Corsica: I Shall Return
Jun 7, 2006
David Rich 1300 Words
C O R S I C A: I S H A L L R E T U R N
In a world with 202 countries in the Olympics and 192 in the United Nations, there are few places I'll definitely revisit, such as the tepuis of southern Venezuela, the Picos de Europa in Spain, the Lofeten Islands of Norway, the Aleutian Islands off Alaska, and the Karakorams of Pakistan, places of phenomenal hiking and rugged scenery. Now Corsica has joined the list.
For a measly ten days I hiked Corsica's strikingly picturesque hill towns and copious gorges laced with streams of turquoise as clear as air, and it wasn't nearly enough. I shall return in order to see every nook and cranny, of which, for such a small island, there are heaps, oodles and scads. But next time I'll finagle my own transportation because buses and trains go to few places more than once a day.
My first view of Corsica was a gobsmacker, from the deck of the one-hour Sardinian ferry to Bonifacio, Corsica's southernmost town. My guidebook described Bonifacio as having a piddly 3,000 people, and said little else. But in reality, Bonifacio is a walled fairyland village surrounding a castle-top abducted from The Lord of the Rings, sitting on jagged limestone cliffs pocked with grottos, dropping sheer to a perfectly translucent sea, fronted by sleek sailboats wafting like the wind. I stood in awe, thinking I'd love to drop out of sight in Bonifacio, maybe for a month, the most charmingly-situated village I've seen in years of unremitting travel. But then, memory is a tricky thing.
I had left Sardinia, intending to head more or less directly to Ajaccio, Corsica's capital in the middle of the western coast, where Napoleon Bonaparte was born on Aug. 15, 1769. Corsica had become a French province that same year, much to the continuing disgust of its residents. Except for brief periods of occupation by the British (1794-96) and the Italians and Germans (1942-43), Corsica has festered as a French province ever since. But Bonifacio stopped me cold.
I spent hours exploring the cliffside city, stalking the ramparts with a hand mentally tucked in my vest, hiking east along sheer drops for spectacular views, and strolling Bonifacio's hidden harbor along a boulevard of unending sidewalk cafes, sparkling in perfect sunshine. But the only bus for the day arrived distressingly on time, and I'd pre-paid a night's lodging in Ajaccio, which in Europe today is a major investment. So I reluctantly climbed aboard the bus and watched charming Bonifacio recede out the back window.
I quickly discovered that similar to Bonifacio, many of Corsica's villages are tucked high on hills, village-church campaniles fingering the sky, where buses strain around hairpin corners, plunging down hill-side towns to the terror of locals and riders alike. The arrival of a modern French bus in any Corsican hill town spells chaos and gridlock as the bus backs to corner, backing to cut a tighter arc, clearing ancient stones with a millimeter to spare, canny those Corsican bus drivers.
I arrived in the metropolis of Ajaccio's 60,000 people, wrung out and captivated, so much to see and so little time. After a day checking out Napoleon's antecedents, first home, and the stunning wooden boat show on the hugely protected harbor, gaping in awe at the prices in the brand name boutiques, and gazing carefully into the distance above topless matrons sunbathing on the city beach, I had hoped to hop a train to Corte, the capital of Corsican mountain adventure. But with copious spring rains the tracks had been washed away faster than the railroad crews could repair them, so the train substituted a bus. Was this any way to run a railroad?
Still, the scenery from the faux train was succulent thanks to the usual spired hill- towns. Long distance hikers frantically flagged the train-bus, sighing with audible relief as it skidded to a stop and picked up their weary bones. But then Corsica is mountains, almost all of it, a granite massif dividing the island with a cluster of twenty peaks over 6,500 feet (2,000 meters), jagged silhouettes in pastels of orange and red, littered with high altitude lakes of deepest blue. And don't miss Mount Cinto (incidentally my favorite brand of Corsican wine), Corsica's highest at 8,890 feet (2,710 meters).
Down these roller-coaster peaks plunge glassine gorges of crystalline beauty, cutting the west coast into deep-water gulfs with high headlands, and forming lagoons in the east. These gorges are obviously the inspiration for the word, gorgeous. Hike them at your peril, the peril being permanent ex-patriotism as you'll be sorely tempted to abscond from the work-a-day world to go on the lam in Corsica. Indeed, Corsica is for hikers, and bikers, with or without motors, who enjoy swirling down hairpin curves.
The famous GR20 trail cuts 200 kilometers (124 miles) across the island from north to south, or vice versa, depending on which direction you prefer, and takes two weeks to traverse. Hikers flock from all over Europe to partake of this once in a lifetime experience. Those who've done it will likely never do it again because it's a bear, and often chilly. Even in June the peaks were snow-capped, and before we left, we'd enjoyed three nights of new snow, putting a fresh blanket down to a few thousand feet (1000 meters). But there are dozens of other hiking paths, from easy daytime stuff up gorgeous gorges to multi-day east-west trails linking hill-towns with romantic names like Pont-Leccia, Venaco, Vivario and Vizzavona.
Then there's Corte, the mountainous capital of Corsica, where I spent a week hiking its three intersecting gorges, the archetypal hill-town with a citadel on its tippy top and the church's campanile fingering skyward, dominated by surrounding pinnacles, peaks and other superlatives of pointy granite. Labyrinthine alleyways wind between faded pastel walls up to the belvedere with a view, or the citadel itself. Below the town, the Gorges du Restonica and Tavignanu merge into a single turquoise stream under a wooden bridge buttressed with A-frames, bordered by a thousand university students attending the only university on the island, dozens of outdoor cafes for copious time wasting, and half a dozen classic French bakeries, producing a cacophony of earthy scents that haunt me yet.
A don't-miss part of the island extends north from Corsica's second largest city of Bastia, a busy northeast port with daily ferries to Livorno, Nice and Toulon, plus a 14th century citadel with sparkling sea views. But the best is the finger of land extending in symbolic gesture directly toward France, the Cap Corse, a twenty mile (thirty kilometer) long peninsula pocked with cutesy fishing villages dangling under a precipitous road of curves and classic vistas of decaying Genovese towers and hilltop chapels. Then there's the remote coastal desert in the middle north, the perfectly situated seaside town of Calvi, and a dozen other attractions I missed. To Corsica I shall, indeed must, return.
When you go: Fly to Ajaccio from Paris on Air France, or better yet on its cut-rate subsidiary, CCM, for $200 roundtrip. For airfare from your abode to Paris, Google cheap airfare Paris and die for the sheer romance of it all. Fast ferries from Nice take four hours to Ajaccio or Bastia, slow ferries eight hours from Marseille, about $50 for a seat, cabins astronomically more expensive. Many ferries also ply the waters from Italy to Corsica for about the same price. Enter ferries Italy Corsica or ferries France Corsica and book on line. Train travel (when the tracks aren't washed asunder) is spectacular but only covers the north half of the island. Buses chug the whole island, taking ten hours to traverse its mountainous length from Bonifacio via Ajaccio to either Calvi or Bastia. Generally see www.Bonafacio.com and www.cortetourisme.com for information on these two charming towns. In Bonifacio stay relatively economically at the Hotel des Estrangers, two blocks from the harbor, for $90 double or triple, but forget about finding lodging in August unless you book way ahead. I stayed at the HR Porette in Corte, two short blocks from the bus drop-off and the train station, and a block from the large Casino Supermarket, doubles en-suite $62, seventh night free.