Train journeys are my kind of thing; trains and I, we go way back. Apparently, or so the family folklore says, I was on a miniature train in Delhi when the then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi turned up for a bit of political campaigning and I was chosen to sit next to her for the film shoot. I must have been about 7 years old. Now whether this was the beginning of my love of train travel I can’t say but since then I have taken some pretty interesting and scenic train journeys in Asia, Europe and Australia. So it was with great excitement that we recently took the grandly named “Train des Merveilles”, the wonderous mountain train, from Nice to Tende and back.
Merveilles means marvels or wonders and to give it its due, the name doesn’t actually refer to the train itself but to the area of the Mercantour National Park in the Southern Alps where the “Vallée des Merveilles” is situated. And this valley is so-called because of the thousands of prehistoric rock engravings found there.
The mountain train takes you to Tende which is one of the main places from which you can access this Valley of Marvels. The train itself, while perhaps not quite a “wonder”, is modern, comfortable, decorated with images of the 3000 year old petroglyphs and very short. It’s only one carriage long. The track, however, is somewhat of a marvel as it climbs from sea level to 1000m through 107 tunnels, 4 of which are spiral – a true engineering wonder built between the 1880s and 1928.
The trip from Nice to Tende takes you through some gorgeous scenery which is even more dramatic viewed from the vertiginous heights of the railway viaducts than it is from the road that follows along the bottom of the river valleys.
When you’re not in one of the tunnels you pass spectacularly isolated hilltop villages, pretty riverside towns, open green valleys and steep cliff faces. There are 9 stops (including a monumental station built by order of Mussolini in 1928 in St Dalmas de Tende), making it possible to visit some of these lovely villages instead of going all the way to Tende, but that would be for another day.
The mountain train is now primarily a tourist line and from June to September the 9.15 am departure from Nice has a running commentary in English as well as French. The chatty lady from SNCF tells you all about the length of the tunnels, the particularity of each village and the landscape around. “So as I was saying in French…” she starts her morning in English…like I said, very chatty, not formal. Timetable info etc here.
We actually chose not to sit with her as our train was full enough to have a second train attached which didn’t have the commentary. We decided we’d rather sit together with a bit of space than be squashed or even standing in the commentated carriage. I did, however, make the most of a couple of stops, swapping between the 2 trains (leaving behind the family) to see what she had to say. The return journey has no commentary.
The trip takes about 90 minutes which means you arrive in Tende late morning leaving you plenty of time to explore before the afternoon return. We chose to take a picnic and do a 4 hour walk taking in even more gorgeous mountain views and getting some delicious fresh alpine air. We had planned this so went equipped with walking boots, sun-cream and plenty of water.
Other options in Tende include visiting the Musée des Merveilles (photo below) to find out more about the rock carvings, scrambling up to the chapel perched high above the town or just exploring the narrow alleyways of its medieval heart.
For the really adventurous there’s a Via Ferrata on the craggy outcrop near the chapel. There are also walks that can take you back to some of the villages along the railway line, though we preferred to stay in and around Tende. To find out about the options available we went straight to the tourist office and were given a useful local map for our walk.
To get back to Nice you need to check the railway timetable at the station as it varies from day to day. There are direct trains and others that go via Ventimiglia. Ours, at 4.50pm, said it was only going as far as Breil sur Roya, but in fact after a 15 minute stop there it continued all the way to Nice. No one seemed to know quite how far it was going (including the driver!) but we got back in just under two hours without having to change. It’s only a little train trip, but it’s a great one!
Have you ever taken a fun or unusual train trip? Do you like train travel? I’d love to hear from you.
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