Recently I went to Nice for 4 days. I already enjoyed an excellent Food Tour around Nice and climbed Nice’s Castle Hill, but I also wanted to explore more of the surrounding area. I googled a lot and discovered there are 2 day trips from Nice by train. As you know, I love train journeys, so I wanted to take one. I researched and found there is the train des Merveilles, from Nice to Tende. And there is the train de Pignes, from Nice to Digne. For more day trips from Nice and things to do in Nice, check out the best of Nice from Hannah at Eat Sleep Breath Travel.
It was a difficult decision, but I opted for the train des Merveilles. I researched the train schedule for 2016 and set up a time scheme for where to get off the train and which towns to explore. I’ll tell you all about my day trip from Nice on the train des Merveilles.
Here you can find the 2016 train schedule for Ligne 05 Nice- Breil- Cuno.
I researched a lot before I went, but the official website from Tende does not provide you well enough information and things were a bit confusing.
Train des Merveilles from Nice
The Tren des Merveilles or the train of wonders is a normal train route between Nice and Italy. It is operated by SNCF and will take you in two hours to the small town of Tende, right before the border with Italy.
In high season, the 9.30 am train has live commentary in English. The guide will explain you all about the region, the geological appearances and the technical aspects of the train route to Tende.
The train takes you from sea level in Nice, up to 1.000m above sea level in the mountains. You pass through 81 tunnels and over 407 bridges. This day trip from Nice is a train lover’s dream ride.
How to buy tickets for the Train des Merveilles?
Online, I could only find the costs from the SNCF website. In summer, you can apply for a ZOU! Ticket which is only 15€ and you can travel on the train all day! What a bargain. The one-way ticket from Nice to Tende is already €13,30 so please apply for the ZOU! Card. Rules for the ZOU! Pass here.
You can buy a regular ticket from the vending machines in the hall of the train station but you need to go to the reservation desk and ask the clerk for the ZOU! Ticket.
Stops on the route of the train des Merveilles
I looked up all the stops along the route of the train of wonders and the things to do and see at the little towns. In the end, I choose to take the very first train, 7.30 am, and make it a full day trip from Nice. I made 3 stops along the way: Tende, Saorge and Sospel.
Discover more Fairytale French Towns in the Provence.
I took the train des Merveilles all the way to the final stop of the train in Tende. This gave me the chance to wake up a bit (or doze off for a while) as the train trotted into the mountains. After two hours, I got off in lovely Tende. The Italian mountains in the distance, the little town was just waking up. I headed to the Archaeological Museum of Tende to see what the museum was about, but it wasn’t open yet.
The tourist office next door was open, so I grabbed a little city plan and headed in the other direction. Market people where just setting up their stalls and I bought a delicious sandwich from the local bakery which I enjoyed on a bench in the sun.
Did you know Tende was the last commune to join the French Republic in 1947?
After my breakfast I headed towards the medieval town of Tende. I was alone in this part of the village. No cars, no people. Just very old houses, streets and I felt like I was in the Middle Ages. The weather was gorgeous and I made my way up in town. I visited the church and looked around.
As I was heading back into the modern town of Tende, I noticed the 14th century tower of the castle of the Lascaris up on a cliff. As I didn’t feel like going back up again, I continued my way but I think you’ll have a marvellous view from there.
I visited the museum in Tende and learned a bit more about the geological features of the Park de Mercantour. They had quite some interactive things, so it is interesting for children too. All the signs are in French but you can get a little booklet with information in your language.
After the museum in Tende, I headed back to the train station of Tende and got on the train towards Nice. After half an hour or so, I stopped in Saorge. Or better, the train station of Fontan-Saorge.
Getting to Saorge
The train station is situated right in the middle of these tiny towns. Online it said there should be a bus but it never came. As Saorge is about 2 km away, I needed to find a way to walk there.
Short route: I started walking along the road. There is hardly any traffic as the road ends in Saorge, but I came to a tunnel. I mistakenly saw the sign for “be aware for pedestrians” as “no pedestrians allowed”. I headed back to the train station.
The long route: I started on the longer route. It said 2 hours and goes over the hills. But I turned around as I did not have enough water and I am terrible with walking in the mountains.
