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
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