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.
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 bathing suit.
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 the island,
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 travel time.
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.