Corsica Morning

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THE train is hardly anything to write home about, not with its three rusted and creaky cars and with seats as hard as church pews. But 20 minutes into the journey from Ajaccio, Corsica’s largest coastal city, to Corte, in the island’s rugged outback, a certain alchemy begins to take place.

 

The smells of palm trees and Mediterranean winds give way to odors of pine forest and damp vegetation. Twenty minutes more and you’re clattering upward past plunging ravines and snow-capped mountain ranges that look transposed from Ansel Adams photos. Red-roofed mountain villages, ruined stone huts, and lightning-blasted trees thunder past and vanish behind. All that’s missing is a Corsican Wordsworth to distill these natural wonders into verse.

 

Almost all the passengers — among them Italian cyclists, Dutch trekkers and my own astonished self — press their faces to the dirty glass, muttering superlatives and wondering what will materialize around the next bend. Our words come rushing out in multiple languages — “Bello!” “Mooi!” “Holy crud!” — with each phrase expressing the same sense of awe.

 

In a way, our band of travelers is just conforming to history’s pattern. For millennia, visitors have arrived in Corsica only to be blown away by its loveliness. The ancient Greeks sailed into its dazzling turquoise bays and declared the island Kalliste: the Most Beautiful. Henri Matisse strode down a gangplank many centuries later and found a “marvelous land,” where “all is color, all is light.”

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WHEN people find themselves at a loss for words to describe Corsica, it’s usually the island’s staggering beauty that trips them up.

 

But my guide and I were grappling for synonyms to describe another defining feature: its vertiginous and ever-twisting mountain roads.

 

“Dangereux,” he groaned as he swung his black Nissan four-by-four around one of many unforgiving bends. “Trop difficile.”

 

Jacky Marie, a spry 54-year-old from the tiny town of Favalello (population about 20), was driving us from a remote forested mountain region known as Le Boziu, to the Vallée de la Restonica, where we would spend a half-day hiking up to a pair of glacial lakes and back.

 

I was starting to wonder: would we ever get there?

 

As Jacky exhausted the limits of his vocabulary describing the perils of our ride, he took his hands off the wheel, thrust them in front of me, palms about an inch apart, to express with gestures what his mouth could not.

 

I winced.

 

When I regained enough courage to look out the window again, I scanned the vast green expanse before me and spotted a village perched atop one of the highest peaks in the area. How did anyone ever get up there, I wondered? Jacky explained that there were only two residents: an unmarried couple. And apparently their cohabitation was quite the scandal.

 

Gradually, the mist-covered mountains gave way to a gently rolling grassy plain where horses and cattle grazed. After a few more minutes the road mercifully straightened and opened up on to a grove of oak trees. My stomach settled, but we still had another 30 minutes to go.

 

When Americans think of Corsica, they probably picture what it and other Mediterranean islands are known for most: seaside resort towns. And yes, Corsica owes much of its reputation to postcard-perfect beaches that seem almost Caribbean with their white sand and sapphire water. Towns like Bonifacio, with its towering citadel and buzzing waterfront cafes, or Porto-Vecchio, with its yacht-filled harbor and night club scene, have become Corsica’s better-known destinations.

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