I’m looking for a way
Sunbeam that will chase
In hard times
And so many wounds to heal.
– Canta U Populu Corsu, Chjaruscuru/Light and Darkness
A mountain in the sea, the island of beauty, “always conquered but never subdued,” Corsica is full of personality. Rare is an island as endowed with mystique and splendour – from craggy mountains to red cliffs, dramatic gorges and turquoise sea, stone villages and thrilling trails, olive groves and chestnut trees – but equally cursed by its singular destiny.
Successively occupied by the Italians and the French, this is a nation and people who have been screaming for freedom for centuries. The weight of tradition and the pull of modernity, unparalleled beauty matched with extraordinary violence, legendary hospitality and mythological vengeance, everything is engraved and unfolding in Corsican memory. One has to be here to walk on its unforgiving mountain ridges alongside goats, sheep, and bees, smell the thousand scents of wild maquis, and breathe its cutting air until the raw emotions seep through your pores and you begin to feel the same allegria immortalized by the popular band, Canta U Populu Corsu:
I sing about spreading wings…
So many colours so much joy
Of a new life that begins now
That day will come
Come come come
That moment for you
That common joy of freedom.
But heed the advice of those who have come before you: Get away from here before you’re completely bewitched, for endearing Corsica is no ordinary destination. You might find yourself returning again and again, in a quiet valley in a timeless land, or in a crescent bay sheltered from a stormy sea, watching the crimson sky give way to another eternal night, and you realize this land has become yours.
Mi manchi/I miss you, she would murmur before you even leave her shores…
For a month, I follow my exceedingly generous Corsican host, Bea, in the footsteps of her ancestors and wide networks of friends, from photogenic village ruins to the glorious Bay of Ajaccio, sublime upland plateau and the unwritten history of the independence struggles, the butcher’s luring cave and a Mediterranean sunset in Capo di Feno.
Then I venture deep into the mountain trails, trip and fall, surviving to tell the tale before taking it easy in Porto Vecchio and Bonifacio. Riding the train from Ajaccio to Bastia, I spend a week up North, hiking in Cap Corse before reaching l’ile Rousse and Calvi. The most spectacular is yet to come: the splendid descent to Porto-Ota and Piana under a furious sky and menacing sea, ending in the cute little seaside town of Cargese known for its Greek community. I hitch back to Ajaccio, drunk with happiness and flooded with memories from my month-long stay, recalling the baritone voice of Tino Rossi:
I love your fresh shores
And your wild maquis
I’ve seen enchanting places
Yet deep down in my heart
I always belong to you always
Corsica in the dawning day
You continue your dreams…
From a Mountain Village to the Capital City
There are traffic jams in Ajaccio, let’s go have a dip! my friend, Bea, says and turns the wheel to the left to a sheltered bay with water still steaming from summer heat at an incredible 25C! Thus begins my adventure, diving head first into the Mediterranean and everything Corsican before I even put down my suitcase, marvelling at the glorious sunset spread wide before my eyes. What a sumptuous welcoming buffet!
I spend my first week based out of my friend’s idyllic family home in a small typical village of Grosseto, waking up to birds’ singing and a view of the Corsican mountain range. Picking ripening wild figs and tasting fresh fountain spring, we take a stroll to nearby ruins where the old hamlet once lied before the Nationale/road uprooted everything a few kilometres away. Handsome traditional stone houses belonging to wealthy families still stand tall and strong. Because of the Corsican exception in allowing indivision in property succession, no one can do anything to these land unless all heirs agree, my friend explains. God forbid if something is found missing, it would be promptly returned, coz this is Corsica, the land of vendetta/vengeance! First lesson in Corsican culture: stay clear of Godfather kind of family saga! I imagine what those sharp, elegant folding shepherd’s knives are for…
The next morning, we go meet Michel, the local breeder and pork butcher, in a dense cave where his riches are on full display. The cured ham and saucissons are so famous that people come from out of town to order their provisions. I only go to places where I can be sure Corsican pigs are raised, my friend says. If you get figatelle/pork liver sausage off season, something is fishy about the piggy! Marie-Michelle, the daughter, cuts slices of ham and cheeses for me to taste. Now, I have aromatic Corsica on my palette!
