Crystal clear waters and picture-postcard-perfect beaches, wild and unspoiled nature where flowers and cactus grow everywhere, chestnut and cork forests splattered with wild fig, lemon and olive trees surround medieval villages, and folk are welcoming. Janine Marsh takes a cruise and falls head over heels for the island the ancient Greeks called “the most beautiful”…
Cruising around Corsica
Corsica is one of the best-kept secrets of the French. A whopping 80% of visitors to the island are from France. Just 20% are from Europe and the rest of the world. It’s incredible that this gorgeous island is largely undiscovered.
Arriving at the port in Nice on a rather dull and drizzly day, it was easy to spot the cruise ship Belle des Oceans which was to be my home for the next week.
Guests were welcomed aboard by a violinist and the ship’s staff. It set the scene for the rest of the trip. Right from the start you’re made to feel valued. My room was spacious and modern with a good sized window from which I could see dark clouds forming over the hills of Nice.
Before we left port, there was a safety drill, life jackets on, counting heads and there are no exceptions. It was a good chance to see my fellow residents. Mainly French, a smattering of Australian, Canadian and America. Mostly in the older age range, some families and no kids (there are other cruises that cater to kids).
As we set sail in the evening, dinner was announced. The servers stood in the doorway and wished everyone a good evening. Sometimes they broke out into song and warbled us through the doors – it made everyone laugh and broke the ice. By the end of dinner – a very French gastronomic affair, four courses and wine – everyone was chatting. The crew asked English speakers beforehand if they’d like to sit with fellow Anglophones. Some do, some don’t. I found myself sitting with a couple from Michigan and a couple from Canada.
The island of Beauty
For the next 7 days the boat was to cruise around the island, which is closer to Italy than France. We took in the main historic cities, off the beaten track villages and beaches. We enjoyed wine tastings and lunch in gorgeous little family-run traditional restaurants. There is a choice of excursions each day – all brilliant. Classic tours take in the major sites and discovery tours take you to more secret and hidden gems. All tours have French and English speaking guides. It’s a brilliant way to see a lot of Corsica while you relax, enjoy the sites and simply soak the atmosphere where joie de vivre meets la dolce vita
Ajaccio and Iles Sanguineres
We arrived the next morning to brilliant sunshine in Ajaccio, birthplace of Napoleon Bonaparte. There’s plenty to see and do in the rather upmarket and picturesque town and you can’t help but notice the number of bars and shops dedicated to the famous French General! There’s a Napoleon Museum and the fabulous fine arts Fesch museum. Corsican-born Joseph Fesch was half uncle of Napoleon Bonaparte, a cardinal and archbishop of Lyon. Born in Ajaccio he donated his enormous collection of some 16,000 artworks to museums and the Musée Fesch contains a huge chunk, including works by Botticelli, Giovanni Bellini and Titian amongst others.
From here we visited La Parata along the coast of the Ile Sanguineres, a classified Grande Site de France, in time to watch the sun slowly dipping into the sea. Famous French crooner Tino Rossi had a home in this most beautiful area with its pointy islands poking through the top of waves like tiny pyramids. A Genoese tower sits atop a hill, one of many built along the coastline to defend the island. Corsica’s history tells a turbulent tale of invasion, rebellion and social upheaval. Conquered by the Greeks in 565BC, alternately under the rule of the Lords of Genoa, changing hands between the Italians and French. Corsica is now classified as a region of France with two departments, Corse-de-Sud, and Haute-Corse.
What’s immediately apparent is just how lush and flowery Corsica is. Everywhere there are wild lemon, fig and olive trees, cactus plants, lavender and poppies which vie for attention. Every verge is covered in greenery and brightly coloured flowers. And the ever present aromatic maquis, a bit like the garrigue of southern France, an undergrowth of herbs and bushy shrubs, covers the ground. It was only our first day in Corsica and already I was a little in love with it.
Calanques de Piana
A coach took us via mountain roads several hundred metres above sea level to the town of Porto. We passed the Chateau de la Punta built partially from the stones of the Palace of the Tuileries in Paris which once belonged to Catherine de Medici but was destroyed by fire in the lates 1800s. And past Corsica’s highest vineyard at 500m, the area where Corsica’s “king of the outlaws” once lived. He was no Robin Hood although he was romanticised by many including those with power and influence including Baron Haussmann of Paris and the writer Flaubert.
We stopped at the village of Piana. It’s officially one of the prettiest in France. Typically laid back Corsican, the church bells struck 10 o’clock at eight minutes past! Admiring the dazzling views over the Golfe de Porto In Corsica, you feel it just can’t get any more lovely… And then you come across another gorgeous village, vineyard, beach, town. From there we headed to the village of Ota, a popular starting point for hiking the spectacular gorges de Spelunca via an ancient mule trail, and Aitone Forest. We boarded a boat bound for the Calanques (or calanche in Corsican) de Piana, a UNESCO World Heritage site, and one of the highest calanques in Europe. Sheer cliffs and dramatic rock formations, jutting out of the inky sea are magnificent, majestic and mesmerising, home to birds including eagle-like ospreys .
