There’s something rather romantic about long train rides through beautiful countryside. Whether it’s that content mood you fall into as you bumble peacefully along on the train tracks or the introspection you feel as you gaze out into the wilderness beyond, there are a thousand good reasons to ride a train.
But train rides might not be the first thing to come to mind when visiting Nice. After all, there’s the glorious French-Riviera coastline to soak up and enjoy, quirky buildings to explore and even festivals to attend. If, however, you’re looking to explore beyond the beautiful city of Nice, the Train des Pignes or the Train des Merveilles are your best routes.
Here’s what you need to know.
Le Train dese Pignes, a 128-year-old line
Le Train des Pignes made its first journey in 1891. Today, it connects Nice with Dignes-les-Bains via 151 kilometres of narrow-gauge track. In places, Le Train des Pignes climbs up to 1000m, working its way over the Alpine mountains and ambling through tunnels and across multiple bridges and viaducts. The route takes you through beautiful scenery, including forested cliffsides, rushing rivers, medieval villages and mythological meadows, and within moments you’ll have left the concrete and the coastline, and you’ll have found yourself immersed in the fertile lands of the southern Mediterranean.
Why is it called Le Train des Pignes?
Le Train des Pignes loosely translates to ‘the pinecone train’, and there are a few theories for this unique name. It is thought that, because the train operates at a slow speed, passengers are able to hop off while the train is moving, pick up a pinecone and hop back on again.
Another theory is that, because the locomotive lacked coal, the mechanists used pinecones as fuel to keep the fires burning and the train moving.
Whatever is in the name, we like both theories, and they make for good storytelling as you weave out of the city of Nice and into the historical landscapes that lie beyond. Be sure to spot the pine trees as you go on this video trip!
The stops along the way
Le The Train des Pignes stops at 28 villages between Nice and Dignes, all of which are worth a short exploration if you can spare the time. If you’re more strapped for time, here are three villages that are certainly worth a walk around.
Touet-sur-Var looks to be crafted into the cliffside. This 12th-Century village is iconic for its flat-roof houses, which are used for drying figs.
Meeting at the confluence of the Var and Roudoule rivers, Puget-Theniers village is the perfect place to stop for a cool drink on the river. It was once a Jewish Ghetto and is now home to many cafes to relax in.
Entrevaux is the entrance to the Var valley. In 1536 it was the subject to a massacre, and in the 17th Century, it became fortified. Entrevaux is the most evocative in the region with drawbridges and a working olive oil mill.
Le Train des Pignes makes four trips a day between Nice and Digne-les-Bains, and the journey takes about three and a half hours. You can hop on and off as often as you like and it departs from the smaller Gare de Nice CP rail station.
Le Train des Merveilles
Le Train des Merveilles follows a different route, weaving through the sights of the Paillon and the Roya-Bévéra valley and into the Mercantour National Park, terminating in the historical town of Tende.
Five times a day, two modern carriages work their way uphill to Tende, which sits on the French-Italian border. Chundering along over viaducts, through vineyards and orchards, and through 107 tunnels, this is a journey that certainly shouldn’t be missed.
A little history of the ‘Train of Marvels’
It took 40 years to lay the tracks for Le Train des Merveilles. The route was finally opened in 1927 when the valley belonged to Italy, not France, and many of the grand stations along the line were built by Mussolini to show off the affluence of his country and impress his neighbours.
The ‘Train of Marvels’ is little known by tourists, and the line loops north from Nice-Ville station and into the Italian Alps, connecting a plethora of quintessentially French villages en route.
This video shows some of the history and amazing views
Some of the best stops along Le Train des Merveilles
Just 30 minutes from Nice lies the pretty town of Peille. Perched high above Monaco, this 13th-Century town cascades down a steep hillside and towards the community of Menton.
The larger villages of Sospel and Breil-sur-Roya sit along the more Alpine part of the track and are home to activities like horse riding and kayaking (along the River Roya), and the wild village of La Brigue is has some of the finest Alpine walking routes that take you high up above the valley below. Order an Italian espresso while visiting, too, and revisit some of the Italian history that still exists in this part of the French countryside.
Finally, the train arrives in the bustling town of Tende. Situated at a height of 1,000 metres, this historical town combines a rococo cathedral with Italian gravestones, French cuisines and Parisian-style pavement cafes. It’s the perfect blend of some of the best parts of Europe. The biggest attraction in this town is the Musée des Merveilles, a museum that is home to prehistoric rock paintings and stone tools that date back to the stone ages. You can also hike beyond this town, too, exploring the majestic lakes, rugged gorges and pristine mountain peaks which, on a winter’s day, will be coated with fresh powder.
Between June and September, Le Train des Merveilles departs once a day, every day from Nice-Ville station at 9:17 am, arriving into Tende at 11:24. The last train back to Nice is at 17:45.A qualified guide will talk you along the route and tell stories of the traditions, the history and the landscapes of the villages and wildlife you’ll pass through.
Looking for a place to stay?
If you’re visiting Nice and looking to explore these wonderous train journeys that’ll carry you into the heavenly landscapes of the French Riviera, make sure that you book up the perfect place to come back to so that you can rest in style.
At Paris Nice Vacations, we offer a selection of handpicked apartments in top locations throughout the city of Nice, each equipped with all the facilities you need to cook up a storm, browse the web and put your feet up.