Latest version:  12-11-04

The Little Train of Provence


Those were the times when the Var region still smelled like Provence should:  the thyme and, especially, the “frigoulette”, a local wild species of thyme – gently caressed by the Mistral winds.


There were no tourists during those years, around 1852, among whatever then there was – along the fringes of the Mediterranean, along the Moorish Coast – all an untouched and almost empty paradise.


But then, in 1852, some businessmen took an interest in that part of the coast between Hyères and St. Raphael.  They visualized a small railroad with tracks only one meter wide that would allow for the subdivision and settlement of this terrain – and for the development of some business activities.


Thus, in 1889, the “Little Train of Provence” was born.


Some lovely little steam engine locomotives pulled two or three passenger cars with open platforms, as they used to be seen in the American “Far West”.  The locomotives got out of breath on the ascent at Croix Valmer and swayed through the numerous curves and counter-curves between Cavalière and Borme-les-Mimosas.  The little convoys went their happy way – along the coast of the Mediterranean, disappearing in the tunnels only to appear again further along in a cloud of smoke.


The seasons followed each other:  the fragrant springs, the burning-hot summers, the sweet falls, and the clawing of the Mistral in winter.  The inhabitants of the coast got used to the puffing and blowing of the train and to the passengers, all of it giving a rhythm to their everyday life.  On Sundays, the train was invaded by happy crowds, anxious to go for a ride and enjoy their leisure time.


From time to time, there were some incidents in transit.  One day, during the grape harvest, the train was stopped near La Foux (Gulf of St. Tropez) by donkeys loaded with baskets of raisins.  They refused stubbornly to get off the tracks!  Maybe they were already drunk?


In 1908, Father Escarel, returning in his buggy from harvesting green beans, was just going to cross the unguarded level crossing at Carqueiranne; since the Father had not noticed the Hyères-Toulon train arriving, his rig was hit.  Only the buggy was damaged; but the beans were spilled!


Before dawn, one day in December of 1923, in the station of St. Tropez, the locomotive that was scheduled to handle the first morning train was already under steam.  But it was at this moment that an inexperienced night operator did a wrong maneuver.  The locomotive started moving and soon found itself with its “nose under water”.  In the early morning, the Tropezian fishermen discovered with amazement a locomotive taking a bath among their boats. 


One evening in the spring of 1935, upon returning to the depot at Fréjus, locomotive number 230 T called the “Pinguely” noticed on the track of the garage a strange vehicle, gleaming blue and grey, with large glass bay windows.  This did not resemble in any way the passenger cars she was used to pulling.  Returned to the turntable parking area for locomotives, she waited until all the employees had left for the day to question her sisters.  Those other locomotives declared her that it was a motor coach, using a diesel engine (named after the German inventor), and not a steam engine. 


Now, they said, these will replace all of us for the transportation of travelers and we will be doomed.  We will not be able to promenade through the fragrances of the “Côte d’Azur” any longer.  Overcome by sadness, they all began to cry.  The next morning, the railroad men found large puddles of water on the ground and were astonished because it had not rained during the night!


“Ping-Pong” (the notes of do-mi in music):  At 7:45 that morning the first motor coach began to pull out, letting a light bluish smoke rise above its roof while its 200-horsepower engines purred.  One could see it swiftly disappear past the curve at Fréjus-Beach.  This one really went at the “speed of a train” with its 50 miles per hour.  It was really young, full of liveliness and anxious to discover this region that it did not know yet, having been born north of Paris, at Creil (Oise).


Some years later, a strange event took place.  The locomotives saw many men arriving who they did not know and who spoke an unknown language.  They were surprised to find out that those men always faced the sea, observing it even with binoculars.


Now, to their great satisfaction, they were put into service again.  The motor coaches did not have any alimentation any longer and had been left silently in the depot.  The steam locomotives savored their comeback.


Time passed.  Then other men arrived, speaking another language.  There were great noises and some explosions.  It was August of 1944.  


After some weeks, all returned to calmness, but the scenery had changed and the tracks were destroyed, as was the depot, the bridges, and the stations.  However, all was quickly put in order again - more or less.  But the steam locomotives were definitely confined to the garages, and it was once more the motor coaches who assumed the service as best they could.


And then, one day in May of 1948, all came to a stop.  The higher authorities had decided that one had to be “modern” and to replace this antiquated “scrap” by some really fast and comfortable motor coaches.  All went rather quickly after that.  The locomotives and the cars were scrapped and the old motor coaches were sold in Spain. 


Some decades later ….. in August 1994, two septuagenarian gentlemen were sitting behind their Pastis drink on the terrace of Sénéquier.  They had known each other by @internet@, being both fervent railroad addicts. 


“Do you remember the little train that one also called the Train-of-the-Pines?”, said one of the two.


“Yes, of course, but by now it does not exist any longer since you broke it a long time ago – in 1944”, answered Gerhard (from Berlin) to George (from Washington).


In no time at all, the two men in T-shirts and Bermudas changed into fatigues ……


“Well”, said the American, ”if you want to see your Train-of-the-Pines again, I will now lead you to where you can see it.”


Mit Vergnügen”, answered the German, ”but where and when?”


“Ah, that’s the mystery”, answered George. 


The two friends had emptied their glasses.  They got up and quickly disappeared in the crowd.


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            25 Août 2004

            Pierre  Decey