Travel: France with a dash of Italy

If you want a spectacular overview of the island of Corsica, take the train to Calvi, suggests Alan Murdoch, and enjoy the ride
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There's little to beat Corsica in the spring, and nothing to top exploring the island by train. Corsican rail journeys belong in the Chris Bonnington school of transport. Engineered with lavish use of dynamite, the line to Calvi is three hours of tunnels, viaducts and vertigo spiralling up to Alpine peaks, then down to a sparkling Ligurian Sea.

After Bastia's sprawling port, the terrain changes quickly to burned- out valleys. Zealous farmers' yearning for pasture for ever-more-scrawny, EU-subsidised cattle has led to indiscriminate burning of the thick hillside scrub - by autumn, entire valleys have become charcoal.

Powered by something Trojan in the diesel department, the "Micheline", Corsica's one-car mountain goat of a train, bravely scales near-impossible gradients above the central highlands, where the Bastia line leaves the southern route and meanders westwards, but mostly up. Slightly delayed by mountaineering cows, it arrives at Calvi along the beach.

Though the old harbour is a hive of life, the main out-of-season draw is a near-empty white beach, fringed by conifers beneath snow-capped mountains. Calvi's citadel, and a large camp along the bay, are home to France's Foreign Legion. Young recruits, immaculate in pillbox hats and sharp-pleated, pale-green shirts, stare into the camera shop window, a snapshot shrine to generations of decorated Beau Gestes. In mid-October, the beach draws aero-nuts from all over France. Its curious wind festival sees balloon races, microlight aircraft and dog-fights between giant kites.

France's largest wolves roam in the wilderness above. A ban on fishing means that marine life flourishes, keeping seals and peregrine falcons happy. When the crew hurl baguettes into the shallows, they prompt a churning, piranha-like frenzy of small, hungry jaws.

Re-entering Calvi harbour brings a bonus for Inspector Clouseau fans. In big letters on the breakwater is the command "Vitesse limite a 3 noeuds". French visitors are baffled at the joy pronouncing this brings to travelling English Peter Sellers fans.

Reputedly a refuge for Marseille criminals, Calenzana, three uphill miles inland, has at its sleepy centre a Baroque church filled with paintings, and wooden figures depicting Christ with curiously sensual overtones. Farther up the coast, threats appear on walls at the fashionable l'le Rousse beach. The graffiti read "Minet etait un chat qui faisait miaou" (Minet was a cat who miaowed). As if to allay fears about cruelty to cats, the letters "FLNC," are appended (the militant Corsican National Liberation Front).

Corsicans, who are governed from Paris but whose vernacular and landscape lean towards the Italian, cannot resist communicating on walls, trees - anywhere a splash of nationalism or footballing allegiance ("Forza Bastia !") will fit in. Past Calenzana, a narrative epic of spray-painted graffiti covers the road. Beside an open Bible and a heart, a jilted husband has recorded his wife's marriage vows and her infidelity. The last line reads simply: "Eternite, Nicole?"

Other Latin passions are on sale in every hardware shop. Corsica's prime souvenir (ubiquitous Napoleon kitsch apart) is a narrow knife with the brand name "Vendetta". For small grievances there are tiny, 3-in weapons; for serious grudges, up to 8-in blades. Under medieval Genoese rule, vendettas accounted for 900 Corsican funerals a year.

As Calvi's morning mists clear, a Clochemerle-style pantomime unfolds in the main street's Cafe Rex. Here, older men, coached loudly by friends, play poker for centimes, as larger-stakes games go on discreetly behind a carved wooden screen. Chris Waddle fans will enjoy the marble plaque commemorating a footballing anniversary: "En souvenir du Milan AC, incinere 26 Mai 1993 par Le O-M" (in memory of AC Milan, murdered by Olympique- Marseille).

Another ambling train south leads to the central mountain stronghold of Corte, once Corsica's capital. After the plastic facades of today's capital, Ajaccio, the old architecture has a refreshing plainness: a spiral of small squares revealing cafes, restaurants and craft workshops, leads ever upwards to a towering citadel.

Corte is patisserie paradise. Bakers battle to produce the island's biggest cakes and flans. A smart new ethnological museum is tucked away inside the citadel, while the university gives the main streets a youthful vitality.

Close by are the epic Gorges du Tavignano and Restonica, and the more distant Capitellu and Nino mountain lakes. Tavignano winds via scree paths teeming with small green lizards, feeding numerous birds of prey. As if shod with crampons, half-starved brown cattle scale any ledge rumoured to support a blade of grass. Distant, tinkling bells announce unseen forest goats. If you can bear to look that far down, light glints off a near- white granite river bed, smoothed into natural, if chilly, swimming-pools.

Onward by road or rail, the Corte to Ajaccio journey is staggering. White granite peaks tower over forest and clouds around Vizzavona and Bocognano, mountain villages popular with hikers in summer. Just after dawn, groups of well-fed wild boar, who thrive on chestnuts and other forest protein, can be seen lying casually at the roadside. They are no joke when charging, but at rest they recall snoring drinkers after a lengthy pub lunch.

A Eurostar/TGV return rail ticket from London Waterloo, via Lille or Paris, to Marseille or Nice costs pounds 109. From there, you can catch a ferry. Book the whole trip through Rail Europe (0990 300003).

By air, there are no direct flights from the UK to Corsica. Air France (0181-742 6000) can offer connections via Paris. Perhaps the best bet is an air/sea combination, using EasyJet (0990 292929) from Liverpool or Luton to Nice for pounds 107 return (or more), then transferring to ship.