I sat at the train station and contemplated my options. There wouldn’t be a train for 2,5 hours and there was absolutely nothing to do. After I had a firm talk with myself, I decided on the lazy option:
The lazy option to Saorge
I decided to hitchhike to Saorge. I never hitch hiked before and I think, as a solo female traveller, you put your safety at risk. It will probably be alright but I like to minimize any risks. Have you ever hitch hiked?
I had to wait for a good 10 minutes before any car passed. Just enough time to have 2nd and 3rd thoughts about my decision. A little combo van pulled up and stopped. It was a woman travelling alone and she made room for me. We drove to the village and she dropped me off at the town’s central square.
On the way back, I sneakily followed two tourist ladies who were fumbling in their bags for car keys and I asked if I could catch a ride with them. Jackpot. All in all, my first hitch hiking adventure turned out well but I don’t like to depend on others like this.
But there I was. The small town of Saorge. No traffic is allowed or possible after a certain point and I felt like I stepped into a time machine and entered an hippy enclave. I never saw so much dread locks, incense and prayer flags in a village.
The streets are old and narrow. The village is one string of houses aligned on the lower cliffs and the upper cliffs. I walked through the village twice and settle on a little terrace for something to drink as I waited for the monastery of Saorge to open.
Monastery of Saorge
The main reason for visiting Saorge was the monastery at the other end of town. From there, you’ll have spectacular views of Saorge as it hugs the cliff like an eagle’s nest. You can see the bridges and viaducts the train des Merveilles passes and the surrounding is what you expect from a secluded French town.
I headed to the Monastery and paid the €5,50 entrance fee to see it. To be honest, I came all that way to see the monastery but when I look back, I don’t think the monastery is worth the entrance fee. The court yard is lovely but the church is dark and mouldy. The best views are at the exterior of the monastery of Saorge.
There is a guided tour which you can join for free but it is only in French. I did understand the monastery of Saorge is no longer in use, but is used as a place for writers to work in silence.
Read more: Unesco Heritage Sites in Orange, France.
Saorge Monastery’s Garden
What I did find exceptional was the garden of the monastery. It moved me in a way I have trouble to explain. Here grows an abundance of herbs and vegetables in orderly fashion and the views were striking. The garden was so lovely, I suddenly missed my boyfriend intensely, who loves his vegetable garden and who was at the other end of Europe at the time. He would have loved it.
Is Saorge worth to include in your day trip from Nice?
The question is: Is Saorge worth stopping for on the train des Merveilles?
I am not sure.
The town was lovely and had that unique secluded feel. The road to the monastery gave lovely views and the garden of the monastery of Saorge was wonderful. But it was a bit of a hassle to get there and there might be other places along the route of the train des Merveilles that are worth your time too.
Would you like to visit Saorge?
After Saorge, I hopped on the train to Nice and got off in Sospel. By now I was getting a little bit tired and felt I’d seen enough medieval and quirky French towns. But one more stop, I was dedicated to making the very best of my day trip from Nice.
Sospel had a much more modern feel to it. I walked from the train station to the river and found all kinds of modern amenities that you’d expect in any small French town. Of course I stuffed my face with delicious foods at the local bakery and got some drinks at the supermarket.
I crossed the bridge that was gorgeously aligned with beautiful fragrant flowers. On the bridge to the old town of Sospel is the main attraction of the town.
The tower or keep of Sospel is from the 12th century and traders needed to pay taxes to cross the bridge as it was on a major salt trading route. That is right, no wine or cheese for which France is famous now, but the main thing to trade was salt.
Ancient Salt Route
Donkeys past the bridge with large bricks of salt on their backs and traders needed to pay tax at the tower. This is what added importance and wealth to the settlement.
Once passed the bridge, you’ll arrive back in the Middle Ages again. Old town houses, painted windows and colourful shutters and façades.
After walking around town, I headed back to the train station and got back to Nice. My day trip from Nice on the train des Merveilles was over.
I was happy to explore a new part of France. Just 100 km from the coast lays a whole different country where people live in nearly traditional way and the towns are self-supporting.
A few weeks later, I revisited Nice with my mom and took another day trip from Nice. This time the train de Pignes. Make sure to check it out too.
Where would you like to stop if you take the train des Merveilles? Have you taken this train of wonders from Nice? What is your favourite day trip from Nice? Let me know in the comment section below.