Tag: rural tourism

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 journey off the beaten track into the villages of rural Romania

Miclsoara chruch

Prince Charles doesn’t get much good press these days.

In Romania, however, he is regarded as something of an eco-avenger.

Ever since, at least, plans to build the kitsch Draculaland theme park outside the UNESCO-listed town of Sighisoara were shelved after the personal intervention of our very own Prince of Wales.

HRH is a regular visitor to Romania and a patron of The Mihai Eminescu Trust, an ecotourism project based in Viscri, Transylvania, which won Best for Innovation at the 2004 Responsible Tourism Awards.

He is also given to secrecy-shrouded visits to remote outposts of the country to see for himself the complexity of preserving Romania’s Saxon heritage against a backdrop of a burgeoning tourism industry.

While a groundswell of small tour operators is championing more sustainable rural projects, the mass-market, get-rich-quick schemes that have traditionally blighted Romania’s Black Sea coast, remain the preferred hobby horse of back hander-hungry local officials.

Changing fortunes

Things are changing for Romania. The country is emerging from the shadows to claim its share of the current Eastern European tourism boom.

But for the frontier folk of Maramures, a rural outpost on the northern cusp of the Carpathian Mountains, such talk is meaningless. Life in these unspoilt villages has remained relatively unchanged in centuries.

Life is simple: work in the fields, church on Sunday and horse and cart the preferred medium if you’re racy enough to consider venturing to the next village. Wander tranquil country lanes and you’ll encounter women wearing traditional skirts above the knee and men in dainty hats – even when it’s not a saint’s day.

My base was Botiza, a rustic village in the Izei Valley edging east from Sighetu Marmatiei, the region’s rail hub for the sleeper trains from Bucharest, and located just a few kilometres from the Ukrainian border.

Housed with a local family at their farmstead cum B&B, I had a bed, slap-up meals, hot, wood-fired water for washing and a chance to watch in awe at mealtimes as the sturdy mother of the household downed shots of horinca, the local double-distilled plum, with theatrical aplomb.

For a day’s exploration we hired a cart and driver for equivalent of £8. The dusty dirt drag of Botiza’s main thoroughfare gives way to a potholed, stone-grooved track leading west from the edge of the village and within minutes we were out amid cornfields and haystacks.

While his two sons played in the cart behind, driver Vasile, regaled us with shrewd observations of local political machinations.

“Many villages the elect the same corrupt mayor twice,” he laughed.

“Round here we say the first time they are corrupt but, the second time, having already filled their pockets, they’re better than someone new.”

Unesco listed

After two hours clip clopping along country lanes, we arrive in Poienile Izei, where the village church, built 1602 and dedicated to Saint Paraschiva, is one of the eight UNESCO World Heritage-Listed churches in Maramures inscribed in 1999.

The social fabric of these village communities revolves entirely around the Orthodox churches, many of which date from the 16th century and remain remarkably well preserved today, having escaped the bulldozers of the Communist years thanks to the region’s enforced geographical isolation.

But, unlike the external frescoes on the facades of the seven, better-known churches in northern Moldavia, these churches, constructed from wood to a Byzantine pattern, have internal frescoes – bold and simple daubed in reds, yellows and whites.

The church at Poienile Izei is particularly striking as it’s the only one in Romania with frescoes of hell, depicting fiery visions of eternal damnation with a large, hungry-looking bird about to swoop down on unsuspecting sinners. Elsewhere there are images of the various torments the devil will administer to those failing to live by the church’s moral code.

Even today the ritual of worship remains untroubled by notions of modernity with men taking the pews in front of the altar and women banished to the rear. The latter are not allowed at the altar at all.

Of course, before you can actually enter the church, you have to find the man with the key. And, in rural Maramures, that can prove a tricky business.

While Vasile goes off in search, he invites us to his uncle’s house on the fringes of the village.

When Ana and Gheorge Sabadi realise they have a foreigner in their midst, they insist of making lunch and we end up sitting around their kitchen while a bowl of broth bubbles excitedly on the hearth, feasting on pig fat, raw onions, salt and bread – all washed down with lashings of horinca, the moonshine that cements any new friendship in Romania.

