Tag: Corsica

Story of the week: Riding the iron horse in Corsica, France


* Image from www.corsica-isula.com

There are three maxims for holidaying in Corsica:

Learn French, expect to spend more than you would on mainland France and bring your international driving licence.

Travellers seeking more than just a week lying by a hotel pool or lazing in a rustic gite often find that escaping the crowds requires running the gauntlet of the most dramatic — and often unkempt — switchback roads in Europe.

Indeed, with its dramatic topography of hairpin bends, sheer drops and white-knuckle intersections, Corsica often draws more comparisons to Tibet than to its nearest French neighbour, Nice.


Opening up

With Corsica now slowly opening up to international tourism, the former two maxims still ring true.

In recent years, however, the latter is less pertinent. For as the number of tourists from outside the traditional markets of Italy and France continues to steadily rise, moves are under way to finally update Corsica’s notoriously ramshackle train system.

As such, tourists to the renegade Mediterranean island are discovering a whole new way to explore the island’s rural heartland: Corsica par le train.

Le Micheline, the island’s uniquely lo-fi bone-shaker, cuts a 157km swathe through the Corsican countryside with connections from the northern ferry hub, Bastia, to the capital, Ajaccio.

En route it takes in the walker’s hub of Corte and extends, via a gloriously dinky 73km toy-train shuttle, along the northwest Balagne coastline to Calvi.

The network was built in during the halcyon days of railroad design and its feats of engineering remain impressive: 32 tunnels, 83 level crossings and 76 viaducts (one of them, the Pont de Vecchiu to the south of Venaco, a Gustave Eiffel masterpiece).

Rolling the Corsican rails, therefore, is the kind of rustic experience that appeals to more than just Euro trainspotters.

Despite the ancient rolling stock and narrow-gauge tracks, the Micheline has kept on rolling like a living, wheezing museum piece, stopping frequently for cows on the track and sometimes breaking down quite randomly.

But always doing so with a certain hard-to-hate, frozen-in-time charm.

Making tracks

There are now plans afoot, however, to breathe life into the network with new tacks, improved rolling stock and more trains per day by mid-May 2004, the start of next year’s peak season.

Its baby sister, the Tramways de Balagne, which runs between the resorts of Calvi and Ile Rousse stopping at various hidden coves and tiny beaches en route, is also due for a facelift.

It was at one of these stops, Algajola, that I found Corsica’s best-kept secret.

This charming little coastal town — all ochre facades and sun-kissed squares with an old citadel peeking out over the ocean — retains the unique sense of unspoilt tranquillity that sets Corsica apart from other more crowded destinations in the Med.

Better still, it has all the facilities you will ever need with some decent hotels, colourful little eateries and villas for hire from UK operators.

While Algajola remains untouched by mass tourism, Cap Corse is so undiscovered it still even lacks an organised public transport system beyond its visitor’s hub.

This maquis-covered peninsula, 40km long and around 10km wide, stands out from the rest of Corsica, giving a giant geographical finger to the French Riviera.

Hit the road

The first leg, running north from Bastia, is well served by good roads and regular bus services but once past Macinaggio and with the rocky ascent over the top of the peninsula ahead of you, you have to resort to the oldest form of transport known to man: hitchhiking.

Thankfully France has a well-developed hitching network and Corsica, in particular, stands at the vanguard of France’s hitching movement with a strong legacy of giving rides to stranded foreigners.

As a first-time hitcher, I soon became a convert to the dying art of hitchhiking and found it was a great way to meet fellow travellers.

My first lift was from a friendly Parisian couple who were bowled cover the scenery and new converts to the Corsican landscape.

From Barcaggio, a rather taciturn local family then took me part of the way with the father smoking heavily and the mother reminiscing about her wild days as an au pair in Putney.

After an overnight stop in Centuri, I was back on the road thanks to young Italian couple with a penchant for national parks and driving at breakneck speeds along implausibly narrow roads as only the Italians can.

After several long, hot hours stood by the roadside with a small cardboard sign, I finally rolled into Nonza with a lift from a friendly local delivering a fridge to his cousin who insisted we all stopped for a celebratory coffee before saying our goodbyes.

A charming little village standing 150m above a blackened shingle beach, Nonza is at 70 people the largest community on the less-explored western cape.

