This Little-known European Train Is Called the 'Railway of Marvels' — and It Weaves Through Idyllic Mountains, Coastlines, and Towns

Beloved by Italians, the Cuneo-Ventimiglia-Nice railway, known as the "ferrovia delle meraviglia" ("railway of marvels"), connects the mountains of Piedmont to the Mediterranean, weaving between Italy and France in the process.

Italian trains in beautiful mountainous landscapes
Photo: Federico Santagati

Cuneo, a provincial capital located where the fertile plains of Piedmont abut the Maritime Alps, is well-trodden, if not particularly remarkable. Yet the small Italian city hosts a little-known wonder — one that's constantly on the move.

It marks the start — or the end, depending on which direction you're coming from — of the "ferrovia delle meraviglie" ("railway of marvels"), a train that climbs up into the mountains and soars down to the Mediterranean, traversing spiral tunnels and lofty viaducts and weaving between Italy and France before finally arriving in Ventimiglia, a border town on the Italian Riviera. As the train descends a staggering 1,000 meters over 100 kilometers, riders are treated to stunning views of the Maritime Alps and Mercantour National Park, as well as the Ligurian coast and French Riviera on the final leg to Nice.

Chronically underfunded and overlooked, the historic Cuneo-Ventimiglia-Nice route was the top choice in Fondo Ambiente Italiano's 10th edition of the "I Luoghi del Cuore" ("Places of the Heart") survey, held in 2020. A nonprofit established in 1975 and modeled after the British National Trust, Fondo Ambiente Italiano (or FAI, as it's more commonly known) organizes the campaign every second year as part of its efforts to safeguard and enhance Italy's cultural heritage.

The survey provides a platform for Italians to spotlight lesser-known places that are of interest to the general public — the list from which people vote is user-generated. "We have a database of over 39,000 sites" accumulated from past campaigns, explains Federica Armiraglio, the head of national projects at FAI. She continues, "When you take the survey, you can actually search through the database and see if the places you want to vote for are already there." If not, users can add new ones. Likewise, it's possible to vote for multiple sites. "Most people have more than one place they love," says Armiraglio.

In 2020, the Cuneo-Ventimiglia-Nice route took the top spot with just over 75,000 votes, beating out two more traditional locations: Sammezzano Castle in Tuscany (62,690 votes) and Brescia Castle (43,460 votes). Perhaps the romance of train travel — a vital component of Italian history and culture, and a resurgent form of transportation at a time when travelers are looking to decrease their carbon footprint — captured the public imagination.

With Italy easing pandemic restrictions and spring shaking out her hair, it seemed like an opportune moment to make the mountain-to-sea journey and see these marvels for myself — especially since the full route had only recently reopened after flooding from a hurricane closed off a section in October 2020.

Plus, the time had come to move again. I have spent much of the last two years standing still — certainly because of the pandemic, but also owing to the realities of parenting a toddler. Life shrinks when you have a young child — the streets within a 10-block radius of our apartment in Milan are well-worn. The rare times I did travel with my family, the act of moving was in no way pleasant, and instead laser-focused on getting from point A to point B quickly (and with as few meltdowns as possible). Having left my husband and daughter at home, I boarded the Cuneo-Ventimiglia train with the sole aim of luxuriating in leisurely motion.

My main indulgence was simple: staring out the window. Despite holding the promise of summer, spring on the plains of Piedmont is more shades of brown than blooming. Tractors upturned coffee-colored soil, while previously tilled fields took on a dull hue in the haze. Tan trees stood naked, with only a whisper of green on their outer extremities. The muted palate made the bursts of color that much more startling: a lone flowering tree in Barbie pink adjoining a squat industrial building, or the never-ending rows of rosy and white blossoms on fruit trees — peach, kiwi, and apple — stretched to uniformity.

Signs of spring could even be found inside the train. A woman seated opposite me pulled out a plastic bag splattered scarlet — it looked as if it contained a small murder scene — from her granny cart. Holding the heavy bag by its knotted top, she tenderly ran her other hand under the rippled bottom, feeling for any leaks. As she did, I could see the outlines of big, juicy strawberries, the first of the season.

Italian trains in beautiful mountainous landscapes
Federico Santagati

The train is small, six cars in total, and during my journey, around two-thirds of the seats were full. Teenage students lounged on what looked like a curved couch framed by a large picture window. Sitting in more traditional rows was a group of four women chatting in French and holding shopping bags. A young man noisily crossed the aisle to help an elderly couple hoist their suitcases on the luggage rack and then stayed a beat longer to exchange some pleasantries and pet their dog. I was one of only a handful of tourists, distinguished by my head on a swivel and the constant snapping of photos.

Climbing into the mountains behind Cuneo, the engine began to strain. We snaked through tunnels only to shoot back into the sun and catch glimpses of fast-moving tableaus: snow-capped craggy peaks, sloping lawns blanketed in yellow wildflowers, coniferous forests, and boys playing soccer in T-shirts. It came to be a reliable pattern of an unfolding scene — say, sparse bushes opening onto a steep valley — cut short by darkness. My ears popped, and I surrendered to the task of letting these snippets of beauty wash over me, accepting that I wouldn't have time to properly comprehend them.

Despite the fact that the train currently runs only twice a day, the railway has the potential to be a crucial lifeline for the many small towns it serves. The teenagers gathered up their backpacks and disembarked at Robilante, where the buildings have more of an alpine look and old factories have been repurposed into housing. According to Armiraglio, the train connects students to the universities in Turin. "If you reach Cuneo, then you can also easily reach Turin," she says.

