Tag: rail travel

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: A heritage rail trip from Lancaster to Carlisle



This is the latest post in a weekly series, highlighting stories from my travel-writing archive. Subscribe to the RSS feed for more.

Breakfast is a gloriously gut-busting affair. Crispy bacon, succulent sausages, eggs, mushrooms and baked beans.

It keeps on coming thanks to a battalion of white-jacketed stewards, fussing over the arrangement of the china and polishing the silver on starched-white napkins.

“Would sir like more toast?” Don’t mind if I do. Well, I have been up since 6am and it tasted great, washed down with lashings of hot, milky coffee and panoramic views.

My not-so-petit dejeuner is not being served in a Far East five-star hotel or aboard a luxury cruise liner in the Caribbean.

Far from it. I’ve got a ticket to ride on the Fellsman and am currently sat on a train, trundling through England’s Northwest from Lancaster to Carlisle.

This new, steam-hauled service is a living-heritage excursion back in time to the golden age of rail travel. The first timetabled steam train to operate on the line in over 40 years, the Fellsman [pictured above] runs every Wednesday until September.

It uses a pool of three restored steam engines from the Thirties and period carriages from the Fifties with table seats, panoramic windows and table service in Premier class. It picks up passengers from Lancaster and cuts a splendidly scenic, 260-mile swathe along the mountainous Yorkshire-Cumbria frontier, using the historic Settle and Carlisle line.

Memory lane

“Rail is still the best way to see Britain,” says Nick Dodson, Chairman of Statesman Rail, which operates the service.

“Steam trains smell of nostalgia and the Fellsman harks back to the golden age with its standards of service and dining.”

Saved from closure some 20 years ago, the Settle and Carlisle line is now regarded as one of the great train routes in Britain, running northwards and almost parallel to the M6 and West Coast Main Line route to Scotland.

It’s a testament to the Victorian engineering that not only built a network around Britain, but also took the iron horse to India, Africa and South America.

Track construction started in 1869 with a workforce of 6,000 men – over 200 went on to loose their lives on the job. Passenger services started in 1876 at a total cost of £3.5m.

The combination of challenging climatic conditions, steep gradients and complex engineering of the 21 stone-built viaducts, 14 tunnels and numerous bridges fostered a reputation as a one-off ride.

It is immortalised in the 1955 short film, Snowdrift at Bleath Gill, held by the British Transport Film archive.

“The Settle to Carlisle line is part of Pennine culture. It’s a triumph of man over environment,” says Nick Dodson. “Blood, sweat and steam got the trains through and the engine drivers were afforded the same respect at that time as airline pilots are today.”

Rail enthusiasts

Joining me for the Fellsman’s first run are a good-natured mix of retired rail enthusiasts, fathers and sons on bonding day trips and mature couples enjoying the sense of nostalgia.

From Settle we build a steady head of steam to a maximum speed of 60mph as we climb towards the 24-arch Ribblehead Viaduct with views of three Pennine peaks.

Sturdy stone cottages cling stoically to the rough-hewn landscape of the peaks, fells and farmland. Lambs gamble playfully in the lush-green fields and gurgling streams tumble over moss-coated stepping stones. Walkers in muddy boots, stop, sup from their flasks and wave us on by with a grin.

While the passengers snore through a mid-morning snooze, or catch up on the weekend papers, I head back through the train carriages to the staff car for a word with guard and fireman Alasdair Morgan.

An affable Bolton lad with a boyish enthusiasm for steam trains, he sports a jaunty knotted handkerchief to protect his silver-fox locks from the onslaught of soot.

“It’s a 20-mile climb from Settle to Ribbelehead, so I’m putting ten shovels of coal on the fire every couple of minutes to maintain boiler pressure and keep the water boiling,” says Alasdair.”It’s dirty, smelly and noisy – and I love every minute of it,” he grins.

“You have to interact with a steam loco, listening to the sounds it makes. It’s a living entity.”

Break the journey

With a two-hour break in Carlisle to stretch my legs, I head for Tullie House Museum and Art Gallery, where the Border Galleries explains Carlisle’s development as a rail hub.

Given its strategic border-crossing location, seven different railway companies had lines ending at Carlisle Citadel Station by 1876.

Back on the platform as the staff prepares the train for the return, I quiz my fellow passengers about the experience.

“I remember the old days of steam trains from the Fifties and loved the ride today,” enthuse friends Maurice Parker and Brian Plant from Staffordshire. “People moan about British trains but this service shows we still have a lot to be proud of.”

Heading home

I can smell the dinner simmering in the kitchen car as I take my seat and settle in for the early evening return.

Everyone loves steam trains. Maybe it’s the genteel elegance of the dining car, maybe the idea of revisiting an indulgent, luxurious era, maybe the sense of pride that Britain once built railways for the world and can still operate a first-class service.

Or maybe it’s just as Nick Dodson says.

“Nothing beats a full English in an old Pullman carriage with the smell of the steam wafting in through the open windows.”

Yes, maybe. That breakfast was pretty special.

This story was first published in Hotline magazine in 2009.

Liked this? Try also these stories with something of a Father’s Day motif, Family Holidays in the Lake District and Riding the Glacier Express in Switzerland.

Your view? Post your comments below.

Story of the day: Riding the rails in Snowdonia


Time to wrap up and move on. I’ve been posting stories from my back catalogue since January and I’ve enjoyed revisiting some old features.

Maybe even someone reading did, too? Do let me know.

But with St David’s Day and spring on the horizon, daffodils in bloom in my local park, it’s time to give this site a more newsy edge.

So these are the last archive articles for a while.

First is a rail journey across Snowdonia, a similar idea to a more recent story in the Telegraph.

Here’s an extract:

Arrival at Rhyd Ddu was marked by a flurry of walking boots and Gore-Tex on the platform.

The station acts as the gateway to a series of day walks, including an 13km-round-trip Snowdon ascent along well-marked paths, or tackling the Nantlle Ridge walk, a calf-burning circular yomp round a steep, zigzagging rim.

I could have tackled the latter and still been back in time for the next train.

But instead I opted for a gentler hike through rolling woodlands, then down to explore Rhyd Ddu, a tiny hamlet of granite cottages set around a village pub and tearooms, where the sign outside enthused: ‘Muddy Boots Welcome’ [pictured above].

Read the full story, Riding the Welsh Highland Railway.

What’s your favourite rail journey? How do you rate my description of the Glacier Express?

Post your comments below.