Cor­si­can ad­ven­ture

En­joy un­fil­tered na­ture and an­cient vil­lages while re­new­ing a love for the sim­pler things in life on this sunny Mediter­ranean is­land.

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - FRONT PAGE - By SA­MAN­THA HIEW star2­travel@thes­tar.com.my

THROUGH the air­plane win­dow, Cor­sica looks like a melange of rugged moun­tains fall­ing into a turquoise sea, stay­ing true to its rep­u­ta­tion as the most moun­tain­ous is­land in the Mediter­ranean Sea.

It is home to large tracts of pine forests sur­round­ing glacial lakes and pock­ets of beau­ti­ful fresh­wa­ter pools with crys­tal clear wa­ter, as well as quaint vil­lages set among green hills and val­leys.

Be­cause it be­longs po­lit­i­cally to the French but is ge­o­graph­i­cally closer to Italy, Cor­sica has a very dis­tinct iden­tity. The peo­ple speak their own lan­guage and have names of both Ital­ian and French ori­gins, and their unique cui­sine is in­flu­enced by both coun­tries.

The prom­ise of ad­ven­ture, along with the is­land’s easy- ac­cess air­ports, tempted us to plan a visit there – with a one- year- old in tow.

And so our fam­ily trip to Cor­sica be­gins in the hills of Ajac­cio, un­der a clear blue Mediter­ranean sky.

Beach starter to art

Ex­it­ing Ajac­cio air­port, we are rather be­fud­dled to learn that pub­lic trans­port here is scarce on a Sun­day, even at the air­port. But af­ter mak­ing an SOS call to our Airbnb host Mar­tine, we soon hear a car screech­ing to a halt out­side. Out of a lit­tle red ve­hi­cle steps a man wear­ing a friendly smile: “Hi, I’m Guillaume, friend of Mar­tine’s.”

Guillaume drives us past gar­gan­tuan, mel­low- toned build­ings har­bour­ing ad­min­is­tra­tive of­fices of the is­land’s cap­i­tal city. On the coastal road lead­ing to Mar­tine’s spa­cious apart­ment, the charm of the old town with its cob­bled streets is jux­ta­posed against the mod­ern- look­ing, yacht- packed ma­rina.

Since most of the shops and restau­rants are closed for siesta be­tween noon and 4pm, Mar­tine comes to our res­cue again by invit­ing us to join her fam­ily for lunch. Since we speak lit­tle French, our new friend Guillaume in­ter­prets, telling us sim­ply that “We’ll be hav­ing baguette, cheese and salad”. So we’re ex­pect­ing a light lunch – but then Mar­tine brings out a roast­ing pan filled with de­lec­ta­ble roast beef and wild mush­rooms, com­ple­mented by lo­cal char­cu­terie, olive oil, cheese and baguette. Ev­ery- thing be­comes fuzzy mer­ri­ment as we de­vour this gas­tro­nomic feast.

Ad­ja­cent to the ho­tel we stay in on the fol­low­ing day is the peace­ful Pail­lote Trot­tel Beach, where we pitch a red para­sol and kick back while our tod­dler builds sand cas­tles. We are far from the madding crowds on Cor­sica’s usu­ally sar­dine- packed beaches, grate­ful for our good for­tune while pad­dling bare­footed through warm sea­wa­ter. At sun­set, we set off for the old town in search of din­ner, and spot the child- friendly Le Via Roma, where the chef is happy to omit salt from our tod­dler’s spaghetti Bolog­nese.

The next day, we dis­cover more tod­dler- friendly fa­cil­i­ties, this time the pe­tit train that trav­els from Ajac­cio to­wards the light­house at the end of the Route des Iles San­guinaires. Along the way, the sight of white sandy beaches with turquoise wa­ter gleam­ing jewel- like in the sun make us a lit­tle wist­ful. But then, there is more to Cor­sica than just its beaches.

