Think the southern reaches of France end with the Côte d’Azur? Think again. Little over 100 miles off the Mediterranean coast, the island of Corsica is home to raw and rugged scenery, unique traditions and a gastronomy all of its own, making it the countr
Rachel Johnston explores what life is like on this beautiful Mediterranean island
South-east of Provence and north of the Italian island of Sardinia, Corsica is a place readily discounted when people think about France – it somehow seems too, well, exotic. This justifiably nicknamed ‘Île de Beauté’ dazzles with a diverse geographical landscape of dramatic mountain peaks, deliciously fragrant scrubland, ancient hilltop villages and glamorous coastal resorts, with a colour palette so vivid you almost need dark glasses – and not just to shield from the 2,800-odd sunshine hours per year in which the island basks.
PAST AND PRESENT
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 (similar to Italian) and honouring their beloved patriot, Pascal Paoli, on their flag. It was Paoli who campaigned for Corsica’s independence and succeeded for a brief spell from 1790, though in fact the island had spent more time Genoese, influenced by its strategic position in the Mediterranean. Once Napoléon moved in his army, Paoli was forced to retreat and the island took on its ultimate identity as a region of France, remaining so ever since. Napoléon’s family home is now a national museum in the capital Ajaccio.
But today, as you wander winding village streets, past bougainvillea-clad houses with pastel shutters and sleeping cats on doorsteps, all the drama and bloodshed of the past seems to have dissolved. What remains is a curious Franco-Italian fusion: French is the main language, yet many of the locals look Italian and the landscape resembles Tuscany in places. Pizza and pasta vie for menu space alongside traditional French dishes. Definitively ‘Corsican’ are the island’s age-old arts and crafts – in particular knife making, jewellery making and pottery, whose masters regularly throw open their doors to curious eyes – and a thriving cosmetics industry, maintained by the native plants of the maquis (scrubland), in particular the antiageing Immortelle. You might say Corsica is the fountain of youth.
This, together with wild juniper, myrtle, fennel, thyme, rosemary and lavender, has earned Corsica its other nickname of ‘The Fragrant Isle’ – sweet-smelling expanses of these plants blanket over half of the island, and many beaches are also sheltered by pine forests. There are almost 200 beaches along the 1,000km of coastline: a mixture of sublime white sandy bays and pebbly coves, considered some of the cleanest and most picturesque in France and all offering excellent swimming. The idea of living within walking distance of one of these is enough to make me want to move here permanently. I spent much of my time on Calvi’s horseshoe stretch of sand, studded with excellent beach cafés – but other gems include those in the Valinco Gulf near Propriano, and most along the southern strip of coast between PortoVecchio and Bonifacio.
Many people contemplating a new life in France are seeking out the slower, lazier pace for which the country has become renowned – and Corsica offers as much of this as the mainland. There are precariously perched villages galore, particularly in the north-western Balagne region: honey-hued Pigna is known for its art and craft, Sant’Antonino is the oldest inhabited village in Corsica, and other beauties include Cateri, Avapessa and Montegrosso. Narrow cobbled streets wind around pretty churches and the villages cling to mountains towering above the sea, offering a glimpse of Corsica’s old way of life as well as spectacular views.
But Corsica isn’t all about summer living: a chain of mountains running down the centre of the island even provides ski opportunities at four small resorts, so there’s no necessity to head to the Alps for your snowy playground. Little can be heard in this untamed wilderness except the distant crash of waves on cliffs and the cry of an eagle; you can horse ride or cycle along marked trails too.
FOOD AND WINE
You may hear Corsican cuisine described as a blend of French and Italian, but in fact, flavours and ingredients unique to the island give it its own separate voice. Although fresh fish and seafood are abundant in the coastal resorts, Corsicans were always traditionally meat eaters, choosing to lead a hunter-gatherer lifestyle away from the coast to avoid the threat of invasion and the long-sinceeradicated malaria.
