A Ride on the Train of Marvels
No easy hiking trip to the PACA region – the acronym for “Provences Alpes Cote d’Azur“– would be complete without a sojourn into the first half of that double bill, the mountainous hinterland of the French Riviera.
Unfortunately, the trails in that region are often difficult to access – even with a car but particularly if you have to rely on public transport – and equally hard to follow and to navigate.
The best bet for easy hikers is therefore the Train des Merveilles: a railway line from Nice to Tende at the foot of the Alps with many stops in picturesque little hilltop villages that challenge you to explore them and their immediate surroundings on foot.
The local French tourism board is pushing the 2-hour trip as a unique adventure and unforgettable experience, claiming that the Train des Merveilles – the Train of Marvels – represents one of the greatest technological feats of the 20th century.
But be warned: unless you have a specific interest in railway engineering, the Train des Merveilles may leave you somewhat underwhelmed. Expect to be mildly entertained, not to sit open-jawed for the duration of the journey.
Still, the Merveilles undoubtedly has its merits and can be a very useful tool for acquainting you with the wild side of life in the French South. Plus, it is cheap: if you have purchased a Pass Isabelle – the one-day or 3-day pass for all local trains in the area – you can ride the Merveilles for free with no surcharge.
One problem with the train is the schedule: if you want to take the journey and spend a little time in your destination, perhaps even make a stopover in one of the stations along the way, you will have no alternative to taking the 9h24 service from Nice Gare, which means an early wake-up call particularly if you are not based in Nice.
The first highlight of the journey comes about 20 minutes after leaving Nice station: you get a good view of the craggy hilltop village of Peille.
The village of L’Escarene prepares you for the visual leitmotiv of the trip: townscape and architecture are unmistakably Italian …
… and much of the area actually belonged to Italy until 1947. (Some of the towns in this part of the world were actually fairly grand once, rivalling Nice in terms of their importance.)
The surrounding hillside has been largely repossessed by nature, native pine forests edging out olive trees when the local farmers all fled to the coast once they had found out that serving tea to bored English tourists was so much easier work than toiling the hill sides. (This is not a recent development but happened back in the 19th century, as a matter of fact.)
By the same token, terrace agriculture, of which there are still many traces …
… is now nearly extinct in the area.
The train station of St Dalmas de Tende – enormous in size and nowadays entirely boarded up – is a historical curiosity. When it was built, it served as a border station, and Mussolini’s Italy apparently wanted to show offto the snooty French.
At the time, there was almost nothing here, just a few goatherds with their huts, and even now, the village comprises only a handful of stone buildings with perhaps 200 inhabitants.
Tende is the final stop of the trip. If you want to do an excursion in any other stop along the way on top of the Merveilles journey, I strongly recommend to finish the journey to Tende first and then stagger your return.
In which case you have several options, all of which include a stopover in Tende of least three hours. The Old Town of Tende has quite a few interesting sights to offer, including a Cathedral that looks like a circus tent …
… although the overall feel of the town is anything but gaudy and close to claustrophobic at times.
Our plan was to take a walk up to the Saint Sauveur Chapel. Just follow the signs from the Old Town to the Via Ferrata, turning left uphill to the Clock Tower from where you get some great view across town.
We liked the look of the Via Ferrata a lot less, however.
On top of that, there was a slight drizzle, the temperature was significantly lower than it had been on the coast (Tende is almost 1000 metres high) and to top it all, on this of all days, we had left our rain jackets at home.
The clincher, however, was that the Via Ferrata was “not allowed for children under 12”, which particularly amused us since we knew from our experiences with French TV that this is generally the code for violent scenes and pornography– things for which we were decidedly not in the mood. We decided to skip the trail, opting to spend the time until the departure of our train in the Musee de Merveilles.
The Musee, with exhibits of archeological curios found from the area, is a great place to spend an hour or so, particularly if the alternative is waiting outside on a cool and drizzly September day. Entrance is free, and they have toilets, too.
When we came out of the museum, we were pleased to find that the weather had turned for the better, and we decided that we could, after all, take another brief hike, interrupting our return for a stopover in one of the picturesque villages along the way, just to see what it was like.