When Vasile returns with the keeper of the keys, they have clearly also been on the horinca and are liable to be found drunk in charge of a horse and cart. There’s nothing for it, I tell them, I’ll drive.

“It’s much easier than a car,” said Vasile, handing me the reigns.

“You pull the reigns to move left or right, say ‘Whoa” to stop and make a clicking sound with your teeth to go faster.”

Guest of honour

Puicariu Gabor, the 83-year-old keymaster and official church singer, is evidently a man of few words – and even fewer teeth.

But as we finally step through the church’s heavy wooden door, he becomes positively animated remembering the honour he felt as key keeper on the day that Price Charles came to visit.

“He was with a big group of people all in cars. When I showed him around the church, he didn’t ask any questions but he did,” he said, indicating a thick, leather-bound tome by the altar, “sign the guest book.”

Sure enough, as I flick through the pages I come across a flowery signature in a bold, black felt tip.

It simply read: “Charles, May 9th, 2004.”

* This story was first published in the Financial Times in 2005. Liked this? Try also Meeting a real-life Count in Transylvania.

Did you enjoy this story? Post your comments below.

Story of the week: Discovering Britain’s favourite islands

02-Central-Maya, Derwentwater

They are rural retreats – a remote Shangri-La away from the madding crowd.

The numerous small islands off the British coastline offer a glimpse of life at different pace.

We discover some of the best island escapes around the UK.

Brownsea Island, Dorset 

It has been used as a daffodil farm, a pottery works and a decoy to protect Poole during the Second World War.

Two-thirds of the island was burnt in 1934 and, from 1927-1961, the island was owned by Mrs Bonham-Cristie, who let the island become a virtual wilderness.

On her death it was bought by the National Trust and today this island nature reserve is an ideal natural setting for walks, picnics and wildlife – look out for the rare red squirrels.

Brownsea Island is the largest island in Poole Harbour with half-hourly boat services running from Poole Quay and Sandbanks throughout the summer.

The island offers superb views across to Studland, Old Harry Rocks and the Purbeck Hills, while the natural habitat offers the run of pinewoods, heathland and lagoons where breeding birds collect.

Most of all, Brownsea is known worldwide as the birthplace of the Scout and Guide movement after Robert Baden-Powell held the first ever experimental Scout camp here in 1907.


Silver Holme, Cumbria

Following the recent release of the film Miss Potter, starring Renée Zellwegger as the author Beatrix Potter, there has been a boom in literary tourism to the Lake District.

But this is nothing new. The islands of Lake Windemere, England’s largest lake, have provided inspiration to Britain’s literary heavyweights for centuries with references dating back to Wordsworth’s poem The Prelude.

Today Silver Holme, located about 50m from the western shoreline, may look like just a rather nondescript lump of rock for nesting wild fowl and birdlife.

It is, however, the best known of the lake’s 14 islands as being the inspiration for Wildcat Island in Arthur Ransome’s Swallows and Amazons books. Ransome himself is buried at nearby Coltin Parish Church.

All but one of Windemere’s islands has open access and boats can be hired from charter companies in Bowness Bay; the cruise boats on Windermere also stop at the island.


Flat Holm, Bristol Channel

This island sanctuary off the coast of southeast Wales is rich in wildlife and historical lore.

Located just five miles from Cardiff in the busy shipping lanes where the Bristol Channel meets the Severn estuary, boat trips depart from Barry Island Harbour for the 30-minute journey from March through to October.

Flat Holm’s first incarnation stems from the Dark Ages, when it was a retreat for monks. Since then it has been the domain of silver miners, smugglers and cholera victims. It is perhaps best known, however, for receiving the first ever radio message across water sent by Marconi in 1897.

Today, 500m in diameter and totally flat, Flat Holm is a site of special scientific interest and a local nature reserve at the most southerly point in Wales.

It is home to one of the largest colonies of gulls in Wales plus a summer carpet of rare and exotic wild flowers.

