The Tenda Railway from Nice to Turin is a little-known line running from the French Cote d'Azur across the Alps to the Piedmont region of Italy. It runs through very scenic and varied landscape and climbs 1000 metres from the Mediterranean Sea up to the Tenda Tunnel below the pass bearing the same name. Although the line is considered to be one of the most spectacular Alpine railways with a very interesting history it is not very well known and sees only little traffic. It offers the fastest connections between the two cities though and is a very interesting alternative route if you want to travel to Milan compared to the classic connections along the Mediterranean coast. In December 2013 I already travelled the main line from Ventmiglia to Turin and decided to travel the branch line from Nice on an Interrail trip in July 2016. I was really impressed by the spectacular setting of the route and can only recommend you to also consider this line for your trip between France and Italy.
The Tenda Line
The Tenda line consists of two branches: The main line runs from Ventimiglia via Breil-sur-Roya to Cuneo, where connections to Turin are available. This line is operated by Italian Railways Trenitalia and has the special feature that domestic Italian trains run part of their journey through France. Currently only two daily trains make the journey. The other branch of the line starts in Nice and joins the main line at Breil-sur-Roya. It is operated by French Railways SNCF who run rather frequent trains between Nice and Breil with a small number of them continuing to Tende.
From Nice, the line follows the Paillon river upstream until the station of Touët-de-L'Escarène. Here the tracks enter the tunnel beneath the Col de Braus to see the daylight again six kilometres later in the valley of Bévéra. In this remote valley the train makes only one stop at Sospel, before another long tunnel takes the line into the Roya valley. Just after the tunnel you can already see the other line coming from Ventimiglia below in the valley. Also watch out for fortifications at the tunnel portals which were built since the line runs on both Italian and French territory. It also saw many damages during Second World War where many of the bridges were destroyed and had to be replaced in later years. Soon afterwards the lines from Ventimiglia and Nice meet at the impressive station of Breil-sur-Roya. Here you will also find the Ecomusee Breil, worth a visit if you have some spare time.
In Breil the most impressive part of the line begins as it climbs towards the Tenda tunnel. The railway runs on both sides of the steep valley and uses several spectacular bridges, viaducts and tunnels to gain height. Most notable are the 60m high Viaduc de Saorge and several spiral tunnels. Another notable thing is how nature changes during the journey from the sea to the mountains. After two hours the Train des Merveilles reaches Tende, final stop of SNCF trains from Nice. Beyond Tende to Cuneo and Turin only Trenitalia trains operate. Depending on your connection, you have to change trains at one of the stations between Breil-sur-Roya and Tende to continue towards Italy. Trains make one last stop at Vievola before the 8km long Tenda tunnel takes them to Limone in Italy, where the descent towards Cuneo begins, where the line ends. From Cuneo, hourly connections are available to Turin - there is one direct train and one connecting service with a change of trains in Fossano every two hours.
I started my journey in past July at the beautiful station of Nice Ville. During summer season (daily from 1 June until 30 September and on weekends and holidays during May and October) SNCF operates the "Train des Vermeilles", a special service offering audio commentary of the sights along the route to Tende in French and English. The Train des Vermeilles leaves Nice at 09:23 and by changing trains in Tende and Cuneo you can reach Turin about five hours later (see timetable below). I strongly recommend to take this train as the audio commentary offers a very interesting insight into the line enabling you to discover many intersting sights along the route. Thanks to the information provided by the guide the two hour trip to Tende passed by really quickly and I had a little bit of spare time now to wait for the connecting train to Cuneo.
As I mentioned before the landscape had changed quite a bit compared to Nice and I could breath in the fresh, clean alpine air. Tende itself is also a nice little village and an excellent starting point for tours of the area. However, I had to continue towards Italy and about half an hour later I boarded the train to Cuneo. The train was really full so I couldn't make any pictures on the remainder of the route, but the most spectacular part lay behind us anyway. In Cuneo the connecting service to Turin waited on the opposite platform so changing trains was no issue. On the last leg to Turin the train runs to very flat landscape however you will find really nice views of the Alps in the distance if you look to the left. Finally I arrived on time in Torino Porta Nuova station, ready to explore this very interesting city.
On the French part of the Tenda line from Nice to Breil-sur-Roya and Tende there are frequent services. In Breil or Tende you can then change to a train coming from Ventimiglia to Cuneo however as mentioned before there are only two trains per day running to Cuneo. I have listed possible connections from Nice and Ventmiglia to Cuneo and Turin below, for all intermediate stops and the full schedule use a schedule planner or look at the SNCF timetable PDF.
|Ventimiglia||10:37||18:37||Torino Porta Nuova||06:25||13:25|
|Torino Porta Nuova||14:35||22:35||Ventimiglia||10:27||17:20|
As there are only regional trains operating on the line, there are no advance fares available. To travel from Nice to Turin, you have to buy an international ticket (SCIC-NRT) which costs 24,20€ when bought locally in Nice. If you have a Railplus card, you can get a discount of 15%, however SNCF issues such discounted tickets only for youths and seniors. If you are an adult you will have to buy a discounted ticket in another country.
If you are travelling within France only, the local TER tariff applies, which costs 13,30€ for a single trip Nice - Tende. During summer season think about getting the "Zou! Pass" offering free travel for TER (regional trains) in the whole of PACA area for 15€ per person/day. When travelling from Ventimiglia to Turin, the domestic Italian tariff applies, a single trip costs 11,85€.
Interrail and Eurail passes are valid on the whole route, no reservation needed. That's why the Tenda line is a perfect alternative if you are going from Nice to Milan. Between Turin and Milan you will find hourly fast regional trains, covering the route in about two hours.
Good to know
The Tenda line offers beautiful views on both sides. While at the beginning the better views are on the left, this changes from time to time during the trip. If you want to get the best views, you have to turn from one side to the other from time to time.
If you are travelling with light luggage and look for an intermediate stop (or just want to make a day trip from Nice), probably the most interesting place to go is Saorge, nestled on the mountain slopes high above the valley. The village is about 30-45 minutes walk from Fontan-Saorge station. The village can also be seen from the train a few minutes before the train stops at the station if you look out the window on the right hand side - don't miss it!
Turin is a fantastic city and an interesting alternative to Milan. I really enjoyed my stay there and am surprised that the city is not more popular. Definitely recommended if you are looking for something different to the "big" Interrail cities.
As always thanks for reading. If you have any questions, feel free to comment or post in the railcc forum.
Update: November 2018