One of the more unusual ways to tour Provence is by Vélorail, a sort of giant bicycle that runs along a railway track. Today around 50 Vélorails cross the country and there is one in Provence
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The Vélorail might not quite live up to your childhood fantasy of being a train driver. But it's a lovely means of taking in some superb scenery from a novel perspective and clocking up some exercise in the process.
Compared to Britain, France still has many miles of disused but intact railway lines which are maintained in case they are needed for military or commercial purposes.
Devised as a way of exploiting this network, the Vélorail is a relatively recent phenomenon: the Association de Vélorails de France was set up in 2004.
How the Vélorail Works
Though designs vary slightly from line to line, the Vélorail essentially consists of a platform mounted on four wheels. On each side is a saddle and pedals for the two "drivers" and in the middle is a seat for the passengers. The clicking of the wheels on the tracks sounds just like a "real" train.
Cycling can be hot work in the midsummer provençal sun: come armed with refreshments - at the very least, plenty of cold drinks. Conversely it can get chilly for passengers when passing through tunnels or cycling in the shoulder season, so bring sweaters too.
Your survival kit should also include sun-block, sunglasses, and protective clothing and trainers or shoes that won't slip off en route and get left behind on the track.
Avoid loose trousers or other garments that could get caught on tree branches or in the vehicle's spokes and chains.
Many Vélorails run on a single track. which means that they all leave at fixed intervals in a convoy in the same direction and have to wait for the last one to arrive before they turn around for the return trip.
You will probably be expected to lift the Vélorail to do this yourself. It's quite heavy and some routes have an upward gradient, so a basic level of fitness is required of the "pedallers" (the speed can be controlled on the downward inclines with the help of the brake).
Bear in mind that, if five adults are in the vehicle, the two pedallers will have quite a weight to transport. For this reason, the Vélorail is particularly suitable for families with children. Kids can drive too, though of course they will have to be tall enough to reach the pedals.
Some routes operate the convention that, if you get stuck behind a slow Vélorail, all the passengers swap vehicles so that the faster pedallers can zip ahead.
The Vélorail de la sainte baume
The Vélorail de la Sainte Baume runs along a (different) segment of the line covered by the Tourist Train of Central Var and offers a 15 km / 9.5 mile round trip between Pourcieux and Saint Maximin which should take a maximum of two hours.
The Sainte Baume Vélorail (pictured above and top left) is open all year round, though the line may be closed on specific days when military or freight trains are using it.
Snaking along the majestic Sainte Baume mountain range and through vineyards and sleepy disused stations, the journey features two dramatic viaducts and a long tunnel. There is a 1.5% upward slope for 20 minutes on the way out and for 35 minutes on the return trip.
A picnic area is set up near the departure point at Pourcieux, but there's no snack bar (or toilets), although there is a bakery and a snack bar in the town itself. The vehicles seat five people (adults or children). Credit cards are not accepted.
Departures leave every two hours throughout the day in summer, less frequently in winter (the Vélorail runs throughout the year). 20 vehicles are available on this route, and you should telephone ahead to reserve one. Tel: (+33) 6 33 81 50 87. Website for the Sainte Baume Vélorail
There is a second Vélorail in Provence which is not currently running, though it's hoped it may come back in future years.
The Vélorail de Haute Provence, which opened in 2012, departed from Mallemoisson, near Digne and also operated throughout the year. The return trip covered 10 km / 6 miles of track and took around two hours. There is a picnic area by Mallemoisson station.
Ten Vélorails seating 4-5 people were available on this route. Tel: (+33) 4 94 72 79 93. Website for the Mallemoisson Vélorail