How far is “away from it all?” As we know, in multi-faceted France it doesn’t require a long journey to find a change of scene, culture and ambiance. Recently, we escaped to a remarkable nearby destination, and can recommend it highly.
A small train, called the Train des Pignes, connects Digne with Nice four times daily throughout the year, covering 151 km through the scenic Alpes de Haute Provence and the Alpes-Maritimes in 3 ½ hours, stopping along the way at about a dozen charming, historic mountain villages. The railroad was first used in 1891, and until recently was driven by a steam engine. It provides a unique, stress-free opportunity to discover remote mountain villages, such as Moriez, Annot (do pronounce the z and the t), Méailles and Entrevaux (do not pronounce the s and the x), combined perhaps with a visit to dazzling Nice.
For our escape, we chose the end of October, in the midst of a glorious Indian summer, to ride and hike through a mosaic of gold, coral, yellow, red and green.
After easy parking at the Gare SNCF in Digne, and a 45-minute train ride to Moriez, we got off with our backpacks and hiked to St-André-les-Alpes. Here, hikers can choose between an easy 1 ½-hour valley walk and a more rigorous 4 ½-hour vertical climb and descent over the mountains. Those of you who know Ko can figure out which route we took. Finding a lack of lodging in St-André, we hopped on the next train to Annot, where we found a comfortable room and good food at the Hotel de l’Avenue.
The next day, in Old Annot, we soaked up its medieval character and hiked a 4-hour loop up past an 11th century church, to dramatic cliffs for spectacular views, through thick chestnut forests and massive rock formations. Arriving at the train station at half past three, we rode to Entrevaux, with enough daylight to climb to the top of the towering citadel engineered by Vauban in 1685 to protect the French border. The town itself could serve as a model for a child’s castle kit, with ramparts, drawbridges, turrets and crenellated towers. The Hotel de Vauban, with a wonderful view of the entire panorama, is the town’s only lodging at the moment, so we were glad to have called ahead.
On our third day we took the train back north to the picturesque perched village of Méailles and hiked for seven hours through pastoral areas, rocky outcrops and forests gradually downhill, arriving in Annot just in time to catch the last train of the day to Digne. With more to look forward to during another season, in just three days we had gotten a good dose of adventure and inspiration.
Clearly, one can be quite spontaneous and shorten or prolong one’s trip along the train route according to whim and circumstances. The best months for hiking would be June (après-snow) through October (avant-winter hours). The villages, themselves, have year-round appeal, undoubtedly offering their finest floral displays spring through fall. It is, above all, the appeal and tradition of the slow-moving, little Train des Pignes that defines the experience and creates the feeling of a great escape. (www.trainprovence.com)