On-line Guide: Train des Merveilles – Nice’s Train of Marvels
Posted Jul 2018 in Go & Do
The Train des Merveilles is just that: a ‘Train of Marvels’. Little known to tourists, the line loops north from Nice-Ville station deep into the Italian Alps. Best of all, it connects a dozen little quintessentially French villages en route.
Five times each day, two modern carriages head uphill to Tende on the Franco-Italian border. The views are staggering. The train speeds over viaducts, through vineyards and orchards and through the 107 tunnels that burrow through the Roya Valley.
Perhaps most surprisingly, the line was built when the valley belonged to Italy, not France. It took 40 years to lay the tracks but the wait was well worth it! The route finally opened to passengers in 1927. Several grandiose stations along the line, like St Dalmas, were built as cultural showpieces by Mussolini to impress his neighbours.
But in 1947 locals threw in their lot with victorious France, taking the train line with them. By geographic quirk, onward trains run from Tende to both Turin and Ventimiglia in Italy.
The Train des Merveilles’ best stops? Just 30 minutes from Nice, Peille is among the prettiest. Perched on a rock high above Monaco, its 13th-century fortifications cascade down the hillside.
The medieval village of La Brigue is next. It's famed for its Via Ferrata, a protected Alpine hiking route that courses above the valley. Many locals here didn’t want to become part of France seven decades ago, and you can still order an espresso in Italian.
Around an hour from Nice, the larger villages of Sospel and Breil-sur-Roya appear next along the Alpine line. Horse riding is popular in the former while kayaking is the preferred activity on the raging River Roya that flows through Breil. Walking routes run from both tourist offices into the craggy hinterland. But the most action-packed town is Tende. A cosmopolitan settlement with a tumultuous history, marooned 1,000m high, it combines a rococo cathedral and Italian gravestones with French mountain cuisine and pavement cafés. The key site is Tende’s Musée des Merveilles. This museum houses amazing exhibits - prehistoric rock paintings and stone age tools discovered in the adjoining Mercantour National Park. Here 1,700km of hiking trails wind through gorges, lakes and mountain peaks.