The glittering coastal city of Porto Vecchio on the south side of the island is built on salt marshes. The salt is still harvested, the salt pans glinting in the sun as you look out from the top of the town. This is the most deluxe part of Corsica. Several celebrities have homes here. Rihanna was spotted here on holiday recently, and George Clooney I’m told – though not together, don’t be starting any rumours! Fabulous beaches and a lively, picturesque town make this a favourite with tourists.
The best way to see this historic city for the first time is from the sea. As our boat pulled into the harbour, the top deck was bathed in the rays of the rising sun and we tucked into snacks and drinks to the sound of soft music. The towers of Bonifacio shimmered in the soft dawn light, the sky was pearly blue with hints of pink. There is something ancient about the sight of those soaring cliffs turning apricot coloured as the sun burns off the light mist sitting over the inky waters of the Med. Big cruise ships can’t get through the narrow opening but we glided through and it felt magical to witness this special sight.
Bonifacio fees authentic. It’s stunningly hilly and its maze of cobbled winding streets are lined with medieval buildings. Tall old houses in shades of muted yellows and oranges have delicate iron work balconies from which washing hangs. Pale pastel coloured shutters closed against the growing heat of the dawning day.
Napoleon’s ice cream?
Bonifacio has plenty of restaurants and bars, and shops selling jewellery carved from local red coral jewellery – said to ward off the evil eye. At Rocca Serra ice cream bar, they sell an ice cream flavoured with clementine, mandarin and macquis which legend claims was invented when Napoleon fell in love with a local woman and gave her a coral necklace – and in return she gave him an ice cream made to that recipe! Corsica is known as the ‘city of coral’ inspiring Matisse to capture it on canvas.
One of the most incredible sites in the city is the King of Aragon’s staircase. I’d seen a photo of the 187 steep stairs carved into the chalk white cliffs but nothing prepares you for the reality. Do not attempt to use the stairs if you have a fear of heights. Though a safety rail has recently been added – it’s rather harrowing. Legend says Argonese soldiers created the 187 stairs in a single night!
The Lavezzi Islands
After lunch in a picturesque and deliciously rustic traditional restaurant in the countryside, we toured the remote Lavezzi Islands. They look just as if the Caribbean has been plonked down just off the coast of Bonfacio. You can only reach them by boat, and you’ll find a haven of wild birds, and one swanky inhabited island. This is where the rich and famous craving anonymity go on holiday. Locals claim to have seen Beyonce, Princess Caroline of Monaco and former President Sarkozy there!
Docking in the town of Bastia, a town of art and history and immense charm, we headed to Cap Corse. But first we stopped at Clos Santini vineyard for a wine tasting. They poured generously and plied us with cheese and Corsican charcuterie – figatellu, smoked pork liver and other cured meats.
From here we went to Barrettali for lunch at a restaurant at the Giottani Marina overlooking a fabulous beach. It’s one of those places that you see in French films, romantic, unspoiled and unbelievably beautiful. But you know you will never find it. Well here it is, one restaurant, one hotel and a whole lot of paradise.
On the way back to the ship, we stopped off at Erbalunga, a charming and typical Corsican town, where a game of boules was taking place on the town square, little alleyways lead to the sea, and friendly bars and restaurants sit alongside shops selling clothes and handmade jewellery.
Arriving at the Port of L’Île-Rousse we made our way to the city of Calvi along roads lined with pine trees and eucalyptus from Australia and New Zealand. It’s claimed Christopher Columbus was born here, and we stopped at the remains of what the locals claim was his ancestral home in the famous Citadel which dominates the town. Just 30 people still live here in the “Carcassonne of Corsica”. The roads are steep and wind around like a helter-skelter. Nelson stood here at the siege of Calvi in 1794, the sense of history is palpable.
Below the citadel is a bustling town, where Rue Clemenceau is known to the locals as “shopping street” and you’ll find shops peddling everything from chic summery clothes to spicy sausages. The marina is lined with fabulous restaurants. Nip to the streets beyond rue Clemenceau where everything is less touristic. The cafés that don’t have a view over the bay is where the locals go, like Brasserie à Macagna where the smell of cooking – garlic and herbs makes your mouth water. Join locals gathered at the bar for a pre-lunch glass of Corsican wine before tucking into the dish of the day – Moules de Diane, with mussels from L’etang de Diana, Diane’s lake in Aleria, once the Roman capital of Corsica, and renowned for its succulent oysters.
Life on board a Croisi-Europe cruise
Being on board is a cross between a country house hotel where every guest is known. Each morning I was asked if I wanted my usual “Earl Grey, no sugar or milk?” Each evening – “a glass of red, not too dry?” And though you get to see a lot on this trip, it is never hurried, never rushed, always relaxing, slow travel at its very best…
Find out more and book a cruise of a life time at: CroisiEurope.co.uk