Armiraglio adds, "The hospital in Cuneo is the main hospital for both the most western sections of Liguria, because Genoa is quite far away from places like Ventimiglia and San Remo, and for Piedmont." Increasing the number of trains per day would improve accessibility. "But there has been a lack of trains, and it created a circular problem: The fewer trains we have, the fewer people decide to use the railway as a means of transportation, and so once again fewer trains ride because there is not enough traffic to make the railway economically sustainable."

The route could also be a driver of tourism in the area, providing more sustainable access to towns like Limone Piemonte, a popular ski resort. As our train slowed to a stop in front of the Limone Piemonte station, the snowy peaks, wooden chalets, and large hotels certainly suggested a bustling alpine destination. When the train doors opened, a blast of cold air filled the car — forget spring, it felt like we had jumped back in time to winter.

The sizable town, at an altitude of 3,288 feet above sea level, is the highest point in the open that the railway reaches. Soon after leaving Limone Piemonte, the train reaches its culminating height in the Col de Tende tunnel, at an altitude of 3,412 feet. Named after the eponymous mountain pass that separates the Maritime Alps from the Ligurian Alps, as well as Italy from France, the tunnel is more than five miles long and took eight years to construct — a marvel that can be hard to fully appreciate when you're blanketed in darkness.

The railway makes extensive use of viaducts, bridges, and tunnels to navigate the steep terrain. Of those, the route's spiral tunnels, in which the tracks rise on a steady curve until completing a loop, are particularly impressive. The railway can thus gain vertical elevation in a relatively short horizontal distance. Although all these maneuvers take place in unlit tunnels, when the dark negates any sense of direction, it felt at times as if we were twisting and turning.

More impressive is that many of these architectural wonders were originally constructed in the early 20th century. The idea for a railway connecting the Piedmont region with the Mediterranean was first concocted in the mid-19th century, when the House of Savoy ruled this large swath of land. The Italian statesman Count Cavour originally dreamed up a Cuneo-Nice route, which became null when the district of Nice was sold to France in 1860. The focus then shifted to connecting Piedmont to Liguria; Italy and France eventually entered an agreement in 1904 that required each country to build the tracks on its territory. Finally opened in 1928, the line became an important link between Piedmont and Liguria and significantly cut down the travel time between Switzerland and Nice.

The railway was severely damaged in the Second World War, as the retreating Germans destroyed important viaducts and bridges. Repairs only began in the 1970s, after France and Italy signed another international agreement. Since the Germans were aligned with Mussolini, "it was decided that all the costs of restoration were to be paid by Italy and not France, even for the French section of the railway," Armiraglio explains. "There's a governmental commission between Italy and France that has been charged with renewing this international treaty," she adds. It's imperative to find a more balanced agreement regarding the costs of managing the railway, and she hopes that the FAI campaign has provided politicians with a nudge to get things moving.

While ridership has never fully recovered, there's a renewed interest in the line, particularly in France. "Macron went several times to the sites damaged by the hurricane in 2020, and France is actually investing very much in the French part of the railway," Armiraglio says. This has, in part, contributed to an increased interest in Italy; the results of the FAI survey have also made the railway a priority for the many stakeholders involved in its management.

SNCF, France's national state-owned railway company, offers a special service aimed mainly at tourists called train des Merveilles, which runs from Nice to Tende, connecting to the Cuneo-Ventimiglia route right before Breil-sur-Roya. At peak times, the train has guides who narrate the history of the railway and emphasize the charm of these quintessentially French villages and their proximity to hiking trails and natural beauty (this stretch of the route is located in the Mercantour National Park).

As we passed through Tende, a staggering terraced town built along a curve in the river, the stone roofs and orange bell tower grabbed my attention. It's one of many villages that appear both improbable and yet also entirely natural, constructed around and a reflection of geographic realities. Likewise, Saorge balances on a precipitous hillside above the tracks, offering the promise of seclusion. At times, it seems more like a guarantee: These villages are often interspersed with washed-out roads and bridges.

The fact that two states, as well as multiple regions and municipalities, are involved in the management of the railway makes coordination difficult. "It can happen that a train [from Cuneo] arrives at Breil-sur-Roya at, say, 10:05 a.m., and the train for Nice departed at 10:03 a.m., and the next one leaves in 10 hours," Armiraglio says, pointing out that the schedule as it currently stands is not particularly useful for commuters or tourists.

The second half of the journey was more gliding than straining. It's almost jarring how smooth and quiet the ride is on any descent. After we passed back into Italy, the riverbed grew larger, until it resembled a carpet of rocks. Dark green pine forests gave way to olive trees, which then led to cacti and lemon trees heavy with fruit. On the outskirts of Ventimiglia, I spied recycling centers, abandoned greenhouses, colorful beehives, and small, messy garden plots, all against the backdrop of huge, yellow-orange cliffs. Circling seagulls portended the sea.

At Ventimiglia, I boarded a train operated by SNCF to Nice. I watched the blues of the early night sky melt into blues of the Mediterranean. On such a swift, straightforward journey, I reflected on the slow-moving, improbable ride from Cuneo to Ventimiglia. How the engineering feats that led to a railway in such an inaccessible area are, for the most part, invisible to those riding the train. How the landscape, while stunning, is not all pristine natural beauty, but also littered with the messy signs of life, from construction equipment to overgrown warehouses and scruffy gardens.

But giving in to slow travel — luxuriating in the leisurely motion — allowed me to glimpse the daffodils in those gardens and observe the people getting on and off. In fact, what makes the "railway of marvels" so wonderful is the communities it serves, communities that could materially benefit from more tourists riding the rails.

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