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Corsica: A world apart

Corsica: A world apart

We all know that France already offers some of the very best of the finer things in life, so where, then, do the French choose to spend their precious summer holidays? While the traditional mass migration down the A7 ‘Autoroute du Soleil’ to the Côte d’Azur still continues each August, those in search of a more exotic experience have another option, with the added allure of island escapism: Corsica.

Girolata-bay-Réserve-Naturelle-Scandola

France’s largest offshore island shimmers amid the warm, turquoise waters of the western Mediterranean, just above Sardinia and although it’s actually closer to Italy than to France, it enjoys full status as a French region, with two départements – Haute-Corse and Corse-du-Sud. So how did it become French? Throughout its long history the island has actually passed through many hands. The Phocaeans of Ionia founded Alalia about 570 BC. They were followed by the Etruscans, the Carthaginians, the Romans, the Vandals, and even the Arabs. Eventually, during the 14th century Corsica fell to the Genoese, who occupied it until 1768, by which time a determined independence movement, under Pasquale Paoli, had made it a real thorn in the side. Genoa responded by simply selling Corsica to France for 40 million francs. The understandable ignominy of this act resulted in a resentment which has been simmering away beneath (and occasionally on) the surface ever since, although things seem to have calmed considerably in recent years with increasing tourism revenue and a healthy revival of the colourful Corsican culture.

Réserve-Naturelle-de-Scandola-corsica-holiday

To French eyes it’s ‘la Corse’ - or l’Ile de Beauté, and those who have fallen under the spell return year after year to explore a startling diversity of scenery (including a surprisingly mountainous interior) spread across an area of some 8,700 sq. km. With this kind of size, it obviously makes sense to concentrate on one particular area for a visit. The north-eastern corner of the island is particularly impressive, where the often tortuous nature of some of the more scenic roads means that following the coastline can take rather longer than you might imagine. It has also ensured that much of it remains totally untouched by commercial development, so if you’re happy to head off and explore then (August excepted) it’s still possible to have a secluded sandy beach all to yourself. Now that’s luxury.

Colourful-boats-harbour-Ajaccio

Another pleasure is the discovery of colourful villages like Cargèse, whose colour-washed architecture is enhanced each summer by spectacular displays of bougainvillea, which flourish here in the mild climate. Cargèse’s Mediterranean mood is further underlined by the presence of a Greek Orthodox church (squaring up to its Catholic counterpart just across the valley), whose cool interior is an unexpected jewelbox of pastel trompe-l’oeil decoration. To the north, beyond Piana, the road winds around the coastline via the famous les Calanches, a spectacular range of red granite peaks which swoop dramatically into clear blue waters 300m below.

Nearby Porto offers a selection of up-market hotels and restaurants set around two small beaches which are divided by a rocky promontory sporting a tastefully restored Genoese watchtower. The more sheltered south beach serves as an embarkation point for a memorable boat trip across the Golfe de Porto, whose great beauty has earned it the prestigious World Heritage Site designation from UNESCO. Apart from sheer scenic value, the one-hour trip also allows visitors to visit Girolata, the archetypal traditional Corsican fishing village, which is inaccessible by road. Nearby is the 1,000 hectare Réserve Naturelle de Scandola, the first of its kind in France, established to protect the wildlife and ecology, both land and sea.

Deserted-beach-Corsica

Beyond Porto the coastal road to Calvi is challenging, to say the least, but it brings great visual rewards and a very real sense of personal achievement to those with the staying power to complete it. The locals, not surprisingly, tend to resist the prospect of all that incredible coastal scenery and go instead for the inland route which, whilst appearing far from direct on the map, turns out in practice to be the quicker option. By way of compensation, this route allows you to appreciate some of the unexpectedly rich and varied landscapes of the interior.

Turning inland from Porto, the immediate impression is like having been suddenly transported back to southern France, as the Gorges de Spellunca twist and wind their way upwards through a craggy, wooded landscape strongly reminiscent of the Alpes Maritimes. A quick glance at the Michelin map confirms that much of the eastern section of Haute-Corse is in fact designated as a Parc Régional. Beyond Evisa the scenery changes to rich woodland, much of it mature chestnut, as the road continues its relentless climb through the Fôret d’Aitone, topping off at around 1500m, before swooping back down below the 1000m level beyond the Fôret de Valdo Niello.

