First stage of our 750km round trip on the regional rail network of Provence:
Our week on the regional rail network of Provence started from the mainline terminus station of Marseille St. Charles. We had arrived here a few days previously after a journey of just four and a half hours from on a TGV from Lille.
Our first day’s ride was of a similar duration but took us to the clear air of Briançon in the Provence Alps on the border with Italy. Our TER (Train Express Régional, and mostly said as letters T E R, like T G V) pulled out and quickly left the big line. By the time it had left the suburbs of Marseille, the line was single track and passing large quarries and mineral treatments works before arriving at Aix-en-Provence.
Onwards up the valley of the river Durance, the grand river of Provence, its river bed is nearly a kilometre wide this far downstream, although the tendency to flood is nowadays controlled by numerous dams further upstream. The river is accompanied on its journey by the Canal de Provence, which first supplied fresh water to Marseille in 1869, terminating at the glorious Palais Longchamps in the fourth arrondissement.
The TER picks up speed in the valley, passing untidy farms littered with every tractor they have ever owned and fields overlooked by the ever-increasing nuclear power installation at Caderache.
We took a lunch break from the train at Sisteron, exploring the narrow streets of the medieval town and climbing up to the citadel. Napoleon’s welcome here in March 1815 was one of the turning points of his journey back to Paris. I chatted with a British biker following the Route Napoleon down to Cannes.
Upstream from Sisteron, we watched the evolving landscape and started to see snowy-capped mountains from windows of the TER, a reminder of the advantages of travel on the old style railways. The line follows the river follows upstream the river Buëch to avoid some awkward topography in the Durance valley. The name of the river comes from the Occitan, Buech.
Arrival in Briançon on time and just a walk with our bags up from the station to our hotel in the old town, safely surrounded by numerous fortifications designed by the French general Vauban in the wars which preceded the treaty of Utrecht of 1713.
We hired a little white car the next day, I needed to hitch-hike back to Briançon last year (for the first time since my twenties) when public transport let me down.
First trip was to the col du Montgenèvre (1854 m.); Julius Caesar passed here on his invasion which conquered Gaul, Briançon (Latin name Brigantio) and the route of Montgenèvre was part of the Via Domitia between Turin and Perpignon, via Arles, which we visited later in this trip.
No border controls at all on the col du Montgenèvre and we enjoyed coffee in a bar in Italy before returning to France for a drive up the delightful Vallée de la Clarée. It’s a quirk of geographic naming conventions that the river Durance is one of the smallest of the five rivers and valleys which meet at Briançon.
The river Clarée runs down springs on the sides of Mont Thabor (3178 m.), which I summitted last august: Mt. Thabor summit. We enjoyed our picnic lunch at the Col de l’Échelle (1762 m.), after walking on from where the road was blocked by still-unmelted snow.
Back next to the river, we drove on up the valley past the village Névache to the upper valley of the Clarée. Leaving the car at the limit of road passable without chains, we walked on to enjoy the end of winter with the marmots and birds foraging and warming themselves in the sunshine among the pale colours of wild crocuses and snowdrops.
Still only April, the valley cooled fast as the sun dropped behind the mountains. Back down to Briançon to enjoy dinner, again a wine from Talloire a little lower down the Durance valley.