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Most guidebooks will tell you that the only way to get around in Corsica is by car or motorbike. Up to a point, this is true. Public transport is hit and miss, especially out of season, taxis are hard to find, even in the bigger towns, and most Corsicans have a car. However, I’m proud to tell you that we travelled around Corsica this time without a car, using the train and carrying our luggage on our backs.
We did cheat a bit, though. Under no circumstances am I prepared to stay in a tent, so we stayed at hotels and chambres d’hôtes. And on a couple of occasions we took advantage of lifts offered by people who probably took pity on a couple of backpackers obviously not in the first flush of youth.
The highlight of our visit has to be travelling on the little train. This must be one of the most scenic train journeys in Europe. A narrow-gauge, single-track railway runs from Ajaccio to Bastia with a branch line off to L’Île Rousse and Calvi. Another line from Bastia to Porto Vecchio on the east coast was badly damaged during World War II and has never been restored.
The railway was constructed in the late 19th century when tourism began to take off. And what a feat of engineering it is. The track runs through numerous tunnels, the longest of which is about 4 km, around mountains, through forests of beech, pine and chestnut, beside sheer drops and over rivers in full spate on viaducts. The most impressive is the Pont du Vecchio near Vivario, which was designed by Gustave Eiffel. Once you get up into the central mountains, the views are spectacular. Quelle aventure!
We had some luck because we were able to travel on the old boneshaker micheline that had been in service for decades. The michelines were taken out of service a few years ago, when new, modern trains replaced them. However, someone had failed to do their sums properly. The new trains couldn’t cope with the curvature of the line in places and had to be removed from service in turn. Back came the little michelines, which slog up the gradients like faithful mules.
Starting off in Ajaccio, we piled onto the two-carriage train along with locals and fellow backpackers. I’m ashamed to say that most of the latter were planning to do the GR20 from Vizzavona, the demanding walking trail that runs through the island. We couldn’t count ourselves among them, although we did do a lot of walking – about 100km in total.
We stayed a couple of nights at Vizzavona and then took the train again to Venaco from where we walked to our next stop, a chambres d’hôtes run by a Corsican couple, which I’ll tell you about in a later post. This was probably the most picturesque part of the railway route with a mountain around every corner. Snow still garnished some of the peaks in places.
We were the only passengers to get off at Venaco, where we did a quick strip tease on the station to get into shorts as the temperature had suddenly shot up. Luckily we had just finished when a man carrying his small son and a large bag of cherries came walking up the railway track. No barbed wire fences or ‘Keep off the line’ notices here. The little boy insisted on giving us each a cherry – just one – which the father supplemented with several handfuls. They were the best cherries I’ve had this year. Well, the Corsicans are noted for their hospitality.
After that, we did a lot of walking around Corte, the old capital of Corsica, and stayed put there for several days. That was when we could have done with a car. Some of the perched villages and hidden valleys are accessible only by car. So we missed Morosaglia, the birthplace of Pasquale di Paoli, father of the Corsican 18th-century republic. We missed the Niolo Valley, entered only through a steep pass at either end. We missed the villages of the Boziu and the Castagniccia, with their little churches and freestanding bell towers. Never mind: that’s for another time.
Back on the train again from Corte to Bastia on our last day, we had to stand up for the first half hour since it was jampacked with – mostly – Corsicans. Luckily they all got off at Ponte Leccia and were herded onto a bus to Calvi since they were having signalling problems or something on that line. I think we got the better deal. Shortly after, the driver braked hard to avoid a cow wandering on the line. The bemused beast stood at the side watching us as we took off again. Apparently, it’s quite common for livestock to wander about on the line – as they do on the roads.
Being a station master or mistress on the Corsican railway is not exactly a stressful job, since there are rarely more than two trains a day in each direction. The station master at Vizzavona has time to run the restaurant next door, Le Restaurant du Chef de la Gare, and wanders into the station five minutes before the train arrives to sell tickets.
If you go to Corsica, do try the little train, even if you go by car. It’s an experience you must not miss.
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