Petit train de la Rhune

Sare, France | C.1924

Photo Credit: Marie Breuil

At the heart of Basque Country in South-Western France, a rickety rack railway slowly climbs La Rhune mountain to an altitude of 905m (+3000 ft) and holds special importance to the Basque culture. To Basque peoples, la Rhune is the “good pasture” upon which their cultural artifacts reside and are preserved.

At the center of Basque mythology the jentilak are a race of giants who threw rocks from one mountain to another in order to create the monuments on La Rhune. They are also said to have invented metallurgy, agriculture, and the Basque ball game called ‘pelota’. Although they disappeared into the earth with the arrival of Christianity, the landmarks they purportedly left can be seen along train’s 30-minute journey from Col de Saint-Ignace to the summit of the mountain.

Only ‘Olentzero’ remains as a type of Santa Claus-figure who, like Old Saint Nick, leaves presents for children around the same time of year. Over the centuries, Olentzero has morphed shapes from a giant to a Basque peasant.

There may be countless other Basque Gods and Goddesses “hidden” in caves and weather systems around La Rhune, and with only one train running at 9 km/h (5.6 mph) on an electric locomotive engine, this tourist line operates like a magical survey of lands that once exclusively thrived in a pre-Christian world.

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