Thursday, September 4, 2008

Have a good summer, Malcolm?
It certainly had its moments.

Most of the highlights have appeared, one way or another, in this blog. One went missing, so is celebrated here.

Book a train ticket from the French Riviera to Turin; and you're likely to end up being routed via Ventimiglia. There's not much wrong with that; you have the joy of the journey along the Mediterranean, including the plunge under Monaco, with its spectacular new station. On the other hand, that way simply misses the point.

You want the direct train, the route of "le Train des Merveilles", from Nice-Ville to Cuneo, and then on to Turin. Or, if you have time and sense, stop off overnight (best: a Monday night, for reasons made clear later) at Cuneo (of which, more later).

In the summer season, the journey to Cuneo can be done with Carte Isabelle: this allows unlimited distance in Alpes Maritimes for a day for just €12.
On which, an extended aside: a privatisation too far

Whatever the logic for rail privatisation, and it mainly existed in the convoluted brains of misguided John Major and the misanthropic Adam Smith think-tank, even ten years on, the missing ingredient is care and concern for the passenger.

The prime example is ticketing.

Across Europe one can advance on the guichet, with a fair faith that one will get a fair deal. There will be a range of easily-available and properly-promoted discounts. The guardien, no Cerberus he or she, will be fully conversant with all, and capable of guiding a would-be passenger through any problem.

The most perfect is Deutsche Bahn: an exemplary web-site, with multi-language routing and ticketing information across Europe. Even Trenitalia can do it, with a certain degree of Latin clunkiness. French SNCF seem actually to want people to travel.

Not so in Britain. The different, train-operator based, websites are confused and confusing: just now Malcolm found four different prices for the same short journey (London to Cambridge) within minutes: the prices differed by a factor of 100% for the same service. All sorts of daftness persist: it is frequently cheaper, and considerably so, to book from the previous station up the line (as with the minor stations on that Cambridge line).

One may not even be sold a ticket: notably at Paddington, where the Heathrow Express booth stands aloof and away from the other sales point. The would-be passenger, often fluffed for time, is forced to queue twice. Or at Tottenham Hale, where buying a ticket for Stansted is a lottery, depending on whether it is obtained through London Underground or the "BR" desk.

Malcolm speaks ruefully, with painful experiences of both. And both airport links are grossly exploitative, with astronomical fares. In these days of no-frills airlines, one easily spends more on the first two dozen miles to the airport than the next six hundred.
And now, back to the Alpes-Maritimes

Malcolm's day started at Beaulieu-sur-mer, so the TER train was one of those splendid TER-Bombardier high-capacity electric regional expresses (see right), which whisked him into Nice-Ville.

Then the 12.35 "tous les jours" to Cuneo, arriving at 15.26. The Fiche Horaires shows this equipment does the return trip just twice in the working day. That three-hour schedule looks very leisurely for a road distance of less than 80 miles. Again: that's not the point.


This is a station in the grandest style. If Louis XIV had built railways, this is what he would have wanted. It had to be fit for royalty: Czar Alexander II was here, in his private train, the day after the railway to Nice opened. When the station went up, in 1867, it was outside the town of Nice. The town soon grew around it, and largely (large, indeed) in the style that became known as "la Belle Epoque". Leopold of Belgium was through here, on his way to the vast Villa Leopolda at Villefranche.
Queen Victoria roughed it on the Riviera from 1882. Between 1895 and 1899, this was where she would arrive, accompanied by her staff of over a hundred, to take over the west wing of the Excelsior Hôtel Regina (named and built in her honour), up the hill at the top of the Boulevard de Cimiez.

Today at Nice-Ville, we discover our train is a fairly-clapped-out diesel unit. The asterisk at the head of the column in the timetable had warned:
Trenitalia train des chemins de fer italiens.
This must be some kind of salami and spaghetti alarm; but all looks well. It has all the re-assuring look of older SNCF rolling stock. It even has the right French decals.

Well, to be honest, our train looks well and truly paupered alongside the grand TGV, bound for Geneva from the adjacent platform 4. Then again, the listed 6 hours or so to Geneva compares very favourably with the trip on which we are engaged. Anyway, there we are (see right), almost cowering at platform 5.

French railways still believe in whistles and flags. The under-floor diesels roar (we sensitive souls will expend quite some effort opening and closing the vents at each tunnel). The train pulls out, to the scheduled minute.

Just out of Nice-Ville, we dip into the first tunnel (this takes us under the Belle-Epoch villas of Cimiez), and we part company with the main line, heading east.

