretch of almost 40 miles in the eastern Pyrenees at a leisurely pace, reaching top speeds of around 15 mph. The journey lasts about three hours, beginning in the walled fortress of Villefranche-de-Conflent, a charming city and UNESCO World Heritage site, and ending in Latour-de-Carol, a picturesque village on the border with Spain. On the way, the little train passes through some of the majestic, awe-inspiring scenery the region is known for—and that is no small feat.

Two trellises and 19 tunnels snake around this arid and protected swath of the Parc Naturel Régional des Pyrénées Orientales, in the eastern Pyrenees, guiding the train through fragrant pine tree forests and over ravines gushing with pristine waters. Passengers aboard the yellow cars—some of them open-air convertible and some enclosed—can expect stunning views of the craggy mountain landscape. The train calls on 22 stations, 14 of which are request stops with attractions that merit a visit, such as Err’s 10th-century church, thermal baths Les Bains de Saint-Thomas, in Fontpédrouse, or the gallery Espace d’Art Contemporain, in Bourg-Madame.

Le Petit Train Jaune has a rich past. In the 1920s it was used to transport paintings by Paul Gauguin from the South Pacific to a collector in France. Scottish architect and designer Charles Rennie Mackintosh—perhaps best known for his work on the Glasgow School of Art—traveled aboard the train with his wife in 1925. He was so enchanted by the vivid wildflower meadows that topped the mountains alongside the tracks that he began painting watercolors of them. Mackintosh called this mystical landscape “Fairyland,” and it eventually became one of his favorite summer escapes. Many of the original 1909 carriages that Mackintosh rode are still in service today.

Other sights that have impressed travelers over the past century include the 830-feet-long and 262-feet-high Pont de Cassagne, the only in-service railway suspension bridge in France. Equally dazzling is the railroad’s summit: The train passes through France’s highest railway station, Bolquère-Eyne, at an altitude of 5,226 feet. But the most spectacular stretch of the route may be the leg from Villefranche to the 9th-century commune of Font-Romeu-Odeillo-Via, home to the oldest ski resort in the Pyrenees, also one of the oldest in France. Here the rails hug the deep sides of the Têt valley, affording vistas of medieval villages and historic fortresses. You may also spot a 13th-century hermitage perched along the valley’s ledge—another mighty big view for a mighty petite train.

Espace d’Art Contemporain
Place de Catalogne, 66760 Bourg-Madame; 011-33-04-68-30-11-60
Le Petit Train Jaune; tickets, $25* a person
Les Bains de Saint-Thomas
Fontpédrouse; 011-33-04-68-97-03-13;; admission, $20 for three
  • *Prices have been converted to U.S. dollars.
  • NOTE: Information may have changed since publication. Please confirm key details before planning your trip.
  • Published: July 2016