If you’re looking to get away from the hustle and bustle of Nice, jump on the Train des Merveilles for a scenic ride through the French Alps to the medieval village of Tende. The village is located within the Mercantour National Park, about a 2 hour train journey from Nice, France.
Taking the scenic Train des Merveilles is a great way to experience the beauty of rural France. The train is comfortable and air-conditioned, a huge plus with summer train travel in Europe!
Get free commentary in English and French daily from June to September. Commentary is available on weekends during May and October as well. We found the tour fascinating and learned a lot about the engineering feat which created the 100km (62 mi) railway in the 1800’s. Cross over 100 bridges and viaducts and countless tunnels as the railway moves from sea level through altitudes up to 1000m (3281 ft) .
The kids also liked checking out the villages, the river and experiencing the dizzying heights of the bridges as we made the journey. Children are expected to be quiet during the rides as to not disturb others, so if you’re traveling with them, you may want to try and find a compartment without other travelers or skip the last three cars and just enjoy the ride.
The Train des Merveilles makes three daily runs from Nice to Tende. You MUST pay careful attention to the timetables. You don’t want to make an unplanned overnight stay in one of the villages because you missed the train! If you forgot to pick up a timetable at the train station, pick one up at the tourism office. It might even be wise to ask them to mark the return times. I found the sheet to be a bit difficult to read.
Taking the 9:23 am train from Nice (arriving in Tende at 11:24am) and returning on the 2:47pm train will give you three good hours for exploration. This is plenty of time to see the village. You could also jump back on the train and stop at another village along the way back to Nice, paying attention to the schedule of that last train departure from Tende!
What to See in Tende:
Tende, a part of Italy from 1861 to 1947, was the last commune to join the French Republic in 1947. The mountainous village is bordered by Italy to the north and is located on what was once an important salt trade route between France and Italy.
Salt was so important to daily life that heavy taxes were extracted from the trade, causing the rise and fall of empires. Wars were even fought over the precious compound. During the Lascaris family reign of Tende, they demanded a toll of those transporting salt passing through the region. While in Châtel we learned about the fascinating history of 18th century salt smuggling.
One of the distinct features of the hillside village is the remains of a circular tower from 14th century castle of the Lascaris (now transformed into a clock). The castle was destroyed in 1692 when King Louis XIV ordered the destruction of all fortified structures in France that might challenge his rule. This is the same King that destroyed the Chateau on Parc du Château in Nice.
Your first stop in Tende should be the tourism office to pick up a village map and get information on hiking, if you plan to traverse the countryside. They don’t have a free hiking map (you’d have to purchase one from the book store), but you can take a picture of the map on your cell. Derrick used that picture and our phone map to help guide us on our trek later that afternoon.
If you have kids, you might want to pick up the Jeu de Piste or Treasure Hunt booklet. It’s only available in French, but it’s a cool activity to keep kids busy as they wander the village.
After stopping in the tourism office, head next door to the Museum of Merveilles. Admission is free and you’ll discover the area history, archaeology and see images of the Mont Bego cave drawings. We thought the museum was very well done and worth a visit. The kids liked the music station and seeing the huge displays with archeological symbols throughout the museum.
Next, walk down the main street (Av. du 16 September 1947) and head towards the ruins of the Castle and cemetery for views of the surrounding mountainside and slated rooftops. If you want to eat or shop, you need to do so before getting to the Old Town.
After we walked up to the ruins, we wandered through the lovely Medieval village, stopping to eat our lunch on a picnic table. Afterwards it was time to tour the 15th century Collegiate Church Our Lady of the Assumption. Members of the Lascaris family are even buried in the chapel.
We only needed about 2 hours to see Tende. If you’re planning to jump back on later train, you could walk more of the village or stop for lunch in one of the restaurants.
Hike from Tende to La Brigue:
After exploring Tende, we hiked 2 hours to the village of La Brigue. The hike wasn’t too difficult with our kids, but it wasn’t exactly an easy stroll. We were all a bit exhausted afterwards, but the views were incredible. I’d highly recommend hiking the area if you have time. We chose to spend time in La Brigue, taking the last train back to Nice around 5:12pm.
The path from Tende starts at the opposite end of the village from the train station/tourism office. The first part of the walk is on a rather flat path. After crossing a bridge, then the main road leading from Tende, you’ll start the climb. Simply follow the signs and switchbacks as you ascend the side of the mountain. We needed a lot of water breaks with the two younger kids (Our friends son age 7 and Lucy age 9). They were getting a bit tired about halfway up. I may have used bribery to get them to finish the climb. Also, make sure to stop and take some pictures of Tende as you ascend the mountain.
The change in landscape after your reach the peak is incredible. Gone are the towering trees and heat. As soon as we started our descent, the path narrowed as we wound our way through small shrubs, flowers and wild thyme. The wind picked up and the temperature dropped a good 10 degrees F. Even though it was a bit hard on the knees, I preferred this side of the hike. K also decided he was our new tour guide and bush beater, giving facts, and holding back pricker vines. We thought he was just being cute and sweet until the end when he said that he hoped we enjoyed the tour and to feel free to give him a tip 🙂
I wouldn’t suggest reversing this trek and hiking from La Brigue to Tende. The narrow, rocky path could be a bit treacherous, especially with children.
What to See in La Brigue:
La Brigue is a tiny village that I fell in love with, even from on top of the mountainside. The kids loved our visit there and would have preferred to spend the entire day. As soon as we arrived in the village, we let the kids walk down the stone steps to play in the river. They took off their shoes and dipped their toes in the frigid water. They played there for about an hour before we had to pull them out in time to see the village, before it was time to hop on the train back to Nice.
Tip – The current moves fast! We warned K that the rocks were slippery and the current was strong. Of course, all pre-teens know better than their parents. He ended up falling in and getting soaked. He enjoyed the train ride back in wet shorts. We enjoyed being right again!
The main attraction we wanted to see in La Brigue was the Sanctuaire Notre-Dame Des Fontaines. While it’s a small chapel, the frescos from 1492 are supposed to be amazing. Unfortunately, the chapel was closed during our visit. I’ve already decided we will hike the area again next fall. I’m determined to see these frescos!
The Collegiale Saint-Martin is a lovely church that is worth a visit as well. We were even able to peek in to see the choir practice. Walk through the narrow streets of the Old Town to the remaining tower of Chateau Lascaris – this is a different branch of the family than the one in Tende. Check out the plaques and fountains while you wander the village.
Get the ZOU! Pass for 15€ which entitles you to 1 day unlimited travel in the Alpes-Maritimes. The pass will save you approximately 12€ plus you could travel on another train on the same day. You could possibly hop the train to Cannes or Monaco for dinner.
Approximate Regular Price Tickets:
Adult: 27.20€ return rate
Child: 13.60€ return rate
If you’re looking to get away from the city and take in the mountain views, enjoy the train journey from Nice to Tende. Pack a lunch, take a hike and learn a bit of history along the way.
Also along the railway line is the village of Peillon. You can read all about our visit and see how Derrick made us crawl our way up to the village.
*Train times can change. Please consult the schedule before departing!