Visitors are warned to wear a hat to ward off the defensive dive-bombing of the gulls during breeding season.

For local residents, the iconic image of Flat Holm is its lighthouse, which was first lit on December 1st, 1737, following a tragic accident in 1736 when sixty soldiers were drowned and their vessel wrecked near the Holm.

This has steered sailors through the perils of the Bristol Channel ever since with Trinity House responsible for its upkeep since 1823.


Eel Pie Island, London 

Nestled amongst the twists and turns of the River Thames are a handful of highly salubrious island getaways with a surprisingly colourful past.

The most rock n’ roll of these is, without doubt, Eel Pie Island, which is tucked inside the Thames at Twickenham.

Formerly known as Twickenham Ait, it has been connected to the London borough of Richmond since 1957 by a footbridge.

Today the island has a population of around 120 people and nature reserves at either end. It is home to Twickenham Rowing Club, one of the oldest rowing clubs on the Thames, and a community of artists.

Its biggest claim to fame, however, is as a hotbed of musical heritage.

The Eel Pie Studios, owned by The Who guitarist Pete Townshend, provided the location for the recording of numerous rock albums. The Eel Pie Island Hotel was a major venue for Britain’s burgeoning rock scene in the late 1960s with the likes of The Yardbirds, Pink Floyd and The Rolling Stones all taking the island by storm.

The hotel met a sad demise in a fire in 1971, but the island’s infamy lives on in the stories, poems and songs of the musicians who played there.


Alney Island, Gloucestershire

Around one mile from the centre of Gloucester, where the River Severn splits, Alney Island Nature Reserve is a wetland area within spiting distance of an urban centre.

The island boasts traditional wet grassland and marshy areas that attract all sorts of wildlife, such as buzzards, kestrels and grey herons.

All this is a far cry from the original use of the land: Gloucester’s original 1.5-mile racecourse.

The races were regularly held here until 1839 and, at the time, the course was deemed far superior to the one at Cheltenham, which today dominates the local racing scene.

At the peak of racing fever, campaigners handed out leaflets to the crowd warning of the dangers of gambling and drinking, while police reinforcements and plain-clothes detectives were called in from Birmingham and Bristol.

Today it’s a more tranquil location with guided nature walks in summer taking in the natural attractions – book through the rangers office. In particular, it island offers a rare opportunity to spot wading birds.


Inchmurrin Island, Loch Lomond

Inchmurrin is the largest inland island in Britain and the most southerly on Loch Lomond.

Located just thirty minutes from Glasgow and a short ferry crossing from Midross, it has been privately owned by the Scott family for the past 70 years. Open access ensures, however, that walkers and birdwatchers are welcome to visit this lost-in-time rural idyll.

The island is steeped in history with its roll call of visitors, according to legend, including Scottish folk heroes Robert the Bruce and Mary Queen of Scots.

The ruins of a 7th-century monastery and Lennox Castle can still be visited, but today there’s a population of just 10 residents, plus beef cattle, goats and pheasants.

The most evocative way to visit the island, however, is by taking the Mailboat, which delivers mail to four islands on the Loch – Inchtavannich, Inchmurrin, Inchcruin and Inchfad – every day during summer, except Tuesdays and Sundays, and less frequently in winter.

The mail service since been a fixture of life on the Loch since 1948 and riding the boat out amongst the tranquil waters is like stepping back in time.


Derwent Island, Cumbria

The largest and only inhabited island on Derwentwater [pictured above], Derwent Island is a reclusive place open to the public for just a few days each year.

Those lucky enough to enjoy an exclusive visit have access to the 18th-century house, which is managed by the National Trust and set in an idyllic woodland setting.

The island has a varied history ranging from the 12th century, when it was owned by Fountains Abbey as part of their Borrowdale estate, to being sold it in 1778 to Joseph Pocklington of Nottinghamshire, one of the first men of wealth to settle in the Lake District for its scenic beauty.

He named it Pocklington’s Island and built a giant, elaborate villa, which moved Wordsworth himself to ridicule the building as “A warren-house reared upon an eminence for the detection of depredators.”