Citadelle-de-Calvi-corsica-holiday

This is a country of big landscapes, of mountains, forest and an abundance of wildlife, including mouflon - a hardy, brown-coated wild sheep native to Corsica and Sardinia and probable ancestors of the domestic sheep of the Neolithic middle east. Sanglier (wild boar) are another potential road hazard, although you’re much more likely to encounter the infinitely milder-mannered wild pigs, most of whom discovered long ago that tourists can generally be relied upon to provide a tasty snack in exchange for a photo-opportunity.

The scenic drama is sustained as the road descends, via the delightfully named Calacucia and the Scala di Santa Regina, to meet the main north-south route, the N193, which connects the important ancient north-eastern seaport of Bastia with its counterpart Ajaccio on the south-west coast. The route to Calvi soon abandons this, however, in favour of the much improved N1197 or ‘la Balanina’ - yes, Corsica adopted the French habit of naming their main holiday routes - which heads back towards the coast and the last leg of the journey.

les-Calanches-de-Piana-Porto

In total contrast to the rugged, mountainous landscapes of the interior, Calvi, seen beyond the gentle curve of a quintessential Mediterranean sandy beach, presents a strikingly sophisticated first impression. Traditional fishing boats have largely been displaced by luxury motor yachts, attracted by the modern 100-berth marina created alongside the smart cafe and restaurant terraces which now occupy much of the quayside. Things must have changed, too, for the skippers of the glass-bottomed pleasure boats, as they regard the arrival of the NGV or Navire à Grande Vitesse. These aluminium-hulled high-speed ferries bring around 500 passengers and 150 cars from ports on both the French and Italian mainland.

Away from the quayside, however, Calvi retains much of its historic, low-rise character and lays claim to having been the birthplace of Christopher Columbus (Admiral Nelson, too, would have good cause to remember his visit in 1794, for he left minus an eye). The skyline is still dominated by a vast 15th century citadel, a military stronghold constructed by the Genoese and today housing a regiment of the French Foreign Legion. The narrow streets of the medieval, bastide-like commune are both unpretentious and atmospheric, with a sense of calm detachment from events in the lively port below.

port-Calvi-corsica-holiday

There’s no escape, however, from the infectiously upbeat atmosphere of the annual Calvi Jazz Festival, which seizes the town during the third week in June. Mighty cactus-covered walls provide the unforgettable backdrop to evening concerts in the giant marquee erected on the quayside beside the citadel. Festival days feature free promenade concerts, spontaneous jams in cafes and the occasional mellow strains of blue-notes wafting across the beaches. Calvi possesses something of a Riviera quality, an analogy which goes a stage further. High in the surrounding mountains which encircle the broad bay is a fascinating selection of small villages in the Haute Ballagne, the equivalent of the arrière-pays of the Côte d’Azur. Some maintain traditional activities, including centuries-old olive mills, whilst others have been revitalised in recent years by the arrival of artists and craft workers such as glass-blowers, printmakers, potters and luthiers, who welcome tourists to their studios to witness their skilled work.

The mountain village of Pigna is just such a community and is also home to a group of musicians who many years ago formed an association to buy and restore a large, ancient house overlooking the valley, the mountains and the coastline. They then created a successful hotel and restaurant business, where they maintain the Corsican folklore and culinary traditions, regularly promoting concerts to perform their songs. In addition, each year they host other acts from throughout Europe and travel overseas for regular exchange visits to concerts and festivals. Such genuine and constructive enthusiasm for their heritage is infectious and provides a valuable insight into the essential spirit of modern Corsica. Here is an island which despite offering so much to the tourist, remains the least spoilt in the Mediterranean. It offers tremendous opportunities for walkers, cyclists, naturalists and even winter sports enthusiasts. Culinary delights are legendary, with a broad enough selection of regional speciality dishes to satisfy even vegetarian gourmets, while island wine production can also produce some very pleasant surprises. No wonder the French keep coming back.

And now that the secret is out, so can we.

Fact file

Latin-church-Cargèse-corsica-summerHow to get there:

By Air

Limoges and Bergerac airports offer charter holidays over the summer.

Saturday flights to Ajaccio from Poitiers Biard begin on 25 April and continue until 5 Sept.

Another option is from La Rochelle, which offers flights from 19 April–13 Sept.

Ferries

Corsica Ferries operates routes between Nice or Toulon and Bastia or Ajaccio. 

www.corsica-ferries.co.uk

Marseille-based operator SNCM offers crossings to Bastia and Ajaccio and from Toulon.

For general information see www.visit-corsica.com/en/

WORDS: Roger Moss

© Living Magazine - all rights reserved. First published in February 2015