To a sto­ry­book isle

In praise of the dra­matic majesty of Cor­sica

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Travel & Indulgence - STEPHEN COL­LARD

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.



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