The first few miles are less than impressive, through the pink-buff apartment blocks of the north-eastern suburbs of Nice, past the railway-yards at St Roch. By the second stop, L'Ariane-la Trinité, just eight minutes out, we are sitting beside a decaying industrial site: things are looking up, though: it's still urbanised, but the hills are in view.

We have passed the first of a series of frontiers, some more obvious than others. We have lost the electric catenary. We have left the electrified mainline, all modern glitz and glamour; and are heading into branch-line country. We have moved back a technological generation or two. That's partly the point.

We snake alongside the dry bed of the Ariane. Cars on the main road (the D2204B, the map says) out-race the train with ease. Again, today, that's not the point.

A couple of minutes late, 25 minutes out, we pull into the hybrid of Drap-Cantaron. The hills are high and tree-clad: high on one of them is an observatory. Tunnels are frequent and long.

We have passsed another of those frontiers. Along with the landscape, domestic architecture has changed. Houses have pitched roofs, with large overhangs. There are woodpiles in many gardens. We have passed out of the sunshine belt of the Côte d'Azur into alpine country. Here it rains: there is cold and even snow.

For a few miles, as the train poddles along the river valley, we run in a small cutting through overhanging shrubs o. From time to time we catch glimpses of the road running in the same direction, and odd isolated houses, all with laundry out to dry, and the allotment garden of tomatoes and melons, onions and brassicas.

Then Peillon-Ste Thèle and Peille before L'Escarène. The geography has changed again: now we notice the stone-built villages perchés on the rocky ridges.

At some point along here our Cartes Isabelle get a cursory once-over. The ticket-collector surely must be une lycéenne on a summer job or work-experience. She is shy, almost blushing about it, but has the proper SNCF hat and ticket-punch. One clip suffices, not the full-blooded macho multiple staccato-clicks of the New Jersey Transit into New York Penn last month.


We are doing well. Sospel, several tunnels, fifty minutes and forty kilometres gone, looks well worth further investigation at some other date.

There is a substantial exodus of earnest types, all with walking sticks and back-packs off to do the job for us. This is another of those frontiers crossed. Down on the coast les vacances involves balancing a beer in self-basting and reclining mode, merely lifting the ogle-licensing dark glasses to peer at the hyper-active fossicking around, in and on high-speed, high-value marine Tupperware. A few kilometres inland, a few hundred feet up the mountains, we are among les randonneurs and les promeneuses.

The guidebook says this is the valley of the Bévera, illustrated with a castellated bridge straight out of the Italianate canton of Ruritania. What we see as the train curves round the town is delicious: spiny church towers, tall terraces of houses -- many obviously constructed of pastel icing-sugar, shutters uniformly not-quite-closed against the sunlight, a Baroque basilica with white Corinthian pilasters. The station itself is a strong pinky-red colour wash (on second thoughts, all the stations along the line came out of that same pot). The whole place is pick-and-mix, off the Dulux colour-card, with heavy ornamentation. That same guidebook tells us the town was badly bombed in the second unpleasantness: that explains the toy-town squeakiness of the place.


On the move again.

More tunnels, before we pass a small lake formed by damning the river, and arrive at Breil-sur-Roya. We stop alongside the sun-faded eau-de-Nile of a Trenitalia on the down line: it must be "down" because we are still climbing, and now reaching 1,000 feet.

This, a town of some 2,000 hommes (it says here: presumably some of them are also femmes) is the metropolis of the line: here we join the route out of Ventimiglia (after war damage, the line did not re-open until 1979: a plaque on Breil station tells us so). There is an extended delay: tea-break or change of personnel.

A second aside

There's a video on YouTube, posted by Raphael40, of the journey from Breil back to Nice, by this route.

The differences between that experience and ours are:
  • it shows the return journey;
  • it is late March, with lying snow and bare trees, as opposed to the verdure of late summer;
  • it is afternoon, turning to dusk and dark: our trip is bright sun all the way;
  • he concentrates on the station stops, missing the essential and exciting bits in between.
And on from Breil

The scheduled ten minutes stop at Breil extends to a dozen. A breather for the diesels before the crest of the line, perhaps.

It's a time for the second, and last, half of the sandwich bought at the Flunch counter at Nice-Ville, another swig of the water bottle. A moment to meditate on Edward Thomas, that June day of 1914, remembering
Adlestrop --
The name, because one afternoon
Of heat the express-train drew up there
This warm August day of 2008, no steam to be released: instead the diesels roar, and we have movement. On the left, in the disused sidings there seems to be a collection of old rolling stock, much of it well rusted.

