Le Train Rouge — The Red Train — is one of two touristic train routes in the Catalan Pyrénées.
Starting in 1878, one of the oldest private rail companies in France, La Compagnie des chemins de fer du Midi et du Canal latéral à la Garonne, began its project to connect Carcassonne to Perpignan through the eastern Pyrénées. By 1904, the company had completed the rail route on which Le Train Rouge rolls today. In the last half of the 20th century, thanks to evolution of rail technology and the rise of trucking, this route fell into disuse. In 1992, a trio of individual rail enthusiasts formed a non-profit association whose objective was to resurrect train service along the route; their vision was a rebirth as a tourist activity, and celebration of the route and region. By 2001, they had succeeded raising the needed funds, gathering volunteers, acquiring train engines and cars. Today, the train engineers are employees of the association — called TPCF, or Train du Pays Cathare et du Fenouillèdes (Fenouillèdes is the name of this region in Catalan); the other “workers” are volunteers.
A conventional closed train took us on the first part of the journey, along the flat valley of the River Agly (Catalan for “Eagle”). The route out of Rivesaltes (part of greater Perpignan) passes a number of quarries and rock-processing complexes. The guide told us that these train cars are Caravelle models, from the 1960s. (Popular name: there were planes and Renault cars of the same name back then.)
Being in the Languedoc, we quickly found ourselves alongside great expanses of vineyards. This region of Maury and Banyuls is known for its naturally sweet wines; they aren’t fortified with sugars like port and sherry. A young host provided commentary throughout most of the train trip. He went into great detail about the various grapes, how they are cultivated and harvested, which wines the vintners produce, and even suggested food pairings with the most typical wines. The love of food and wine runs (if you haven’t heard already) really deep around here.
This is the region of what people a bit erroneously call the “Cathar Castles.” (Lots more about the Cathars in this post.) The guide quickly clarified that these stone forts atop steep promontories served mostly as warning outposts on the French border with Aragon (which is today part of Spain). For a brief time, during the pogrom against the Cathars in the 13th century, some of the faithful sought refuge in these forts high in the Pyrénées. Unfortunately, all of them either converted to Catholicism or, refusing, were executed.
To the right, along the rocky ridge, we spotted the ruins of Quéribus. If you look closely in this video, you’ll see its silhouette on the leftmost peak.
Quéribus is mentioned for the first time in 1020 in the will of Bernard Taillefer, count of Besalù. This county joined the House of Barcelona in 1111. Later, in 1162, Alfonso, Count of Barcelona became King of Aragon. The fortress was thus integrated into the northern line of defense of the kingdom of Aragon, formed by Fenolhedés and Peyrepertusés. During the Crusade against the Albigensians, it was, like Puilaurens, a last refuge for Faid lords and heretics. The commander of the place, Chabert de Barbaira resisted the king and the Church until the siege of 1255. Chabert was taken prisoner by Olivier de Termes, and ceded Quéribus to the king of France in exchange for his freedom. Until the Treaty of the Pyrenees of 1659 [which moved the border between Aragon and France further south], the royal military engineers upgraded the stone walls with widened crenelations for crossbows, then for firearms. (source)
At St Paul de Fenouillet, midway along the route, we changed to an open-deck train. Sitting outside, atop this open platform, rolling through the mountain countryside: magnifique!
To the left, another “Cathar Castle,” le Chateau de Puillarens rose above a village, flanked by distant peaks.
In the 10th century, the Saint-Michel-de-Cuxa abbey received the Boulzane valley as a donation. The abbey founded the Saint-Laurent church there, associated with a fortified structure. The abbey kept control of this castrum of “Puèg Laurenç”, Puilaurens in French, until the time of the Crusade against the Albigenses. During this period, the castle welcomed heretic lords banished by the Church. The village, then clinging to the side of the mountain near the castle, also played its role; it was, with Quéribus, a last refuge. Saint Louis took possession of Puilaurens in 1255 at the same time as Quéribus. This well-armed castle remained a rear base, a simple point of support, far from the fighting that raged from the middle of the 14th century between France and Aragon. Puilaurens was taken only once, in 1637. Returning to the French fold, the fortress continued to be improved and its garrison well maintained until the French revolution. (source)
Strong winds regularly bluster through this valley. The fact that we are downslope from the Pyrénées and at the western end of great weather systems that push from the Atlantic makes this area among the windiest in Europe. We passed a quiet column of wind turbines. The guide commented that this day was one of the very rare ones when the winds were calm. None of the windmills were turning today.
Now we were in the region of viaducts, tunnels and forests. Above the keystone of each tunnel, a plaque commemorated the year of its construction.
Our guide on this part of the journey was a gangly young man, full of fast-talking commentary — almost all of which we couldn’t understand. But he was enthusiastic! In the tunnels, he repeatedly encouraged everyone to sing as loud as possible. Quite a few people took him up on it. The average age of the passengers fell from about 65 to about 17.
At one point, we passed a rail-side marker with a blue number on a white field. It was unlike all the other signs along the route. The guide morphed into gameshow host. “What do you think this number means?” He went person to person to hear their guesses. Most of us guessed altitude. “No,” he said, “this is the distance to Bordeaux!” By 1904, the ambition to connect Perpignan on the Mediterranean, through the mountains, via Carcassonne, to Bordeaux near the Atlantic was fulfilled; this was still the time of steam engines. Unfortunately, a short segment between Axat (today’s terminus) and Quillon (up the Aude River valley from Carcassonne) was closed in 1956. But the nostalgic distance marker remains.
The entry into Axat and its valley crosses an impressive viaduct.
Back in August, we drove up to Axat for a lunch at the Restaurant Aux Quatre Saisons (blog post). Since at that time we had enjoyed talking with the chef and his wife, and their food, we booked lunch for our two-hour stop-over before the train headed back down the valley. As our little train crossed the viaduct, we looked down and spotted the restaurant. Out dashed the chef in his toque and whites and all the staff; they waved at this latest customer delivery.
The journey back through the valley and among the vineyards was just as pleasant as the journey in. It was quieter, however; the guides had used up all their tourist ammunition during the first half. That was just fine; we were well fed and content with the beautiful fall day.