Grosseto might be a small village but its residents are well traveled and can even dance a few tango. Grabbing a pair of silver satin ballroom dance shoes a size too big from my friend, I try to recall a few basic steps from the recess corner of my brain as we pull into Club 20 tucked in a nondescript parking lot at the entrance of the capital city. The blinds are drawn, concealing a world straight out of a Paris of the 1920s film set: glitzy lights and flowing music, gliding pairs on an old dance floor. Like many others here, Marie, the organizer, was trained in Marseille with Argentinian masters. I am in good hands as she kindly takes the lead and dance with me for the first number before I am invited by others. What a surreal evening in magical Corsica where the last thing I imagine is to tango in Ajaccio!
Derived from the Roman word, Adjaccium, meaning a place of rest, Ajaccio was traditionally a winter stopping point for shepherds coming off the mountains to sell their fare and stock up on goodies. Today, it is a hub for busy ferry and cruise ship arrivals. There are a couple of historic buildings and a beautiful cathedral in the old town, some chic boutiques and cafes, and an expansive view of the bay (when not blocked by monstrous ocean-liners so loathed by locals). For the average visitor, the most famous Ajaccio resident is Napoleon whose cult following remains strangely substantial even if he is not exactly celebrated as a Corsican hero. We walk around picturesque Sanguinaires Islands and leave the world behind in nearby Capo di Feno…
Corsica is her mountains, my friend insists. The only way to the heart of the island, literally and figuratively speaking, is to head for the trails. We drive towards Zicavo in the direction of plateau Coscione. The plan is to overnight in the bergerie Croci before making a summit attempt on Mt. Alcudina the next morning. At 2,136 m, the highest peak in Southern Corsica is not exactly an alpine expedition but a dry run for GR20, the “toughest trek in Europe.” My friend who knows these mountains like the back of her hands opts for horse riding instead, so I prepare a small day pack and set my alarm at 6:30am.
New to GR, I miss the first sign post and continue to the beginning of a variant which eventually lead me back to the main trail. For the next two hours, I fixate on the red white marks and climb gradually towards a pass where a steep path on the left leads me to Alcudina and a precipitous drop on the right heads to the next mountain hut. The vistas from the top over the gorgeous plateau and the sweeping coastline are worth every single step. Above all, I get a teaser of what is to come, trying the legendary GR20, or so I thought…
My friend leaves town for an escapade in faraway Asia when I pack a 7kg sack to head to Vizzavone for the real thing. Six days of steep climbs, vertiginous descents, and heart-stopping traverses with winds blowing from Italy and a full moon shining high and bright. On the last day, running down the mountain, I trip and fall, but thankfully without any major injury, feeling euphoric having survived some of the most intense 80km I have ever trekked. Here’s the full story, my humble attempt at the legendary GR20...
Porto Vecchio and Bonifacio
Everything feels easy after GR20! From majestic Aiguilles de Bavella, I hitch to the mountain village of Zonza before descending to the seaside resort town of Porto Vecchio and ending my day in spectacular Bonifacio set high in limestone cliffs. Alas, after an incredible week of sunny weather, a storm is brewing and and the Lavezzi Islands as well as entire stretches of gorgeous southern beaches are off limit.
The Citadel of Bastia
After a full week’s rest, I take a scenic train ride from Ajaccio to Bastia, an effortless equivalent of GR20 traversing the Corsican island spine, in the comfort of a coach seat sans trekking poles and rucksack! Built on a promontory in the 14th century by Genoese, the citadel of Bastia is a gem for photographers. The high walls and quaint squares, pastel buildings and narrow lanes, churches and bell towers, the old port and posh yachts bask in full glory. From behind the Palace of the Governors, one can walk up to the Oratory of Monserato famous for its Scala Santa, one of ten in the world blessed by Pope Pius VII for lucky Corsicans. Before retiring from my trekking career, I climb this last flight of velvet covered stairs on my knees and wonder what is harder: GR20 or the Holy Stairs!
Wild Cap Corse
An island within the island, Cap Corse up North was effectively cut off from the rest of Corsica until Napoleon had a road built in the 19th century. Famous for its medieval hilltop villages and fertile valleys where abundant fruits, vines, and olives grow, the region boasts some of the wildest landscapes on the Corsican coast.
