Tende - Train des Merveilles

SEP 18,2015 - SEP 18,2015 (1 DAYS)

Nature

Tende - Train des Merveilles (the Wanders' Train from Nice to Tende and back):

Start & End: Chemins de Fer de Provence station. The modern new station is at 4 bis, Rue Alfred Binet - about 6 blocks north of the Nice main railway station (Gare de Nice-Ville, Avenue Thiers).

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Duartion: 1 day. Weather: ONLY SUNNY DAY !!!

Lunch: there are 3-4 restaurants in the town of Tende. All of them are good with reasonable prices. Expect some of them to close off around 13.30...

Introduction: Merveilles means, in French, marvels or wonders. The name of the train line 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" (Valley of Marvels) is located. Tende falls within the eastern part of the Mercantour National Park. The wonders are the thousands of prehistoric rock engravings found there. This Nice-Breil-Tende-Cuneo railway line follows the Roya valley to cross the Alps into Italy. Tende, itself, is a small town, half-French, half-Italian and is one of the places from which you can access this Valley of Marvels and Mercantour National Park. There are a lot of lovely mountain villages along the line, along with great places for hiking.

The train itself is nothing special: modern, comfortable, its carriages are decorated with images of the 3000 year old glyphs and there are, only, 1-2 carriages... 

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The track climbs from sea level to 1000m through more than 100 tunnels, few of them are spiral. A magnificent engineering achievement.

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It was built between from year 1882 to year 1928.  Much of the line is separate from the surface of the earth. 30-40% of the travel time is under tunnels and another 10-20% over viaducts. The rest  - you see pretty riverside or hilltop villages, spectacular cliffs and canyons, pretty forests and green, prospering valleys. Along the ride - there are 8-9 stops.

The landscape beyond Fontane-Saorge:

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During the main season, from June to September you catch the 09.15 train from Nice. The full trip between Nice and Cuneo takes about three hours; between Nice and Tende is 90-120 minutes. Normally, the timetable is: departure from Nice-Ville at 9.23, arriving in Tende at 11.24. You can take your bicycle with you on the train, at no extra cost. To get back to Nice you need to check the railway timetable at the Tende station as it varies from day to day ! You are left with 4-5 hours for exploring Tende itself and the castle above the town. it's not a big town and you can do it in the 4-5 hours allowed before the afternoon train. The area around Tende is excellent walking country. The sights from the castle, perched high above Tende, over the town and its surroundings - are SPECTACULAR. The town itself - is charming and picturesque. In Tende do not miss the ultra-modern Musée des Merveilles to find out more about the rock carvings. Do not forget just exploring the narrow, sloping alleyways of the medieval core of Tende.

Stops Along the Way, from Nice to Tende:
• Nice main railway station
• Nice St. Roche
• La Trinité
• Drap - Cantaron
• Peillon Ste Thecle
• Peille
• L'Escarène
(long tunnel)
• Sospel
(long tunnels)
• Breil-sur-Roya
• Fontan - Saorge (loops inside mountain)
• St Dalmas-de-Tende
• La Brigue
• Tende

During the train ride - you are  "flooded" by non-stop, informal commentary in English as well as French. Sometimes, you can avoid the commentated carriage and find shelter in a second, more quiet (and less crowded) carriage. The return journey has no commentary. Commentary on the entire journey:
- Weekends and public holidays in May (except May 1) and October
- Every day from June 1 to September 30,

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Prices: Prix : 15 € for adults, 7,50 € for children (12 yrs old +), FREE for children until 12 yrs old. No need to book. Buy your ticket at the counter the day of departure,  or reserve your Zou Pass at: http://www.ter.sncf.com/paca/loisirs/lignes-touristiques/train-des-merveilles (15 €). For 15 euros, ZOU! Pass allows you to travel for 24 hours unlimited throughout the Alpes-Maritimes region. Valid from 1 June to 30 September. Tende has a railway station on the Nice/Ventimiglia-Breil-Cuneo line run by the SNCF, with connecting service from Ventimiglia/Nice in the southwest to Turin to the north. Train services are mostly operated by Trenitalia.

Tende, itself, is located in the French Alps within the French Mercantour National Park. The mountainous town is bordered by Italy to the north. The line of mountain tops between the two countries contains more than 20 summits exceeding 2,000 meters. The Col de Tende (Tende Pass), a strategic pass through the Alps to Piedmont, has been modernized to be a road and railway tunnel. Tende is split from north to south by the Roya river valley. The Réfréi river joins the Roya river within the limits of Tende.

Tende is a medieval village and belonged successively to the Count of Ventimiglia in the 10th century, then the Counts of Provence and the Counts of Lascaris of Ventimiglia before being swapped several times between Italy and France. First to the Duchy of Savoy, then the First French Republic (later the Napoleonic Empire), then restored to the Savoyard Kingdom of Sardinia-Piedmont (which became in 1861 the Kingdom of Italy). From 1861 to 1947 Tende was part of Italy, and was damaged during the Italian Nazi invasion of France in 1940. Tende was the last commune to join the French Republic in 1947, when Italy was forced to give up (after defeat in World War II) some alpine areas to France. Tende is located on what was once an important route of the salt trade between Italy and France. During their reign of Tende, the Lascaris would demand a toll of those transporting salt and others passing through the region. While the main language of Tende is French, most of Tende's residents also speak Tendasque - a mix of the Ligurian language with Provençal influences.

Note: the is a public restroom in the Bar de Sport in Tende's centre.