On the journey we’d passed a slew of tiny fishing harbours carved from rocky bays, historic Genoese watchtowers clinging frantically to sheer cliff faces and some of the most dramatic switchback turns in Europe.

Journeys end

As I sat in Café de la Tour, the focal point of Nonza’s village life, with a Perrier a la menthe in one hand and highly dramatic ocean backdrop behind me, I reached my final destination.

I had tamed the iron horse, thundering through the countryside and juddering in my seat with every thrash and turn of the rolling stock.

My introduction to hitching had, meanwhile, provided me with a slew of travelling companions eager to swap tales with a lone Brit in the middle of the Corsican countryside.

Next time, I vowed, I’d be brushing up on my French, stocking up on travellers cheques but definitely leaving the driving licence at home.

What did you think of this story? Post your comments below.

This article was first published in The Guardian in 2004.

Liked this? Try also Making yourself at home in Corsica.

Story of the week: Eating out in Corsica with man’s best friend


* Image from asterixofficiel.tumblr.com

There’s only thing I hate more than dogs: the arrogance of dog owners.

Personally I find no delight in close proximity to their rancid, flea-bitten pooches, let alone do I feel compelled to run my hands over the moth-eaten fur.

Yet dog lovers persist in not only believing the universe revolves around their pets, but also that we all want to share in their puppy love.

Dogs are, of course, smart to my antipathy towards our four-legged friends.

Indeed, just walking down the street sometimes means running the gauntlet of the local community. Faithful family pets happily trot over to pant a cheery greeting to most people passing by.

When I, however, saunter past, the little chap inevitably hurls himself at the picket fence in a fit of spittled rage normally reserved for their favourite postman.

That’s the doggy six sense for you. With me it’s personal.

Dog lovers

In Britain we have a reputation for being supremely soppy about our dogs. Compared to our doggy-doting Euro cousins, however, I think we are positively rational.

The Germans, for example, will breeze past a cute baby in a pram without comment but, walk down the street with a mutt on a string, and they’ll be falling over themselves to complement the owner.

There are a reported 55m pet dogs in the United States and, according to a study conducted by the American Animal Association, 53 per cent of pet owners now take their vacation with their animals. This trend has spawned a slew of doggy travel sites.

But having spent time on the Mediterranean island of Corsica, I’ve now come to conclusion that it is the French who take their canine devotion to most irrational extremes.

Now don’t get me wrong. I find much to admire in French culture from the restaurants of Lyon to the beaches of Provence. Indeed I’m a French-speaking regular visitor to the land of appellation controlée wines and superlative patisserie.

But I have a problem bigger than President Chirac’s grocery bill with a nation that takes its dogs everywhere with them.

What I found most intolerable about this particular trip was the way that Corsicans insist on taking their dogs into restaurants, often even requiring the waiter to supply a dog bowl so owner and mutt can simultaneously share in the gastronomic experience.

Personally there’s nothing more likely to put me off my steak au poivre than a dog fiend insisting on bringing their mangy mutt into a restaurant where I’m enjoying a long holiday lunch.

After several weeks of canine confrontations, I could feel a spat coming on that would make the Bush-Chirac face-off over Iraq look like a petty quarrel at the local kindergarten.

I knew how the scenario would develop only all too well. Just as I would be enjoying a particularly succulent mouthful, the horrid hound will come padding over, trying to sniff its way into my affections.

“Look,” says the dog owner, beaming as it starts humping my shin like a jackhammer, “I think he likes you.”

“It’s Okay,” they’ll add as, rebuffed the hound starts growling menacingly, “he only wants to play. Don’t you Simba?”

Well, unless he wants to play at getting a hefty size nine somewhere even James Herriot wouldn’t put his forearm, then I suggest, Monsieur, you control your filthy mutt forthwith.

This is, inevitably, where it all turns nasty. Compelled to defend the dog’s honour as if I’d just likened his mother to the kind of woman who busies herself with pox-ridden sailors down the docks at Marseilles, they leap into action – both man and mongrel showing their teeth and flaring their nostrils.

“Come here, Simba,” he says, casting an eye around for support from fellow pooch lovers. “Clearly,” he spits with a garlic-tinged, Gallic sneer, “Zis Monsieur does not like ze dogs.”

