It is a fact, but one that it took us some years to appreciate, that France is covered in a web of abandoned railway lines, which have been pressed into service in various ways. The rails and sleepers having been taken up, the surface is covered with gravel, dirt or tar, depending on whether it is to be a cycle path, a walking track or a road.
Sometimes there are information boards at road crossings, but quite often we only discover that the track we are on is an old railway line when we notice a cutting, a metal bridge, a tunnel or a station building (transformed into a house), and realise that the gradient has been unnaturally even.
Like canal walking, railway walking has much to recommend it – flatness, directness, pleasant scenery – but it can get rather dull after a day or so, lacking the kinds of challenges that keep the walker interested. For that reason, the railway walks that follow are all short, the longest being only three days.
Apart from the walks listed here, we have had other brief encounters with railways. For example, on our way through the Cévennes in 2007, we discovered that the track down from Cassagnas to Florac had borrowed the old railway line, at least for the first part (the lower part had been appropriated by the road).
In the same year, when walking down the Tarn towards Albi, we were puzzled at how our little road kept going through tunnels instead of following the undulations of the land, until we found out about the grand, doomed project that lay behind it.
In 2010, on our way out of Cancon towards Saint-Pastour, we realised that we were on a former railway line when we came to a cross-road which went overhead on a bridge, with the characteristic brick and metal construction of the French railways.
Near Sancerre and Cluis it was much more obvious that we were on disused railway lines, as we sailed over the surrounding countryside on dizzyingly high viaducts. It is quite affecting to see these remnants of the hard work of earlier generations.
Just as the railways put paid to the canals as a commercial proposition, so the roads took over from the railways, leaving both these older networks to sink into obscurity. It is only the influx of tourists and travellers that has given them a second life.
The individual maps of these walks show accommodation icons for each night. By zooming in on a particular icon you can see the precise location of the establishment where we stayed.
The railway walks selected so far are:
Albi to Castres (in Midi-Pyrénnées)
Cluny to Buxy (in Burgundy)
Olargues to Mazamet (in Languedoc)