Le Petite Jaune (the little yellow) is a tourist train that I’d like to say huffs and puffs its way into the Pyrenees, except it’s electric, from a place called Villefranche de Conflent, itself a special place with fortifications started back in the 11th century and enlarged over the years. However, it was vulnerable so Fort Liberia was erected high (734 steps up) on the side of the steep canyon in 1679 to overlook the situation when Vauban was in charge. Just in case you were unaware, Sébastien Le Prestre, marquis de Vauban (1633-1707), was responsible for fortifications during the reign of King Louis XIV and was charged with reinforcing France’s defences. There are 130 strongholds, forts, guard houses, bastions and defensive structures bearing witness to Vauban’s productivity and dedication.
Villefranche reeks of authenticity and its narrow streets, once the province of tradesmen, today house craft and tourist shops with the odd restaurant.
We were there for the train ride though and the anticipation built during our half hour wait for the train that leaves at odd times about every hour. Once on board the three carriage affair we moved slowly out of Villefranche, deeper into the gorge cut by the river Tet, a rushing torrent that was never out of sight until near the end of our trip.
The catabatic wind whistled down the gap, bending branches here and there and introducing the chill from the snows on high. We photographers who braved the elements on the balcony outside may have gotten better photographs but had to pay a price.
All the way to Villefranche in the car and during the early stages of the train trip the supreme snow-capped peak of Le Canigou rose majestically skywards making it easy to understand why the locals hold it in such reverence. At every slight gap in the canyon walls, there it stood, clouds gathering as if to pay it homage while the spring thaw drained its mantle of snow to expose its lower slopes.
After well over an hour we reached the ski resort of St. Louis where the man behind the desk at our timeshare had advised us to alight. There’s nothing to eat there, no coffee, no alcohol, despite a steady stream of tourists. The train goes on further but he had said it was just “more of the same”.
The wind didn’t do us any favours except make the air clear during our 45 minute stay there; just enough time for a short walk and then back to the station where we attacked the snack and drink dispenser with gusto.
On the return journey two of us were nodding off, a reflection on the fact that we exhaust ourselves every day, wanting to extract every last morsel from the plate of our holiday, never getting back to the accommodation before 10.00 p.m. and often after 11.
We savoured Villefranche and the lovely quirky shops, 12th century bridge and ramparts before leaving for lunch by the sea, the first time we’d seen the Mediterranean this trip. The plethora of medium rise apartment blocks, the coarse sand and the lack of surf meant it was awaiting the summer holiday season when you would be lucky to find a plot of sand to put your towel on.
We dined at a restaurant that night at Canet Plage that was run by a guy from the tiny Caribbean island of St. Martins. He and his wife had split and she’d moved back to Perpignan but his son kept ringing him so he came to France and bought the cafe.
Another day had passed.