Take the Vintage Steam Train Day Trip in the Southern Alps
Since I love trains and train travel, we took a day and rode the vintage steam train last summer. The Train de Pignes à Vapeur runs from Puget-Théniers in the Alpes Maritimes to the charming village of Annot in the Alpes de Haute Provence.
As a young American boy growing up in the 1960s and 70s, I watched many movies set in the American west of the late 1800s, almost all of which featured numerous trains and railway lines crisscrossing the wide open spaces of the expanding nation. For over a century, trains were the primary method of travelling long distances in the US. Sadly, that is no longer the case. Many, if not most, of the train lines were discontinued or abandoned when the interstate highway system was built in the 1950s.
Because we grew up in an era where trains were mostly a thing of the past, for many Americans like myself, there is something very nostalgic and adventurous about riding on a train, even mysterious and romantic. There’s nothing like looking out the window at the beautiful countryside passing you by and listening to the clickety-clack of the train wheels on the iron track.
Riding the Rails
Now that I live in France, I never pass up the opportunity to ride on a train, especially one that is a bit unusual or out of the ordinary. Unlike the U.S., France still has an extensive passenger rail network, and among the many active lines are a variety of heritage lines, steam trains and tourist trains. One of the most well-known surviving steam trains is on the remaining portion of the Chemin de Fer de Provence. This one-meter gauge track runs from Nice to Digne-Les-Bains (about 141 kilometres), but a small part of the route is dedicated to a steam train, known as the Train de Pignes à Vapeur, which runs from Puget-Théniers to Annot.
Puget-Théniers is a small mountain village which lies alongside the Var River to the northwest of Nice. It’s about an hour’s drive from where I live in Vence. On a recent summer day, my wife Carole and I drove through the mountains and joined some friends for a day-long adventure. For a few magical hours, riding through the French countryside with clear blue skies above us, we felt as if we had been transported back over a hundred years. With endless views of the nearby mountains, wide open plains that stretched between the touring peaks, and vast thickets of trees spread out against the hillsides, it was a one-of-a-kind experience.
Vintage Steam Trains
Today the Chemin de Fer de Provence is not a part of the official French state train line, the SNCF. Instead, it is a private company that employs around 135 workers. Groupe d’Etude pour les Chemins de fer de Provence (GECP), a small volunteer organization, operates the steam train portion from Puget-Théniers to Annot. Their mission is to preserve and restore as much of the historic equipment from the Chemin de fer de Provence as possible to its original condition. Their biggest obstacle is the lack of spare parts, so they sometimes have to make a replacement part themselves from scratch.
There are only two locomotives in service as part of the line. One locomotive dates from 1909, and the other from 1923. Both are classified as “Historic Monuments.” For our trip, we were aboard the E211, a locomotive that initially ran in Portugal for sixty-three years before being bought by the GECP. We rode in a Ferrovie Luganesi B31 Coach, a beautiful wood-panelled car over a hundred years old.
The train left the station following the Var River due west to the village of Entrevaux, where it made a short stop. Many of us took the opportunity to disembark from the train and take photos. It was interesting to watch the volunteer workers servicing the train and ensuring everything was working. I walked around the front of the locomotive and got pictures of the train from every angle imaginable.
After this short stop, the train continued to the even smaller town of Saint-Benoît for another brief visit before eventually arriving in Annot. The trip lasted just over an hour as we passed through a beautiful, scenic portion of the lower Alpes. We passed over numerous rivers and streams, hurtled through pitch-black tunnels, climbed several small hills and flew around various sharp turns.
If you’ve never ridden on a steam train before, it is quite an experience. The train puts out a huge amount of deep black smoke full of ash and small cinders that fall on all the cars behind the locomotive. If your window is open, which you want it to be, some ash is bound to fall on you. Going through the tunnels can be overwhelming as the ash has nowhere to go, so everyone will raise their windows and lower them again once the other side is reached.
Lunchtime in Annot
After arriving in Annot, we ate a wonderful lunch at a small restaurant and then spent about an hour exploring the village and taking photos. It’s a beautiful little mountain village full of very photographic houses, streets and squares. The return trip followed the same route back to Puget-Théniers but did not stop in Saint-Benoît.
Puget-Théniers is easy to reach from anywhere along the Côte d’Azur. It’s about a 90-minute drive from Nice and two hours from Cannes. A round trip ticket for adults is just over 20€ and a bit cheaper for children. A family fare is also available. However, purchase your tickets online before your desired date, as this train is often sold-out.
If you ever have the chance to ride this steam train through the Southern Alps, I can highly recommend it. There is a souvenir shop in one coach, where I bought the magnificent vintage poster hanging in my office. In addition, a snack cart passes through the train during the trip. Throughout the year, there are special themed trains: a dance train, a music train, a mushroom train, a Halloween train and even a Santa Clause train.
Photos (all by Steve Wilkison):
1. Heading down the line on the steam train.
2. The steam train at the Annot train station.
3. The steam train heading over a small bridge.
4. The two engineers on our trip.
5. A metal plaque on the side of the locomotive shows who built it.
6. An abandoned railway car in Puget-Théiers.
7. One of the engineers working on top of the stream train.
8. The steam train stopped in Entrevaux.