From Bastia, I take a bus to Macinaggio, passing through quaint coastal towns punctuated with impressive Genoese towers, statues of Virgin Mary, and palatial mansions built by les Américains, Corsican émigrés who made riches in the Americas in as early as the 16th century. Enjoying a leisurely stroll along the chemin des douaniers/the customs officers’ trail towards Barcaggio, a sunny view of idyllic Finocchiarola and Elba islands is a total bonus. Before retracing my steps back to Bastia, I make a pit stop in beautiful Erbalunga. Alas, the rest of gorgeous Cap Corse will have to wait for my return: the award-winning Corsican muscat and spectacular villages of Centuri and Nonza. I hope I would be able to utter the same words as the Corsican independence leader, Pascal Paoli, did as he landed here after exile and kissed his native land in 1790: je te retrouve libre/I find you again as a free person!
The Petanque Championships in L’Ile Rousse
On a rainy morning, I arrive in the seaside resort of l’ile Rousse and take the lighthouse road to reach the Pietra peninsula with yet another impressive Genoese tower. In the old town, I see scores of locals playing petanque. Do you play every weekend? I ask. Contrary to what you think, we actually do work a bit! a local quips. It’s the Petanque World Championships, Madam! What a sight: the who’s who in the petanque universe straight out of a Marcel Pagnol book. My plan was to continue on to Monticello, Corbara, Pigna, and Sant’Antonino, les plus beaux villages of Balagne, but the rain has finally caught up on me and it is time to move on to Calvi…
Calvi on the Rocks
I take the cute little old train, Trinichellu, from l’ile Rousse to Calvi and am immediately impressed by the crowning medieval citadel overlooking the sea. Like in Bastia, I roam around the atmospheric narrow alleyways and cobblestone streets, historic buildings and winding staircases. Whether it is polyphonic music and craft, or a meal on the terrace, Corsica’s cultural capital has much to offer. I walk along the pretty crescent bay towards the Revellata peninsula before hitching my next ride towards Porto-Ota.
The spectacular descent from Calvi to Porto-Ota is my favourite route of all. One passes through the pretty Revellata peninsula and winds along the undulating coastline, skirting secluded beaches and bayside restaurants before making a dramatic approach towards the famed Girolata peninsular and the Scandola Reserve. No words seem sufficient to describe the splendour of this region and I feel lucky to have shared it with Noelle and Richard hailing from Ardèche who kindly give me a lift in the middle of nowhere in this vast wild landscape inching towards beautiful Porto.
I walk the last miles towards the mountain village of Ota until municipal police officer, Jean Bernard, shares his ride home and drops me in front of Chez Marie. The weather is quickly deteriorating and I inquire about the boat outing tomorrow. Go to Via Mare, say you come from Jean Bernard, and you will get the complete tour for 50 euros, he replies. Fatevi cunnosce/make yourself be known, my friend, Bea, taught me. I have been following the dictum to the letter and getting myself known quickly throughout Corsica!
The sky being covered, I decide to hike up the gorges of the Spelunca in the morning, saving the boat ride for later. It is part of the Mare e Monti trail from Calenzana to Cargese. I am happy to go only as far as the old pont Genois and say goodbye to Damaris, a courageous solo Swiss trekker heading further to Evisa and Marignana. The day lifts up and I hike down the gorges towards Porto to find the town bustling with busloads of troisième âge/retired folks who love to travel off season in September. All the boats are full. I come from the police officer, M. Jean Bernard... I say and wait for a miracle to go see the famous Scandola!
Calanques de Piana
With generous Corsicans opening all doors, I manage to get a last spot to tour the Gulf of Porto. Alas, the wind has picked up and no boat is getting near the Girolata Bay where the spectre of the violent storm on August 18 still looms large. Given the weather conditions, I am content to have seen the amazing Calanche of Piana and Capo Russo up close.
Ladies and Gentlemen, we’re getting close to the Grotte des Amoureux/the lovers’ cave, the captain speaks. Just in case you wonder, everyone on our team is single and available!
Everyone breaks out into laughter even if no one seems ready to take the risk. I have been well warned by now: You can stay in Corsica but forget about dating Corsicans!
Attention! A Corsican kiss is a French kiss plus brocciu/a local cheese delicacy. If brocciu is not your thing, we can always steer away! The entire Gulf of Porto comprising the Calanche of Piana, Gulf of Girolata, and the Scandola Reserve is truly impressive. The rock mass and clear waters, with their islets and inaccessible caves, and red granite towers shining under a brilliant sky make indelible impressions on the visitor.
Only three places in the world have this kind of red granite rocks, the captain continues. Here, in Brittany, and in China, but this last is fake, so consider yourself lucky to be here!
