Tende, in the “Valley of Marvels”, is a French town with an Italian soul; it had been Italian for a very long time before it became, in 1947, the last commune to join the French Republic. A mediaeval, terraced village on the edge of the valley, Tende makes an easy, unusual day trip from Nice.
And getting there is part of the fun. A gaily painted Marvels Train” leaves Nice at 9am each morning. In summer, a commentator will be on board to describe the traditions and cultures of the villages you glimpse from the train windows in passing. Reservations are not needed. By 10:45am, you reach Tende.
The Vallée des Merveilles, now part of the Mercantour National Park, is the largest “listed” site in France. The marvels in question are the rock carvings– daggers, stars, and horned figures – left by Early Bronze Age man on the flat-faced rocks of Mount Bégo, their sacred mountain. On slabs polished by the glaciers, they inscribed over 100,000 symbols at an altitude of 2,872 metres – as close as they could get to their Sky God, whose energy was transmitted through lightening.
The 17th century historian, Pietro Gioffredo, described these petroglyphs as “merveilles”, from the Italian word for ‘fantastic’. In the museum, under protective glass, you can see some of the carved rock faces that have been removed from the site for safekeeping. Also exhibited are many moulds of carvings made by the museum staff. The advantage of these is that you can touch them; you can explore the chisel marks made by prehistoric man with your own fingertips.
In addition to material on the history of the region and its pastoral tradition, the museum features a lifelike replica of Ötzi, the so-called “iceman”. This is the 5,300-year-old frozen hunter, whose well-preserved and still clothed corpse was spotted in 1991 by a pair of German hikers in the Austrian Alps. Ötzi would have been roughly contemporary with the shepherds who made the rock carvings in the Valley of Marvels
The office of the Tende Tourist Bureau shares the square with the museum. I picked up a free mimeographed guide to the village and after a very good lunch in the Miratelli restaurant on the nearby rue Antoine Vassallo, set out to see the sights. The main event is the 15th century church and the road to it runs to the right as you leave the museum. The route is not as simple as it looks, however, as it runs sharply up and down hill – mostly up – and little side roads lure you through a maze of narrow streets.
A hair-pin turn with an important looking signpost to the Via Ferrata, for instance, beckoned me up a staircase and then led me back not far from the museum where I started. As you may know, but I didn’t, a “Via Ferrata,” is not a street but an Alpine “iron way”, in this case a 1,000-metre-long span of rope bridges and mountain climbing facilities linking Tende and the neighbouring village of Brique the hard way.
So I resolutely started out again, past fountains and tiny squares, over stone bridges, under vaulted passageways, up steep flights of stairs, on my way to the 15th century church, Notre Dame de l’Assomption. From some bends on the narrow road, there were vistas of the valley, the Tende River, and the arches of the railway bridge the train of marvels had travelled over on its journey here. At one miniature intersection, I found the entrance to the cave-like washhouse still in use by local housewives. Leading me on, sometimes visible in the near distance, sometimes obscured by a twist in the road, were Tende’s extraordinary bell tower and the exuberantly coloured façade of the church..These out-sized structures stand up to their waists in the modest grey town with its roofs of mauve slate. Behind the 400-year-old oak doorway of the church is a 15th century nave, an organ dating from 1802, and church furniture that has been in place since the 17th century. Or so I read on the guide sheet. The church was already closed when I reached it.
I hiked back through Tende to the station in time for the 5:22 pm train to Nice.