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Sunny Sojourns On Two Mediterranean Isles : Sticking to the back roads, two intrepid travelers go in search of untrammeled beaches, mouthwatering local food, places of wild beauty. They find it in. . .

June 20, 1993|JANET YESK | Yesk is a free-lance writer who is studying French literature at the Sorbonne in Paris

BASTIA, France — "L'Ile de Beaute," Island of Beauty, is how the French refer to this Mediterranean outpost they have ruled since 1768. And when they have the occasion to drink Corsican rose wines, they wistfully say that you can taste the sunshine in them. With its near-perfect climate, beautiful landscape, picturesque villages unspoiled by modern architecture, and its long list of culinary specialties, Corsica seemed an ideal place to spend a vacation.

I wanted to visit Corsica since moving to France three years ago. My French boyfriend, Antoine, spent most of his childhood there, and he and his family still talk about the island as if it were paradise on Earth. I knew from them that Corsica is a wild land where the peoplefiercely guard their heritage, language and way of life, and try to protect their environment from mass tourism. And Antoine often described this mountainous island, situated just off the western coast of Italy, as a land of large rivers, deep gorges and brilliant red cliffs overlooking the sea.

Antoine suggested that the perfect introduction to Corsica would be by way of the island's small and somewhat rickety train. Although only one track runs through Corsica, he maintained that this alone was an overwhelming achievement. To find out why, he said, I'd just have to go and see.

So last summer we found the cheapest fare we could ($150 one way) on one of the many daily Air Inter flights from Paris to Corsica. It flew to the northwestern coastal town of Calvi, one of the two starting points for the train. (The other is Bastia on the northeastern coast.) For two weeks, our only agenda would be to ride the train and get off when the mood struck us. Later we planned to rent a car in Ajaccio, the most populous city on the island,to visit as much of the rest of the island as we could.

Within an hour after our arrival in Calvi, we boarded a two-car train that was just old enough to be uncomfortable, but not yet old enough to be quaint. When the ticket collector noticed my surprise at the antique wooden controls, he assured me that the train ran fine. Nobody bothered to close the train car doors as we pulled out of the station, and some very impressive creaking and cracking noises came from the wheels.

If we weren't rolling past some of the most spectacular coastline I've ever seen, I might have been scared. I looked on a map and saw that the train runs northeast along the red, rocky coastline for about 15 miles up to L'Ile-Rousse, one of the many thin peninsulas that stretch into the Mediterranean, then heads south through the mountains to Ajaccio.

I was contentedly watching the coastline, listening to the fat, gray-haired conductor sing a traditional Corsican folk song (something I would later hear often in village cafes), when I realized that everyone else was looking out the other side of the train. We had started to climb, and on one side were hills covered in brilliant green maquis, brush that grows miraculously on rock and, in the spring, is covered with small red flowers. The hills sloped up to a 3,000-foot peak, and crumbling stone villages and the occasional isolated church appeared on the mountain face. Now that I had seen this spectacular scenery, I understood why Antoine had suggested the train.

Although they are French citizens, Corsicans speak an Italian dialect. In fact, Corsica belonged to the city-states of Pisa, and then Genoa, for 500 years, long before Italy unified as a nation. But in 1729, a tax rebellion changed all that. Corsican rebels, led by Gen. Jean-Pierre Gaffory and a nobleman named Pasquale Paoli, did not achieve victory until a quarter-century later, but in 1755, they declared Corsica an independent nation. Paoli was elected leader, and he declared Corte, a mountain stronghold in the island's interior, as the new nation's capital. Today Corte is still the soul of Corsican nationalistic pride, and the cultural center of the island.

French schoolchildren learn that Corsica was one of the first true democracies, and a Corsican man who saw me reading an English-language guidebook insisted that Americans copied their government from Corsica's. Whatever the case, Corsican democracy was short-lived: in 1768, the Genoese, who had not officially recognized the new republic, ceded the island to the French.

The Corsicans rebelled again, this time against France. Eventually, however, the French took power once and for all, primarily with the help of a Corsican named Charles-Marie Bonaparte--whose son Napoleon would one day become emperor of France.

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