train sur un pont

For centuries the Vallée de la Roya was the main road route from inland northern Italy to the French and Italian coasts. Two factors prompted construction of a rail link – one, the desire to improve strategic and political communication between the two countries, the other the need to avoid the frontier section of the Col de Tende at 1880m (a salt route) impassable in winter. Construction of the railway started in 1883 – financed privately at enormous expense and opened in stages from 1928.

photo ancien

The engineering was
The two lines - SNCF (red) and Trenitalia (yellow)
challenging the valley being steep-sided and narrowing to 30m in places.


There are in fact 2 rail lines, both starting at sea level, the one from Nice and managed by the French railway company, SNCF, the other managed by Trenitalia, starting in Ventimiglia and joining the French line at Breil sur Roya at 300m above sea level. The Breil section becomes Italian again beneath the Col de Tende, the frontier with Italy. The height change in the 44 km Nice-Breil section required 6 tunnels, the rails in some coiling above themselves (helicoid) …

vielle carte

… with a total length of nearly 13Km, and 8 viaducts with a total length of about 1.3Km.

The commercial importance of the rail link is evident from the large size of stations, typical examples being at Sospel, Breil and, nearer the Italian frontier, at St Dalmas de Tende …

la gare

… now rather rundown and planned to be converted into apartments or a hotel. In Italy the train then climbs to an altitude of 550m at Cuneo:-.


Construction was complicated by political changes between France and Italy. Governance of the Val de Roya was for a long time Italian finally, as a result of WWII, being ceded to France in 1947 following a referendum organised by Churchill and commemorated in the Piéne Haute churchyard. The Italian influence is evident in the cemeteries where family names are predominantly Italian. Sensitivities still remain and it best to keep to the French language until you are better known.

In addition to the rail, a road crosses the Col de Tende frontier. The road reaches a height of 1,880m and is very steep with plenty of switchbacks:-


A road tunnel under the Col de Tende, more than 3 km in length and at a height of 1,300m, effectively replaces the col route. Unfortunately, this route is heavily used by lorries with excessive noise and exhaust pollution in the Roya valley. Plans for a second tunnel, likely to further increase lorry traffic, are being fiercely contested by the local population and, last month, town mayors banned lorries of >19 tonnes.

The Roya valley is well worth visiting for the medieval villages,

beau village
Peillon-Sainte-Thècle; one of the many 'perched' hill top villages in the Roya Valley

where local languages of Tendasqe, Brigasque and Occitan are still spoken. Being a frontier region there are many examples of forts and military roads. Pre-historic rock drawings (Fr. gravures) are found in the Val des Merveilles, reached from Les Mesches on the St Dalmas-Casterino road. There are many opportunities for mountain walking, rock climbing and Via Ferrate, cycling and, if you are brave enough, canyoning. Predominantly limestone, the botany is rich and varied. The transhumanza,


the ancient practice of bringing sheep to overwinter on lowland pastures, takes place at La Brigue in the first part of October. A tourist train, the ‘Train des Merveilles’ with commentary by an expert guide runs during summer from Nice to Tende and is an excellent way of experiencing this part of France.

drag the map ← ↑ → ↓ with the mouse;
zoom in out with + -;
click on the markers to show the name

With thanks to and

Some words of caution.

The Cuneo-Ventimiglia line is currently closed for maintenance until 28 avril 2018. A substitute bus service operates from Ventimiglia with collection points at Breil and stations further up the Roya valley, to connect with the Cuneo train at Limone. Bus services cannot operate in snow –

chasse neige

as I found out last month to my cost! The only alternative is to travel Cuneo-Fossano-Savona and Ventimiglia; a taxi (110€) will be needed if the transfrontier trains and buses to Nice are not operating.

In November I also found that many of the hotels in the Roya valley had closed, probably because of the rail closure. Hopefully they will reopen in spring 2018.


Andrew Entwistle
December 2017

carte postale

Photo credits

  • wikipedia