Ah, les Corses and their signature humour!
The Calanche of Piana is best viewed from the sea or on land up close. I catch a morning bus that drops me at the trailhead in La Tête de Chien for a beautiful hour-long walk through spectacular red granite formations under a worsening sky. Now the Girolata Bay looks intimidating. Time to head South towards Cargese, my final destination.
Cargese, Little Greece in Corsica
Between Porto and Ajaccio, the tiny seaside town of Cargese was built in 1774 as a refuge for a Greek community fleeing Ottoman rule. In a picturesque setting on a rocky promontory overlooking a beautiful bay, the town is famous for her two churches – one Roman Catholic and the Greek Byzantine – facing each other. I decide to skip a night in this otherwise charming little town, as the rain finally begins to pour after a long dry spell.
Although not a major metropole, Corsica boasts an active underground street art scene especially on nationalist and independence themes. In Bastia, Ajaccio, and Calvi, it is not uncommon to see political slogans like “French Out” or “French, Go Home.” Given the insidious mafia and drug problems, “Out the mafia” and “Drugs out” graffiti sprays also dot the old town walls. The National Liberation Front of Corsica (FLNC), active since 1976, announced the end of armed struggles in 2014. But the recent sudden death of Ivan Colona, jailed for the 1998 assassination of French police chief, Claude Erignac, after a prison attack reignited nationalist sentiments. The French government has promised some measures of “autonomy” but ruled out full independence. The Island of Beauty is a ticking time bomb. What autonomy exactly? the Corsicans wonder…
Entre l’ombre et la lumière ca sera à la justice de trancher/Between the shadow and the light it will be up to justice to decide.
– Jean-Charles Chatard, Prime à la fraude/Fraud bonus
Slow Food in Corsica
Corsica’s rich soil and aromas are what make its cuisine so flavourful. Whether it is a simple brocciu (a local cheese made from ewe’s milk) recipe – migliaccioli/small salty and crispy cakes, cannelloni/brocciu lasagna, or simply sprinkled with sugar – or a hearty soupe Corse made of vegetables and ham-bone stock, classic veal with olives or wild boar casserole served with pulenta, Corsican gastronomy is based on products of the terroir. The chestnut season is anytime now as I write. If you are a châtaigne lover like me, you are in heaven, as Corsican chestnut recipes seem infinite from fritters to bread, gnocchi to cake, flan to Canestrelli biscuits. Did I forget to mention all the irresistible fruit preserves from fig and clementine jams that go perfectly with strong Corsican cheeses?
More than anything, however, it is my encounters with everyday Corsicans that make this sojourn so unforgettable. From them I have learned much about the myths and legends of this larger-than-life island as well as the harsh political reality that have shaped the Corsican temperament. Above all, I am profoundly touched by their generous spirits and will to self-determination.
Thousands of women and men anxious to work for their country, to save it from shipwreck. Simple, silent and present, they work stubbornly at it, with all their might, every day. Their concern is not the recognition of their courage, their power or their honesty, these virtues, they possess them in all simplicity and do not have to prove them. It is only a question of bringing their stone to the construction of the Maison de Corse. Our common home where we pass on a certain way of life and ancient customs. Good or bad, they are ours and we refuse to forget them. This is the will to be yourself. It is true that we are a rough and violent people. Like our austere and wild country, like history made us. Fighting for centuries all the invaders: Saracens, Barbarians, Vandals, Aragonese, Genoese, Pisan, the cruel soldiers of the Pope, the Austrian and French troops, whose will to conquer never granted us respite. However, we only aspire to build our country in peace, as we want it to be. A country for us, and as we see it.
– Fabienne Maestracci, Vita Corsa: Fragments de vies
To my friend, Bea, whom I met dancing sevillanas in Jerez de la Frontera and who shows me unfailingly the other Corsica, chjaruscuru…
Fà ch’in la memoria cumuna/Do that in our memory
Fiaccula ci n’hè sempre una/A flame will always burn
Quella di u vulè campà/For those who wish to live
Porta u nome resistenza/It bears the name resistance
Nè falzità nè viulenza/Neither falsehood nor violence
Nunda l’hà pussuta smattà/Nothing could stop her.
– Corsican song, A Fiaccula di a Vita/The Torch of Life, by Ghjuvanteramu Rocchi.
Next: Legendary GR20
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