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Riding and Walking the Cévennes Railway - The Cévenol

The Cévennes railway or ‘Le Cévenol’ links the cities of Nîmes (Gard) and Clermont Ferrand (Puy de Dôme) and has been in existence since 1870. It took six years to build and cost a staggering 520 million francs. Whether you are an avid train buff or simply a hiker in search of interesting and authentic experiences, this train journey is guaranteed to set your mind racing and heart pumping. 

Work commenced on the line in 1864 and it opened in 1870 for both goods and passengers. This was a remarkable feat based on the technological know-how of the time and involved the blood and sweat of over six thousand men. When first opened, the voyage from Clermont-Ferrand to Nîmes took ten-and-a-quarter hours by express train and twelve hours by regular service. The current service takes around 5 hours.

The Cévenol was constructed primarily for the transportation to Paris of wine from Languedoc, France’s largest wine-producing region. However, coal and metals from the mining area of Alès were also transported in abundance on the line. The cost of production of Alesian coal was high due to the difficulty of extracting the coal from the steep hillside seams as well as its traditional transportation by horse and cart. The invention of railroads saved the day in the short-to-medium-term. However, the coal was low grade and could not compete with more distant coalfields, particularly when power stations turned nuclear.

Ironically the coming of the railway, elsewhere hailed as the harbinger of prosperity, actually led to industrial decline as cheaper goods flooded in from larger factories in the North. The independent character of the people favoured small businesses, which were often located inconveniently far from the railway lines. The railway was also responsible for the gradual and progressive abandonment of cereal growing and the pre-eminence accorded to the vine, thus making the region over-dependant on wine growing and vulnerable to economic cycles.

It is important to differentiate The Cévenol, an authentic and working railway line, from that of the Cévennes tourist train. The latter, the ‘train à vapeur,’  links nearby Alès to St Jean du Gard and is known locally as the ‘train touristique.’ There is nothing ‘touristy,’ as such, about the Le Cévenol, which forms part of a longer cross country/non-TGV route linking Marseille to Paris, a distance of 863 kilometres.

The Clermont-Ferrand - Nîmes section covered by Le Cévenol is a distance of a 303 kilomètres or around 200 miles. The first part of the north-south line is dual directional, from Clermont to Arvant, after which it becomes a single line until arrival in Alès. The final stretch to Nîmes is two-way. For its entire length, locomotion is ensured by diesel engine.

 
Whilst this is a working line, with daily trains running from Marseille to Paris, the Cévenol line boasts 106 tunnels and numerous viaducs, some of which are particularly spectacular. The highest point of the journey is that of La Bastide Puylaurent, an altitude of 1018 metres, confirming the line’s credentials as a bone-fide mountain line.

The journey is a real treasure-chest of spectacular scenery complemented by  rare industrial architecture. Southwards from Saint-Georges d'Aurac, located around an hour’s drive from Le Puy-en-Velay, the line follows the bottom of a gorge and some magnificent countryside.
After La Bastide-Puylaurent, a confluence of historical communication routes which includes the Robert Louis Stevenson Trail and the Regordane/St Gilles Way, the railway crosses the watershed separating the waters of The Atlantic and those of The Mediterranean. The railway line then descends spectacularly through the eastern flank of the Upper Cévennes Valleys, and over several important viaducts that are real works of industrial art. These viaducts are built on either a slope or a curve. The most notable examples are at Chapeauroux, Villefort and Chamborigaud.
At Villefort, the viaduct crosses the River Altier at a height of 72 metres. Lying at 629 metres above sea level, it is the highest stone viaduct in France and is 257 metres long. The Chamborigaud viaduct is even longer, at 409 metres. Needless to say, cameras are de rigeur. 

From La Bastide to Sainte Cécile d'Andorge, passengers go through 42 tunnels, the longest of which, la Bégude, is 1728 metres in length. After entering the Alèsian Basin, the train follows the course of the River Gardon from Alès through the Garrigues to Nîmes.

If you like to get away from the car when on holiday, and enjoy train rides as well as hiking, then the chance to combine the two by ‘Walking and Riding the  Cévenol’ train offers you an unforgettable vacation opportunity. We have chosen the nicest circular walks for you to do at intervals along the line, most of which are tailorable to different levels of difficulty and experience.

For details on the walking tour, please visit The Enlightened Traveller

© The Enlightened Traveller 2007

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