Corsica – The Beautiful Island

“The extent of your consciousness is limited only by your ability to love and to embrace with your love the space around you, and all it contains.”  Napoleon Bonaparte 

It’s been a long time since I spent a delightful and surprising couple of weeks in Corsica but lately there has been a persistent whispered notion of a return trip, an idea that has become more insistent by the day. ‘Oh Corse, île de beauté’ as rhapsodized in a popular song was everything I hoped it would be and then so much more. Hugely popular in France and Europe, Tino Rossi, a velvet voiced crooner/actor, also born in Ajaccio, can be considered the second most famous native son of the island only after the one and only Napoléon Bonaparte.  As for the Emperor he always claimed that were he blindfolded and dropped off at an unknown destination nevertheless he’d know immediately from the fragrance wafting on the wind he was on his native soil.   Splashed in a profusion of colours and varieties, I remembered these words the first time I wandered into a field of wild flowers.

(Note: To improve your viewing experience click on the photos below to enlarge – once for medium, twice to zoom in.) 

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As for the quality or lack thereof of the photos I’ve a confession, or rather an explanation.  This trip was taken years ago before the age of the digital camera but fortunately I then used to take my photos as slides so that now years later I can still project them on a white wall.  Well, guess what? One day I was bemoaning the fact I couldn’t use any of the some 2000 (or more) slides I have accumulated over my years of travels for this blog.  However, in a flash of epiphany, a thought popped up – why not try and take digital photos from the projected slides? Why not indeed and so I did!   The results are spotty in quality but some are good enough I think to at the very least provide a good approximation of the real thing.  If I find this works well then I’ll have several years of blogging left to share with you.  I hope you’ll let me know via the ‘comment’ box.  

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Generally speaking most people, French citizens included, know little about Corsica beyond identifying it as Napoleon’s birthplace.  I’m adding a map so you can follow along and as well I’ll add just a tad of pertinent local information, but not too much, I promise.  

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I landed at L’Ile-Rousse, the northerly port facing Nice, on the mainland, where I’d boarded the car ferry for a four-hour sail across to what turned out to be one memorable trip undertaken, to be honest, without preparation as it materialized upon a serendipitous inspiration.  As I almost always do, I set off without a real notion of where I’m going or how long I’ll stay wherever, the uncertainty translates into the tantalizing joy of surprise.  In fact it’s not that much of a gamble as traveling in Europe, no matter where one goes, the scenery is almost sure to be enticing and the discovery of local people and customs, to my way of thinking superior to any carefully planned holiday.  To be sure, at times I’ve also rued the lack of preparation (getting hopelessly lost in the dead of night within the ancient walls of Carcassonne comes to mind) but the discomfort in time becomes cause to think back on what was then stressful as after all a jolly good adventure.  

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Disembarking I immediately headed south via the only, modest roadway that  hugs the western coast down the length of the island.  I figured to spend maybe three days, four maximum to go all the way around to finally get to Bastia, hence sail acrosss to Italy.  Oh, one thing I should mention – I had wisely purchased an excellent map of Corsica on the ferry published by Michelin, in my opinion the best of the best source of information for travellers.   It was already well into the late afternoon so that I was looking for a place to spend the night when I stumbled onto picturesque Algajola, a tiny village that nonetheless featured a ruined Genoa fort and a Club Med; lucky me.  I found a spacious room that included a small cooking nook with fridge that has not ever since been equalled for price, view and comfort.   The fortunate truth (for me) at that time there was a dearth of tourists caused by unrest and some amateurish violence (blowing up communications transmitters and vandalizing cars with mainland licences) perpetrated by a minority of hotheads that were agitating for independence from France, yet a never ending but futile quest.  Mightily pissed off since the French generously payed in national taxes to keep the island afloat, they simply stopped crossing over and the few tourists around were almost exclusively foreign youngish campers.  Great for me!  My hotel was empty save for a couple of government surveyors who left a couple of days later leaving me in glorious peace.   What was going to be a one-night stand lengthened into a full week and those who are familiar with my blog will realize why I keep on harping that it’s so good to make things up as you go; I’m unrelentingly greedy in taking full advantage of an advantageous travel situation and to juice it for all it’s worth. 

