Digne-les-Bains is the capital city of the Alpes-de-Haute-Provence department, with a population of approx. 17,000. We decided to visit this weekend: it's somewhere we've never been, and you can get there easily from Nice on the train, on the special train des pignes line.
The train des pignes has run between Nice and Digne since 1911, originally run by the Sud de France railway company and now run by the Provence railway company, calling at a series of small villages like Entrevaux along the way, the majority of which are on-request stops (you wave the train down if you're on the platform, like hailing a taxi - and let the ticket-checker know if you're going somewhere that's not a main station, so he knows to tell the driver to stop there!). Note that there are only three or four trains a day, so if you miss one, you're in for quite a wait...
The trains are (very well!) air-conditioned (at least, the ones we took were nearly arctic), and each station is announced in French and what I can only assume is nissart, the original language in Nice. Could be anything, really, though - a couple of names just sounded made-up... There is nothing ressembling a buffet car, so take food and drink with you if you think you'll need anything, especially if you're travelling with children or dogs. (Dogs are allowed on this train, it seems. Even mangy ones that look a little rabid.) There isn't time to get anything at stations along the way, so I'd recommend at least taking some water - for you, your children and/or your dogs, as you prefer.
You catch the train des pignes from just back from the normal train station in Nice, at the Chemin de fer de Provence railway station near Liberation tram stop. (At Liberation tram station, you can see the original Chemin de fer du Sud de France railway station, which has been renovated since we lived round there, and now looks as lovely as I imagined it once used to!)
From there, pay your €23ish and it's a picturesque three-and-a-bit hour journey through pine-tree-covered mountains and valleys, up to Digne-les-Bains.
While Digne may be the capital of its departement, its really not very big. It sits at the base of towering forest-covered mountains, by the side of a large river (well, in the winter I expect it's large - in the summer, it was a small river in a very large riverbed...).
And I, slightly to my surprise, rather loved it.
We stayed in a hotel that was cheap (approx €60 a night) and clean, with friendly staff. We even had a balcony! (Overlooking the picturesque Picard and burger place, but with mountains in the background...) It was quite a long walk out from the centre of town, though, (about 45 minutes) and buses stop running just after 7. (Before 7, it's on bus route 1, and a quick and easy ride into the town centre or to/from the train station.)
The first thing to note about Digne is that everyone in Digne is friendly. Bus drivers, waiters, hotel staff - all the people that normally hate their jobs and hate tourists, were all smiley and nice to us, (bar one guy working at the lake, who was presumably having a bad day) and to everyone around them, all of whom they seemed to know. Customer service in France is alive and well after all - it's just all concentrated in Digne. Random strangers smiled and said "Bonjour", or "Bonsoir" as we passed them. A little disconcerting for those of us from big cities, admittedly, but charming once you get used to it.
If you happen to be in Digne around dinner time, I totally recommend the Cafe de France at the end of Boulevard Gassendi on the square. The food is good, cheap, and the waiters are friendly if perhaps a little insane, and who can blame them. We ate there the first night and a woman and her young daughter sat near us with a purple shoebox. We jumped a bit when the box moved, but ignored it and carried on talking.
A small bird then stuck its head out of the (really quite large) holes that had been cut in the lid. A long explanation followed to the waiter that the bird had fallen out of its nest, so they were going to take it home and look after it and then it would get healthy again and be free.
I had my doubts, especially since they then covered up the airholes with a laminated menu, to stop the bird escaping prematurely.
The food was great - duck in orange sauce for Monsieur, and I had a salad-pizza hybrid thing that was actually brilliant. It was basically a salad with a thin layer of pizza base lining the bowl, and I'd have it again right now, if you put it in front of me.
The second thing about Digne is how pretty it all is. Everywhere you look, there's green and mountains against bright blue skies, and it's just lovely.
Digne is famous for its lavender production. I don't think this roadside lavender quite shows the plant off at its best, but it has been planted in lovely neat rows!
The last of those photos were taken as we walked back to the hotel on the first night we stayed in Digne. We wandered through residential back streets, and every single house I saw that evening was lovely. There were even people working on allotments (who all said "Bonsoir" as we walked past, not suspiciously, just friendlily) and someone who owned horses. This is the departmental capital, and small enough that people own horses. Did I mention I kind of fell in love with the place?
