Get to the heart of Cor­sica

Be­hind the teem­ing beaches of the Île de Beauté lies a rugged land of moun­tains and quiet vil­lages, as Rachel John­ston dis­cov­ers

France - - Corsica -

Ly­ing just over 160 kilo­me­tres from the south-east coast of the main­land, Cor­sica is eas­ily over­looked when peo­ple think of France. The jus­ti­fi­ably named Île de Beauté daz­zles with a di­verse land­scape of mountain peaks, fra­grant scrub­land, an­cient hill­top vil­lages and chic re­sorts. The colour pal­ette is so vivid that you al­most need dark glasses – and not just to shield you from the av­er­age 2,800 hours of sunshine in which the is­land basks ev­ery year.

Smaller, wilder and more moun­tain­ous than its Ital­ian neigh­bour Sar­dinia, Cor­sica is a par­adise for out­door types – whether that means lac­ing up a pair of sturdy walk­ing boots and tack­ling the long-dis­tance GR20, ex­plor­ing roads and trails on an elec­tric bike or on horse­back, or sim­ply loung­ing on one of the 200 beaches with the dra­matic land­scape as a back­drop.

The pho­to­genic coast­line is the prin­ci­pal draw for most sum­mer visi­tors, who flock to the south­ern re­sorts of Porto-vec­chio and Boni­fa­cio to pop­u­late gleam­ing yachts and chic water­side cafés and bars. Those in search of a jet-set crowd and a Côte d’azur buzz will find plenty of at­trac­tions here.

But there is far more to Cor­sica than glitz and glam­our, and if you want to see it through a na­tive’s eyes, it is best to head to the north and in­land. His­tor­i­cally, Cor­si­cans did not live on the coast due to the twin threat of invasion and dis­ease, choos­ing in­stead to lead a hunter­gath­erer life­style in the moun­tains and forests that make up more than half of the is­land’s to­tal area. A tu­mul­tuous his­tory of shift­ing iden­tity has left the na­tives fiercely proud of their her­itage – still of­fer­ing the old Cor­si­can lan­guage on the school cur­ricu­lum and hon­our­ing their beloved pa­triot, Pas­cal Paoli, on their flag. For me, ex­pe­ri­enc­ing Cor­sica on its own terms, avoid­ing com­par­isons with main­land France or Italy, was key to fall­ing un­der its spell.

My home for the week was the port of Calvi, the start­ing point for sev­eral off-the-beaten-track ad­ven­tures. This so­phis­ti­cated, ar­chi­tec­turally en­thralling town crowned by a dra­matic me­dieval citadel is the star of the is­land’s north­ern reaches, and be­hind its bou­tiques and restau­rants beats a dis­tinctly Cor­si­can heart. The sur­round­ing re­gion of La Balagne has none of the swanky ve­neer of the south coast; in­stead you are in the ‘Gar­den of Cor­sica’ where crops thrive in the fer­tile soils. The roads here are gen­er­ally ex­cel­lent – but swap­ping the hire car for other forms of trans­port can be re­ward­ing.

My com­pan­ions and I started in gen­tle fash­ion with the softly chug­ging peri-ur­bain de Balagne or trinichellu, the ‘lit­tle train’ run­ning be­tween Calvi and its smaller neigh­bour, L’île-rousse. This is a lovely way to spend three-quar­ters of an hour; it is worth sit­ting on the left side of the car­riage to ad­mire the sparkling coast­line, with the wa­ter just feet from the rail­way tracks in places.

Al­though look­ing like a tourist train, it is also used by many lo­cals – if they aren’t in a hurry – and I felt slightly out of place snap­ping away from my win­dow seat. Once dis­em­barked, we headed for

L’île-rousse’s cov­ered mar­ket­place, which was de­cid­edly French with its well-stocked food stalls bor­dered by plane trees and boules play­ers.

But this still wasn’t the raw, un­tamed Cor­sica I han­kered for. For­tu­nately, there are plenty of day-long or half-day tours with a guide that cater for more ad­ven­tur­ous ap­petites. I longed to get into the wilder­ness, sur­round my­self with the maquis for which the is­land is fa­mous and per­haps spot an ea­gle. The dense scrub­land, made up of var­i­ous dis­tinct plants in­clud­ing the po­tent, al­legedly anti-age­ing im­mortelle, has pro­pelled Cor­sica into the mod­ern beauty in­dus­try (you can sam­ple the re­sults in a num­ber of bou­tiques), but para­dox­i­cally it is one of the is­land’s old­est nat­u­ral fea­tures.

