COR­SICA

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

Living France - - Contents -

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.

SCENIC ROUTE

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

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