Access to the island is by boat on timed ticket only. It’s a rare opportunity to visit a local legend.


Carsington Water, Derbyshire

The valley now filled by the Carsington Reservoir dates back to around 2000 BC with archaeological excavations uncovering flints and knives from the Bronze Age.

Carsington Water was officially opened by the Queen in 1992 and has gone on to become one of Derbyshire’s most popular tourist attractions for its family-friendly ethos and sense of discovery.

Connected to the mainland by a causeway, Carsington Water now features several elements around the central reservoir.

Stones Island, erected in 1992, follows in the long tradition in Derbyshire of hill-top monuments with a series of contemporary monoliths which have holes to offer different views across the island.

Close by is a wildlife centre from where you can study Carsington’s varied birdlife, while along the bankside towards Carsington village are three bird-hides where you can spot nesting bird species.

For walkers, bikers and horse riders there is a circular path around the conservation villages of Carsington and Hopton, while anglers and sailors are common place on busy summer weekends.


Lundy Island, Devon

Located in the Bristol Channel, about 11 miles off the coast of North Devon, Lundy Island is a granite outcrop rising 400 feet above sea level.

Unlike some other islands, however, this place has both a life of its own: a 13th-century castle, a Victorian church, shop, pub and a population of about 18. You can even buy Lundy stamps as proof of your visit.

The island is best known as a marine conservation area and remains a haven for nature lovers with communities of migratory seabirds and seals. Popular activities include climbing, walking and bird watching.

You can also stay on the island in a holiday cottage administered by The Landmark Trust, which manages the island. Properties range from a stone cottage that sleeps just one person to a lighthouse and a converted pigsty.

During summer months the island enjoys good connections to the mainland with regular boat services from Bideford or Illfracombe, a journey that commands breathtaking views of the North Devon coast.

A helicopter service also operates from Hartland Point for a quick lunch stop with a difference.


* This story was first published by Forward Publishing in 2007. Liked this? Try also Meeting the king of Cumbria’s Piel Island.

Post your comments below.


Story of the week: Exploring the isles of Aran in western Ireland


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

Father Cieron looks thoughtful. “I think everyone who comes to the Aran Islands is searching for something,” says the islands’ parish priest, standing amid the ruins of St Enda’s fifth century church at the eastern tip of Inis Mor.

The afternoon sun illuminates shards of light across the ancient, stone-carved altar.

“I come to this ancient seat of learning to feel Enda’s presence,” he says. “The atmosphere is almost tangible.”

The saints and pilgrims came to the three Aran Islands in search of early Christian spirituality.

Before them, the Celtic fort builders sought to channel ancestral wisdom through limestone-carved monoliths.

These days, some 250,000 visitors each year come in search of all-the illusive Irish craic. I’m searching too: a high-season escape from the crowds, theme pubs and fiddle-de-dee leprechauns of western Ireland.

The Aran Islands, “three stepping stones out of Europe” as described by the Irish poet Seamus Heaney, are thought of as the last bastion of traditional Irish culture.

“Ireland to the power of two,” says the historian and author of Stones of Aran: Labyrinth, Tim Robinson.

But has the unstoppable march of progress even reached the ends of the earth?

Inis Mor

Stepping off the boat at Inis Mor, the largest, most populated at some 800 people and most visited island, feels more like Saturday night in Dublin’s Temple Bar than uncovering a rural Shangri-La.

Pony and traps ferry day trippers round the island, while little shops peddle woollen knitwear and images of the 1934 film, Man of Aran.

I escape the brouhaha of the main drag, twisting down rural b-roads by bus towards Dun Aengus, the gloriously stark Unesco World Heritage site, situated atop dramatic cliffs on the quieter south side of the island.

I breathe in the Atlantic air while clambering over ancient stones, where Bronze Age communities once battled the elements to survive. Today only the colonies of guillemots and herring gulls keep a lonely watch.

From the ramparts, the next lights are Boston some 2,000 miles away.

That night the local pub has fresh oysters, savoured over pints of Guinness, and a traditional music session to serenade the visitor-heavy crowd.

