Tripping around Corsica
Corsica was the one region of France that Edmee hadn’t visited, so we took Easyjet from Orly, picked up my trusty little Citroen 3 from Nice Airport secure parking, then headed off in search of dinner. Rather than ferret around the port for a suitable meal, we headed east for Villefranche and Michel’s excellent restaurant. We were back at the port in good time to board our enormous ferry for the crossing to Corsica. We were ushered to our cabin by an ageing cove who seemed to speak some mélange of French and Italian, i.e. Corsican, so even Edmee struggled to understand his instructions. The décor was unprepossessing – even the blankets were branded with the ubiquitous Corsair skull. However, after a stroll around the ship and the usual excitement of leaving a port, we bedded down for the night.
The turnaround time for the ferry in Bastia is one hour, just about sufficient time to unload hundreds of cars and freight trucks and passengers and reload the next inventory for the trip back to Nice. So we were wakened at 5.30am by continual announcements over the speaker system, plus, in case of complete deafness, the factotums banging on each of the doors and yelling the Corsican equivalent of “Bonjour, Get Out”, as we were required to evacuate our cabins by 6am so that the turnover cleaning could be completed within the hour.
With eyes barely open, we headed to the café for breakfast, which goes by the charming appellation of “Spaghetteria” for coffee and yoghurt. Bastia came into view through the early morning haze – not the brilliant sunshine we were hoping for.
Disembarkation was totally chaotic, given that the French have zero respect for queueing or right of way, and the Corsicans consider any rules of the road an incitement to violence. However, we headed south without difficulty and the roads were both excellent and clear of traffic – hardly surprising as it was not yet 8.30am on a Sunday morning.
Our destination for the day was to be Bonifacio – a straight run down the length of the east coast of the island. Edmee was in charge of navigation, and, as we had made very good time (we were half-way to Bonifacio by 9.30am), suggested we head inland and mountain-ward via the Col de Bavella, supposedly one of the most beautiful roads in Corsica. It might have been, but the initial signs did not auger well. Within 20 metres of leaving the main road, we were scrambling along a pothole-riven donkey track displaying generations of sporadic asphalting. After five kilometres I was having severe doubts about the wisdom of this route, with nothing but swirling grey cloud ahead and no improvement in the pavement. Then suddenly, the mists cleared for a moment to show dramatic mountains in the middle distance, a raging torrent with beautiful flora appeared curb-side, and the road miraculously improved to become a two-laned, smooth highway. Still no traffic, and the drive just got better the further we went. After 40 minutes we popped out above the clouds to the awesome beauty of being surrounded by massive peaks and glorious pine forests. We came across a lone Swiss tourist and crossed each others’ paths several times as we each stopped to take yet another photo. Reaching the Col de Bavella, it was time for a coffee – cool, but with brilliant sunshine and dense shade. We toddled into an old-style inn and, having survived on our dingo’s breakfast (i.e., a glass of water and a quick look around), decided in a fit of desperation to share one of the burnt-offering croissants on the counter. Unbelievably, it was gorgeous – buttery, crispy, melt in the mouth, so we ordered another before setting off for the coast.
The road down to Porto Vecchio was pretty but not dramatic, past the village of Ospedale and its lovely lake. Gorgeous spring flowers were just starting to line the road – iris, crocus, wallflowers, salvia, helleborus, broom, lavender stoechus, poppies, lily of the valley, cistus, cyclamen, violets, daisies – but when we reached Porto Vecchio, it was crammed with Sunday morning traffic and revellers (or churchgoers), so we gave it a miss and headed for Bonifacio, just in time for lunch.
Our hotel on the quay, the Roy d’Aragon, was clean and pleasant, although our room was physically challenged in the space department. For lunch we chose the menu de jour – Corsican style aubergine (stuffed with breadcrumbs and herbs, then incinerated), followed by lovely whole grilled bass and a glass of rose.
The tour obligatoire in Bonifacio is a boat trip to the calanques and around the falaises. It was not yet the tourist season so we were amused by the fact that all the operators were in action, attempting to entice the sparse tourists to purchase their superior offerings “leaving in 10 minutes” (make that 20, maybe 30 minutes or more). On our way back to the hotel to collect our jackets, we were embraced by a large, unnaturally blond, brazenly charming spruiker who demanded we partake of the glories of his ‘cruise line’. As savvy as any of his breed, he instantly picked up on the fact that I wasn’t French, and, on establishing my Ockerness, congratulated me on the fact that all Australians love sport; to which I replied yes, everyone except me! Without so much as a flicker, he continued that I would be wonderful at sport, because (indicating generally in the area of my busty substances) “vous avez les bonnes respirateurs”! Edmee and I were so taken aback by his cheekiness that we laughed and he had his sale. There are art forms in every walk of life, apparently.