Vive le chien

But why are the Corsicans so devoted to their dogs?

Other nations strike me as far more considerate – from the Californians who keep poochy pamper parlours in business to the Brits who leave Fido with their equally doggy friends.

But, even at the height of the packed tourist season, Corsicans leave their mutts unmuzzled to worry small children and unchecked to serve up steaming little pavement calling cards by way of a defiant final flourish.

“Personally I blame the falling birth rate,” says Sharon McManus, an ex-pat American who lectures Corsican students in tourism studies.

“So long as the Corsican male’s sperm count continues to fall short of his macho posturing, I expect people will continue to turn to dogs for more meaningful companionship.”

“This is the land of the vendetta, after all, and a slur on the dog is a slur on the family.”

European union

After this recent trip, I’d finally had enough.

From now on I’d like to see dogs banned from all our restaurants and hotels. Furthermore, the time has come to send in crack squads of pooch poachers to storm eateries the length and breadth of the country, impounding stray mutts and fining defiant owners.

Indeed, I was so incensed, that upon my return to London I attempted to kick-start my crusade by writing to my local MEP.

But, according to the response from Baroness Sarah Ludford, a Liberal Democrat MEP from London’s Islington, it may yet be some time before the dog has had his day.

“I would love a law to keep dogs out of restaurants as I am a cat person myself. But, strangely enough, I do not see any great demand for Brussels to meddle in this matter,” she advises.

“Besides,” she adds, offering me little comfort for the next onslaught of the dog squad, “it might be something of a dogs’ breakfast if they did.”

What did you think of this story? Post your comments below.

This article was first published in the Weekend FT in September 2003.

Liked this? Try also Making yourself at home in Corisca.

Story of the week: Making yourself at home in Corsica


* There are not many places I would refuse a return visit to – but Corsica is one. Here’s one story about a happier moment in a trip from hell. 

Follow me on Twitter, or subscribe to the RSS, for weekly updates from my travel-writing archive in the year to come.

Mrs. V and I had quite a thing going.

She welcomed me into her home, accompanied me on moonlit strolls around the citadel and, in the morning, brought me fresh coffee and oven-hot croissants.

But there was, you understand, no monkey business. You see Mrs. V – or Madame Vignon as she is known to her Corsican neighbours – is a sprightly, octogenarian grandmother, who just happens to run the best little chambre d’hote in Bastia.

Home stays 

Over the years, Corsica has acquired something of a reputation for poor value and lacking in tourist infrastructure. Worse still, in high season, the beaches are rammed, prices hiked and service in restaurants can be somewhere between surly and downright rude.

But, thanks to a new scheduled service operating from May to late October, the island of Napoleon’s birth is now opening up to a new generation of more independent travellers, those more likely to hop over to Toulouse on easyJet or Montpellier with Ryanair than book an all-inclusive package with accompanying charter connections.

It is Bastia, transport hub of Corsica’s north, that has been the main beneficiary of this new trend and is now blossoming as a destination in its own right.

The capital of Haute Corse has always been the economic powerhouse of Corsica’s stop-start economy and today it retains a workaday feel: lively, businesslike and, maybe, a little rough around the edges. But give it a chance. Get to know Bastia and you will start to understand Corsica.

The hub of the action is the 19th-century Place St-Nicolas. Start by picking a spot along its western flank and spend an hour or two soaking up the café culture in the shadow of the imposing statue of Napoleon. The pint-sized emperor appears frozen in time from his plinth vantage point, gazing out to the island of his exile, Elba.

From here it’s a short saunter via the Vieux Port, one of the city’s prime drags for al fresco eating overlooking the harbour, to the citadel district.

Built by Corsica’s Genoese governors in 1452, the complex of tiny alleyways and fortified ramparts was formerly the seat of Corsica’s political powerbase, based around the Governors’ Palace, and a symbol of Bastia’s legislative role – until, that is, the city lost its capital city status to southern upstart Ajaccio in 1811.

Family life

Traditionally, holidaymakers arriving off the ferries from Nice and Marseilles have opted to push on by car rather than run the gauntlet of the city’s hit-and-miss accommodation options.

Thankfully, however, Bastia’s local tourist office is also one of the most forward thinking on the island and, that too, is changing.