The elegiac strains of Sean Nós, old Irish folk songs inspired by tales of seafaring men and the families they left behind, carry me to my bed, while Paddy and Locko strum guitars and bouzoukis into the night.

Inis Oirr

I can see from the air why Inis Oirr was chosen as Craggy Island, the setting for the TV comedy series, Father Ted.

The 10-minute flight by propeller plane from Inis Mor’s tiny airfield swoops over dolls-house homes, standing at right angles to the verdant-emerald landscape demarcated by raggedy-stone walls.

It still hosts some events for the annual Tedfest and ecumenical tours [pictured above] of the TV locations are a year-round attraction.

They stop at the wreck of the SS Plessay, which features in the opening credits. The ship ran aground in March 1960, en route from Limerick to Galway, and has become a symbol of community strength.

Twisted and rusting, her hull gouged open by rock and her mast askew, she radiates the quiet pride of the islanders, who saved her crew from certain death.

The island, home to some 250 residents and known for its younger, growing population, feels more relaxed with its sandy beach and a clutch of bright cafes, all grouped around a harbour littered with lobster pots and traditional currachs, or fishing boats.

Across the island at the Aras Eanna Arts and Cultural Centre, the erstwhile weaving factory saved by the community, I find a local cooperative helping to keep the traditional artisan crafts of the islands alive.

Brothers Máirtín and Tomás Taimín are busy making baskets from local, gold-hued willow, while Mairead Vi Fhlatharta knits woolly hats and scarves in a higgledy-piggledy workshop.

“The crafts were traditionally passed down from mother to daughter,” says Mairead over tea and scones in the centre’s cosy café.

“But with island life changing and traditions dying out, we had to act to save them.”

Inis Meain

While Inis Oirr is a more family-friendly escape, Inis Meain, the least visited, most sparsely populated (180 residents) and most reserved of the islands, is the places to explore the local culture at its most raw and visceral.

Of the three islands, this is where you are most likely to hear Gaelic spoken and see villagers wearing their traditional tweed-knit clothes to mass.

I arrive off the wave-battering ferry to find, somewhat incongruously, it’s also home to the smartest new opening on the islands, the Inis Meain Restaurant & Suites.

With its crashed-landed UFO design and imaginative menu of locally-source food, it’s a far cry from the island’s traditional houses that lacked running water and electricity until just a generation ago.

“I like the simplicity of the place. It’s stunningly beautiful even on a stormy day in winter,” says Cork-raised Marie-Thérèse De Blacam, who runs the business with husband-chef Ruairi.

“But it’s not the most user-friendly island. You have to invest time to absorb the place.”

A short walk along near-deserted country lanes brings me to the cottage that once belonged to the author John Millington Synge, who drew on the old folk tales and observations of daily life for his 1907 novel, The Aran Islands.

People are still drawn to Ines Meain today by his tantalising glimpse of Mother Ireland, and the cottage is now a small museum to his work.

At the home of another writer, the octogenarian Irish-language poet, Dara Beag, I sit in the parlour, a sideboard of old photos and fork-scratched plates behind me.

Dara’s words have been shaped by the landscape of the islands and he pledges to never leave their soil. “The saints still mark this place. Everything on Aran is a miracle,” he says.

On the last day, I follow the cliff path around the west coast of the island to Synge’s Chair, the old watch point for smugglers, where the writer sought eureka moments of inspiration.

I’ve come to ponder too: the slightly impenetrable beauty of the islands, the proud reserve of the people and the traditional culture seeping away with the ebb and flow of tides and generations.

I sit among the saltwater-yellowed rocks, one contemplative eye on Inis Mor and the other on Galway Bay. Stone cairns surround me like a worshipful congregation and sea spray tickles the toes of the cliffs beneath.

People still come to the Aran Islands in search of something but, for me, the landscape offers the space to look within for answers.

The islands are a place to come and just be. Not to say you’ve been there, done that, and bought the sweater.

This story was first published in Coast magazine in 2010.

Liked this? Try also, A cultural tour from Belfast to Derry.

Your view? Post your comments below.