So we lay in the sun on the boat until such time as the operator chose to cast off (after several forays into the bowels of the craft to make ‘adjustments’ to the engine). We headed out of the harbour, past the cliffs and gun emplacements that were the stars of “The Guns of Navarone” and chugged into the Grotto, which is of similar ilk to Capri’s blue grotto, but which has a collapsed roof that bears more than a passing resemblance to the shape of the island of Corsica. Then we charged out of the grotto and around to the Calanques – inlets with beautiful azure water and lovely little beaches. Back along the coast, our trusty guide pointed out another weathered piece of cliff, in the shape of Napoleon’s chapeau; a little further along, a rock formation called the bison and the sheep, then along the falaise – undercut limestone cliffs on top of which the medieval city of Bonifacio stands precariously. One tall stack of rock has broken off from the land and is steadily moving out to sea. For the hour the tour takes, it’s an excellent use of €10 or thereabouts.
Back on dry land, we decided to explore the old city, despite the fact that the weather was closing in. It’s a steep haul up to the walled town, but, once there, it’s a thriving warren of restaurants, good shopping and galleries, and there’s a substantial population that seems unfazed by the invasion of busybodies comme nous. The better restaurants are up here, but, given the weather and the fact that we’d been up since sparrow’s, we opted to dine down on the quay. Salad and frites and a bottle of rose – just the ticket, and so to bed.
In Villefranche, I’d become addicted to the French “Today” show, which has zero structure and even less ‘informations’ (news), plus completely useless ‘meteo’ (weather). It seems to consist of an ex-kid’s show host prattling on to whoever strolls into the studio, leaning at odd camera angles. However, this morning I was flicking between the French channel and the Italian offerings. Italian tele is super macho, and one reporter captured my imagination – swarthy, dressed to the nines, decked out in Jackie O sunglasses on a grey morning at sunrise, he went by the moniker of Piero Masturbato. Oh joy.
After breakfast, we headed for the artisanal charcuterie to pick up some picnic fare. Corsican charcuterie is highly regarded, especially sanglier (wild boar) and ane (donkey). Another lunchtime delicacy to savour is mountain cheese crawling with maggots. Edmee wasn’t charmed by my first ever joke in French, pointing to a cheese we were about to tuck into, with “voila – le fromage qui marche”, but I was pretty chuffed.
We were heading north-west, along the coast, first stop Sartene, supposedly the most Corsican of towns. The coast road is very pretty, an easy drive on good roads, with lovely vistas across the hills to the snow-capped mountains to the north. We found a park in Sartene without any trouble and strolled around the town, which is very picturesque. The cathedral was very interesting. This was the week before Easter, so everyone was busy preparing for the local festival, whereupon one of the locals gets dolled up in a red-hooded ensemble, is shackled with 16 kilos of chains, and carries/drags a huge cross (30kg) through the cobble-stoned streets. It’s called the Procession of the Catenacciu (literally, the chained one) and the penitent is followed by a procession of other penitents (eight dressed in black, one in white). The penitent is anonymous and is selected by the local priest from applicants each of whom is trying to wipe the slate clean of a grave sin (naturally the locals are keen to figure out his identity). However, the local priest seems to have got a bit ahead of himself – the Man in Red gig is signed up for until 2047, or thereabouts! Or maybe Sartene is the favoured hangout of the grave sinners of the world.
After coffee in the main square, we headed off in search of menhirs – megalithic stone statues. After missing the turn to the first site, we managed to find the exit towards Filitosa. After about four kilometres, we branched off onto a side road that had the added obstacles of roadworks and logging trucks. Fortunately it was just on midday, so we knew we had a couple of hours of peace while the workers knocked off for their three-course lunch with a glass or three of local rotgut.
Filitosa was supposed to be five kms down the goat-track – it seemed like ten. But there was some light relief – as we tootled around a corner, two black sows with their broods of piglets (8 in total) ambled up the road towards us. They were just gorgeous and completely oblivious to our ooh-ing and aah-ing and our C3 invading their pathway.
When we eventually reached Filitosa, it was a surprisingly large affair. We were able to climb all over the antiquities, including the stone shelters and statues, and each of the major drawcards had a multi-lingual audio guide bollard – press the button to choose your language and learn all about it. By this stage is was hot, so we kept to the attractive shade of the ancient olive trees, then toured the charming little museum before heading north in search of a suitable spot for our picnic lunch, which we found by the roadside just north of Casalabriva.
Supposedly, it was too early for melons to be at their peak, but the one we shared was absolutely luscious, and the rest of our picnic excellent, including the donkey sausage. Consulting the map, we decided we could reach Piana on the west coast by nightfall, so phoned ahead to book a room and dinner at Les Roches Rouges.
We skirted Ajaccio, birthplace of Napoleon. If he’d been born a year earlier, he would have been Genovese, as the 1768 Treaty of Versailles transferred Corsica over to French sovereignty, much to the annoyance of the Brits, but they were too preoccupied with their American upstart colonies trying to go it alone across the pond to put up a fight.
