Combing the Canvas of Corsica by Train
Washington Times

A waft of pine and myrtle filtered through the open window as the small train etched its way through a canvas of emerald lushness and sculptured granite. The cool coastal breeze carried the fresh fragrances of the herb-scented maquis, the vibrantly colored Corsican scrubland. Napoleon once said that he could sense Corsica even before her shores came into view.

The third-largest Mediterranean island (population 261,500) next to Sicily and Sardinia, Corsica sits 100 nautical miles from the coast of Provence, France, easily reached from ports of Marseille and Nice. I opted for the hour-and-a-half flight from Paris and to eye the alluring Mediterranean scenery via my eight-day voyage by train.
  Now gazing at the azure sea on my right and towering foliage on my left, I could hear the rustle of leaves and branches brushing against the window as the train inched through narrow tracking and tunnels. I had just begun my trek from the western seaside port of Ajaccio, Napoleon's birthplace, toward the deeply forested Vizzavona, the central part of Corsica riddled with endless acres of nature reserves.

Though many people brave the narrow, rugged roadways with their hairpin turns, I chose to sit back and enjoy a somewhat bouncy ride along the serpentine route through miles of untouched terrain, devoid of cars and inhabitants. I must say that Corsicans are as alluring as their surroundings. They are tenacious, passionate and caring people who have a strong pride in their homeland.

ABOVE PORTO - A birdís-eye view of the harbor at Porto on the Mediterranean island of Corsica. CNS Photo by Beverly Mann

Just as I was savoring the scenery, I felt the train come to a halt. I had arrived in a tree-lined countryside of cooler brisk mountain air filling my lungs. Vizzavona was quite a change from the dry summer heat of Ajaccio, where I had spent my first few days. The train station was a cafe, convenience store and information center wrapped into one. The owner of the establishment called my hotel for a car to pick me up.

While I waited, I realized that this minuscule train depot also housed a museum of photographs detailing the history of the railway. I soon learned that the railway began its construction in December 1878. It took nearly 40 years until the main town routes of Ajaccio, Calvi and Bastia were connected with 32 tunnels and 76 bridges and viaducts, with one over the Vecchio River masterfully designed by Gustave Eiffel.

RED ROCKS - Calanches just off the coastline of Piana. The massive rock formations were carved by the sea over centuries. CNS Photo by Beverly Mann
Absorbed in the history and renovation of the rails, I almost didn't see my hotel driver parked in front. In just 10 minutes, I arrived at the historic Hotel Du Monte d'Oro, where I was graciously greeted by the descendants of the Plaisant family, who directed me almost immediately to an album depicting the hotel's colorful past.

My room had an aura of ghosts surrounding me. Sepia family photos lined the walls and staircases. My imagination stirred with all kinds of stories involving the political figures and English aristocrats who used to frequent the hotel when it was quite the height of elegance. Though now showing some wear, the establishment still manages to keep the warmth and charm of the past.

Since there was little to do but hike in the area, I connected with two English couples for a delightful two-hour amble through the Cascades des Anglais, a trail of wooden foot bridges brimming with waterfalls and streams threading through a maze of evergreens, cedar and beech trees. The walk and fresh mountain air made for a restful sleep.

I arose early for my 9:30 departure on an hour train ride to Corte, the center of the island. Here I discovered a world of gorges, sculptured cliffs and ancient villages nestled within patches of greenery. Perched on a hillside protected by mountains, Corte stood tall with its towering cathedral punctuating the postcard setting.
  Hovering above the town center sits the 15th century Genoese citadel, the only inland fortress on the island. Here I got an awesome view of the compact, medieval town below. One day was sufficient to see the main sights of Corte, which included its university that attracts some 4,000 students per year.

The following morning, I traveled north to Bastia, Corsica's second-largest port with a population of approximately 50,000. In the distance were snowcapped mountains and rolling greenery dotted with crude stone huts built by Corsican shepherds centuries ago. We made a stop at Ponte-Leccia, where some people transferred to the train westward to Calvi or the less touristy town of Ile-Rousse.

CALVI - A view of the harbor at Calvi from the citadel. The fortress is a favorite spot to watch the sunset. CNS Photo by Beverly Mann

I was relieved to find that Bastia's train station was a convenient 10-minute walk to the center of town. I continued for a few minutes through the tree-lined Boulevard du General de Gaulle, clustered with outdoor cafes in full view of the sea, toward the Old Port to my hotel. The port is a great place to hang out and sample the catch of the day at any one of the reasonably priced outdoor restaurants. The adjacent, extensive ramparts border the town along the coastline, where I enjoyed watching the fishermen practicing their age-old art of mending nets.

The next morning I climbed to the top of the nearby citadel for a bird's-eye view of the Old Port and 17th century Saint Jean Baptiste Church with its baroque and neoclassical facades. Most startling was the architectural collage of rundown ancient dwellings attached to brightly painted, more contemporary edifices.

VILLAGE VIEW - San Antonio, the islandís oldest existing village. CNS Photo by Beverly Mann
Bastia was a central point to catch a bus tour north to the charming seaside villages of Cap Corse, including the ancient jewels of Nonza and Saint Florent. Two days seemed to be sufficient before embarking on my final and most scenic leg to the northwestern coast. With a change in Ponte-Leccia, I stopped overnight in Ile Rousse, a scenic resort built in 1765, taking its name from the red rocks of the Isle of Pietra just north of the town. The stretch between Ile Rousse and Calvi was just a 45-minute rail journey. However, there is a smaller train that chugs along the beachfront, making several stops along the way, passing through the ancient fortified town of Algajola.

Just when I thought I had seen all the natural beauty that I could absorb, I arrived at Calvi.

A pristine town, with a parade of white sailboats lining the crystal waters, greeted me as I disembarked the train. In the immediate distance stood a grand citadel, blanketed with medieval dwellings, projecting out of the electric-blue sea. I soon discovered that the best vista was a 10-minute cab ride up the hill to the church of Notre Dame de la Serra.

The astounding beauty of this port was still just the tip of the iceberg. I experienced breathtaking scenery on day bus trips to the natural caves and giant, red calanches (massive rock formations molded by the tumultuous sea over centuries) along the coastline of Porto and Piana. At the Le Mer Restaurant in Porto, I savored my most memorable meal and sea view.

On my final evening in Calvi, I climbed atop the citadel to view what was to be Corsica's greatest show. Several couples snuggled together, and individuals and children were silently seated along the edge of the stone fortifications staring ahead.

We were all mesmerized by the intense orange and purple mountains painted by the crimson red and yellow sunset reflected over the bay. The tranquil, steel-blue waters highlighted the tidy lineup of white boats docked under the starlit sky - a scene only painter Maxwell Parrish could create.

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