RIDING THE RAILS IN CORSICA
Consider the ride to Calvi from the inland rail hub of Ponte Leccia. My charmingly dog-eared carriage clatters for an hour through the wild Naviccia valley past rivers foaming through boulder-strewn hills. We hit the coast by the little resort of Île Rousse, then spend 45 minutes hugging the sea, at times actually in the dunes. Beaches and blue crescent coves alternate until Calvi hoves into view like an old siren basking in evening sun. I'm deposited in the heart of town without a thought for traffic systems or parking, a stone's throw from my hotel.
Most visitors to Corsica who eschew four wheels are hikers eager to tackle legendary routes like the GR20's 110-mile mountain traverse – though 2013's Tour de France turned the focus on two wheels when the 100th outing of the world's most famous cycling race pedalled off in Corsica for the first time. Neatly, the riders pretty much traced my route between Bastia, Ajaccio and Calvi - though I'm certainly less knackered than they were!
So why does Corsica shun its trains? The 1950s and 1970s each saw proposals to close the whole network – moves thankfully opposed by many islanders, despite their preference for four wheels over two rails. “Corsicans are proud, and they like to have a personal car – it says something about their status,” explains my Bastia guide Joelle Massei. “And they want to get places quickly, not have to stop at stations.”
Though now in the margins, Le Chemins de Fer de la Corse (CFC) had epic beginnings. 20,000 men laboured through the 1880s and 90s to lay tracks across terrain demanding the most visionary engineering of the time. Gustav Eiffel was called upon to build his second-most imposing piece of ironwork here - the 96m high Vecchio viaduct near the island's one-time mountain capital Corte. Careworn stations provide a history lesson, their names reflecting centuries of Italian rule - Bocognano, Ucciani, Vivario, Casamozza.
Before hitting the rails I potter round the present-day capital Ajaccio, ticking off canvases by Michelangelo, Titian and Raphael at the grand Musee Fesch, dipping into millennia of Corsican history in the quirky pint-sized Musee A Bandera and paying an obligatory visit to the Maison Bonaparte where Napoleon entered the world in 1769.
My first ride is the two hour ascent from Ajaccio to Corte. Sitting left side front carriage I have a ringside view down hair-raising slopes to silvery valley streams far below, with a bonus glimpse ahead through the driver's window. Pine and chestnut brush the glass as we cut through the Vizzavona forest in grand upward sweeps. Hiking trails head off into the trees at Vizzavona and Vivario, while jagged peaks snag passing clouds across the valley. I glimpse occasional roads below, all stomach-churning bends with little chance to admire the views.
With five hours in Corte before the onward connection toward Calvi I dump my bag in left luggage (consigne) and amble up to the haute ville. Corte looms large in Corsican consciousness as the mountain eyrie from where revolutionary Pascale Paoli's fought 18th century French occupation, and its historic prestige means the island's major history museum is here, housed in the medieval citadel. Around its walls, cobbled lanes mix upmarket craft workshops with boisterous bars like Cyrnea on Place Paoli, where I grab a pleasant 'one for the rail' snifter I couldn't do if I was slipping behind a wheel.
Another epic citadel stars in Calvi, a 13th century edifice where Nelson lost his eye in a 1794 attack. Its medieval lanes are peaceful now, cradling gems like the Oratoire Saint-Antoine with its faded 15th century frescoes and naive sculptures. I return at night to hear the sonorous harmonies of Corsican polyphonic singing reverberate around the pale nave of the careworn Cathédrale St-Jean-Baptiste.
I ride the busiest line in Corsica with sunny jaunts on the coastal shuttle between Calvi and Île Rousse. Founded by Paoli in the 1760s as an olive oil port, today's oil-related activity in Île Rousse focuses on rubbing in suncream on the pretty town beach or splashing olive stuff over lunchtime salads. Though the train is technically the Tramway de la Balagne, I instantly christen it the Beachbum Express, courtesy of its dozen-plus beach request stops (just tell the conductor which you want). Alight at Bodri to stroll through fragrant maquis onto a dune-backed beauty, hop off at Algajola for a wide activity-packed strand, or step down at Sainte-Restitude or Arinella for more secluded sun-worship.
I head through Île Rousse for a final time on my concluding three-hour ride to Bastia, clattering along the Balagne coast in soft morning light on the 07.40 from Calvi. I hang out the window – the single track system means no trains coming the other way – as we climb to a lush plateau dotted with charmingly-named stations like Novella (I will set a story in Novella one day...). From Ponte Leccia, we criss-cross the shimmering River Golo over a succession of high bridges. Vineyards alternate with woodland around Barchetta. At a couple of stops, I watch rail colleagues greet each other warmly with cheek kisses that would get you fired at Clapham Junction or Crewe.
Bastia station exudes a quiet pride that contrasts with the rundown air back in Ajaccio – no gaps in the station floor mosaic here. But Bastia is a classier act than its island rival, despite Napoléon's decision to anoint Ajaccio as capital. The town thrived under Genoese rule, exporting wine to Italy from the gorgeous Vieux Port, ringed today by tumbledown 18th century tenements. Towering over it all, yet another majestic Citadel offers a fine museum, expensive restaurants and superb viewpoints.
I like Bastia's relaxed mingling of modern boulevards, cafe-lined squares and the atmospheric old quarter known as Terra Vecchia, its picturesque decay leavened by gorgeous churches. The Oratoire de St-Roch is a 17th century wood-panelled extravagance, while the riot of velvet and gilt in the neighbouring Oratoire de L'Immaculée Conception feels more opera house than church. The Eglise St-Charles provides a reverential counterbalance with its austerely beautiful Jesuit interior.
And I feel strangely blessed to have sat inside trains as distinctive in their own steely careworn way as the churches. OK, you can't pootle off to remote hill villages or get to Bonifacio on the train, but if the Tour de France can miss those out so can you. And there's even talk of rail expansion – or rather the re-opening the route from Casamozza down the east coast to the Tour de France start at Porto-Vecchio, a line closed since the Allies bombed it in WW2. So lend some support - ditch your cars and get on track.
The Carte Zoom (buy at ticket office on first day of travel) provides one week's rail travel across the train network for €49 (2012 price). Timetables: www.corsicabus.org/Train_services.html
RESTAURANTS (prices – average per person)
Ajaccio: A Nepita (4 Rue San-Lazaro, 00 33 495 26 75 68) Daily changing menus sound simple but score with unfussy elan, such as silky butternut risotto followed by veal with braised endives. €30
Calvi: A Candella (9 Rue St Antoine, 00 33 495 65 42 13) The food is decent (seared tuna, robust meaty pasta) but the view is the star - call to book a table on the tree-shaded sea-view terrace inside the Citadelle. €25
Bastia: Chez Huguette (Rue de la Marine, 00 33 495 31 37 60, www.chezhuguette.fr) Perched on the Vieux Port, grab an outside table and order seafood – octopus and fish soup stand out. €25
Île Rousse: L'Osteria (Piazza Santelli, 00 33 495 31 90 90) Excellent friendly backstreet diner with generous set menus offering the likes of octopus salad, seafood pasta and wild boar stew. €20
Tourist information: Agence de Tourisme de la Corse (00 33 495 51 00 00, www.visit-corsica.com).
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