By the time we reached Cargese – a pretty little town with a strange juxtaposition of Catholic and Greek Orthodox churches facing each other across a small ravine – it was beer o’clock. So we settled into a bar with a view and contemplated how strange it must have been for the emigres who arrived here from the Peloponnese in 1676 (they’d fled the Ottoman-Turk conquerors of their homeland) to face off against angry stick-wielding shepherds who wintered their flocks here and wanted no truck with the exotic interlopers.
The Hotel des Roches Rouges is a strange and wonderful place, with a fine terrace overlooking Les Calanques. We were treated to a biblical stormy sunset and enjoyed a fine dinner in the grand dining room, which is probably not much changed since the hotel was built in 1912 and later enjoyed by the Axis occupying forces during WWII. Our room was huge and simply furnished, but the whole hotel was enchanting, in a time-warped fashion.
The switchback drive through the craggy red rocks (a UNESCO world heritage site) towards Porto, 12 kms distant from Piana, is spectacular, ending with a fine view of the Golfe de Porto, with its Genoese tower atop a rocky headland. The main drag features an avenue of eucalypts, and from there we headed inland to Ota and the Gorges de Spelunca, with its two beautiful Genoese bridges, and a lovely walk along the tumbling, rocky stream.
Our luck ran out north of Galeria, with an interminable stretch of roadworks – not the usual kind, where one expects a single lane to be open to clear alternating traffic. The Corsican version involves tearing up the entire pavement, littering it with large rocks, filling the void with innumerable construction vehicles, none of which are manned while their drivers smoke a carton of cigarettes apiece. Finally two-way traffic is given the go-ahead, whereupon the Corsican road etiquette prevails, i.e. overtake on blind corners, plant the foot to the floor, sideswipe human and mechanical obstacles, whatever it takes to prove machismo.
Our delays meant we had time for only a short tour of Calvi – it deserves more, with its citadel, lovely aspect, attractive cafes and delectable local produce. But we needed to get to Pigna, our base for exploring the Balagne region, with its beautiful verdant landscape and interesting craft trail. We’d selected Casa Musicale. The various reviews seemed to focus on ‘unusual’. I’d have opted for ‘weird’ – our room was decidedly odd, both in decor and space, and our aperitif was taken on a crumbly terrace littered with plastic chairs at odd angles, but the restaurant, risen from the bones of an olive press, served a pleasant meal in atmospheric surrounding, and the village is a nice place to crouch out of the wind.
Next morning we ambled around the laneways and were entranced by the atelier Scatt’a Musica, with its gorgeous musical ‘boxes’ – hand-painted wooden donkeys, fish, chickens, cats and many more – all playing simple local tunes. I was delighted with my l’Ane Corse purchase. A drive further afield took us to Sant’Antonino, with panoramic views of Haute-Corse, a baroque church and Cave Antonini, a lovely place to sample local produce on a sunny Spring day. The villages of the Balagne are generally too small to support artisan bakers, so a small van does a drive-by and pulls up in the village squares to despatch the staff of life to the locals.
For our last two nights, we were staying at the Hotel La Corniche above Bastia, with spectacular views over the Ligurian Sea, so we had to make tracks across the northern coast of Corsica, with its scrubby, coarse vegetation. The French Resistance had its beginnings here, hence the adoption of the ‘Maquis’ as its pseudonym. It’s a pretty, winding drive over the Sierra di Pigno, to the outskirts of Bastia, then another convoluted climb to the hamlet of San-Martino-di-Lota. Thankfully, La Corniche has an excellent restaurant serving regional specialities, and we made short work of a fine local rose – Catarelli Patrimonio – over dinner.
To complete our circumnavigation of the island, next morning we headed north to check out the Cap Corse peninsula (40km long, 10km wide), the east coast of which is well endowed with the pretty seaside villages including Erbalunga and Macinaggio. We then headed inland to the hill village of Rogliano and on to the cape. It’s a short stroll up to the Mattei Cap Corse moulin (a landmark advertisement for the island’s best known aperitif) and its fine view of the Ile de la Giraglia. Genoese watchtowers dot the Cap’s coastline, built to protect the coast from Saracen raiders. The drive down the west coast can only be described as scary – it’s narrow with numerous switchbacks and bugger-all in the way of guardrails to protect the unwary or stupid from plunging over the cliff edge and into the sea far below. Little piles of plastic flowers testified to the fate of past road users.
Surviving the drive, we landed upon Patrimonio, found Catarelli and snaffled a dozen bottles of our new favourite tipple to take back to France. Another excellent dinner at La Corniche, and we were ready to take the ferry back to Nice, our only regret being that we didn’t have more time to explore the mountainous and beautiful interior of this delightful island.