There’s an abundance of wild boar, lamb, veal and mouth-watering charcuterie, its rich marbling owed to the free-range, chestnut-fattened Nustrale pigs. The chestnut, in fact, flavours everything: biscuits and jams to liqueurs and ice cream, and chestnut flour is even used to make Corsica’s Pietra beer. Much of the mountain cooking is based around the locally produced dairy products such as brocciu (a ewe’s milk cheese) and traditional Corsican desserts are milk- or egg-based; a favourite is fiadone, cheesecake flavoured with lemon.
The local wines and liqueurs are fierce and delicious, little known outside the island, but produced in significant quantities thanks to its fertile soil; rows of vineyards are yet another feature of the landscape here.
NORTH OR SOUTH?
Corsica is neatly divided into two departments. Northern Haute-Corse encompasses Calvi and the Balagne (known as the ‘Garden of Corsica’ for its history of agriculture), the wild Désert des Agriates, the mountain town and former capital of Corte, the industrial port of Bastia and the Cap Corse peninsula jutting assertively into the Mediterranean.
Calvi is a sophisticated, photogenic and architecturally fascinating town crowned by a dramatic citadel, where colourful houses rub shoulders with buzzing harbourside restaurants aplenty. Its laid-back neighbour L’ÎleRousse – whose name means ‘The Red Island’ after the ochre rocks of its islets – offers an excellent covered market that’s worth getting up early for. After a winding drive from here through the Desert des Agriates, the smaller town of St-Florent comes into view on its sparkling bay, sheltered at the foot of the wild mountains of Cap Corse. Founded by the Romans, St-Florent later grew to be a flourishing medieval port under the rule of Genoa and has remained relatively unspoilt, walkable from end to end in just 10 minutes.
Glamorous Porto-Vecchio is 150km away in the southern half of the island (Corse-du-Sud), a well-established resort where gleaming millionaires’ yachts fill the marina and well-heeled visitors descend on waterside cafés and bars. Its 16thcentury citadel is crowned by the spire of St-Jean-Baptiste church and the narrow streets that surround it groan with stalls of fresh produce, restaurants, elegant boutiques and Napoleonic cobbles.
Also in the south, medieval Bonifacio surges from the sea atop 70m-high cliffs and is possibly Corsica’s most photogenic – and photographed – town, as well as boasting the largest number of gelato parlours. Just a short hop from Sardinia, it has a distinctly Italianate feel and its sun-bleached buildings line a warren of tessellated streets.
Life down here is enhanced by the proximity of the Îles Lavezzi, a small archipelago of uninhabited granite islands and reefs where the water is so seductively turquoise that it doesn’t seem real. These, notably, mark the southernmost point of metropolitan France.
There’s a lively calendar of events in Corsica, from the Rallye du Pays Ajaccien in January (a car rally from Casone to Ajaccio) to Calvi’s two summer music festivals, interspersed with smaller celebrations of almost every local product from the fig and chestnut to honey, olive oil and charcuterie. What’s more: contrary to popular belief, buying property in Corsica is not prohibited if you are nonresident. Although local politicians voted to impose a ban due to increasing numbers of residents being priced out of the market, this has never become law, and property purchases here follow the same procedure as anywhere else in mainland France. So if you’re already a Mediterranean addict – as I am – be sure to add this captivating island to your must-explore list.
Narrow cobbled streets wind around pretty churches and the villages cling to mountains towering above the sea
Main image: The cliff-top town of Bonifacio in the south of the island, perched 70m above the sea
Above: Calvi’s sweeping bay as seen from its medieval citadel
Below: The main shopping street in Calvi, where boutiques crammed with beauty products and local crafts rub shoulders with stalls of gleaming fruit and vegetables
Above: A colourful shuttered facade in the eastern port of Bastia
Clockwise from this image: Sea views from the arty perched village of Pigna in La Balagne; the wishing fountain in St-Florent’s peaceful square; traditional Corsican fare including brocciu cheese, charcuterie and rosé; a winding road through the dramatic Désert des Agriates