Over the last few seasons, local tourism authorities have introduced an initiative to not only promote the city’s historical legacy with a series of worthwhile waking tours, but also recruit a number of venerable madames d’un certain age to open their family homes on a B&B basis.

Step forward my new best friend, Mrs. V. Corsican chambre d’hotes are little treasures, offering a unique way to get to know local people, sample some traditional Corsican hospitality and gain a fresh perspective on the Corsican world view.

Chez Madame Vignon is typical of the experience. The accommodation is fairly simple, with two homely bedrooms and a shared bathroom, but the house is located close to the city centre, and the easy-going, family atmosphere make it feel like a true home from home.

As we sat on her terrace, a spectacular view across the bay before us, Mrs. V and I got to know each other better, discussing everything from her grand-daughter’s exam results to Corsica’s long-running struggle for independence.

In fact, we got on so well, we ended up going for a stroll around the citadel, stopping for a cheeky glass of rosé at a nearby café.

The Corsican diet differentiates itself from French brasserie fare with its reliance on ingredients as chestnuts, brocciu (fresh sheep or goat cheese) and regional charcuterie, such as figatellu, a thin liver sausage. Bastia is a great place to acquire a taste for such Corsican village specialities, with many of the restaurants around town offering a good-value set menu Corse.

The pick of the bunch for your first, proper Corsican supper is Osteria U Tianu, a family-run spot, nestled amongst the backstreets of the Vieux Port.

With a simple but tasty five-course set menu, you’ll find it a challenge to eat better anywhere else on the island. And, afterwards, it’s just a short saunter over to rue Fontaine Nueve, where the pavement café-bars attract a mix of locals and students until 2am.

Mooching around the compact centre the next day, I also found that Basita is a good place to stock up some of the island’s traditional produce.

Cap Corse Mattei, a shop unchanged in over 100 years of commerce, is a local institution and home to the ubiquitous local aperitif, Cap Corse. It also does a fine line in honeys, liquors and chestnut-flavoured beers, as does U Muntagnolu, a charcuterie specialist across town.

Country lanes

For many visitors to Corsica, however, a trip to the island is about getting out into the countryside, dipping into traditional Corsican village life and filling your nostrils with the scent of the maquis, the scrubland vegetation that Napoleon, while exiled on Elba, famously said reminded him of his childhood home.

Bastia provides an ideal base for touring with several options for easy one to three-day excursions by hire car into the surrounding region.

These include wine-tasting your way through the 30-odd vineyards of Patrimonio, followed by a stint on the beach at St-Florent; or following the Balagne villages craft trail from Ile Rousse to the upscale resort town of Calvi, via the idyllic village of Algajola.

The gloriously rugged coastline of Cap Corse was, for me, however, the obvious choice.

The D80 road out of Bastia hugs the eastern coastal roads of le Cap, protruding 40km into the Ligurian Sea as if extending a giant, Gallic finger towards mainland France.

The scenery is spectacular and the roads, at times, utterly terrifying, with narrow coastal roads and dramatic crashing waves beckoning from below white-knuckle sheer drops.

The owners of Le Relais du Cap, another family-run chambre d’hote located just south of Nonza at Olmeta du Cap, fell for the rugged charm of the western cape, gave up a business in France and relocated to Corsica to open a guesthouse, which today hugs a gloriously isolated headland in a rustic hideaway.

That night I joined them and a handful of other guests – two strapping Danish hikers and a leather-clad motorbiking couple from Italy – to drink wine, swap tales from the road and watch the sunset from the terrace overhanging the ocean.

I could have stayed a week but Mrs. V. was waiting and I’m not the kind of boy to going breaking my promises to diminutive grandmothers with a rakish glint in their eyes.

Fond farewell

Back in Bastia, Mrs. V greeted me with cold lemonade and tales of the tortoises making escape bids from her garden. That night we took one last moonlit constitutional around the citadel and, the next morning, there was an extra warm croissant tellingly left on my breakfast tray.

As I made to say my goodbyes, Mrs V. gave me a big, wet, grandma kiss on the cheek and announced with a wink that another young man was due to arrive that night.

Maybe she had just been just toying with me all along.

This story was first published in A Place in the Sun magazine in 2004. Liked this? Try also Talking contemporary art in Burgundy. 

Post your comments below.