A network of 1-meter railways [map] was built in the South of France at the end of the 19th century, run by the Chemins de Fer du Sud de la France (S.F.), later to become the Compagnie des chemins de fer de la Provence (C.P.).
600 km of rail lines were built in three areas:
- La Littoral. A coastal section ran from Toulon, via Hyeres and Ste Maxime to Fréjus and St Raphaël.
- Nice-Meyrargues. A central section ran across the departments of the Var and the Alpes Maritimes, from Meyragues, via Draguignan and Grasse, to Colomars at the Var river, where it connected with the Nice-Digne section. This line ran from the end of the 19th century until it was closed in 1950.
- Nice-Digne This section ran from Nice, up the Var river valley to Dignes-les-Bains, and the line is still in service today (see Train des Pignes), the last 1-meter gauge railway in the South of France.
- Tramways of the Alpes-Maritimes. A network of tramways provided rail service to many parts of otherwise-remote areas of the Alpes-Maritimes.
The railway line that intrests us here is the Meyrargues-Colomars section that ran through the hills, roughly east-west, across the Var and passing through Grasse and Vence. Many of the area roads today follow the old railway line. These roads are always level and follow gentle curves. When passing through hilly areas, the sides are often faced with inclined stone walls of a design particular to the railways. The roads sometimes use the old railway tunnels, and there are often small road or foot bridges arched over the top, with iron railings.
Meyrargues - Draguignan
The western end of this line was at Meyrargues [map], north of Aix-en-Provence in the Bouches-de-Rhône. This railway crossed the Var via a number of small villages, including Rians, Varages, Barjols, Aups/Sillans-la-Cascade, Salernes/Villecroze, Lorgues, and Draguignan.
In Sillans-la-Cascade, old railway station is now used as a school.
Draguignan - Grasse
In Callas, in the upper part of the village, you can see the ancient railway cutting and a tunnel passing beneath the village.
Following the Draguignan road southwest of Grasse [map], past Peymeinade, the tall stone pillars of the broken railway viaduct rise above the forest of trees, in valley towards Lac St Cassien. To see them closer, there's a nice hike that loops through the woods past the base of the pillars.
Signs of the old railway line exist in the roads passing directly through Grasse. Where the Route de Draguignan arrives at a round-about beside the sports stadium at St Jacques, a narow road (Ave Frédéric Mistral) follows the railway line east to join the Grasse-Cannes road a fountain-round-about. At that point, the west-bound road passes (one-way) through the old railway tunnel before arriving at the round-about. East-bound, the road follows the old railway line all the way to Magagnosc and Chateauneuf-Grasse, passing through one tunnel along the way.
Grasse - Vence
Further east of Grasse, past Chateauneuf-Grasse, the ancient railway line passed through Bar-sur-Loup, Pont-du-Loup, Tourrettes-sur-Loup and Vence. From Chateauneuf to Pont-du-Loup, the road passes beside several sets of broken viaducts, including on half-vaiduct at the village of Bar-sur-Loup and the tall pillars of the once-curved viaduct at Pont-du-Loup.
From Pont-du-Loup to Tourrettes-sur-Loup, the old railway follows the level along the side of the valley while the automobile road takes a higher route, twisting an turning along the way. At Tourrettes-sur-Loup you can see the rail line just below (south of) the village, where a small road follows the old railway line across bridges and past cuttings through the rocky terrain.
Arriving close to Vence, the road joins the old railway line to cross a long railway bridge and continue into the town along the ancient right-of-way.
Vence - Colomars
Exiting Vence to the east, the road from the town center crosses on the high, narrow railway bridge. From there, the road again takes a higher, twistier route than the old railway, to a junction of St Jeannet/La Gaude and Gattières. Along the way, though, you can see occassional viaduct remains and tunnels off to the side of the road.
From Gattières, the railway a rather steep descent down to the level of the Var river, crossing at the locatioin of the Pont de la Manda to the gare at Colomars. Voyagers at that time could then join the Nice - Digne route of the still-running Train de Pignes.
The "Train des Pignes" is a name that was used locally for the old train on the Meyrargues-Nice and the Nice-Digne lines. We have the story of the origin of the name, from our neighbor, who was there.
Elderly women collected pine cones (pommes de pignes) in the hills, usually the large cones from a pine called the pigne noir. They would collect the pine cones in large bags and leave the bags beside the railway tracks. The train moved through the hills very slowly — so slowly that passengers could get on and off the train while it was moving at it's "normal" speed. It was a common sight for these bags of pine cones to be put onto the train as it passed, to be transported to the remote houses and farms for fuel.
We've heard and read variants on this story, but they all have a common thread. All the stories say the train ran so slowly through the hills that passengers stepped off to collect pine cones while it was moving; certainly the collection of pin cones (pignes) was common along much of these routes. One story that we've heard a few times is that the pignes were sometimes used to fuel the locomotive — unlikely considering the speed at which they would be consumed.
Destruction of the Railway
We've been told many times over the years that the beautiful stone bridges and viaducts of the railway through the hills were destroyed near the end of World War II, at the time of the Allied invasion of the Mediterranean coast and the departure of the German soldiers. And with each telling, it was usually mentioned that "it wasn't the Germans who blew up the bridges".
It has never been clear to us what motive there might have been to instigate the destruction of these wonderful structures, but we now have a nearly-first-hand explanation why it happened.
In the times up to the mid 1940s there were very few automobile roads through the hills. Apart from donkeys and mules, the railway was the main means of travel and transport, and the properties in the hills of the "arriere-pays" were isolated and difficult to access.
With the bridges and viaducts destroyed, there was no train, and roads had to be built for access to the area. And with roads and (relatively) easy access, the value of the property in the hills increased dramatically.
A number of "side-line" (point-to-point) railway lines linked the "main" lines with nearby area, mostly in the Alpes-Maritimes.
Grasse - Cannes
This rail line was opened in 1871 and ran until 1938 when it was closed to passenger service, although the southern part of the line remained open for limited freight operations. The Cannes-Grasse line was modernized and re-opened in 2005 (Grasse-Cannes Railway). This train can now be taken, without changing, between Grasse and Vintimille (Italy), via Cannes, Antibes, Nice, Monaco and Menton.
Grasse - Cagnes-sur-Mer
This line branched off of the Grasse-Vence route at Pré-de-Lac (by Magagnosc/Chateauneuf), and followed the valleys down past Roquefort-les-Pins and Villeneuve-Loubet to Cagnes-sur-Mer.
Vence - Cagnes-sur-Mer
This old line between Vence and the coast went past Saint Paul-de-Vence and La Colle-sur-Loup. Some of the old viaducts and tunnel openings are still visible here, from along the road.
From the Var river, at the Pont Charles-Albert (between St Martin-du-Var and Plan-de-Var), this spur line followed the Esteron valley west to Roquestéron [map], passing just south of Gilette and Pierrefeu.
A side branch of the Nice-Digne Train-de-Pignes went up the Tinée valley [map], from a narrow gorge at the Pont de la Mescala to St Sauveur-sur-Tinée. This line provided access to the perched villages overlooking the valley: La Tour, Bariols, Clans, Illonse, Marie and Rimplas.
Another side branch of the Nice-Digne Train-de-Pignes went up the Dalius valley and past the Gorges de Dalius [map]. This line branched north from the main line at the Pont de Gueydan and went to the small town of Guillaumes.
La Siecle du Train des Pignes (José Banaudo).
La France Ferroviaire en Cartes Postales - Provence-Alpes-Côte d'Azur - Corse (Maryse Angelier).
Various local sources.