Now the engines are working hard, and we climb higher into the mountains.

Brigue and Tende

We are not at the political border yet, but the national differences are becoming blurred. The whole of the county of Nice was only annexed by France in 1860. The north Italian influence is still apparent. The style, the life-style, the taste of these small towns are becoming increasingly like those across the Italian line proper. La Brigue and Tende, coming up soon on our trip, were absorbed into France only in 1947, after a local plebiscite.

We are passing through another of those frontiers of the mind and perception.

The High Roya valley was originally the private hunting estate of the Dukes of Savoy. Today it is the Mercantour National Park, advertised as the Vallée des Merveilles, the marvels being Bronze Age rock inscribings -- some 36,000 found to date. Hence in summer le Train des Merveilles, from Nice to Tende at 9.00 a.m., on our route, each morning: this transforms into a winter service, le Train des Neiges, with a connecting bus from St Dalmas de Tende to the ski-station at Castérino. Either way, the valley is being marketed for tourism.

By the time we have passed through these last few stations, our train is largely empty. We share a compartment with sleeping back-packers. The walkers and hikers have left us. They were along for the destination: we are here for the ride.

Four times along this mountain stretch the track enters a tunnel, does a 360 degree turn inside the rock, and emerges at a different level. In each case we suddenly emerge and see, thrice below and (having crested the mountains) once above, the line we are on. For Malcolm, and other railway nuts, this is the reason for being here. The first of these winding, climbing subterranean loops is after Fontan (counter-clockwise on our direction); the second after La Brigue, the third immediately after Tende (both clockwise). Each involves the snarling diesels coping with the ascent, the train wheels occasionally squealing as they manage the curve. Outside the window, the reflected light from the train interior shows the raw rock alongside.

St Dalmas de Tende

The journey has one more surprise: the station at St Dalmas de Tende. It is monumental. It is five stories high. It is a city block in length. It is solid masonry. It is abandoned, pointless, surrounded by chain-link fencing and empty.

Explanations are due.

It was built in 1928, in a full blown neo-Baroque. This was, at that time, the Italian side of the frontier. This was another imperial echo by Mussolini's Italy. Here the Italian Railways not only ran on time; but built this monster to mark their territory. After 1947, with the transfer of the communes of Saint-Dalmas de Tende, Tende, La Brigue and Viévola, it became redundant. Many trains no longer have any cause to stop here, and don't bother.


Now let us reconsider that station at Tende. This, too, was an Italian construction, also from the time of il Duce, built in 1927. Quieter, classically square and neatly proportioned, far more elegant as it is less grandiose than the dinosaur at St Dalmas down the track.

It is clearly different in style (and paint pot) from the SNCF stations up to Breil. And so a penny (or centime or lire) eventually drops. We may still be in France geographically, but this section is run from Italy. In fact, the whole line from Coneo to Ventimiglia is operated by Ferrovie dello Stato.

The summit tunnel

The final station in France, Vievola, seems an afterthought. Perhaps its only function was to be a border post between 1947, when these communes were absorbed into France, and the cessation of hostilities after the 1990 Schengen agreement. This seems a wayside halt: there is no community of any coherence or size to justify its existence.

At Vievola we are at 990m, 3,250 feet, altitude: we have climbed something like a further 600 feet since Tende.

All the way up the valley, the rail line has been following the general direction of the RN204 (now D6204 and E74), though the track is famously on bridges where it is not in a tunnel. We now plunge into the long, 8090m Tende rail tunnel. Somewhere in the depths we pass the frontier between France and Italy. It seems, in many ways, the least significant of the borders we have crossed.

Somewhere above us, at the 128om level, is the road tunnel: just (just!) 3180m long. It was a wonder of the world when it was drilled, back in 1882. Higher still is the Col de Tende, at 1980m.

Up there is the old, unpaved original road: since the tunnel is prohibited to cyclists, there will be the odd hard-cases negotiating the rocks most summer days. Let us spare them a thought, as they gamely struggle, onwards and upwards, until their moment of deserved, breathless triumph.

Yet another aside

The RN204 is one of the great biker roads of the Alps, with enough"twisties" to satisfy the worst craving. This is what the Snake Pass should be like, in our Superbike dreams.

At the crest in the ruined Fort Central, originally from the 1880s, an enduring monument to the excesses of the military mind.

In our tunnel we pass directly underneath, as we enter Italy.


We are now on the descent. The train's diesels reduce to a mutter. Subtly, now on the north-facing slope, the scenery has changed. We are more obviously into winter sports country: Limone became a ski-station once the railway reached here in 1891.

