Up and Down and Around Corsica

Up and Down and Around Corsica

Corsica remains enigmatic despite being an oft-traveled destination, a Mediterranean idyll that bequeathed Napoleon to the world. Its location and nationality are a mystery to most. Is it Italian? Independent? Part of Tuscany? Mainland France? None of the above. But make no mistake, finding out more about Corsica is well worth the effort.

The mountainous island owes its confounding complexity to its many callers.

Click here for original story and photographs by Kyn Tolson

Homer had Odysseus stop by on his way home from the Trojan War. Lombards and Phoenicians also came, Romans and Vandals, Pisans and Genoese, among others. The French arrived last and have hung on, granting Corsica more autonomy than its mainland regions. The locals insisted.

None of the interlopers came simply to admire the endless mountains, villages perched on precipices, snug harbors, or turquoise waters. But we do: my wife and I and our friend Nancy. We fly coach. Tommy Hilfiger arrives by yacht.

We land in Bastia, up north, the least touristy of the three “cities” we frequent over ten days, and take up residence in a rented two-bedroom apartment in the old section, near the towering ramparts and bastions of the citadel. We are midway along La Rue de Notre Dame—a winsome rue with a view. Corsican vistas abound; some are literally staggering.

Our digs have fans and we hang laundry on the clothesline out our second floor window, a la our Corsican neighbors. It is late June and high season is a month away. Swarms of chimney swifts make the rounds, whistling in harmony. We’ve come to the right place.

Saint Marie Cathedral, circa 1604, with its insistent bells, are just down the rue. Going the other way, we pass the imposing rose-colored Casa Zerbi, built in 1490 by a Genoese overlord. It’s along our short walk to croissants and views in the square that is formed by the Museu di Bastia (the Corse spelling of museum) and several restaurants with patios overlooking the harbor below, and the Tyrrhenian Sea beyond. Sipping slowly, we can see Elba to the East, the Italian isle where Corsica’s tricolored troublemaker was briefly exiled (Napoleon escaped in 1815 to torment Europe once more).

The island is closer to Italy than France and although French is the official language, old men on benches can be heard conversing in Italian or even Corse, the indigenous albeit not widely spoken tongue. The most mountainous Mediterranean island, Corsica is slightly larger than Rhode Island, with but a third of its population, just 330,000 residents. Most of it is too vertical for human habitation: astonishingly, some 120 of its peaks exceed Mount Washington's 6,288-foot elevation.

On day two we take in the wonderful museum for a mere €5. As befits tourism-lite Bastia, it doesn’t sport a gift shop to compliment its expansive and engaging exhibits on Corse history and culture. Formerly the Governor's Palace, the mustard-yellow building, whose campanile dates to the 14th century, once housed a prison. As should be expected by now, one of the former cells has a view.

Next we saunter outside the old walled city, through the lovely Jardin Romieu and down to the harbor, where local kids are diving off the stone pier. In the afternoon we drive through winsome villages to a beach halfway up Cap Corse, the finger-like peninsula north of the city. Sunscreen is optional: most beaches boast bistros, with well-shaded patios for de rigeur hydration. The sun is shining, as it does every day for us. It gets hot but it's a tolerable dry heat (mainland France is boiling this last week in June).

After several days, we reluctantly leave Bastia and drive west to Calvi, where the tourism isn’t so lite. Our hotel is on the main drag and the retail hunting and gathering is relentless. Air conditioning from the boutiques wafts into the narrow cobblestone streets, creating a microclimate. The harbor is replete with boats; a number of floating monstrosities clearly belong to uber one-percenters from nations near and far.

It is a short walk to the nearest beach, an alluring horseshoe expanse ringed by mountains, and its adjacent watering holes. A chez lounge avec umbrella is well worth the €10 rental. We lounge for four hours.

We also do some hotel hopping and move just outside of downtown, where a dusty path across the street from the Hotel Revellata leads to a secluded rocky beach where the snorkeling is wonderful.

