Hello there, and welcome to Villa Saint Exupery’s travel blog! Over the next few months you can expect to see a number of posts here ready to inspire you during your time with us in Nice! I’m Chris, and I hail from the glorious English city of Peterborough but now residing in the equally glorious settlement of Nice. Having done widely acclaimed blogs (widely acclaimed by friends, the odd family member, and this bloke that I once met in a pub in Belfast) about time that I’ve spent in Scotland and New Zealand, I was naturally very keen to snap up the chance of getting to talk about this wonderful region of France.
Normally when people visit this region they travel horizontally to glitzy Monaco, fashionable Cannes or exquisite Èze. This is certainly understandable due to each destination’s unique assets, however this week I’ve bent the rules slightly by travelling vertically North West to the small medieval town of Entrevaux, which is nestled on a hillside in the valley of the river Var. By far the best way to travel there is by train, so I filled up my bag full with sandwiches, apricot juice (addicted to this stuff since I arrived in France), pens, paper and a camera ready for a great day out.
It was a pleasant Sunday morning as I made my way by tram to the Chemin de Fer de Provence railway station (NOT the Nice Ville SNCF station!!). Being the unnecessarily far too conscious traveller that I am, I arrive at Libération tram stop (opposite the station) in plenty of time before the train’s departure. It’s market day and I stroll around to soak up the atmosphere, and also buy myself “une clémentine de Corse” (a Corsican clementine). The old façade of the railway station has certainly seen finer days, and don’t make the silly mistake that I did by assuming that this was still the current station.
The more sleek and modern station sits on the other side of a car park sized gap between the former station and itself. Although initially appearing bland from the outside, it is not so disinteresting on the inside. As you enter you will notice the ticket office on the left, and be sure to look above for some stunning paintings of the railway scenery to whet your appetite!
I buy my ticket (20.60 euros for a full price return) and go to sit on the platform, 30 minutes before the train is due to leave. “Chris, why are you there so early?” I hear you ask. Well, I’d been advised to try and get the front seat…on a train? Yes, on this train. The train is rather petite, so small that when you are at the front, you are practically sitting next to the driver, there is no segregation.
Five minutes before departure, the driver boards. He dons a smart leather jacket, slick back hair and cannot be older than 25. After exchanging a few pleasantries with other passengers, he blows the horn and we are on our way.
The train rolls through the streets of suburban Nice, climbing a steady ascent into the Alpes-Maritimes. We pass through several tunnels (resulting in incessant horn blowing) and out onto the flatter plains at the beginning (or towards the end, depending on how you choose to look at it) of the river Var valley. I catch a glimpse of distant snow-capped mountains as the glacial blue Var flows alongside in the opposite direction, heading for the Mediterranean. The valley path becomes narrower and more rugged as the conductor decides to come and chat to the driver, thus blocking my view facing forward. Nevertheless, the scenery on either side is spectacular (though slightly more favourable if you are sat on the left) as the rocky gorge emerges. I’m snapping away with my camera, but reflections and slightly dirty windows prevent me from receiving any Turner Prize nominations anytime soon.
90 minutes after departing Nice, I arrive into Entrevaux, which seems to be the most popular station so far in terms of people alighting. I cross the tracks (no health and safety here) to take a photo of the medieval town; however disaster strikes as my camera does that “my memory is full” whine, when it is clearly not. Awestruck by the beauty of this place, I headed on into town with that sinking feeling of not being able to take any photos to share with you all. The entrance to the medieval part of the town is via a bridge which looks like a miniature version of the one in Mostar in Bosnia-Herzegovina. The town itself is rather quiet, giving me a better chance to explore it properly than if there were hordes of tourists around. It has that smoky smell of chestnuts roasting somewhere. By this point, I’ve had a brainwave regarding photos. Luckily I had brought my laptop with me (to start typing this up later in the day…), so I began to start using the webcam to take pictures, therefore I looked rather out of place strolling around a medieval town with a Fujitsu model in my hands.
There is one must see attraction in Entrevaux, and that is the citadelle at the top of the hill overlooking the town. It costs 3 euros to go up, but it is worth every centime, just for the views if nothing else. You pay at the entrance by putting the money into a machine on the left, which dispenses an oddly shaped token for you to put into the turnstile, much like entering a sports ground. Thankfully today I don’t have to watch bottom of the Championship football (Peterborough United) after pushing my way through a turnstile.
Now the 20 minute uphill walk for me, a Fenman, is irrationally steep – a few miles south of where I live in England is the lowest point in the United Kingdom below sea level. I huff and puff up the hill; sturdy shoes really are a requirement here also. The views across the valley and down to the medieval are stunning, as the sun shines brightly above the mountains and the Var flows briskly through the commune. Despite being medieval, the former prison at the top was used as recently as World War I for German officers.
After spending a bit of time lingering at Entrevaux’s cute station, complete with small staffed waiting room, I realise that some of the trains on “Le Train des Pignes” are a much more modern affair than on the outward journey. Bang on time, the red and orange carriages roll into the station (after the station attendant presses a button to activate the level crossing) and I’m on my way back to Nice.
Fully air conditioned with windows that reach the ceiling, it might not have the charm of the older train, but it certainly makes for a smoother journey. As the journey progresses, the sun dips below the mountains and the crescent moon shines brightly, lighting up the valley. From Colomars onwards, the lights of large department stores on the outskirts of Nice twinkle into life – its back to modern day life after a few hours of ancient escapism in primitive Entrevaux. Although there are few actual attractions in Entrevaux, it is well worth visiting not just for the location and stunning views, but also for the journey and even just to walk around the old town, and getting yourself lost in amongst the nooks and crannies of the tiny streets…