Also, it has warning signs for low-flying helicopters:
Actual helicopter, immediately afterwards:
On the Saturday, we woke up early and went to the Réserve Géologique. (By bus. The bus driver's little daughter came out to say hi when we got to the end of the line, apparently right near their house. Did I mention this is a small town?) The Réserve is a national park, with an educational museum at the top of the park, and a focus on natural history, dinosaurs and fossils.
We took the introductory route, walking up past streams and waterfalls, along the medieval ramparts of old Digne (the only bits left from that time, I think) past the museum, and down past the butterfly garden and cairns by Andy Goldsworthy (the Réserve funds residencies for artists, providing a studio in the centre of the reserve overlooking the river and Digne town). The cairns were impressive, but I can't help but wonder what archaeologists in a thousand years will make of them.
"This area must have been the focus of a massive now-extinct religion. I wonder what they used these cairns for - there are no bodies, but perhaps they were memorial markers for rich and famous people!" "Maybe they were monuments to their gods?" "Perhaps they were altars, for sacrificing to the gods!"
See? They'd have no idea. Maybe Stonehenge was just a giant prehistoric art installation.
Anyway, pretty pictures from the Réserve Géologique:
Unlike the motorway lavender we saw earlier, this lavender was healthy and full of butterflies and bees!
There is apparently something of a lizard problem in wet weather. The mind boggles somewhat.
From that far up, you get some great views of Digne:
This was actually a good idea, since it was a gorgeous, well-signposted walk of about 45 minutes, but if you do this, I'd suggest three things:
- Take water. Especially if you do this in the summer. It gets very hot, very early in the morning, and you will bake without water.
- Use suncream. See above.
- Don't wear flipflops. There are lots of ups and downs, loose gravel and some surprisingly sheer cliff-edge drops.
We arrived back in town and had a restorative coffee while we thought about what we would do next. Our original plan had been to go to the thermal springs for which Digne-les-Bains is named - but it was about 30 degrees, and I wasn't sure hot springs were quite what the doctor ordered.
Saturday is market day in Digne, and as we sat with coffee and Perrier, a plan formed. We would buy picnic things from the market, and go to the plan d'eau. I wasn't entirely sure what the plan d'eau was, but the internet made it sound like a sort of lake, a beach equivalent for mountain towns. Sounded perfect, so off we went.
Let me say now that I begin to understand why tourists have raved about markets in France. I never did before, because frankly all the food markets I've been to have been a bit lacklustre, populated by bad-tempered people who've had to get up at the crack of dawn, and poor-quality fruit and veg. This one, however, was not like that - it had friendly people selling locally-produced things (some labelled the actual farms their fruit / veg / cheese had come from) and it had amazing bread, black olive tapenade, and melon confit. If you've never had melon confit (which I have no idea how to translate), you should. It's fabulous. Essence of melon in a sweet, chewy awesomeness. Plus market food was much cheaper than we were expecting.
Actually, on that, everything was cheaper than we were expecting. Turns out living in London, Paris and the Cote d'Azur can give you a somewhat inflated view of pricing. Who knew?
Anyway, the plan d'eau was brilliant. It's a pair of large, man-made lakes just outside the town, with plentiful grass and trees to provide shade for picnics. One of the lakes is reserved for canoeing and water-sports - though definitely not swimming - and the other is for swimming. The water was absolutely bloody freezing, but did wonders for inducing mild hypo-thermia and reminding me what cold felt like - it hasn't been cold since I moved down here!
Photos below are from the Not-Swimming lake, since the other one had people in, and I wouldn't want random strangers taking photos of me while I was in my swimming costume!
And then it was time to go back to town for dinner. We went back to the Cafe de France, only to discover that the poor little bird had died overnight. (I was, as you can imagine, shocked at this news.) And dinner was again superb, followed by a walk back to the hotel and a collapse into bed after the longest day in the world.
And then, sadly, it was time to go back to the world. We got back on the train des pignes (which has been officially translated as pine cone train, though I don't think it's how I would translate it) this morning and started the long journey back to the coast. We marked our return to the crowded noisiness and sweltering temperatures that is Nice by going to the old town and having a Sunday Roast in the Snug. It was brilliant. (It always is.)
What have you been up to recently? Do tell!