For in­stance, in the cen­tre of Ajac­cio is the Fesch Mu­seum of fine art, which is com­posed mainly of large red halls laced with gold Vene­tian framed paint­ings and where we en­joy an en­light­en­ing ex­hi­bi­tion on revo­lu­tion­ary icon Che Gue­vara.

But be­fore that, on our way to the mu­seum, we are drawn into an an­tique toy shop, filled with any­thing a child could dream of. A few doors down, I spot Amorino, an ar­ti­san ice cream shop, and we buy the creami­est blend of hazel­nut choco­late, al­mond and mac­a­roon- flavoured ice cream I have ever had.

The next day, it was time to ful­fil my hus­band’s dream of tak­ing the scenic train jour­ney to Bas­tia, a route that is of­ten ranked as one of the most pic­turesque rail­way jour­neys in the world. The towns that are dot­ted along the way have names that roll off the tongue: Mez­zana, Vi­vario, Casamozza and Furi­ani.

And right in the middle of this rail­road is Corte, the heart and soul of Cor­sica and an out­stand­ing nat­u­ral land­scape for those ea­ger to hike canyons and rock- climb.

The rail­road tra­verses dense forests of pine and chest­nut trees and rivers that snake through val­leys of the rock­i­est moun­tains. And de­spite weav­ing its way around hair­pin bends and along un­pro­tected drops, it never feels any­thing but com­fort­able and safe.

twists and turns

Ar­riv­ing in Bas­tia at dusk, we make our way through a maze of me­dieval streets edged by old houses on our way to the hire car of­fice.

We walk past a busy play­ground and lo­cal mums watch­ing over their kids give us warm smiles and ex­change know­ing looks, sig­nalling our mem­ber­ship in the uni­ver­sal par­ent­hood club.

In our car, we set off on a 20- minute jour­ney to­wards the vil­lage of Er­balunga and the only ho­tel in the area, Castel Brando. Walk­ing un­der­neath cen­tury- old palm trees, we ar­rive in a peace­ful court­yard and re­cep­tion area from which we are taken to our fam­ily suite for a sound sleep – sorely needed to re­cover from trav­el­ling across the is­land with so many bags and a baby in tow!

With the sea a few steps down the road, we wake to the sound of na­ture. Pick­ing up a sim­ple break­fast – a baguette, pain au chocolat and fresh pas­tries – we head to the har­bour and sit on large rocks to eat, ad­mir­ing the view of the soft morn­ing sea.

Er­balunga is an­cient and rus­tic, full of beau­ti­ful stone houses, tiny al­leys, and nooks and cran­nies with se­cret pas­sages. Crum­bling Ge­noese tow­ers dot the coast­line, hav­ing served as a de­fence against Bar­bary pi­rates back in the 16th cen­tury.

Most of our evenings are spent in one of the vil­lage’s many har­bour­side restau­rants, rang­ing from the fancy Le Pirate to the less ex­pen­sive A Pi­azzetta. An as­tound­ing se­lec­tion of seafood del­i­ca­cies is com­mon in this area, with fresh fish and other seafood com­ing prac­ti­cally straight from the sea to our din­ing ta­ble; there is also BBQ- glazed pork ribs, fresh pasta and pizza dishes, and mouth wa­ter­ing ice creams.

We spend our days ex­plor­ing Cap Corse, the 40km- long craggy penin­sula at the north­ern tip of Cor­sica that looks like a long fin­ger point­ing at the Lig­urian Sea.

The dizzy­ing turns of the moun­tain roads around the com­mune of Brando lead us to the vil­lage of Sil­gag­gia, set among green hills and over­look­ing a won­der­ful vista. We find an­cient houses and un­usual breeds of chick­ens reared by their oc­cu­pants.

We drive past charm­ing vil­lages perched on cliffs, and park to walk along lit­tle peb­bly in­lets that lead to se­cret har­bours, fish­ing ports and wild sandy beaches.

Past Or­letta, we dis­cover a fresh­wa­ter pool within a for­est and my hus­band swims in its cool wa­ter.

