I have missed the 05.54 pm train from Fontan Saorge to Nice. Not to worry, there’s always the next train that should arrive at 06.35 pm. I will just have to change trains at Ventimiglia and I will be reaching Nice by 08.12 pm. From there, depending on the train I get, I should easily reach Cannes by 09.15 pm. That is my plan A. Sounds like a time table? Well, my life revolves around train schedules when I travel - hence can't help it.
It is 06.37 pm now and no sign of any train in this uninhabited, desolate station at the France-Italy border. I start getting worried. This is Europe after all; everything works like clockwork here. How can a train be running late? Then I realize that the train, in question, will be coming from Italy – a country notorious for impromptu railway strikes.
I have a theory that Bengalis and Italians come from the same Neolithic ancestor – at least the men do. More on this theory of mine in a later post – but just to give you an insight into my theory - both Bengali and Italian men live with their mothers till they get married and sometimes, even after they get married; remain mamma’s boy forever, love their carb and fish and afternoon siestas and every now and then, call for a ‘bandh’.
I curse all the Italian and Bengali men I know and their Neolithic ancestor because I am in trouble here. I need to get myself to a station which has more than a single railway track and hopefully a station master. I spot a couple sitting in the other corner of the station - the only two souls, barring me, in this god-forsaken station. I pray that they speak English and approach them.
I am lucky that they do. They are waiting for the train as well and they are in deeper shit than I am. Their destination is a lodge up in the mountains and if they don’t reach the next station – Breil sur Roya - in another 15 minutes, they will have no way of reaching home. They decide to hitch hike and offer me to join them. I know that I will get some train to take me till Ventimiglia from Breil sur Roya, from where travelling to Nice is easier - so their proposal makes sense. But I am not that adventurous to hike a ride and I am in two minds. Time to work on Plan B, which is to make Plan A work. But how to go about it – that is the question.
I am again getting ahead of the story. The day starts like any other day in Cannes. I am off to explore the Alpes-Maritimes countryside – away from the usual touristic trail. The trail I follow today is semi-touristic. I take the Train des Merveilles from Nice at 09.05 am that runs through the Roya Valley, crossing the Alps – into Italy. There are picture perfect villages where the train stops and ideally, one should break up the journey over 2 days, spending nights in the larger villages and exploring the smaller hamlets during the day. But I don’t have the luxury to do that – I have to be back in Cannes for the night. So I did my research before starting the journey and zeroed down on two villages – Saorge and Tende. As I pass the villages that dot the Nice-Cuneo line – each one with a pretty name – like Peillon or Sospel – I feel tempted to get off the train. But I hold myself back – I must stick to my plans, I have a husband to go back home to.
The Train des Merveilles runs till Tende and that happens to be my first stop. I reach there by 10.50 am and sit down in a café near the station just to let the few tourists who have descended with me, get lost. When the coast is clear, I start my exploration. I visit the Office de Tourisme that is just beside the railway station and collect a map of the village. There is also a museum attached to the office. Now, I am not a museum fanatic – so I skip it, but if I remember correctly, it is the Musée Départemental des Merveilles where the rock engravings found in the “Vallée des Merveilles” are displayed.
I’d rather admire the tiny theatre, painted in bright blue, in front of the Office de Tourisme and that is exactly what I do. It reminds me of the movie hall where Tito used to work as a child in “Cinema Paradiso”. A village market near the station takes up some more of my time. A further 10 minutes walk and I find myself in the medieval village. Though a fortified village, this one looks more Italian than French. I am no expert in architecture, but I can make out the difference in style of the stone houses from the other French fortified villages that I have visited. The narrow streets and vaulted passages are, of course, a common feature to any medieval village in this part of the world. I follow the map and start exploring the nooks and crannies.
I spend some time exploring The Collégiale Notre-Dame de l'Assomption, a very colourful 15th century church with a clock-tower. I walk past an interesting looking work shop displaying medieval weapons of torture and am fascinated by it. Now this is the kind of museum I’d like to visit. I make my way up the terraced cobbled streets, that open out to balconies so that one can admire the scenery below - a cluster of slate-roofed houses, grouped tightly together, with the colourful tiled roof of the clock tower looming over them all, sitting on the Roya Valley, with lush green snow-capped mountains serving as a backdrop.
I realize I am being followed and turn around to see a black cat. I am not a cat person and also, being followed by one, that too a pitch black one, in a medieval town makes me feel a bit eerie. I try to make matters light and take a few photographs. The cat obliges me by giving picture perfect poses. I take my eyes off it for a moment to adjust my camera and when I look up, I find it’s disappeared. My doubts are confirmed – the cat must be a 15th Century Knight, tricked and cursed by some wicked Ogre to spend the rest of eternity in this feline form. He must be looking around for someone to save him – maybe by some valiant girl with brown skin who has traversed seven seas and seven lands to rescue him, but just missed her only chance!
