Before we moved to France, the only thing that I knew about Corsica was that it was an island in the Mediterranean Sea where Napoleon Bonaparte was born. Now that we live here it’s hard to turn on the TV or open a magazine without seeing a beautiful image of crystal clear blue water, mountain cliffs above the sea, or lots of smiling faces enjoying afternoon drinks on a terrace looking out on all of those same marvelous views. Pair that with the universal reactions we got from everyone here when we mentioned that we’d be going to the island and you could wonder why their tourist office even bothers advertising. The place sells itself. English words like “beautiful, magnificent, fantastic” and their French equivalents rolled easily off the tongues of those around us. It was definitely time for Bill and me to visit this magical spot from which one person said, “you won’t want to come back.”
Like most of our vacations here, this one started with a short walk to the train station followed by a comfortable ride, this time to Marseille where we took the Metro underground train for just 2 stops to the port where our overnight ferry awaited. Although not officially called a cruise ship, it offered many of the same amenities we enjoyed on ocean liners in the Caribbean including a delicious meal and a comfortable cabin. Arrival the next morning at 6:00 AM in Bastia on the northeast coast meant that we had some time to look around this seaside city where part of its protective citadel and ramparts begun in 1378 still stand. We stopped for a coffee and a pastry before walking on to the train station to travel across the top of the island to that night’s destination.
Calvi, much like the city we had left 3 hours earlier on the opposite coastline, also has an ancient citadel inside of which hide cobblestone streets, winding lanes, and ancient buildings. We got a great view over the city from there. Back down at sea level the streets around the harbor are lined with shops and restaurants and it’s really not a far walk from there to the beach for sunning, swimming, or a waterside meal.
Although I didn’t know the city name of Ajaccio, our next overnight stay was the reason I’d heard of Corsica since this was where Napoleon Bonaparte came from. The house where he was born in 1769 is now a museum that displays furniture, art, and documents important to the family. Other stops on the “Napoleon Trail” took us past a statue that was created in 1865 by Viollet le-Duc who was instrumental in restoring Carcassonne, and to the cathedral where the future emperor was baptised in 1771. In the middle of the 19th century a neighborhood was named Le Quartier des Étrangers (the Foreigners’ Quarter) to welcome overseas investors and that’s where we discovered the beautiful Cyrnos Palace, a Scottish mansion from around 1890. As in Calvi, there’s a Citadel here too but even after hundreds of years it is still an active military base so we couldn’t go inside.
Up to this point we had used the train to get us to our overnight stays but for our final stop the only way there was by bus. Bonifacio, on the southern tip of Corsica, also has a fortified town high above on the cliffs overlooking the port city below. Given the steep climb up and down between the two, I was glad we stayed long enough to give us a chance to see both without rushing. This whole area of the island is included in the National Reserve that enforces strict rules to ensure its survival. It’s possible to take a 1 1/2 hour boat excursion just to have a look back at the beautiful landscape from the sea.
To get back to mainland France we took a short bus ride to Porto Vecchio where our return overnight ferry was waiting. Although I can’t agree with the earlier suggestion that, “you won’t want to come back (to Carcassonne)” since ours truly is home-sweet-home, I would change the words a bit to “you will want to GO back” to this L’Ile de Beauté that we would call the Island of Beauty.
Travel tips: There was some information that we discovered only by experience rather than being able to easily find it online. As ferry foot passengers we took Marseille’s Metro Line 2 from the train station to Joliette Station (just 2 stops with the fare of 1.80 €) then walked 2 blocks to La Gare Maritime de Joliette, turned left and went into the Entrée door and up to the ticket counter. There we exchanged our emailed confirmation for a boarding pass with a code to unlock our cabin door and our pre-paid dinner voucher. At 5:30 PM we went through airline-style x-ray security of our luggage, boarded a shuttle bus that took us to the ferry where our luggage was hand checked before we took the elevator up to the floor with cabins. At 7:30 PM the ship’s restaurant that does not accept reservations opened and because we were near the front of the line we were seated at a window side table with a great view of our departure. The ship arrived at 6:00 AM and passengers were required to leave at that point. Many cafés in Bastia were already open so finding breakfast was easy. The return ferry from Porto-Vecchio to Marseille operated in a similar fashion.
Although renting a car would have allowed us access to more of the island, we enjoyed the train and bus rides, especially on curvy mountain roads where someone else did the driving. A 7-day train pass is 50 € but we bought cheaper individual tickets (40 € total per person) for the two trips we took. Because we could only buy a train ticket on the day of travel it might have been worth a little extra to buy the pass just for peace of mind in case we were running late or the ticket office happened to be closed. We did observe some passengers buying tickets on board the train from the contrôleur as he passed through checking tickets. The bus (no restroom on board) from Ajaccio to Bonifacio was 20 € each and we bought those at the Ajaccio bus station while we bought the 10 € each Bonifacio to Porto-Vecchio bus tickets from the driver.
The Marseille Métro in English: http://www.rtm.fr/en
Corsica Bus & Train (Unofficial but helpful): https://www.corsicabus.org/Train_services.html
Corsica Train (official website): http://www.cf-corse.corsica/