In the evenings, we go to the Am­buglia and Pi­etracor­bara beaches, where we catch the daily sun­sets and swim in the sea to com­plete the day.

Cos­mopoli­tan city

On our last day, we drive back to Bas­tia to visit the lively Satur­day mar­ket ad­ja­cent to Place St Ni­co­las. It of­fers an abun­dance of fresh lo­cal pro­duce – cheese, char­cu­terie, aper­i­tifs, bis­cuits, jams, honey, fruits and veg­eta­bles, meat and beer.

Close by, we stum­ble upon Les deux Mon­des, a bril­liant book­shop with an ex­ten­sive chil­dren’s sec­tion and a lo­cal boulan­gerie ( bak­ery) where we find de­li­cious choco­late and caramel mousse.

While Bas­tia has all the friend­li­ness of is­land in­hab­i­tants, it also has a cos­mopoli­tan qual­ity with all of the shops and com­modi­ties you’d ex­pect as part of any mod­ern city.

The easy vibe and el­e­gant Baroque ar­chi­tec­ture of this part of the is­land gives the city an au­then­tic charm. It’s tempt­ing to spend a few days here but we are de­ter­mined to ex­plore the wilder­ness out­side of the city walls.

From Bas­tia, we drive up steep hills and along wind­ing roads to­wards Saint Florent on the is­land’s west coast. Ev­ery sharp twist and turn gives us breath­tak­ing views of the Gulf of St Florent.

The most beau­ti­ful beach in this re­gion is Plage de Salec­cia, ac­ces­si­ble by boat from Saint Florent’s har­bour. Its daz­zling, 1km- long white sandy beach spilling into the emer­ald sea is un­de­vel­oped.

Plage de la Roya is also pop­u­lar with fam­i­lies and sun wor­ship­pers. Af­ter walk­ing the whole length, we find the western tip of the beach to be a more suit­able spot for re­lax­ation, as it is pro­tected from the strong wind that af­fects the east­ern tip.

At the end of our hol­i­day, it is hard to leave. Cor­sica cap­tured our hearts with its as­tound­ing beauty and af­forded us a sense of ad­ven­ture that we had thought was be­yond us since we be­came re­spon­si­ble par­ents.

Our tod­dler may not re­mem­ber much from this trip, but I’m con­vinced that the sights, smells and sounds of a new place will give her a broader un­der­stand­ing of the way things work. Trav­el­ling with our daugh­ter has also added an­other di­men­sion to our hol­i­day, as we came to see the world through a child’s eyes.

Cor­sica is a place where one can ap­pre­ci­ate a slower pace of life. Visit with no ex­pec­ta­tions, and you will be re­warded by the beauty of un­fil­tered na­ture and a re­newed ad­mi­ra­tion for the sim­pler things in life.

— 123rf. com

Sea­side gem: the town of Bini­fa­cio perches on the edge of cliffs on the is­land of Cor­sica, known for its rugged coast­line mixed with white sandy beaches as well as a hilly in­te­rior of great beauty.

1 the mar­ket ad­ja­cent to Place St Ni­co­las in Bas­tia of­fers an abun­dance of fresh lo­cal pro­duce.

2 this is the view from one of the houses perched on a cliff in the vil­lage of Sil­gag­gia. Imag­ine look­ing out at this ev­ery day!

3 Cool­ing down from the 32- de­gree heat in a lit­tle gem of a fresh­wa­ter pool within a for­est in Sel­mace.

4 the ma­rina against a back­drop of the city of Ajac­cio and moun­tains in the dis­tance, viewed from the Pail­lote trot­tel Beach.

6 Beau­ti­ful river views from the train to Bas­tia.

— Pho­tos: SA­MAN­thA hIEW

5 the train from Ajac­cio to Bas­tia passes through some moun­tain­ous ter­rain.

7 Palm trees fringe the Gulf of Ajac­cio on the route des Iles San­guinaires. — ho­tel Les Mou­ettes

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