Walking Holidays in France
On our return trip on the Train des Merveilles from Tende to Nice, we made use of the opportunity to stagger our return and to visit one of the picturesque hilltop villages along the way. The train schedule allows you to put in one or two stopovers and still arrive in Nice in time for dinner.
The Hilltop Fortress in the South of France
Between June to September, the 9h24 Train des Merveilles service from Nice to Tende is accompanied by an English-speaking guide who provides a commentary during the journey and also gives you some tips – for example, what village to explore during an afternoon stopover.
From what our guide had said in the morning, the hilltop fortress village of Saorge appeared to be particularly enticing. Thomas Jefferson has apparently been impressed after a visit in 1787.
So we left the train at the station Fontan-Saorge and turned right on the main road. The guide had said that we would have to walk just over a kilometre to the village proper, and this turned out to be highly precise.
What she had omitted to point out, however, was that we would have to squeeze ourselves into the hard and narrow shoulder of a mountain road with very little room to the side in the event that a big vehicle came along. If you see this mark on the road …
… you are sure of three things: first, you are on the right way. Second, there are exactly 1000 metres left. And third – look into the distance – there is a tunnel ahead.
Yes, a tunnel.
The tiny hard shoulder shrinks even further, and initially at least, it will feel less like adventure and more like suicide for beginners.
But not only is there light at the end of the tunnel (indicating that the tunnel is straight and mercifully short), there is even light inside the tunnel (though the lamps are a little dim), and it must be said there is generally very little traffic. (On either of our passages through the tunnel, there was only one vehicle.)
So, do not lose heart, even though some of the writings on the wall appear to forebode ill.
After the tunnel, you are nearly there, and the protector of Saorge greets you by the wayside. He is perhaps not the most powerful saint in heaven, but he may well be the one with the prettiest legs.
It is quite amazing to see how many buildings can be crammed into such little space. Until the 17th century, the formidable hilltop fortress of Saorge was virtually impregnable, and even the mighty army of Louis XIV earned itself a bloody nose trying to conquer it.
We left Saorge – having already visited Tende on the same day – with a feeling of astonishment of how different this part of the Provence is to the French Riviera. It is only a short train ride away, but you might as well have landed on a different planet.
It was great having done this, and I would recommend the Train des Merveilles to anybody who spends more than a few days in the region, but, frankly, it was even greater to be back on the coast.
La France profonde – the “deep”, rural and traditionalist countryside – does not get much more profonde than it does in Tende and Saorge whose dark, narrow and mouldy lanes can feel a little depressing after the wide open spaces, the blue skies and the blue sea of the Cote d’Azur.
We were certainly glad to be back “home”.
Our home away from home in the French Riviera was a holiday rental we found via HomeAwayUK