When you’ve had enough of the beaches and palm trees, head to the hills to experience an alpine ambiance and a different kind of French charm… and all so easily accessible by train.
You can make for the mountains via two different directions, through two different valleys with completely different landscapes, from two different trains, the Train des Merveilles or the Train des Pignes, and each leaving from a different train station.
The Train des Merveilles
Leaving from the regular Nice-Ville Gare Thiers train station, the Train des Merveilles climbs the mountainous terrain through a series of viaducts and tunnels. One of the most picturesque villages is lakeside Breil-sur-Roya and further up, the perched village of Tende, with its rustic charm and mysterious museum. Named after the Valley of Marvels that surrounds the valley, you can see some of the fascinating ancient petroglyphs in the little Tende museum. The line continues into Italy, through Limone and Cuneo and then finally Turin. (UPDATE: There used to be a alternate route to get to Breil and Tende via Italy by changing trains in Ventimiglia, but as of December 6th 2012, the Italian trains will no longer stop in any of the little towns before Cuneo, so now the only way to reach them by train is to take the Train des Merveilles direct through France.)
Schedule: The direct train leaves twice a day at 9am and 12:30, takes about an hour to get to Breil and another hour to get to Tende. Catch the return train in the late afternoon at 5:20pm Tende/6:10pm Breil, or 6:35 Tende/7:40 Breil. The schedule is the 05 Nice-Breil sur Roya-Cuneo. Here’s the link to verify the schedule for a particular day: under recherche par ligne choose 05 Nice Breil-sur-Roya Cuneo, add where you want to go, put in your dates, and voila… er no, now it will make you re-enter where you want to go, but this time from a drop down list, and now… voila.
Train Fares: Cost: A one-way ticket to Breil-sur-Roya costs 9.20€, and to Tende is 12.40€, but you’re free to stop off in Breil, then catch the more frequent local trains between the two towns. At nearly 25€ round trip, you can cut the price almost in half with the 14€ Carte Isabelle unlimited day pass, available during the summer, and all year round for the 35€ Family Pass.
The Train des Pignes
To go up into the mountains in the other direction, you go to another Nice train station, called the Chemins de Fer de Provence, that is dedicated to this one mountain run. This train is named after the pine forest that lines the route, and it follows along the Var river to the fabulously preserved walled-and-moated village of Entreveux, then the town of Annot, finishing much farther on in Digne-les-Bains.
Schedule: To get to Entreveux takes an hour and a half and there are 4 trains a day… click here for the schedule. I would go to the train station to scope it out before buying your ticket, however, as there are often works happening on this route, and if you have to get off the train to take a bus part of the way, it’s not as fun.
Cost: A one-way ticket to Entreveux costs 10.30€, and unfortunately, this train is not in the network to be covered by the Carte Isabelle.
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