The Blue Coast train line outside MarseilleThe Blue Coast train is the very best way to see the dramatic landscape west and north of Marseille, with its rugged hills and tiny villages snuggled in deep limestone calanques.

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The rugged terrain here forces the road to loop sharply inland. The railway line, on the other hand, hugs the coast closely, often with a steep drop down to the sea, as it passes through 23 tunnels, two bridges and 18 spectacular viaducts. It's a stupendous feat of engineering.

Supervised by Paul Séjourné, work began on the line in 1907 and was completed in 1915; an older, single-track line previously existed on a small portion of the route, from Port de Bouc to Miramas.

Around 14 trains a day in each direction run all year round (the line is used by lucky local commuters travelling to work in Marseille).

For a pittance, the route also affords tourists one of the most beautiful rail journeys in all of France. The entire 60 km / 37 mile run takes around 75-80 minutes in each direction.

The current timetable for the Blue Coast train can be downloaded from the SNCF TER (French regional railways) website (in French only). Select timetable no.7 (Marseille-Miramas) from the drop-down menu.

When booking the train, be sure to take the Côte Bleue (Blue Coast) line via Port de Bouc as there is an alternative, much less attractive inland route from Marseille to Miramas via Vitrolles.

Route map of the Blue Coast train line It's always wise prior to travel to check that the train you plan to catch is actually running, as the French rail network is very susceptible to strikes, delays, breakdowns and cancellations, sometimes for no apparent reason. The TER (regional train) network in Provence has one of the worst records in France in this respect.

Many areas of the SNCF website are in French only but are not too difficult to understand. "Supprimé" is "cancelled", "interrompu" or "perturbé" is "disrupted", "panne" is a breakdown, "delai" or "retard" is a delay and "grève" or "mouvement social" is strike action.

A French rail ticket has to be validated (composté) prior to travel by punching it in the machine at the entrance to the platform.

Sit on the left - if you are boarding the train in Marseille - for the gorgeous sea views. But look across to the right now and again for some equally lovely glimpses of the rocky hinterland.

News for the Blue Coast trainThe Blue Coast train offers several interesting special ticket deals over the summer.

The "Bermuda" pass is a ticket giving you unlimited travel along the Blue Coast line for a single day. It costs just 6 €uros and is available at weekends and on public holidays from 1 July-30 September. During August the deal gets even better: 10 €uros for two adults, available on any day of the week.

The "Albatross" day-trip ticket combines a train ride and mini boat cruise, enabling you to see the calanques from both the land and the sea on the same day.

You catch the train to Carry le Rouet, take a ten-minute stroll from the station down to the port, pictured, and go on a 75-minute boat trip before returning to Marseille by train.

carry le rouetThis deal is available every Sunday from 9 July-17 September inclusive. The boats leave Carry at 3.00pm and 4.45pm and the combination ticket costs 20 €uros (12 €uros for children under 12). You need to reserve it in advance.

The Bermuda and Albatross deals can be booked online here, at an SNCF ticket office or by telephone on 0800 11 40 23 (a freephone number within France).

An alternative is the daily ZOU! rail pass which is on offer during the summer only from 1 June to 30 September. It gives you one day's unlimited travel in any one of the six départements of Provence-Alpes-Côte d'Azur network for 16 €uros (the Blue Train is in the département of the Bouches du Rhône).

The first five or ten minutes of the Blue Coast route are an unremarkable run through the scruffy northern outskirts of Marseille. The first stop is a new station, inaugurated in 2014: Arenc-Euroméditerranée.

It's designed primarily to serve this very fast-expending commercial district of Marseille, but is also potentially convenient if you are staying in the Joliette area or starting or ending your journey at the cruise ship port or ferry terminals.

Some trains take a slightly different route out of town via the sleepy little station of Séon Saint Henri. If going this way, watch out for the giant MARSEILLE sign on your right modelled on the famous HOLLYWOOD sign in Los Angeles. Marseille's version was sponsored by Netflix to promote a TV series shot in the city.

As the train pulls out of the second stop, L'Estaque, you have a breathtaking view across the bay to Marseille: this station is high on a hill on the outskirts of the city.

Le Golfe de Marseille, vu de L'Estaque, 1886-1890, by Paul CezanneApart from a couple of modern apartment blocks, the tumble of red pantiled roofs in the foreground barely seems changed from the vistas that attracted Paul Cézanne there again and again (pictured: Le Golfe de Marseille, vu de L'Estaque, 1886-1890).

The most picturesque part of the route follows, with views into tiny coves and the Blue Coast calanques between Niolon, Ensuès la Redonne and Carry le Rouet. The photograph below was taken on this part of the route.

All the stations are built in a similar style, with a red and green tiled detail along the cornice. Some are better maintained than others: the beautiful ironwork at L'Estaque is sadly neglected, though the station at Sausset les Pins has been given a sparkling facelift.

 

News Very good news: thanks to the efforts of dedicated local activists and conservationists, L'Estaque station was officially declared a national Historic Monument in 2012, in spite of its bad state of repair. It's the only station with this distinction in the whole of Provence-Alpes-Côte-D'Azur (apart from a section of Nice railway station).

This means that that funds have been released to restore the tiling, glass and ironwork. Being Provence, this is happening slowly. Very, very slowly.

But the work has finally begun and some parts of the station have been beautfully renovated. Others, including the main station building, are as scruffy as ever and the project won't be completed for a long time. But at least it won't (we're told) interrupt the train service.

In Carry, you can stroll down to the port and take a boat along the Côte Bleue. The best beaches on the Blue Coast are to be found west of Carry, amid the pine woods of Sausset les Pins, La Couronne and Carro.

Blue Coast Train near MarseilleOften described as the "Venice of the Mediterranean," Martigues, with its charming squares and streets and brightly-painted houses, has just one canal, but it is undeniably a very picturesque one.

The station, however, is a 45-minute walk from the centre. There is a local bus into town, but it doesn't connect directly with the train timetable.

So if you specifically want to visit Martigues, you are advised to go by bus from either Aix en Provence or Marseille rather than take the train.

Even if you're just passing through, watch out from the train window for the remarkable swivelling Viaduct of Caronte, built in 1914, blown up by the Nazis in 1944 and rebuilt in 1954. The original bridge can be glimpsed briefly in Jean Renoir's 1935 film Toni.

You will also enjoy panoramic views of the town, its marinas and the Berre Lake (on the right as the train pulls out of Martigues towards Miramas).

From here on the landscape becomes industrialised, with the oil refineries of Port de Bouc and Fos sur Mer, then the line briefly skirts more woodland and inland lakes before arriving at Miramas, the last stop.

This is a major rail junction from where you can either catch a connection on to Arles or Avignon, or take a short cab or bus ride up the hill to Miramas le Vieux, a classic, pretty - if rather sleepy - mediaeval village perché (hilltop village) offering 360 degree vistas across the surrounding landscape.

Insider tip for the Blue Coast train lineEach year at the beginning of October, Miramas station holds a one-day Fête du Train (Train Festival). Special trains run along the Blue Coast Line - and sometimes the Avignon-Miramas one - and the event is perfect both for train enthusiasts and for families.

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