Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Steam Trains and Olive Oil

The weekend of July 14th was a long one, with Monday off too. You only get the extra day if the holiday falls on a week day. If it is unfortunate to land on a weekend day, there's no extra day off. Isn't that mean?

Anyway, with the long, and busy, weekend coming up, my DB and I decided to go away again. Plan A was to go on the little steam train at Anduze, stay the night, then go up to Millau, walk, stay the night, then head back to Mont Aigoual and do some walking there. Except that, it was a very busy weekend, and there wasn't a cupboard to be booked in Anduze.

After much searching on the internet, we finally booked a hotel room in Meyrueis, about 24km from Mont Aigoual for the Sunday night. We decided to visit Anduze on Saturday, and come home because it's really not that far, and there was no point flogging a dead cat by paying to stay somewhere 10km up the road.

So on Saturday, I got a picnic together - another ploughman's, with the addition of some hummus, and we set off to catch the 11.30am steam train. We had printed off tickets beforehand (return €15 each) so didn't have to queue, but got there in such good time it wouldn't have mattered.
Gare Anduze
There I was with my cool box containing our picnic expecting to see a lot more, but I was the only one! Times have changed. The last time I did this trip, at least half the train if not more had taken a picnic but then it was probably not high season. Perhaps locals want to keep the cost down but tourists don't want the hassle of carrying a picnic box? My DB said I looked like a right Bidochon and did I want to leave it in the car?

Les Bidochon
I said I didn't care what I looked like, and the cool box was coming too!
The steam train

Really letting off steam

When we arrived at St-Jean-du-Gard station there were a lovely lot of picnic tables, but only a few ended up being used. Even the station snack bar was pretty empty. As the train was full, I suppose most people went to find a restaurant!
Gare St-Jean-du-Gard

Station restaurants at St JdG
The one on the left looked pretty tempting, with its home-made everything, including frites! We ate our lunch under a shady tree and left the box in the care of the people on the next table (grandparents looking after grandchildren - they weren't going to go far!) while we went for a mooch about. St JdG is a small place, but it feels very pleasant there. Over the river, market stall holders were packing up what looked like stalls full of lovely fresh local produce.

Back at the station, the driver was showing people inside his driver's cabin and allowing small groups to climb up and listen to him reel off in loving detail all the specs of his pride and joy. My DB went up, but I've done that already, so let the long queue proceed without me!

Diesel train at St JdG
The train set off again at 2pm (the journey takes 40 mins), with us sitting on the other side of the train to get the lovely views from that side.

The train also makes a stop at the Bambouseraie which is well worth a visit. You can make a real day of it as the train times all fit nicely to stop off, visit, and catch the last train back.

View of Bambouseraie (shop) from the train
We arrived back in Anduze and watched the engineers to their thing filling the engine with water, shovelling coal, and going over the wheels with a squirty oil can and oily rag. They looked like they were having a lovely time.

Man at work shovelling coal

Same man at work pumping water
The little steam train of the Cevennes really is a bijoux. Everyone loves a steam train, and this is a great trip for all ages. My kids loved it when I took them, as did my parents, and my DB loved it too.

From the station car park, we drove to the olive oil mill, Les Olivettes, back along the road towards St Jean. It's one of the few remaining places that grinds the olives traditionally using stone millstones. You can visit the mill and watch a video explaining the process which is fascinating. Then you can go and taste the oils produced and chat to the producer. He told us about the severe weather of the 1956 that was so cold it killed off all the olive trees in the Cevennes. Many mills were closed down or abandoned for lack of business.

Traditional millstones, photo courtesy Oléigest
After replanting, it took twenty years before the trees became productive and oil could be produced in the region again. By then, new buildings were being constructed with modern extracting techniques that could press more olives at a time, and so increase profits. Les Olivettes which was originally located in Anduze but was moved to Saint Jean du Gard by its owner, Henri Geoffray in 1985, is the last remaining Cevenol olive oil mill that uses stones.

They have a shop that sells the oil, and associated local produce - soap, sweet chestnut flour, cakes, biscuits, honey, etc. My DB bought a bottle of the Picholines oil which is very fruity, and has a definite bite. It's good on salads, not so good used for cooking.

The last time I came to the mill, the shop was twice the size and was full of decorative items - beautiful olive chopping boards, lamp stands, etc. I asked M Geoffray what had happened and he said that with the crisis, no one was buying the (pricey if lovely) decorative items, and so they decided to give that part of the business up and stick to the stuff that sold - olive oil and other edibles, plus soap. In fact, I read (here) that the shop went into receivership last October, so obviously they are still recovering by concentrating on their core business.

It's well worth a visit, anyway. Even if you don't like the "corsé" pure Picholines olive oil, they also produce a very good blend, and an oil that's being tested this year which includes some black olives. I found it very unusual, and very smooth with a definite black olive taste.

After this lovely day out, we returned to Montpellier and ruined the evening with a disagreement!


  1. That sounds to have been a super time...and we would have taken a picnic too bidochons as we are!
    It brought back to me the visit I made there so long ago...but I wish I'd known about the olive oil mill...and am now looking out for oil from black olives!

    1. A woman after my own heart! I love a good picnic! Actually, my DB did admit that it was a good idea to take the cool box in the end, Bidochon wannabe that he is! :)

      The olive oil with black olives was very unusual. I think they added 20% black olives to 80% green. It was a one-off experiment for this year. :)

  2. What a wonderful day out, Sarah, and I too would have taken the picnic. I've always loved steam trains and now enjoy taking the grandsons on our restored narrow-gauge railway in Wales and watching all the volunteers having a marvellous time. :) Our scenery is pretty, but nothing like as dramatic and beautiful as that of the Cevennes. As for the oil mill, I'd have loved that bit too...

    1. I love the Welsh scenery! It gets pretty dramatic in Gower at least which is the part I know best. Anyway, both areas are gorgeous.

      It was a super day out for fans of steam trains and olive oil. You would definitely have appreciated it. :)

  3. We've been thinking about doing more train journeys - the last one we did was down to Nice years ago but we loved it. Anyway, that's not really relevant as this post is about little cute steam trains.
    Disagreement? I will read in to find out more...

    1. We always travel by Eurostar to get to the UK mainly for the generous baggage allowance which means we can bring wine by the box. :) Not the same experience as a little steam train though. There's another lovely train ride in the Pyrenees. I'd love to go on that one - the little yellow train, I think it's called. Not steam though.

  4. Steam trains, picnics and olive oil - three of my favourite things!!!

    1. Oh yes, aren't they just?! Good living.

  5. Absolutely love the train ride through the country side. What a view!


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