“Are you all buck­led up? It’s go­ing to start to shake.” With these words, we be­gan our 4x4 ex­cur­sion with Natura Corsa, a na­ture tour spe­cial­ist based in the Balagne vil­lage of Pi­etralba. Our Cor­si­can guide wasn’t re­fer­ring to a vol­canic erup­tion – though many of the soar­ing moun­tains could al­most com­pete with Ve­su­vius – but to the mo­tion of the car as she se­lected off-road gear and we be­gan to scale the un­even tracks at an al­most im­pos­si­ble gra­di­ent. The views out to sea be­came more spec­tac­u­lar with each cor­ner turned as the sounds of civil­i­sa­tion re­ceded. Signs warn­ing of wild boar are a com­mon sight, though the shy an­i­mals them­selves are not.

Our guide brought the tour alive with anec­dotes about Pas­cal Paoli and Cor­si­can her­itage, stop­ping ev­ery so often to pick stems from the maquis around us: ju­niper, myr­tle, fen­nel, thyme, rose­mary and French laven­der. The car took on a won­der­fully heady scent as we made for our lunch spot be­neath a row of wind­mills, where we feasted on goat’s cheese tartines and richly mar­bled char­cu­terie and I tried the Cor­si­can ch­est­nut beer. It felt like a pic­nic with an old friend, but it was equally a cul­tural ed­u­ca­tion and a chance to ex­pe­ri­ence the ‘real’ Cor­sica in all its rugged glory. We de­toured for a swim in the River Fango, at the point where it is spanned by the Ponte Vec­chiu bridge, col­lect­ing pebbles and hear­ing noth­ing but bird­song and the breeze.

Is­land life is all about wa­ter, of course – so no visit to Cor­sica would be com­plete with­out a boat trip. For a big­ger bite of its nat­u­ral drama, hop on to one of the boats de­part­ing from Calvi har­bour for the head­land of Scan­dola, a na­ture re­serve es­tab­lished in 1975 that sup­ports vast colonies of seabirds, seals and dol­phins. This 900-hectare stretch of red gran­ite is vir­tu­ally in­ac­ces­si­ble on foot; its sheer cliffs and gnarled out­crops were formed by Monte Cinto’s vol­canic erup­tions and its shad­owy caves and grot­toes fash­ioned by the en­su­ing years of ocean swell.

Nests be­long­ing to the rare Au­douin’s gull are vis­i­ble on the cliffs and you might see the oc­ca­sional fish ea­gle swoop­ing in. Scan­dola’s colours are as re­mark­able as its shapes, the hues vary­ing from char­coal grey and in­can­des­cent rusty pur­ple to the daz­zling greens of 450 types of sea­weed be­neath the sur­face. Fish­ing and scuba div­ing are for­bid­den and boats don’t an­chor here, but they linger long enough to let you take pho­to­graphs to your heart’s con­tent.

Cor­sica’s wild side ex­tends be­yond Scan­dola and the scrub­land to the Désert des Agri­ates. An al­ter­na­tive for those with weak sea legs, this bar­ren but beau­ti­ful land­scape con­nects the coast­line at L’île-rousse with Saint-flo­rent, tucked away in the epony­mous gulf 70 kilo­me­tres to the east. It ap­pears

in­hos­pitable now – there’s only one road travers­ing it, the D81, and one small vil­lage – but dur­ing Cor­sica’s long oc­cu­pa­tion by the Ge­noese, this rocky moon­scape was, as its name im­plies, a ver­i­ta­ble bread­bas­ket ( agri­ates means ‘cul­ti­vated fields’). The wind­ing jour­ney will take longer than planned as you will be com­pelled to stop and soak up the views – and more of that un­mis­take­able fra­grance of the maquis. The breath­tak­ing fi­nal descent, as the houses of Sain­tFlorent come into view cling­ing to their spit of land sur­rounded by emer­ald-green wa­ter, is a last re­ward to be savoured.

Cor­sica’s moun­tains are its lifeblood and bold­est dis­tin­guish­ing fea­ture. The main chain runs down the cen­tre of the is­land and even pro­vides ski op­por­tu­ni­ties at four small re­sorts. But what of liv­ing up here? Na­ture holds such a firm grip that this seems im­pos­si­ble; but then I re­mem­ber this was where the Cor­si­cans have al­ways lived. It was time to head for the Balagne’s hill­top hide­aways in search of that way of life.

