Le Pays Cathare – the Cathar region – refers to the southern half of the French regions of Languedoc and the Midi-Pyrenees. The ‘Cathars’ are, surprisingly, not actually a race of people. Catharism arose in medieval times as a sort of protest against the pomp and wealth of the Catholic Church. By the 11th Century, the whole of Europe boasted many a Cathar believer. One area, however, where the Cathar Church really thrived and the place nowadays most commonly associated with the word Cathar, is this region in the south of France.
So that’s the history dealt with! Now it’s time to get out your BUCKiTDREAM planner and get nothing, as we jump aboard for a ride on the wonderful little Train du, Pays Cathare et du Fenouillèdes.
Also Known As Le Train Rouge (Possibly Because it’s a Red Train…) This awesome tourist train takes you along a railway track which is over 100 years old. The track was originally built to help service the local quarries, around the beginning of the 20th century but problems arose and the line had to close. Now beautifully restored, the line is in perfect working order!
The Line Runs From Rivesaltes to Axat and Covers Around 60 Kilometer The train runs from April to mid-November, with some extra ‘Santa Special’ trips laid on in December. It doesn’t necessarily go every day of the week, so be sure to check out the timetable on their website.
There are Nine Stops From Rivesaltes to Axat And you can get on or off at any of the stops en route. Disabled and reduced mobility access is available at every station, with the exception of Rivesaltes where the platform is only accessed by a footbridge with steps. If you choose to do the whole trip (definitely recommended) then it’s a whole day. You depart Rivesaltes at 10.00 am and return at 5.30 pm. If, however, wine tasting is your thing (and it really should be, especially on this trip), then book one of the special Vineyard Tours which entails taking the train from Rivesaltes to St Paul’s only (July & August).
The Trains are Well-Equipped with Heating, Toilets, Drinks and Snacks Plus, you’ll have access to a decent shop and very friendly and helpful onboard guides (the real thing – not a recording). If your French isn’t tres bien, you can request an information booklet in your chosen language so that you can follow what’s being said.
So What’s So Special About this Little Train, We Hear You Cry? Well, several things really. Firstly, it’s red! Actually parts of it are red AND white. That’s OK though, it’s still mainly red. Then the size of it. It’s real cute and pulled by a powerful and proud diesel locomotive. Watch out for the loud toot before each tunnel! Oh, and another tip – don’t sit too close to the engine or you might get a lungful of diesel smoke every now and again.
Here’s the Really Special Bit Between the months of June and September, you change trains at St Paul’s (5 stops from Rivesaltes) and board an open-top train! How cool is that? Very cool actually, once it gets going, so be sure to have something to cover your arms; unless there’s a blazing hot sun, in which case you’ll need something to cover your head and some SPF-50 sunblock! There are still some covered carriages if you prefer, but who wouldn’t want to sit in the open air and enjoy the full experience of the spectacular scenery as you chug along the track?
What You Can Expect To See On Your Journey Vineyards (don’t forget to wave to the workers – they’ll always wave back!); deep forests of pine, oak and chestnut trees; gorges; old, historic Cathar castles – often perched high up atop a mountain; viaducts; ravines. Put simply – some really breath-taking scenery and sites. At Maury station – the one before St Paul’s – look out for the fabulous life-like murals on the station walls.
The Train Arrives At Its Destination – Axat – at 12.40 Before terminating in Axat however, it runs to St-Martin-Lys, which is actually the end of the line. You can get off here, but be sure to bring your own picnic for lunch as there are no restaurants close by. The nine-minute journey from Axat to St-Martin-Lys is pretty spectacular. It takes you through the Gorges de L’Aude, and then back again of course, to Axat. Axat itself spreads out like a basin, surrounded by wooded mountains, where the ruins of a castle dominate.
Once You Arrive in Axat, You Will Have Two and a Half Hours This is before the train departs again at 3.10 pm. Plenty of time to explore this delightful little town, which is bisected courtesy of the river Aude. There’s a lovely restaurant which is most popular with the visitors from the train – Café Le Central, Route Nationale. Get there early though, as it understandably fills up quickly! Alternatively, take your own lunch and find a spot by the river, or try the wonderful (fairly) fast food pop-up café on the other side of the road! There are other restaurants in Axat but they’re not usually open at lunchtime. If you fancy staying overnight and catching the train back the next day, the Hotel Axat in the center of town is a good place to stay. Once you head back to Axat station, be sure to allow a little time to peruse the shop with its many lovely little gifts for sale. There’s also an open-air swimming pool alongside the station if you have the time and the bathing suit!
The Important Bits Except for during the months of July and August, you must pre-book the train as it requires a minimum number of passengers in order to proceed. A return journey fare is in the region of €22 per adult; €14 per child and €60 per family of two adults and two children. Group bookings for special events are possible. If you have kids, be sure to check out the Halloween and Easter themed trips, as well as the Santa Specials mentioned above. Father Christmas himself makes an appearance and there are elf-related activities and a present for each child. For all other information, choo choo over to the website.
So now you know where to head now when you’re next in the south of France – if you’re a bit of a Francophile, then be sure to check out Everyone ‘Swipes Right’ for Nice, France and also a Pop a Cork on the Plains of Champagne. Bon Voyage!