Corsica by rail: A one-day taster

Corsica, L’Isle de beaute.

“This will sound strange, but is your name Frank?” I ask, emboldened by the carefree attitude that creeps up on one while on holiday.

Ten minutes earlier, I had watched as a very familiar-looking man, a woman – presumably his wife –  and two young children hopped onto the train at Algajola. I had racked my brain fervently, trying to retrace where I had seen the man before, but given up after about five minutes.

Not long after, it suddenly dawned on me that I was sitting in the same carriage, on the same rickety train on Corsica, a small island off the tried and tested Mediterranean destinations, with someone who two years previously had been my editor.

Frank’s bewilderment and his wife’s questioning looks disappear as I jog his memory, before we proceed to catch up on what we have been doing since. Naturally, the topic moves on to how we ended up here.

I had arrived at Calvi, Corsica by way of Bastia four days ago. My partner and I had chosen to vacation here because it lent itself to being the perfect base from which other explorations of this Ile de beautê, or the island of beauty, as the locals call it, would start. Being restless by nature, we were happy to find an island very well connected by train, and after spending the first half of our one-week holiday sun-worshipping by the Calvi bay and on an excursion to the UNESCO World Heritage-listed Scandola Nature Reserve, we were ready to see what the rest of the island had to offer.

TGV trains – with a twist

On this particular morning, I had woken up with L’Ile Rouse in mind, eager not only to visit this seaside town at the foot of the Balagne hills, but also to experience the French island’s version of the mainland’s TGV trains. Corsicans, in likelihood with the French mainlanders, call their locomotives TGV trains. But whereas TGV stands for Train à Grande Vitesse –French for high-speed trains – on the mainland, it is short for Train à Grand Vibrations on the island, betraying not only how ancient the trains we were about to board were, but also the Corsican people’s depreciating sense of humour.

Tramway De La Balagne: Corsica’s “TGVs”. Calvi’s citadel in the background. Photo by Werner Schnell.

We set off from Calvi train station armed with a map of the island of Corsica aboard a train whose four-hour journey would terminate at the capital, Ajaccio. Many of the stops along the route are excellent starting points for excursions, including the Dolce Vita stop, which is a mere 8km away from the one of the world’s most challenging walking trails, the GR20. Further up the route is L’Ile Rousse, where the train turns inwards towards Ponte Leccia, Corsica’s wine capital. From there, it takes the plunge into Corsica’s heartland and old capital, Corte, the perfect starting point for a hike to the top of Corsica’s highest mountain Monte Cinto.

It is this wild and untamed nature that somehow makes one surrender and make do with bare necessities. Throughout the one hour train ride, the twists and turns and at times sharp swerving of the train are merely met with chuckles and shared bemused looks.  Not even when the train stops for a couple of minutes to let a farmer and his flock of goats cross do the passengers become impatient.

Corsicans are also an enigmatic people. I went to the island expecting both the place and the people to be irreparably commercialized, what with Corsica being the first package destination. But many of the natives walk around looking as if they resent the mere sight of strangers. Some of the more talkative locals will confess that although tourism forms the backbone of the island’s economy, they would rather not see tourists outside of the April to October high season.

Personally, I found this sentiment evident in their averseness to open displays of emotion. This, however, was a welcome change from what one would typically experience in otherMediterranean destinations where evenings spent promenading on the seafront curbs are constantly interrupted by waiters trying to outdo each other in wooing people into their restaurants.

Separatist history

Their reluctance to openly embrace strangers is perhaps not surprising considering their history. Corsica has been continuously occupied since the Middle Ages, and despite being incorporated into France in 1770, its separatist movement, the National Liberation Front of Corsica (FNLC), still regularly detonates bombs  in military buildings, banks, and other symbols of French control in their quest for autonomy.

Tourists are rarely adversely affected though. In fact, the sense of instability that the FNLC has created in Corsica has scared away investors and developers from setting base on the island and as a result, over 70% of Corsica’s 1000km coast remains wonderfully undeveloped.

Riding through this island, I finally begin to understand why memories of this island, where Napoleon Bonaparte was born, never left him despite decades of being exiled in other countries. We snake our way through its rich and lush landscape, marvelling at small Corsican villages in the valleys below us and a quarter of an hour later, those in the mountains above us.

Gradually, the journey becomes a test of willpower as the open old-fashioned shutters occasionally let in the fragrant scent of wild maquis , herbs that I had already tasted in jams, digestifs and most recently in the sanglier (wild boar)I had for dinner last night. The scent forms an aromatic backdrop to the scenery, making the struggle to resist the urge to get off the train at the next stop a hard one. Many, seduced by the secluded, white sand beaches with naturally-occurring cabanas in the form of granite caves, fall for temptation and make a break for the doors the second the train grinds to a halt.

I resist the urge out of stubbornness more than anything. At L’Ile Rousse, I find it far more suited for families than young couples. For a fleeting minute, I regret not having alit at one of the many secluded beaches:  Multitudes of young parents and their children, who are squealing with giddy joy as they try to catch technicoloured fish with their bare hands, have descended upon the beach, determined to make the best out of their holiday.

Having already spent a great deal of time in Corsican waters, I opt instead to explore the old town, where old men enthusiastically play  pétanque in the warm, lazy afternoons, before rounding up my day-trip with a walk to the local open-air market. Here I sample cheese and sausages before buying some local jam to take back home as souvenirs. On the train back to Calvi, I silently lament the fact that I did not dedicate my entire holiday to exploring this wild-eyed and bushy-tailed island by train.

©Cynthia Wamwayi 2011

%d bloggers like this: