We’ve been wanting to venture farther from the coast with our bikes, but not having a car to take them has made that difficult. So we looked into taking a train and found one that goes leaves to Tende, a small town that sits alongside the Italian border in the national Mercantour park, and allows bikes on board. The train follows what was the old “Route de Sel” or salt route.
Salt production and trading has been carried on in the Nice-Piedmonte region for over two thousand years. It was transported by boat along the Mediterranean coast to Nice and then brought inland through the mountains by mule. Salt was an essential part of the lives of those living in the Piedmonte/Savoy region, known as “white gold,” used to preserve foods during the summer in order to last through the winter, and for nourishment.
During the Bronze Age these were simple paths that followed the Roya River into upper Italy. Later, the Romans built roads, but by the 9th century they had disappeared, mostly destroyed by locals to protect themselves against invading barbarians using them. In the 14th century trade began once again as the Count of Savoy took control of the salt trade and improved the route. By the end of the 16th century the route was a road once again, linking Nice and Turin, and upwards of 30,000 mules loaded with salt made the trip each year. The train route followed during the 19th century.
What a surprise was in store for us, for not only was it a comfortable train and ride, with plenty of space for our bikes and us, but there was also a guide on board who provided a running commentary, in French and English, about the history of the places the train passed through on its journey north.
The train departs the Nice station daily at 9:17, from June until the end of September, (on weekends only in May and October), arriving in Tende at around 11:30. One can go the whole distance or get off at any of the 14 stops along the way. And the tickets prices are reasonable, our one-way tickets cost us together just 13 euros.
We were in for another surprise for as soon as we got off the train it began to rain. We rode into Brei-sur-Roya, but it only started raining harder so we stopped at a cafe for strong cappuccinos. After a half-hour the rain eased up so we decided to try our luck.
We followed highway 6204 south towards Ventimiglia, following the Roya River. At San Michele we turned westwards onto SS73, which wound its way up to a summit that over looked the Sospel valley and provided an exhilarating ride into town. And as we arrived the sun broke through, providing a promising welcome.
Our stay for the night was at La Chapelle St. Gervais, a small Chambres d’Hotes a few kilometers outside of Sospel. We dropped off our saddle bags and raced into town to see if we could catch the last few minutes of the Thursday regional market. We made it in time to purchase some sauccisson and cheese from an Italian merchant, and a baguette, fruit and a bottle of Beaujolais from a French one. We returned to find our host, Pascale, had set up a table for us in the garden, now fresh from the morning rain and ready for the goods we’d found at the market.
The property was originally built by Templar Knights and it dates back to the 15th century. Our room was actually a Templar chapel. And the “newer”, main chapel on the property looks like it also functions as a storage room!
After lunch we explored Sospel by foot and on bike (it doesn’t take long), and also made our way up the side of the mountain that provided excellent views looking back over the town and valley.
Dinner that night was prepared by Pascale, along with five other guests at the farm, involving gnocchi, a ratatouille dish with vegetables from that day’s market and the garden, washed down with bottle of Bordeaux. Over dinner Pascale told us the story of her neighbor. Back before WWI a wealthy Englishman built a large luxury hotel just outside of Sospel and turned the fields surrounding the hotel into a small golf course. In its time it was successful, but it couldn’t survive to world wars. It is now made up of apartments and is nowhere near the glory it once was. Dessert was a cheese plate followed by hot apple crumble, again, supplied from the garden. Lovely.
The next day we had coffee and croissants and then headed out, passing through Sospel and following D2204 in the direction of Nice. We had hoped to visit the very large Maginot-era fort at Barbon, but, after climbing the hill we discovered it was locked up. We had been led to believe we could visit the fort, but it doesn’t look like that’s something they do. We had another false start trying to find the small road that led to Segra and on to Peille, but not much luck there either. We ended up climbing up to the Col de Braus (elevation 1,000 meters), to make our way back through L’Escarlene.
On the way we passed some olive trees along the side of the road whose branches pointed downwards and were bare on top, as if overcome by their own weight. Strange looking. So’s the guy in the picture.
We stopped for some drinks to refresh ourselves, enjoyed a little exploring of the old town, and then headed back to Nice through Peillon. A lovely ride along the Paillon river, following a very narrow canyon road.
We were back home by 1:30 in time for lunch. We are already planning a return trip for next week, to find the elusive “chemin” that would take us to Segra and Peille. Thanks to Google maps, I think I now know they way…