The delightful and aptly-named “Train des Merveilles” (Train of Wonders) winds its way from Nice to Tende, via the verdant valleys of Paillon, La Bévéra and La Roya. A 70 km journey through untouched scenery dotted with tunnels, viaducts and teetering little alpine villages, inviting you to relax, unwind and switch off from the hubbub of daily life. Wow effect guaranteed!
Train routeLength1 jour et plus
Towns visited :
The “Train des Merveilles” pulls out of the train station in Nice, the capital of the Côte d’Azur, to begin its slow ascent to the alpine summits. A tree-filled landscape – mainly pines and chestnuts – slides by the window for the next hour, although it seems to go by in a flash. With its light red walls, Sospel‘s little train station exudes a typical mountain village atmosphere. Blues, greens, yellows and oranges… Here, the pastel façades have an air of Italy. In the distance, a ring of alpine massifs stands out against the cloudless blue sky. Begin your tour with a stroll round the village lanes, less than 10 minutes on foot from the station, before heading to the banks of Bévéra river. The old Pont-Vieux bridge standing over the river is a legacy from the ancient salt route. A few minutes further on, push open the door to Saint Michael’s cathedral, a marvel of Baroque architecture. If you’re feeling sporty, prolong the pleasure with a visit to one of Sospel’s three forts, erected on the alpine Maginot line: Barbonnet, Agaisen or Saint Roch (the walk takes at least 3 hours).
Where to eat, sleep and what to do in Sospel ?
It’s time to climb back on the “Train des Merveilles” – but only for 10 short minutes. Welcome to Breil-sur-Roya, a history-packed village set along the ancient route linking the Nice hinterland and Italian plain of Po. To get a better grasp on the history of the Nice-Tende French railway line, inaugurated in 1928 and destroyed during WWII, head to the “Écomusée du Haut Pays et des Transports”. Located just 5 minutes on foot from the station, this ecomuseum also harbours several fascinating old locomotives. After the museum tour, retrace your steps and enjoy roaming around the historic quarter. Old stone houses with vaulted porches stand on the banks of Roya river, lined with plane trees and a swan lake. The hike to Tour de la Cruella (4 km loop accessible to all, departing from the town hall) offers sweeping views over the village. On fine days, Breil-sur-Roya is a coveted white water sports hotspot offering canoeing, kayaking, rafting and canyoning. Tempting!
Where to eat, sleep and what to do in Breil-sur-Roya ?
From Fontan-Saorge railway station, it only takes 20 minutes on foot to reach Saorge, a proud holder of the “France’s Most Beautiful Villages” label. The walk is well worth it too: the trail clings to the rock face and forms a genuine balcony over Roya gorge. The tiered lanes of Saorge harbour several well-kept secrets, including a sublime Franciscan monastery standing guard over the village. Its construction began in 1639. Comprising the baroque church of Notre-Dame-des-Miracles with its characteristic pink and orange façade, a cloister and terraced garden gazing out over the mountains, the site is an ode to contemplation. Numerous hiking and mountain-biking trails criss-cross Saorge and its vicinity. One of them leads to Bain du Sémite: a natural, tree-lined pool ideal for a refreshing dip after your efforts.
Where to eat, sleep and what to do in Saorge ?
Stage 4La Brigue
Continuing its alpine ascension, the “Train des Merveilles” rolls on to La Brigue, at the gateway to Mercantour National Park. You can reach the town centre on foot from the station in 10 minutes. Here, cobbled lanes rub shoulders with vaulted passageways running alongside Lévansa river. Linger awhile to admire the old listed buildings: Saint Martin’s collegiate church with its colourful vaulted ceilings, the ruins of the 14th-century fortified Château des Lascaris – the former home of a feudal lord – and Chapelle Saint Michel, built in the Piedmontese Baroque style. Seasoned walkers will definitely want to push on to Chapelle Notre-Dame-des-Fontaines, basking in the heart of nature on the outskirts of the village. The colourful frescoes adorning this chapel nicknamed the “Sixtine Chapel of the Alpes-Maritimes” are truly worth your while.
Where to eat, sleep and what to do in La Brigue ?
Here you are on your way to the last – and no doubt most astonishing – stage of your trip aboard the “Train des Merveilles”: the village of Tende, teetering at an altitude of 800 metres between Vallée de la Roya and the aptly-named Vallée des Merveilles (Valley of Wonders). A place out of time, standing witness to a long-gone era, the Vallée des Merveilles is home to some of Europe’s most prolific rock carvings, thought to date from between the Late Neolithic age and Middle Bronze Age, i.e. between 3,200 and 1,300 BC… If you want to learn more about the mysteries of this precious archaeological heritage, head to the Musée Départemental des Merveilles. This fascinating museum unveils the origins and cultures of the ancient alpine populations. The tour continues with a stroll round the historic quarter, with its typical medieval architecture comprising sloping parallel streets, served by sometimes-covered perpendicular lanes or “carugiu”. Don’t miss a visit to the astonishing collegiate church of Notre-Dame-de-l’Assomption, bedecked with a red façade. And to wind up your journey in style, treat yourself to a trip down Sentier de l’Aigle – the “eagle’s trail” -, boasting panoramic views over the majestic alpine summits.