Arts and crafts

There is some­thing spe­cial about these iso­lated vil­lages: they nur­ture an­cient Cor­si­can tra­di­tions of arts, crafts and mu­sic. Sant’an­tonino, our first stop on the craft trail, lies 500 me­tres above sea level and is the old­est in­hab­ited vil­lage on the is­land – and a Plus Beau Vil­lage, lest we for­get we’re still in France.

Here we shel­tered from the heat at the Clos An­tonini restau­rant and en­joyed a glass of fresh lemon juice, served with jugs of wa­ter and sugar can­is­ters, be­fore ad­mir­ing an ar­ray of hand­made knives in­spired by the cur­nic­ci­ulu or shep­herd’s knife. These im­pres­sive tools have beau­ti­ful goat’s-horn han­dles and have been pro­duced in Cor­sica for cen­turies.

A lit­tle fur­ther on from Sant’an­tonino is honey-hued Pigna, whose charm­ing cob­bled streets are home to a num­ber of work­shops with ad­ja­cent bou­tiques where you can buy ar­ti­san jew­ellery, ceram­ics or glass. Bright bougainvil­lea clam­bers across faded blue shut­ters, and sleep­ing cats adorn doorsteps: it’s def­i­nitely France up here. The vil­lage fell into dis­re­pair dur­ing the mid-20th cen­tury be­fore an as­so­ci­a­tion was formed in the 1960s to ren­o­vate the houses and form a com­mu­nity of ar­ti­sans re­volv­ing around its an­cient crafts. We paused for lunch at A Man­dria di Pigna, a shep­herd’s hut-turned-restau­rant in a peace­ful po­si­tion gazing across open coun­try­side and up­wards to a mountain peak.

You will hear Cor­si­can cui­sine be­ing de­scribed as a blend of French and Ital­ian, but flavours and in­gre­di­ents unique to the is­land give it its own iden­tity. Al­though fresh fish and seafood are abun­dant in the re­sorts, Cor­si­cans are tra­di­tion­ally meat-eaters due to their in­land life­style, and wild boar, lamb and veal fea­ture promi­nently on menus. The mouth-wa­ter­ing char­cu­terie comes from free-range, ch­est­nut-fat­tened Nus­trale pigs; the ch­est­nut flavours ev­ery­thing from bis­cuits and jams to liqueurs and ice cream. Much of the mountain cook­ing is based around the lo­cally pro­duced broc­ciu (a ewe’s milk cheese) and tra­di­tional desserts are milk- or egg-based; my favourite was fi­adone, a cheese­cake flavoured with lemon. The kitchen gar­den at A Man­dria is crammed with most of the veg­eta­bles fea­tured on the menu – but it looks parched. “Aha,” chuck­les owner Loic, not­ing my con­fu­sion. He twists a rusty tap and, me­thod­i­cally mak­ing chan­nels in the soil around the plants with a hoe, lets the wa­ter run in neat rivulets all among them.

Life in Pigna re­volves around mu­sic, too; there are work­shops pro­duc­ing mu­si­cal in­stru­ments, and the vil­lage hosts Fes­tivoce, draw­ing in­ter­na­tional vo­cal groups and con­cert-go­ers in the first half of July. Built from com­pressed earth, the vil­lage hall had hum­ble be­gin­nings but is reg­u­larly used for per­for­mances, par­tic­u­larly of the islanders’ poly­phonic cho­ral singing. This ex­tra­or­di­nary

chant­ing or plain­song was re­born in the 1970s with the resur­gence of Cor­si­can na­tion­al­ism and has been main­tained ever since; posters ad­ver­tis­ing per­for­mances are rife along the road­sides.

By this point I had al­ready been trans­fixed by the Merid­i­anu trio in Calvi’s cathe­dral, al­though I noted, as with the train, that this was less a tourist show and more a mu­si­cal es­cape for the lo­cals. Pure, raw and haunt­ingly beau­ti­ful, the three male voices be­came the per­fect sound­track to the trip, echo­ing all the vis­ual qual­i­ties of Cor­sica that I had fallen most in love with.

The church at Sant’an­tonino, with the Monte Grosso in the back­ground

ABOVE: The ‘lit­tle train’ be­tween Calvi and L’île-rousse; LEFT: The citadel in Calvi; BE­LOW LEFT: The ru­ined Ge­noese fort at Giro­lata in the Scan­dola na­ture re­serve

CLOCK­WISE FROM ABOVE: A hand­made ce­ramic sign in Pigna; The Ponte Vec­chiu over the River Fango; Ex­plor­ing the streets of Pigna; The road through the Désert des Agri­ates; Cour­gette beignets and char­cu­terie

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