Le Petit Train Jaune by Elizabeth Moore
The Little Yellow Train runs from Villefranche de Conflent to Latour de Carol in Southern France. A metre gauge electric railway, its route traverses part of the French Pyrenees and includes France’s highest railway station Bolquère Eyne.
Laden with luggage which had burgeoned in weight after two weeks in France, my sister and I arrived on the platform and watched as our suitcases were loaded into a small compartment at the rear of the train. All our fellow passengers were day trippers, but we planned to ride to end of the line and catch a connecting train to Barcelona.
It was a beautiful day and the scenery was everything the brochures promised. We climbed through forests and past rushing streams. Ancient viaducts stretched beneath massive strands of electric wires; rocky bluffs gave way to tiny pocket farms. There were even glimpses of a long abandoned spa, covered in vines.
We stopped at Olette and two young backpackers joined our little carriage. Not long after the train picked up speed again, it began to protest. Strange grunting, grating mechanical noises forced the driver to pull to a stop. We waited while staff scampered around the locomotive, shouting to each other up and down the line.
They seemed to agree we could proceed, but it was a small reprieve as the train stuttered to another halt. This time there was prolonged discussion. Finally the staff made an announcement in a volley of French. Our backpackers spoke English and informed us that the train was going no further. It was returning to Villefranche - but - it would be backing all the way down the track!
We were assured by a rather handsome conductor that this hardly ever happened - his Little Yellow Train rarely broke down. This was no comfort as we had a booked connection to make. We did indeed back down all the way to our starting point, wondering what options we had.
We stood on the platform and staff discussed the possibility of a taxi back to Latour de Carol for the Barcelona connection. That was dismissed as the time frame was too narrow. “There is nothing for it mesdames, you will need to return to Perpignan and catch the Barcelona train.” Both of us were apprehensive. We had heavy luggage and hated hauling it around train stations at the best of times. Now we were faced with navigating Perpignan station and sorting tickets to another country – and apart from our immediate concerns - I hadn’t ticked the Yellow Train journey off my bucket list.
And then she appeared. “I will take them and make sure they catch their train. Just endorse their tickets so they are valid for the trip.” She hustled us off the platform and onto the train to Perpignan. Who on earth was this wonderful person who seemed to have control of everything including the local railway staff?
Her name was Colette. She lived in Spain but worked rotating shifts in Latour de Carol. She was one of several housekeepers who ran the guesthouse where rail staff stopped overnight, before their return trip to Villefranche. If the train wasn’t running today, then she was heading home. She lived across the Spanish border in Girona and would travel with us until her stop.
Her English was excellent as she had lived in the United States for several years. We arrived in Perpignan and she informed us she had some shopping to do and would meet us when she was finished. Where? “Just wait here.”
We stashed our luggage and bought some lunch. I really don’t remember what it was. My fertile imagination was in overdrive. What if she didn’t return? What if she had headed off to collect some nefarious associates hell bent on doing us harm? It was the height of summer, the air conditioning was struggling and I was feeling unsettled. A perfectly good day had been squandered and we now were waiting for a train to Barcelona in the same station we had left just five hours before. France’s highest railway station felt light years away.
Colette returned loaded with her groceries and made sure we were on the correct platform with all our baggage. We were shepherded onto the train, luggage was stored and seats claimed. Colette sat near us - texting home and watching her newly acquired charges. I reflected on what had been such a wasted day. To be fair, we were now headed towards the Spanish border and I began to focus on what lay ahead. Barcelona. My sister kept humming the Freddy Mercury song and my spirits rose a little.
My first real sense of Spain was a glimpse of the Mediterranean, interlaced with fields of sunflowers and tiny rural meadows. It was beautiful and in a heartbeat – so different to France. When Colette left us there were hugs and many thankyous and on we sped.
Barcelona has a tendency to assault the senses. The citrusy smell of taxi gas lingered as the architecture and gracious wide thoroughfares revealed a beautiful city. We were staying in the older Gracia district and our hostess suggested we visit the square just north of us for a meal.
Entering a narrow alley, my sister and I headed off, exhaustion alternating with hunger - a glass of wine our first priority. We didn’t know it was the eve of St Joan as we settled into our chairs. The square was buzzing - children were exploding fireworks inside traffic cones, dogs barked, bicycles were skidded and footballs kicked. Families shared gossip while drinking wine and watching their children. A chimney sweep actually pedalled past us to the delighted squeals of the local youngsters. This neighbourhood was a vital, bustling microcosm, but its effect was calming. It was twilight. I sipped my drink and finally exhaled. Despite our fraught day, Spain had unwittingly welcomed us in the friendliest possible way.