We warm to bustling Calvi and find other places on its periphery, away from the retail riot, to roost. Le Chalet is a weather beaten and isolated bistro in the shadow of the gigantic citadel, at the very end of the harbor. Tommy Hilfiger is nowhere in sight, although Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton once chowed down here.

The owner for the past 28 years (the establishment dates to 1907) is an engaging man named Moncef Mousse, a Tunisian immigrant who dispenses local fare, including pizza, Corsican beers and wines, pastis, and Cap Corse, the last a sweet red wine aperitif (the white is less saccharine). We find the indigenous wines to be eminently potable, when not exceptionally fine. Moncef explains his business philosophy to us with a laugh: pas de credit, pas de chichi (no credit, no fuss). He isn’t particularly busy this day, but he seems perfectly content.

One afternoon we take a bus trip with other vieux tourists through the “vieux villages” that dot the nearby mountains, stopping at charming redoubts like Montemaggiore, which is surrounded by olive groves and affords panoramic views of the coastal plain. Majestic red kites hunt languidly above.

Another day, a three-hour boat tour of Calvi’s coast and the Scandola Nature Reserve, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is disappointing: there are precious few of the advertised avian species at the sanctuary. It's apparently a BYOB affair: bring your own birds. We are excited when we spy a goat. Meanwhile, a French baby establishes a Guinness record for continuous screeching, forestalling any hope of napping.

One night we happily stumble upon U Fornu, up narrow stairs in an alley off the beaten path, and sit under the stars for the meal of the trip, which is going some since the food throughout, even at roadside diners, is almost without exception exceptional. We share a wonderful Corse red cabbage salad and we have the best roast lamb any of us can recall, capped off by a delightful cheesecake a la Corse.

How can you go wrong in an establishment that offers complimentary cigarettes? The three local women sitting at the next table smoke before, during and after the meal. It is totally retro and oddly winning. A gentle breeze wafts the smoke away. One of them smiles sweetly at us.

The next morning we head south, hugging the west coast in the most literal (and littoral) fashion imaginable: destination Bonifacio, 140 miles away and the island’s southernmost point. Virtually all “highways” in Corsica are narrow, winding and perilous, but somehow we manage to take the road hardly ever travelled—and the reason why is soon obvious: road signs proclaim: DANGER DU MORT. Another is even pithier: consisting simply of an exclamation mark.

Indeed! This is the most scenic and terrifying 20 miles of my life, lasting more than an hour, as our car seems to totter on the edge of oblivion at every hairpin turn—skirting sheer cliffs that tumble hundreds of feet straight down to the rocky shore. There are only occasional guardrails to spoil the view.

The trip takes us six hours, seven when you add the hour we spend lost in the maze of roundabouts around Ajaccio, the capital city and the birthplace of Napoleon. His home is now a museum.

We head straight for a bar at the margins of Bonifacio. The unpretentious La manichella, which is perched above the limestone cliffs that surround the city and its cozy harbor, offers the obligatory views: Sardinia, an Italian island, can be seen in the distance, less than seven miles due south. We also watch some local men play a lively game of Boules in the rectangular dirt pitch adjacent to the bar's patio; loser buys the drinks. The friendly barkeep tells us to take the east coast back north when we go. It takes only four hours. There is a more direct road through the center of the island, over the mountains, but everyone just shakes their head when we mention that route.

The long chiseled harbor and vertical shoreline are the highlights of Bonifacio, with their otherworldly melange of limestone and red granite precipices. A 90-minute glass bottom boat ride is well worth €23 a head. For the adventurous and athletically inclined, there is a pathway from the town to the cliffs, which rise 230 feet above the waves; stairs cut right into the limestone face lead down to the water. Having had our daily quota of verticality, we demure.

Homer had the wily Odysseus ply Bonifacio's alluring waters, coveting its snug harbor, until the locals rained boulders down upon him.

Visitors are treated far better today, of course.