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 spiel 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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I agree Adelina, though this one with 14 year old and 8 year old in tow wasn’t so much romantic as adventurous! 😮
The Moscow-St Peterburg express is a classy train; I’ve done it too! Thanks for hosting SJ
Gorgeous gorgeous! I love train rides. There is something that just seems so romantic! Thanks for linking up to the #SundayTraveler!
Many you guys do some cool stuff! I did the train trip from Moscow to St. Petersburg overnight – LOVED IT. Thanks again for linking up with us to #SundayTraveler
Thanks for hosting Ashley!
We’re only about 6 hours drive from Barcelona, not so far at all. 🙂
I loooove trains! I’ve been to Nice before and this looks like a fun trip 🙂 Thanks for linking up to the #SundayTraveler 🙂
Seems to be a wonderful train journey! It is not so far from Barcelona and we go to visit Southern France quite often, we might check this out in the near future! Thanks for the great tip!
I know what you mean Angela, trains can be absurdly expensive in Europe.
I fear that footage is lost forever, though I agree it would be cool to find. The area around Tende is excellent walking country. Come on over!
Looks like a great trip. I have really been meaning to ride trains more. However, they have become increasingly popular, which drives up the costs. Since I am no longer eligible for the student rate, it is sometimes more cost efficient to rent a car.
How sad that the trains stopped all those years ago. I can understand that you miss them.
happy to hear from a fellow train lover!
Train stopped running here in Ethiopia in 2008, so I desperately miss rail travel! This seems to be the best of it – views and comfort. Incredible pics 🙂
I love train journeys. Especially if they are as scenic as the place in your pictures.
It would be cool if you can find that footage of you sitting near Indira Gandhi on a train.
I love trains too. Scenery from Nice to Tende, as seen on your photos, is gorgeous. Would love to walk those hilltop villages.
That sounds like a fabulous train trip. I bet it was gorgeous. I’ve driven between Brisbane and Townsville, and flown, but never taken the train. Lucky you! Thanks for commenting. 🙂
I went on my first train trip as a 6 year old in 1956 from Townsville to Brisbane – I still remember the wonder and excitement of that trip and catch the train whenever I can.
Thanks for reading Delia. I’m happy your kids enjoyed their first train ride.
Wonderful day trip, love the pictures, Phoebe! We took the train last summer – first time for the kids, and after a long while for us – it was a great experience that everyone loved! Thanks for the pictures, it’s like I’ve been there 🙂
What a great experience Catherine, though I guess it sounds way more romantic nowadays than it felt then!
I love how you express yourself too Samantha – “visual word choice” – such a nice thing to say, thank you!
The Polar Express sounds lovely Wendy, thanks for your kind words about my photos.
[i][/i]what a great day out. Thanks for sharing it. Must try to do it next time we are down your way. I went to school in the 1950s on a steam train, freezing cold in winter and stinking hot in summer.
What a great group of pics! Combine them with your visual word choice, & I felt like I was there…and, boy, I wish I was! I’ve never been to Europe 😉
That is one beautiful train ride! I often take the commuter train to New York City, but my most memoriable train ride (Besides the one I took with my son with Thomas the Tank Engine pulling the car) was a “Polar Express” train ride at Christmastime with my family. It was a magical ride- full of Christmas carols, Santa Claus and hot chocolate! What amazing photos you took!
My pleasure Remy! You’ll have lovely scenery near Vienna, lucky you.
Sounds great to go in an open top train. I’d love to do that! 🙂
Marge you wouldn’t have liked this trip then as it was always very high up on very narrow single tracks. Not for anyone with vertigo! My media buttons are just under the tags at the end of the post, before the comments. I hope you found them and thanks for looking.
That sounds like a great plan to me Tracie! But until you do have your passport, keep checking by here so get inspiration for your travels.
I love these pictures! I haven’t had the chance to make a trip on train, but I’m looking forward to do it to Vienna! This is on my bucket list trips. Thanks for sharing your experience and these wonderful pictures.
I love your photos and the walk through of your trip, it looks like it was a ton of fun!
I have been on a train trip once. I was in 5th grade. It was soo awesome. We rode from Houston to San Antonio and I sat in the train part that had an open roof. I have always dreamed of going on an overnight trip where I get to sleep in a train car and everything.
O my what great scenery!! Beautiful! I have to say I have only taken one train ride and it made me so nervous. I could not take the train rocking from side to side when we were going over the bridges. It was a lot of water I was looking down at…lol. I did not see any media buttons but I will look around. I am visiting from Blog Formatting.
Wow seems like to much of an over used word in regards to your trip. Amazing views. I’m determined to get my passport this year so I can start traveling and seeing places like this in real life instead of vicariously through others.
Wow! Amazing scenery and views!
I’ve done that trip but in the other direction Sue! I took the train from Moscow to St P near the end of 2 months of train travel from Hanoi in Vietnam to Helsinki, Finland! Just like you it was overnight but it was in June so it didn’t get dark! Didn’t stop me from sleeping through most of it though. Nice to see you back on my blog! 😀
The aerial shots are taken from the train and our hike up the mountain which just shows how steep it was! Thanks for stopping by Vidya.
Thanks Juie 🙂
I would love to take a train trip in the future! When we were in Russia to adopt our daughter we traveled by train from St. Petersburg to Moscow but unfortunately it was during the night and we didn’t get to see much of the countryside.
I love train journeys too – and have happy childhood memories of lots of trips. The aerial shots are fabulous. Sounds like a wonderful trip, Phoebe!
Great new photos!