To a storybook isle
In praise of the dramatic majesty of Corsica
WHEN I was about 14 years old, my father, an unstoppable beach walker and shell collector, handed me a book on Corsica written in French. I was fascinated with the majestic pictures of serrated mountains and ancient citadels guarding pristine white sandy beaches. I lost that book, but the images of a profoundly beautiful Mediterranean island remained imprinted on my memory.
Decades later, I had explored almost every corner of France. Corsica, however, remained an enigma. The French author Guy de Maupassant described its geography as ‘‘a world in chaos . . . a tempest of mountains and narrow gorges, waves of granite and colossal undulations of earth’’. I wondered if this tempest of nature had survived tourism and the wave of concrete it so often brings. Would I be able to recognise those majestic land and seascapes that were so memorable in my father’s book? I have to find out.
With France offering one of the best road infrastructures in Europe, I decide to drive from Toulouse in the southwest to the Mediterranean port of Toulon. There I will put my car on the Corsica-Sardinia ferry to Ajaccio on the west coast of the island. Since I intend to be in France for a few months, I lease a small, zippy Renault, which is just as quick and easy as renting and you get a brand new car and an accident and personal insurance package with no excess (you must take out the contract before leaving Australia).
Leased cars do, however, have bright red number plates that announce you are a foreigner. I know I’ll be travelling into the heart of guarded Corsica and wonder how the locals will view a red-plated outsider.
I decide to stick to the main autoroutes rather than the shorter national roads. The spectacularly efficient French road system of tollways and freeways is everything Australian roads are not. Peage motorways are expensive and the trip would cost close to
($60), but they are fast, with a 130km/h speed limit for cars.
Taking a hotel for the night in downtown Toulon is my first bad decision. While the surrounding area is an agreeable mix of pleasant coastal communities and inland medieval towns, Toulon is like no other coastal French city; it’s a seedy port of sailors, sex workers and raucous seagulls the size of dogs.
After a hot, humid, and sleepless night listening to the calls of the various animal populations, I catch the early ferry to Ajaccio. There is little incentive to pause in this once stately colonial town, the birthplace of Napoleon; every day, hundreds of cars and trucks disgorge from the ferries into its CBD. Like Toulon, it is jammed between sea and mountain, and struggles to keep the aesthetics of its history intact.
I drive immediately inland, taking the only highway south. Corsican roads, due to the steep terrain, are torturously twisted and dangerously spectacular. They are like great snakes lying on the mountain slopes waiting for the unwary. Soon I am surrounded by mountains, some still topped with snow. Then, five minutes later, the mountains have parted and I’m surveying a precipitous coast topped by lonely stone towers built by the Genoese 400 years ago.
The southwest-coast corner of Corsica is windy, dry and empty, with the occasional isolated beach; perhaps it would be of interest for those seeking craggy solitude but right at the bottom of the island, peering confidently towards Sardinia, is Bonifacio, perched on the giddy edge of towering white limestone cliffs that seem to have j ust pushed themselves out of the sea.
Its spectacular harbour is guarded by a mighty fortress and the medieval town centre has a citadel built by the Pisans in the 9th century; it became a precinct of fishermen and pirates, then a Genoese colony and later a base for the French Foreign Legion.
Bonifacio’s harbour was said to be the entrance to the Laestrygonia, the distant land of cannibals in Homer’s Odyssey. Ulysses described his arrival at a magnificent harbour, protected on both sides by rocky escarpments, two long headlands facing each other. Bonifacio is j ust that and still hums with history and myth but also dances to the tune of euros that gush endlessly from the celebrity set and super-yachts enroute to Sardinia’s famously expensive Costa Smeralda.
While Bonifacio’s fortress is memorable, I don’t recall it from my father’s book. I know I am getting closer and push the Renault further up the east coast towards some of the island’s best beaches.
Palombaggia and Rondinara, both to the south, are white-sand beaches with diamond-clear water, and impossibly busy in the high season; the beautiful conifer forests at Palombaggio almost touch the ocean.
I stroll through the crooked 16th-century streets of PortoVecchio, an unassuming town on a hill detached from the busy commercial centre below. I find an agreeably quiet and cheap hotel in the hinterland and from my fabulously deserted hotel pool, I can see the countryside rises dramatically to sharp peaks. Are these Maupassant’s waves of granite and tempest of mountains?
As I drive up another tortuous road, the clouds evaporate to reveal the jagged pinnacles of the Aiguilles ( needles) de Bavella, some still graced with snow. It looks as if some angry sky god has slashed the entire mountain range with a razor blade and then sprinkled the lower reaches with ancient pines. These mountains are part of a range that stretches right across Corsica, constituting one of the world’s great hiking destinations.
From the Bavellas I drive inland through sometimes quite grim villages and then approach the west coast again via another silent road that takes me through the Gorges of Spelunca, a long, twisted valley watched over by more formidable mountains.
Where the slopes fall down to the coast, the range becomes the Calanques de Piana, with rocky inlets that look as if the gods have slashed the stone and scooped out great chunks with their hands; once done, the unstoppable French then put another snaking road across this World Heritage site. Motorists stop at will and wander about, dumbstruck at nature’s extraordinary art hundreds of metres above the alluring blue of the Mediterranean.
As I walk around, the views feel familiar; I amsure I amstanding in the middle of one of the pictures of my childhood book and, at last, I can feel my father’s presence.
But another ferry awaits so
I head straight for Calvi in the northwest corner of the island. Here appears another elusive image from the book. Calvi has a long sandy bay with clear water, overlooked by an ancient fortified town and in turn presided over by a snow-capped mountain range. Calvi is the closest entry point for air and ferry traffic from the mainland, but tourism, while driving its survival, is measured and the result is perhaps one of the most appealing swimming destinations in Europe.
New buildings are architecturally pleasing, all painted in white and the pastel colours of the Mediterranean. The beach, while busy, is impeccably clean. The old town, protected from the new by its medieval walls, watches over the beach like some huge ancient battleship.
These mountains and fortresses in Corsica are of such boggling proportions that if you go there, you too will be touched by their dramatic majesty.