Corsica, by breathtaking and bumpy train
The sleepy town of Monticello, perched on the steep cliffs overlooking the Mediterranean Sea. (Katie Beck)
Seeing Corsica by train means stepping from sunny platforms into tiny train cars and plopping down in a seat that has perfectly framed views of the almost tropical blue Mediterranean Sea. It is as if the tracks were laid with optimal sea views in mind, and perhaps they were.
The wild and beautiful French island lies between the Ligurian Sea, which laps at the white sandy shores of the west coast, and the Tyrrhenian Sea, which has sparkling blue waters that wrap around the east. As the most mountainous island in the Mediterranean, with more than 1,000km of coastline, the best way to explore Corsica’s stunning landscape is by train.
The Trinicellu (little train in Corsican) is a narrow gauge railway that began operating in the 1850s. Despite the local automobile culture, the historic tracks offer a wonderfully convenient service, stretching across the island from Calvi to Bastia in the north and to Ajaccio in the south. Even though “the boneshaker”, as it is nicknamed, loudly clatters over sometimes-uneven tracks, it is worth the occasional jostling for one of the most scenic train routes in the world.
The west coast
One of the most frequented stretches of track winds its way through the beautiful Balagne region along the northern coast, stopping at gorgeous beaches and sleepy resort towns.
In the summer months, there are 10 trains per day in each direction, so it is easy to hop on and off as you please. Fewer trains are offered during the rest of the year, so it is good to check the train schedule.
The small picturesque port town of Calvi in the northwest is a good place to start, whether you arrive by ferry from France or by air from the nearby airport. The town’s dramatic citadel is perched high above the ochre-hued roofs of the town below – a first taste of why Corsica is referred to by locals as the Ile de Beauté.
The beach is buzzing in the summer but as the long hot days fade into autumn, the five-mile stretch of nearly white sand empties. If you prefer to have the beach to yourself, plan to travel off season. The weather and the water stay warm through October.
Calvi’s yacht-filled port is lined with upscale outdoor cafés and restaurants in which to sit and have a beer or an ice cream before climbing aboard the little train and watching the lovely landscape float by.
About 30 minutes east along the train’s bumpy route is Algajola, which has one of the most beautiful and remote beaches in the region. The tiny town is more relaxed than Calvi but the beach is just as popular.
Despite its size, visitors find plenty of restaurants, local artisans selling their goods and hotels to suit their needs.
The U Castellu Guesthouse, a cosy boutique hotel with five modern rooms artfully decorated with quirky touches, encapsulates the laid back beauty of Corsica. Guests are served breakfast each morning on the balcony that overlooks the sea and village.
Another 15 minutes along the train route, with ocean views as you go, is L’Ile Rousse, a slightly larger resort town named for its red mountains that are slowly falling into the sea. The erosion adds a pink tinge to the white sand. In addition to ice cream shops, cafés and seafood restaurants, L’Ile Rousse has a small farmers market in the centre of town where you can taste some of the culinary specialties for which Corsica is known.
Traditional Corsican charcuterie is abundant all over the island and its distinct flavour comes from the chestnut heavy diet of the free ranging pigs that roam the island. Local producers at the market offer up samples of their meats, cheeses, jams, wines and artisanal olive oils. For the best views, retreat up the steep hillside (by foot or taxi) to the sleepy town of Monticello, which may lack action but more than makes up for it with sweeping vistas of the sea below and mountains in the distance.