Chugging along a train on a leisurely circuit from Nice to Digne-les-Bains is an unmissable top sight on the French Riviera. The narrow gage Chemin de Fer train starts in Nice and makes a number of stops in the outlying suburbs before winding along the Var Valley to Digne-les-Bains in Haut-Provence. For 151km, the scenery is an ever-changing kaleidoscope of forested cliffs, rushing torrents, fertile plains and medieval villages. It's a far cry from the busy, flashy life along the coast.
Run by the Chemin de Fer de Provence, the train makes four trips a day between Nice and Digne-les-Bains and takes about 3 1/2 hours. You can get off, explore a village and re board as often as you like. The train also stops seemingly in the middle of nowhere to discharge hikers.
The train does not leave from the main railway station in Nice but from a much smaller one called the Gare de Nice CP at 4 bis rue Alfred Binet.
Rather than travelling as far as Digne, it's possible to get off the train at Annot or Puget-Theniers and take the steam-powered Train des Pignes but you'll need to check the schedules carefully as they are run by different companies.
The train des pignes is a steam locomotive that swings into service Sundays and occasional Thursdays and Fridays from May to November. The train leaves from Puget Théniers and goes to Entrevaux where it makes a brief stop before continuing to Annot and then finishing at Le Fugeret. Notice that it is possible to take the Chemin de Fer to and from any of these locations. Check the schedule and book online at the Train des Pignes website .
There are 28 stops after you leave Nice and before arriving in Digne. If possible, it's best to avoid Monday as most shops and restaurants are closed. Here are some of the more interesting villages:
This village seems to be built right into the cliff. From the adorable train station a little road winds up to this 12th-century village where the flat roofs of the houses are used for drying figs.
Stretched languidly at the confluence of the Var and Roudoule rivers, this village is like a cool drink of water on a hot day. Veer off into the old town to explore the ancient Jewish ghetto and relax in one of the shady cafes that line the river.
This striking village occupies a strategically important spot at the entrance to the Var valley. It was the scene of a massacre in 1536 and then fortified by the great military architect, Vauban, in the 17th century. As a fortified village, Entrevaux is the most evocative in the region with drawbridges and a working olive oil mill.