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.
(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
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.
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.
Hotel A Pasturelli, one of
the only hotels in this remote and mostly residential mountain town, offers
large well-appointed rooms and a very up-market restaurant with spectacular
views from the balcony. There is also a more casual patio café out front that serves
as a comfortable, neighbourhood gathering place for locals and visitors. You
can sit and sip a glass of wine from the impressive wine list or enjoy your morning
coffee while watching the neighbours play boule
-- a traditional French game of tossing heavy metal balls as close to a smaller
ball as possible across the street. Just be mindful when ordering a cheese
plate. Corsica, along with its southern neighbour Sardinia, specializes in casu marzu, a pungent, sheep’s milk
cheese, aged for 10 years and intentionally infested with maggots. If you are brave enough to sample this
delicacy, be prepared to swallow a few living or dead maggots (depending on the
cheese) and don’t be alarmed if your mouth goes numb for a few minutes after
you eat it.
To see some of the most beautiful and quaint parts of the Corsica, you will
need to head into the mountainous middle of the island. But do not forget your
It is about a two-hour
train ride from L’Ile Rousse to Corte, Corsica’s physical and historical centre.
The route takes passengers though tunnels and over bridges, past roaming cows
and pigs, and across some of Europe’s most striking countryside. The landscape changes from sultry seaside to
lush mountains, covered with olive groves and chestnut trees.
Corte lies at the
bottom of the Tavignanu and Restonica river-valleys, where fresh water flows
into cool clear granite pools and waterfalls. This area is also famous for its
hiking and walking trails, especially the challenging 180km GR20 trail that stretches across
There are a range of
hotels to choose from in town, and the many campsites are an affordable option,
for around 20 euros a night.
In recent years, Chemins de
fer de Corse, Corsica’s regional rail network, has been upgrading the routes, aiming
to even out the notoriously bumpy tracks for a smoother ride and to reduce
Many of the Michelines,
the1940s train cars that were still widely in use until a couple of years ago,
are being replaced by a new fleet of modern air-conditioned ones, but the
adorable old rolling stock are still used along some parts of the route and are
brought out each year to the delight of train enthusiasts.
You can buy
individual tickets at each station along the route, or purchase a weeklong
pass for travel along the Ligurian Sea for about 50 euros.
It takes about three
and a half hours from coast to coast, and with walking trails and beach access near
the tracks, you would be hard pressed to find a more beautiful or convenient
way to see the island. Make sure to get
a seat next to the window, so you can sit back and watch the golden mountains
and shimmering ocean glide past as you trundle along.