High up in the mountains behind the French Riviera lies the Parc National du Mercantour, one of only ten national parks in France. It stretches from the Italian border on the east through the Alpes-Maritimes department and into the Alpes-de-Haute-Provence department. Covering almost 700 square kilometers (300 square miles) it is famous for being one of the wildest, most diverse national parks in France. Nestled between the Côte d’Azur and the high peaks of the Alpes it’s a truly remarkable place, one that I have enjoyed hiking and biking in many times. There’s even a special train that runs from Nice to the village of Tende, tucked way up in a little corner of France near the Italian border. Le Train des Merveilles (The Train of Wonders) runs several times every day back and forth between the coast and the mountains. Not too long ago Carole and I took a trip on the train to Tende with our good friends Barry and Sheila. A great time was had by all.
[more info after the photo gallery]
The Train des Merveilles is widely known as one of the most spectacular train routes in all of Europe. It’s known not just for the dazzling beauty of the countryside it passes through but also the remarkable feats of engineering and construction required to build it. From the Mediterranean coast at sea level to deep inside the Mercantour National Park at an altitude of 1000 meters, the route includes over 100 bridges and viaducts and nearly the same amount of tunnels and retaining walls. Passing through the Paillon and Roya Bévéra valleys, the entire journey really is a stunning achievement, especially considering the fact that it was built in the late 1800s and early 1900s.
The train cars themselves are modern, air-conditioned and very comfortable. During peak tourist times a guide will often be on board to provide visitors with information about the route and to point out interesting landmarks and historical highlights along the way. The trip itself takes about two hours from start to finish, Nice to Tende. You are, of course, free to disembark at any of the stops along the way and then continue on to Tende or catch a return train to Nice. For our trip the train was nowhere near full and we were very comfortable with a small section and table to ourselves. However, this might not always be the case, depending on the month and day of the week you choose to travel.
During June the first train out of Nice leaves at 9:23AM and arrives in Tende at 11:24. We chose to take the next train which left at 12:40PM and arrived at 2:39 in the afternoon. From Nice the train makes a number of stops along the journey (there a total of nine delightful mountain villages that are of the most interest) before finally arriving in Tende. Each of these villages has its own special charm and its own attractions. Over the years I’ve visited all of them at one time or another, either by car or bike. There are untold activities that you can engage in and a multitude of museums, monuments, hiking trails and and historical sites to enjoy. Additionally, you’ll find mountain and road biking, canoeing, kayaking, canyoning and rafting available throughout the area. It’s really impossible to visit all of these villages in one day so you should do some research ahead of time and see what appeals to you the most. Here’s a list of the villages along the route of the train and the approximate time it will take to get from the train station to the village:
Peillon-Sainte-Thècle (the village of Peillon is an approximately 1 hour walk from the train station)
Peille (1 hour walk from the train station)
L’Escarène (10 minute walk from the train station)
Sospel (5 minute walk from the train station)
Breil-sur-Roya (10 minute walk from the train station)
Fontan (15 minute walk from the train station)
Saorge (15 minute walk from the train station)
Saint-Dalmas-de-Tende (3 minute walk from the train station)
La Brigue (10 minute walk from the train station)
We chose to go directly to Tende as none of us had really spent a lot of time there before and it seemed like a good time to explore it in depth. If you do choose to stop at one of the other villages along the way, just remember that the train only runs a few times each day so if you spend too much time in any one village you might not have time to then catch another train to Tende and a return train to Nice. Plan your schedule carefully. It is also possible to take a return train via Italy and then back to Nice.
Tende is a medieval mountain village with a long and varied history. Being situated so close to the Italian border, it has been swapped back and forth between Italy and France several times over the centuries. From 1861 until 1947 the village was part of Italy. At the end of the Second World War Italy was forced to cede some of its mountain areas as part of the Treaty of Paris. Tende was the last commune to officially join the French Republic as part of the deal.
Tende is known to have been settled at least as early as 690AD, but rock engravings found in the area show that the area was inhabited as far back as prehistoric times. Located on what was at one time an important salt route between Italy and France, the village is overlooked by the remains of the Château des Lascaris (Lascaris Castle), built sometime in the 14th century. It was destroyed in 1692 when King Luis XIV ordered that all fortified structures in France that could be a threat be demolished. All that remains today are some ruins and one of the circular towers which has now been transformed into a clock.
Upon arriving in Tende we left the train station and headed towards the old town, just a short walk down the road. On the way we passed by the Hotel de Ville, a beautiful, bright building in the center of town. The old town is full of the typical dark, narrow, winding streets and alleys that we have come to expect in these types of French alpine villages. Some of the houses date back to the 15th century and many are painted with the green and purple colors that are common to this area. I always find it extremely interesting and fun to walk through these old “towns,” exploring the ancient streets and buildings, looking at the doorways and wondering how many people have passed through them over the years. One fascinating aspect of Tende is the amount of buildings with slate roofs. The rooftops throughout most of southern France are usually made of ceramic tiles, often semi-circular. However, in the mountains these types of slate roofs are more common as the materials are more readily available.
There are over 600 kilometers of signposted trails in and around the Tende vicinity. If you like to hike you can make a number of amazing treks in the area. Of special interest in the vicinity are cave paintings and other archaeological treasures. Check with the Office de Toursime for suggestions, routes and maps.
We spent the afternoon just wandering around the village at a leisurely pace, exploring historical landmarks, shops, boutiques, churches and chapels. There are plenty of restaurants and places to grab a snack or something sweet to eat.
Churches and Chapels
There are numerous small chapels and churches in Tende (and the immediate vicinity), but three are of the most interest, the Chapelle de l’Annonciation, the Chapelle de la Miséricorde and the Collégiale Notre-Dame-d-l’Assomption. The two chapels are easy to find and are literally across the street from each other on rue Cotta . The Chapel of the Annunciation (formerly the the Chapel of the White Penitents) dates from 1621 and still contains an organ dating from 1672. The Chapel of Mercy (formerly the Chapel of the Black Penitents) was consecrated a few years later in 1675. Both were closed when we were there but appear to be open during certain hours.
The Collégiale Notre-Dame-d-l’Assomption is an old Catholic cathedral dating from the 12th century. It lies just down the street from the two chapel and is classified as a historic monument. The cathedral has been beautiful restored and features a tall bell tower, a brightly colored front entrance and a huge portal surrounded by a row of thirteen saints.
Museum of Merveilles
The Museum of Merveilles, located in Tende, is one of the most fascinating natural history museums I have ever been to. Focused on natural history, archaeology, cave paintings and popular arts and traditions, the museum uses up-to-date audiovisual technology and multimedia to present the heritage of the area, which is unique throughout Europe. There are lots and lots of intriguing documents, domestic objects, tools, engraved rocks and more that paint a picture of what life in this region was like throughout history. They offer guided tours and there are often special animations, programs and shows to experience.
Tickets and Reservations
Online tickets are available at the TER PACA site. You can also buy tickets in any Alpes-Maritimes SNCF station an at regional SNCF railway-ticket machines. Bikes are allowed and pets too (though they must have a valid ticket). For our trip we purchased what is known as a one-day ZOU! Pass fro €15. This allows unlimited travel in the Alpes-Maritimes department for one day. This is only an option from June 1st to September 30th, but if you are making the trip during that part of the year they are the best way to go.
Where: Starts in Nice ends in Tende (Google Maps)
When: All year round, days and hours vary
Phone: Tende Office de Tourisme – 04 83 93 98 82
Train Website: tendemerveilles.com
Museum of Merveilles: museedesmerveilles.departement06.fr
Download a small brochure about the train: PDF