As the train approaches, an imposing building with neo-baroque decoration breaks up the quiet monotony of the shimmering Alps and the Roya river.
The closer you get, however, the harder it is to ignore the building’s decrepitude – the broken windowpanes from which torn curtains swing, the graffiti, the doors sealed shut with concrete.
And then the train stops.
Welcome to Saint-Dalmas-de-Tende in the Alpes-Maritimes, the 815m-high village with a population of approximately 2,000 which was once renowned for this very station.
It was built on Mussolini’s orders in 1927 to showcase Italian power – it was the first station you came to at the time after crossing from France to Italy, but later became French when the area was ceded to France in 1947.
At 125m long, 17m high and with a volume of 6,000m², its dimensions compare with some of France’s biggest city stations and it towers over the tiny village.
The station is now inaccessible after the government sealed off all ground-floor entrances, the building having been slowly abandoned over the decades.
Perhaps its fortunes are turning, however. The region is looking at various projects to transform the station and help breathe new life into the area, as well as to heal the scars left by Storm Alex in October 2020.
A show of Italian might
Michel Braun, local historian and editor at the Roya Valley-based Les Editions du Cabri publishing company, said: “Mussolini built the station to fuel the impression of Italy’s wealth and grandeur to impress French travellers when they crossed the border.”
Rumours still circulate that the leader also wished to impress one of his mistresses who lived in a house facing the station on top of the mountain. With its four turrets, that property itself resembles a castle.
Mr Braun, however, is quick to dismiss this theory, as is Alain Dacheux, 78, a retired teacher who bought the house more than 40 years ago.
Border control and frescoes
The station was designed by the Ferrovie dello Stato (FS), the Italian state-owned railway company, to be a border station with France. The railway line had arrived in St Dalmas as early as 1915, but was served only by a small temporary station until the new one officially opened in 1928.
The building comprised a spacious waiting room, which also hosted border control activities provided by mountain Italian infantry and policemen, a restaurant, a kitchen and a left luggage office. Military members slept in second-floor rooms.
The station also boasts a few frescoes “of minor interest”, said Mr Braun.
It was initially used for two lines run by both France and Italy: the Cuneo-Ventimiglia line under FS supervision, and the Nice-Breil-sur-Roya one under an SNCF predecessor.
Mussolini visited Saint-Dalmas-de-Tende only once, in 1940, to supervise the war effort, said Mr Braun.
SNCF acquired the station after the annexation of nearby Tende and La Brigue following a referendum in 1947 but activity on the line was stopped. Instead, the station was used to host children of SNCF employees during summer camps.
Occupied by squatters
It remained closed in 1979 when the line was re-opened, the extra tracks having by then been replaced by a football pitch. It was eventually abandoned and squatted in occasionally in the 1980s and 90s.
Armand Oliviero, a local figure who owns more than 15,000 documents relating to the Roya Valley, is among only a handful of locals to have been inside the station, when he squatted in it during a holiday with his nephew and some friends in the 1980s.
At one point, there were plans to rename the station Le Relais de la Marquise and turn it into a four-star hotel with 500-guest capacity. The €35million project was granted a construction permit in the 2010s but aborted in 2017 after financial backers got cold feet when nearby buildings were occupied by migrants, the Nice-Matin newspaper reported.
Cédric Herrou, a French farmer, shot to fame after he was arrested in 2016 for helping 150 migrants who had crossed the France-Italy border. He housed 60 of them in buildings along the line before they were evicted a week later by French police.
Mr Herrou confirmed to The Connexion that they did not squat within the actual railway station.
Nevertheless, the ground floor was subsequently sealed off by officials, marking the final chapter in a station that only the village’s very oldest residents have seen functioning as it was intended.
Visiting the station today is much like walking along a construction site, with piles of sand, temporary shacks and heavy vehicles. Some surfaces have been covered with graffiti.
The football pitch beside the tracks is also showing signs of neglect, with real grass pushing through the synthetic surface and scruffy nets hanging from the goalposts.
The buildings once occupied by Mr Herrou have now been taken over by ivy and weeds, with the only sign of human residence being caravans for government workers tasked with repairing damage along the Roya river from Storm Alex.
The storm killed 10 people in October 2020 with massive floods along the river. It also destroyed parts of Saint-Dalmas-de-Tende, most notably its cemetery, with bodies found washed ashore on beaches near Nice.
Locals recall how clean and green the Roya was before the powerful storm carried off almost everything it found in its way, leaving behind a trail of rocks.
It gave them a new burst of enthusiasm to push forward with regeneration projects, and the station was included in a government initiative looking to reinvigorate southern French valleys and villages following Alex.
Jean-Pierre Vassallo, mayor of Tende since 2001 who has administrative authority in neighbouring Saint-Dalmas-de-Tende, said: “The building is prestigious, and the potential is extraordinary.
“This is the only structure on a single level that can be used quickly.”
He proposes transforming the station into a high school.
Hélène Domon, 58, from the nearby village of Saorge, has published a 19-page vision to create an artistic, architectural and agricultural centre on the site, with concert rooms, a rehearsal studio, art gallery and an organic bistro.
Her idea is motivated in part by opposition to another proposal to turn the station into a shopping mall. This has divided inhabitants, with some fearing it could be a blot on the landscape.
“The beauty of our valley comes from its natural aspect, devoid of retail stores and big investors,” said Ms Domon.
The project also seeks to install an SNCF terminal, allowing travellers to buy tickets. My own purchase of an outbound fare to Nice has to be made on board the train.
As the train pulls out of the station, the graffiti-covered walls begin to blur. And then they are gone. The view from the window returns to the Alps.