Ralph Waldo Emerson is often credited with coining the saying, “It’s the not the destination, it’s the journey that matters.” He had clearly not taken the train to Tende. This mountain village is a destination just as dramatic and mesmerizing as the epic train journey to reach it. It’s not called the Train des Merveilles for nothing, but even this seems to underplay the glories this two and a half hour journey into the mountains on the border with Italy has to offer.
The train zigzags through the mountains, climbing over a kilometer in altitude along 100km of track. It is a feat of engineering extraordinaire. Started in 1883 and finally completed in 1928, there are 81 tunnels covering 44km of the route. This includes three exceptional spiral tunnels, not to mention the Scarassoui viaduct as well as 407 bridges, including the 300m long Rivoira viaduct. It is monumental.
The engineering may well be wondrous, but so is the scenery – although with so many tunnels it’s often hard to see it, and photographing it is virtually impossible. That though seems irrelevant when you’re taking a bend that literally doubles back on itself as you slowly wind up the mountain over a river gorge. The line was partially destroyed during the Second World War and only fully restored in the 1970s. Thank goodness.
Even if you’re not a train enthusiast (such people do exist), the journey is worth making because waiting for you at the end is the gorgeous medieval village of Tende. Just a stone’s throw from the Italian border, Tende has often been swapped between France and the Duchy of Savoy, later Italy. It only became permanently French in 1947 as part of the post-war settlement but retains an Italian feel.
The remains of a 14th century castle overlooking the town testify to the importance of the trade. We stepped off the train and breathed the fresh mountain air before heading towards the maze-like lanes and alleys of the old town. The village is built up the hillside and wandering its atmospheric streets involves a lot of up and down steep slopes. The higher you get the better the views over the valley though.
The old part of Tende is mostly residential with few other things to occupy you beyond the delights of strolling the ancient streets. We meandered our way back to the new town, taking in spectacular views from the highest part of the village. We had some time until the return train to Nice and found a restaurant for a relaxed lunch. Unsurprisingly, the food had a strong Italian flavour.
Tende is not a big place and, unless you have plans to do some hiking on the trails into the nearby hills, there is little to keep you in the town for more than a few hours. It would though make a perfect base to explore the surrounding countryside. We though, were headed back to the beach, retracing the dramatic journey down to sea level.