Corsica is one of the most beautiful islands in the Mediterranean Sea. Like a jewel, it shines in the azure blue waters that surround it, a place of history with a rich culture, wonderful cuisine, outstandingly beautiful natural landscape and much much more.
I was last in the idyllic little Corsican hilltop hamlet of Piedicroce –‘The Foot of the Cross’ – during the long, hot summer of 1974, leading 25 wealthy Americans on a three-week cycling tour of the beautiful and mountainous Mediterranean island. I’ve dined out ever since on my story of how Piedicroce’s war memorial bears the names of 18 soldiers with the surname Casanova, who died during The Great War – but does not say whether they were killed by the Germans or by jealous husbands. It’s a nice story but on my recent long overdue return I discovered a serious flaw. The memorial is still there right enough, beside the church, just where I remember it, but there’s not a single Casanova inscribed on it – so the memorial I’ve recalled so vividly for all these years must have been in another place at another time!
Another memory is of sitting on the terrace of the Le Refuge Hotel – yes, that spot at least proved as I remember it – listening to the cock crow as I ate my breakfast and surmising that maybe it was the same fowl that would be in the coq au vin I had pre-ordered for lunch, though, maybe in reality, I ended up opting for the lamb!
A Little Corsican History
The first thing on my agenda was a walk through the old town, with its elegant colonnaded square and statue of Pascal Paoli, the father figure of all true-blooded Corsicans.
A little history: after years of dispute between various Mediterranean powers, the Genoese finally took control of Corsica in 1284. Pascal Paoli launched an uprising, which did not end until 1769, a year after the Genoese had sold the island to France who put the ruthless Comte Marbeuf and General Morando in charge.
Eventually Paoli secured help from the English, who ruled Corsica from 1794 to 1796 when the newly born French Republic regained power. As for Paoli, he died in exile in England and was buried in Westminster Abbey, his remains being returned to his homeland many years later. Meanwhile, that upstart Napoleon Bonaparte had ruled the roost – a Corsican who had forsaken his roots adapted his surname and become the most French of all Frenchmen (There’s an excellent Bonaparte Museum in Ajaccio).
After many decades of unrest and occasional violence, in1990 France’s national assembly finally approved a statute recognising the Corsican people’s right to maintain an identity of their own, with special cultural, economic and social rights but remaining within the French Republic.
That identity manifests itself in many ways. Take the cuisine for example: French, Italian, Greek, Spanish, Phoenician and Moroccan influences manifest themselves in a mouth-watering melange.
Most famous are the many varieties of farmhouse cheeses and charcuterie while the signature dish is civet de sanglier au châtaignes (cignale cù e castagne in Corsican) an unctuous stew of wild boar and chestnuts. Other dishes to jump out of the menu include slow-roasted spring lamb with rosemary, veal medallions with citrus fruits and honey and all manner of delights from the fish counter, including the famed mussels from the Diana lagoon, halfway up the east coast. These are coated in flavoured breadcrumbs and served grilled on the half-shell.
Corsican wines, especially the rosé offerings, have a growing reputation.
What to see and do in Corsica
I resisted the lure of the sunbeds at the hotel and spent my days exploring. To the south lay the popular resort of Calvi and, a lot further down the coast, the stunningly beautiful jagged red rocks of Les Calanches and the breathtaking Bay of Porto, guarded by an imposing mediaeval watchtower – surely one of the most romantic places in the world to watch the sun go down.
Inland is the dramatic Parc Naturel Régionel de Corse, with its tumbling streams and deep gorges and the steep cobbled backstreets of ancient Corte, the headquarters town of the famed – or should that be infamous? – French Foreign Legion.
It doesn’t look much on the map, but set at least five or six hours aside for the dramatic drive round Cap Corse, that spectacular promontory that sticks out of the top of the island, pointing finger-like to the far-off mainland France – and hope, as you negotiate the endless twists and turns, ups and downs and often precariously narrow stretches of one of the planet’s most fabled coast roads, that nobody in the vehicle is a car sickness sufferer. After all that nail-biting drama, you could stop for a strong coffee at one of the popular student thronged pavement cafés in downtown Bastia, the island’s self-important second city – if you could ever find a place to park in what must be one of Europe’s most traffic-logged towns.
Beyond my reach this time was the capital city of Ajaccio and, with views across to neighbouring Sardinia, super-photogenic Bonifacio, with its houses built precipitously into the side of the near sheer cliffs. But 30-degree temperatures, clear blue skies and balmy evenings had made it a memorable September sojourn on a remarkable island where even fractured memories could not spoil things. Like Sicily, Corsica was once bandit-ridden and had its own version of the Mafia but it is now a very safe and peaceful place and the locals are very friendly.
When I stupidly reversed down a hidden ditch, two passing motorcyclists and a 4X4 driver stopped immediately to offer their help and had me back on the road in a few minutes. When I proffered my thanks the truck driver responded warmly: ”You are never on your own in Corsica.” – a lovely comment that made my day.
By Roger St Pierre, Member of British Guild of Travel Writers