From the Alps to the lavender fields of Provence on a French train

More than 21,000 miles of railways crisscross the astonishingly varied French countryside from the blue waters of the Mediterranean to the beaches of Normandy and the steel mills of the Lorraine.

It is the largest railway network in Europe. But since World War II, the Societe Nationale des Chemins de Fer Francais (SNCF) has been closing down its unprofitable secondary lines and modernizing its primary links with more comfortable, highspeed trains.

Although this has given France one of the most efficient rail systems in the world, such streamlining has also eliminated some of the country's more beautiful traditional runs. But fortunately, a handful have survived.

One of these trips is the staggeringly scenic Grenoble-Veynes-Marseille run, which passes through the mountainous lower regions of the Alps and gradually descends to the tender vineyards and lavender fields of Provence. It is also an exceptional example of technical achievement. In the first 70-odd miles, the Alpine track traverses no fewer than 12 high-vaulted viaducts and six tunnels.

I boarded the train, a yellow diesel "Micheline" autorail, at Grenoble shortly before 6 a.m. Apart from a few old men going fishing, I was the only passenger. The train stopped every few miles. But it was pleasant watching dawn break over the mountains and listening to the birds sing.

As time passed, more people boarded. Lo cal farmers, villagers, and a traveling salesman. At one stop, a bevy of shouting school-children on holiday from the north assaulted the compartments and noisily departed for a hiking picnic at the next station.

At Veynes, I disembarked and later caught an ancient gray train to Aix-en-Provence. The compartments were crowded with townsfolk and tourist heading south for the holidays. The Train, unhurried, rumbled through valleys and along riverbanks, and slowly entered the sunshine of Provence.

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