Tende is a very lovely little Italian-style medieval mountain town, with the houses grouped tightly together on the slope of the mountain. You certainly feel that you are in a mountain town - a total opposite to a riviera town. The most striking thing about Tende, given its relative isolation, is the size of the town and in particular the very extensive old center, with numerous paths, roads and alleys to explore (on foot, the roads not being adapted to vehicles). The medieval houses, typically three-five stories high, are built sturdily from the surrounding rock. Buildings are typically medieval houses and alpine architecture, with narrow streets, vaulted passages and sculpted door lintels. The houses are roofed in "Lauze" stone, a local varient of slate, and are often dark in the shadow of the mountains.

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The renaissance period painted houses around Tende central square were built later than the smaller stone houses in the outskirts (see below):

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The main square in  Tende in memorial to the heroes of WW1:

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The Main Square:

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Fountain in the centre of the town:

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The view to the east from the town/village centre:

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Many houses are still made of wood. There are many "trompe l'oeil" paintings on the town buildings, sometimes the whole wall but occasionally just a single painted window beside real windows:

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Tende alleys in the ancient town are VERY picturesque. Allow half an hour for strolling along these narrow trails. Most of the residents, there, are far beyond their eighties:

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Place de Chatelain:

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Green "schist" doorways on village street. These doorways are carved from large pieces of the "schiste verte":

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Modern painted sundial:

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The most important religious building in Tende is the Collegiale Church of Notre-Dame that dominates the centre of the town with its tower and Baroque facade. The Collégiale Notre-Dame de l'Assomption is the large, dark-ocre building in the middle of the old town. The Count of Tende, Honoré Lascaris, ordered its construction in the 15th century. We quite liked the lintel statues of Christ and the 12 apostles. The decorative stone carvings of the 12 apostles above the doorway date from 1562, and the bright colours of the facade were only added in the 19th century:

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The interior is full of fine and ancient items. Open in the summer 9.00 - 18.00 and during the winter 9.00 - 17.00:

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The base of the Collégiale Notre-Dame de l'Assomption bell-tower is bright, but the sundial isn't very useful without its pointer:

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The main highlights around Tende: 

The ruins of the 14th century castle that once stood above Tende - the Chateau Lascaris, largely destroyed in the 17th century - can be visited by following the steep path at the top of the town.  A walk of 40 min along sloping trail leads to the ruined castle or fort above the town. We do the climb with two parts. First, arriving to the highest viewpoint over the Tende town/village, and, later, continuing to Tende cemetery with further striking sights over Tende and the surrounding Alps:

The trail climbing up over Tende:

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The views from the highest viewpoint are breath-taking:

Viaduct and view to the north from the castle hilltop. The railway viaduct crosses the valley towards the station at the left:

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The view to the north-east from the castle hilltop:

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Ten km north of town is the Col de Tende, one of hundreds of beautiful sites in the region. The Col de Tende is the source of the Tende river, at 45 km long. The view to the south-east from the castle hilltop towards the Roya Valley:

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Roya Valley - south of Tende:

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A small fountain near the highest viewpoint:

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"Lauze" stones on Tende roofs - from the climb to Tende Cemetery:

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From there we climbed further, with our face to the south, to the town/village cemetery. There, we'll find the very few reamins of the ruined castle. The castle ruins themselves consist largely of one single 'spire' of wall that still remains. Particularly notable here is the adjacent cemetery and the lovely views back across the town and surrounding mountains. Today the proud silhouette of the proud central fort recalls the darkest hours of the Nizza Savoia wars between Nice and the Italians. It belonged to the Kingdom of Italy and then moved to France as a result of the Treaty of Paris in 1947. This central fort or castle extended both on the Italian side and the French side. The hillside Tende is overlooked by this spire-like remnants of the castle of the Lascaris. It  was built in the 14th century as protection from the attacking Count of Provence, Charles d'Anjou. The castle was destroyed in 1692 when King Louis XIV ordered his Marshal, Catinat, to destroy all fortified structures in France that might challenge his rule. The fort was completed in 1880 and was joined by a defensive barracks (today there are significant remains) that was able to accommodate about 300 men. The Central Fort was also served by a cable car that ensured the connections in case of snowfall. From this ruined fort - there are paths leading to other defensive positions of the Maritime Alps. As we said before, the only complete structure that remains is a circular tower, transformed into a clock during the 19th century. The voice of the clock's bells can be heard day and night throughout Tende.

On the way to the ruined fort and the cemetery:

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Tende houses - from Tende Cemetery - view to the east:

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Tende houses - from Tende Cemetery - view to the east:

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Tende houses - from Tende Cemetery - view to the south-east:

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Tende houses - from Tende Cemetery - view to the south - the Roya valley:

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There are various scenic routes to follow into the valleys around Tende. The Col de Tende is one of the most attractive, and follows north from the town towards Italy:

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View from the cemetery to the north - the viaduct leading to Tende station:

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The remains of the castle of the Counts Lascaris: a view of the hilltop Tende and the Roya valley:

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The castle ruins themselves consist largely of one single 'spire' of wall that still remains:

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The tranquil area, near the river, almost flat:

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One big attraction close to Tende is the Valley of Merveilles, with literally thousands of prehistoric carvings to be seen in the rocks. Further examples and replicas can be seen at the Musée des Merveilles in Tende, The museum's name comes from the nearby Vallée des Merveilles. Do not miss the museum with free admission.  The museum documents stone age and other historic artifacts from the Mercantour National Park. It opened in 1996. Great displays in different languages: 

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There is notably a large collection of real and reproduced petroglyphs from the surroundings of the nearby Bégo Mountain:

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