I hike up the village and find myself in the ruins of the 14th-century château that sits on the top of the village. Tende was a fortified town guarding the Vallée de la Roya till the 15th century, and was considered impregnable. The château was destroyed in 1692 and all that remains today is a needle like structure that might have been a part of the château wall. The view from this point is even more breathtaking. My mind starts conjuring up stories to go with the surroundings. So this must be the remote château where the Princess was held captive by the evil Ogre, waiting for her love to come and rescue her. Alas, she did not know that her love still roams around the dark alleys of the hamlet below in the form of a black cat.
I see some hikers travelling even further up and when asked, am told that there are excellent hiking trails around this area. Neither do I have the time nor the proper gears – otherwise I would have never declined their offer to join them.
3 hours is more than enough to wrap up the tiny village of Tende. I have my lunch at a local café and I am recommended to try Sugelli, by the old pot bellied owner who serves as the chef cum maître d'. Sugelli is a special kind of pasta with a thumb print indentation and is a local specialty. Since I have a thing for Italian cuisine, I am inclined to say that it is delicious.
I catch the 02.05 pm train to Saorge, another medieval village perched along a narrow rock spur that juts out into the Vallée de la Roya, high above the river. Saorge is classified as one of the "40 most beautiful villages of France". The train reaches Fontan Saorge station in 25 minutes. The station itself is a piece of art deco and is shared by the communes of Fontan and Saorge. From the station, I hike up the main road for about a kilometer to reach the village of Saorge. In between, I cross a huge tunnel, bathed in orange-golden light and wonder if I am really heading to heaven. Saorge, if you notice, sounds very much like Swarga, which means heaven in Sanskrit.
The village of Saorge is as pretty as it can be. Again, a medieval stone terraced village, this hamlet lies in the beautiful surrounding of the Gorges de Saorge – so the view from anywhere in the village is impressive. The village is built in levels and there are these tiny stone bridges that link one level with the other. The Office de Tourisme is closed for the afternoon and I have no option but to explore the village without a map.
Not that I mind, because it is more fun exploring the village without a plan, getting lost and finding some amazing photographs waiting to happen at every corner. The La Madone del Poggio church, with its 15th century, 7-storey tall Lombardy-style bell tower fascinates me. The 17th century Notre-Dame-des-Miracles monastery, with its serene ambiance, is a miracle indeed. I find a few more nameless medieval chapels and spend time admiring the frescoes and the stained glass windows.
After exploring the village for a couple of hours, I find a small café and rest my legs for a while, while sipping cold lemonade. I reminisce the day that I just had and as usual, rue the fact that A is not around to share it with me. And just as I am thinking of A and wishing that he were here with me, I hear his phone ringing. I almost jump out of my chair and for a second, wonder if this is, indeed, heaven where all your wishes come true. In that split second, I also make sure that I wish for a life full of travel, free airtickets and hotel stay at any place in the world or an unknown uncle leaving his billions to me so that I can travel forever. But that is not to be – as a young man sitting across me, picks up the phone that happens to have the same ringtone as A's. Ah well, this may not be heaven, but this place does have a lot of good looking men around. I feast my eyes on this handsome guy and temporarily forget about A.
I have a 05.54 pm train to catch and am so lost in these compelling surroundings that I end up missing it. And then the wait starts. While I am contemplating whether to join the couple, who have offered to take me along with them till Breil-sur-Roya, provided they can hitch a ride, we see a bus driving up to the station. The driver runs to us and asks us if we are waiting for the train. He asks us to hop into the bus which has been sent as a replacement to the cancelled train and says that he will try his best to reach us in time to catch the 06.46 pm train in Breil-sur-Roya. That sounds like an impossible task since it is already 06.40 pm – but Breil-sur-Roya, which is the next station, is only 8-10 kms away from Fontan-Saorge and the way the bus zips past the winding mountain roads, I get convinced that I may just have my tryst with heaven today. We arrive in Breil-sur-Roya in about 7 minutes and find the train waiting for us. My faith in the European Transport System is restored.
As the train makes its way through the Roya Valley, I toy with the idea of getting off at Sospel or Peille and explore these hamlets. But I have had a tiring day and I also have a man waiting for me, back in Cannes, eager to listen to my adventures. For €17, which is the cost of the return ticket from Nice to Tende, I have had enough adventure for a day and have collected a life time of priceless memories. I decide not to be too greedy, but come back some other time to explore the remaining villages. Well, that would mean that I will have to be back to this part of the world again – but, like I said, I am not greedy. I just want it all, when it comes to leaving my footprints in some remote corner of the universe.