Here, we are still high, 110 km and 140 minutes from Nice. We are back across another of those frontier: from here the line is electrified.

Down the Vermenagna valley

Once across the line into Piedmont, Michelin 527 Carte Routière et Touristique, which has served well this far, becomes less detailed. It anticipates the final circular tunnel just before Vernante.

About the only thing we notice is that this is a well-tended little town, with one difference. Even from the train one catches sight of murals painted on houses. A later check shows this is because Vernante was the last home of one Attilio Mussino, who, it seems, was to the story of Pinocchio what E. H. Shepard was to Winnie-the-Pooh (before Disney got to him). In his honour, during the 1980s, Vernante took to these wall decorations.

And to to Roccavione: the end is in sight. There is some kind of sense that we are finally coming out of the mountains, and into the river-plain. Roccavione has new-build housing and factories. It gives the impression of being a flourishing community. It is less obviously wholly dependent on primary products and tourism. We are, again, crossing one of those frontiers.

Borgo S. Dalmazzo

This is the first town the map grants bold type since Tende, and one of only half-a-dozen along the whole route. It dignifies itself as the "Città di Borgo San Dalmazzo", and it clearly is a place of some local importance.

The approaches to the "Città" show a rash of those Euro-economy apartment blocks that come off planners' desks (they can never have been blessed with the benefit of a fully-functioning architect) like peas from a freezer bag. Burgo S. Dalmazzo looks as if its doing well for itself: this must be where the depopulation of the higher country is heading.

At Borgo San Dalmazzo we are out of the Alpine valleys: from here on the mountains are a distant, if constant, blue horizon.

The Vermenagna, which started as a torrent, has now aged, become respectable. It has ceased to be a mountain stream, and here combines with, and takes the name of the Gesso coming down from Isola 2000. At Cuneo the Gesso mates with the Stura di Demonte, which has orinated out to the west at the Colle della Maddalena. In due course (geddit?) that in turns meets the mighty and all-conquering Po.

Standing at Borgo San Dalmazzo, we notice a long line of goods trucks, laden with what look like untrimmed pit-props. All the wagons have German identification. This is one of the few example of commercial traffic, and by far the most substantial, we have seen on the whole journey.

A final and irrelevant aside

When he sees them (inevitably in the summer or autumn, when they are not in spate), Malcolm finds it hard to credit that this or that particular river is the reality of what second-form Geography at Fakenham Grammar School, mid-1950s, was all about.

The teacher, in those days, had most likely seen no more of the Po than of the source of the White Nile, or the upper reaches of the Orinoco: about all of which he -- and it would be a "he" -- expounded, knowledgeably and convincingly. An exception to the gross generalisation of that previous sentence should be for the erstwhile-suffering ex-squaddies and NCOs (and there were many in the teaching force of those days, frequently two-year trained, and none the worse for it) who had been with Lady Astor's contemned "D-Day Dodgers". Nor is it curious that the assembled pupillage,
the inclined plane of little vessels then and there arranged in order,
ready to have imperial gallons of facts poured into them until they
were full to the brim
failed to object or even question the veracity or the vehicle of transmission of these topographical gems. We were, after all, the first beneficiaries of the Butler Education Act, and were suitably grateful for it.

As we pull out of Borgo San Dalazzo, the last leg of the trip, we are halted athwart a levl-crossing. For some minutes, perhaps ten or more, nobody is going anywhere. Another, busier Adlestrop. We watch as, one by one, the young cyclists and the not-quite-so-young motorists lose patience, turn and head off to find an alternative road.

Then again for no obvious reason, the signal must have changed, and we proceed.

Cuneo, at 15.26

The last bare handful of kilometres tick past: we are now on level track, well-fettled for faster and heavier traffic than us.

We have passed our last frontier: now the fertile river valley is laid out in large fields, growing fruit and vegetables. We pass orchards and vineyards. The grain has been harvested, and consigned to the granaries that dot the now-disciplined landscape. All is smooth, efficient, groomed agri-businesslike.

And so into Cuneo, a couple of minutes late.

We collect our possessions. We dismount. The smell of hot oil speaks of a job well done. The tick-tick of an exhaust pipe, now allowed to cool, seems almost a note of self-satisfaction.

Malcolm is no great afficianado of diesels. He prefers the smell of the brute force and sweat of antique steam. He admires the air-conditioned comfort and speed of modern electrics. Here, though, has been a well-used and even-abused train-set, possibly forty or more years old, doing a respectable, capable and workmanlike job.

Congratulations and thanks are due to someone, somewhere. Sphere: Related Content

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