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The view from my top corner window and within a short five minute walk to the isolated beach.   It was frequented as I found out rather clumsily by stumbling upon one basking ‘au naturel’ on the other side of a sand dune.  It turned out several German campers were in the neighbourhood and used this particular spot as their private beach. It was rather fun to become acquainted with one of them in particular (Ursula) and practice my rudimentary German language skills.  After all I had plans to visit Bavaria in the not too distant future, or so I claimed to give myself a touch of cover for my sudden interest in that area of Germany.  In actual fact I did go several times since and love it more each time (check out my post ‘Bavaria and Neuswienstein Castle’).   It was marvellous to fall asleep to the sound of lapping waves below my room.  This particular day was a bit windy as you can see but  I wondered what happened during a real storm?  

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Corsica is on its western coast ruggedly mountainous, yet somehow or other locals have found a way to survive in small villages wherever is found a patch of arable land to grow vegetables and a meadow to graze sheep. Sadly, red hot rivalries between neighbouring villages have all too often culminated in the violence of the infamous ‘vendetta’, a bitter grudge that can last decades and be handed down from father to son.   Yet, these folks are very friendly to a stranger who with a smile shows interest in their way of life.
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I was surprised to see what at first I took to be a fishing net being  set out to dry under the tree up a hill far from the sea.  On closer inspection I saw several such nets and at one of them two nuns were gathering the olives that conveniently dropped in when totally ripe.  No bruised fruit and easy pickings – clever nuns. Surreptitiously I attempted to take a photo but it turned out very much out of focus.  Serves me right, I should have politely asked, right? 
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In the early dawn hours of my first morning I drove to explore  the hillsides beyond my hotel.  The path became too steep and narrow and I parked to the side (not that there was much fear of other traffic) and enveloped by a fragrant misty rain ambled up the rocky lane.  A few minutes later I heard the faint tinkling of a single bell that grew louder.  Soon appeared a shepherd, his teenage son and a flock of goats leisurely on their way to a pen for the twice-daily milking chores.  With my most ingratiating smile I said hello and asked if I could come along to take photos.  
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There’s a hierarchy in the shepherd and flock relationship.  The shepherd wielding his staff leads, then followed first by the dominant male goat, the one with the bell, then comes the obedient females with one juvenile male (someday to be the new alpha male) and leading the rear, ceaselessly running to and fro, a hard working, barking dog nipping at the heels of any wayward goat.  Finally, when all the animals where inside the pen the son whacked the alpha goat out over the rustic fence.  As the farmer informed with a twinkle in his eye, “That horny devil would be too busy pleasing himself and the females would be too agitated looking for their pleasure and making milking difficult.  To have a bit of peace we get rid of him but he’ll hang around waiting to get to his happy work.”  
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I spent summers at my uncle’s farm and I know something about milking (even tried my hands at it, literally) and this Corsican was one expert. In a flash he’d wring the she-goat dry, send her off with a swat in the ass; in a thrice his son would drag the next one over and in two shakes another one was done.  Bemused I kept watching for the impending threat of the cigarette ash falling into the bucket – never happened.   At the ultimate second with a sharp head shake to the left the ash would fall off, on his shirt but he paid no attention.  “Did I have an empty bottle? I’ll give you fresh milk.” He laughed, “Almost better than wine.”  I hustled back to the car, dumped what was left in a mineral water bottle.  For the next several days each morning I came back with one litre of fresh milk to share with a couple of the campers I had met.  Although he didn’t expect anything more than a thank you and a bit of conversation about Canada and my foreign travels, I paid off with a couple packs of his brand of cigarettes, a tin can of cashews for his son and dog biscuits as a form of bribe to ingratiate myself to the snarler.  (I’m afraid of a snarling dog with bared teeth for a long ago good reason.) 
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Comfortable in my great digs in Algajola I wisely remained and during several days explored within a day’s drive what often turned out to be spectacular scenery and unexpected encounters in a mostly wild land, especially away from the coastline villages and towns.
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Not far down the road,  Calvi turned out to be an attractive town with a fine port and an imposing citadel strategically astride the highest hill.
 
P1120019I was surprised to see several uniformed Legionnaires strolling in town, one accompanying a wife pushing a baby stroller; a domestic scene that had me befuddled.  At the café I was told at that time (after pulling out of Algeria) this was the main garrison for the French Foreign Legion’s elite paratroop regiment.  Changing of the guards at the main gate was efficiently sharp yet done with a ‘military’ elegance. The soldiers pacing away did so in the slow, deliberate steps for which the Legion is recognized at any of the grand July 14 parade down the Champs Elysées.  
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At this juncture I’ll end this part of my Corsican adventure but propose a ‘rendez vous‘ for another chapter detailing some of the wild interior and the complete drive around the entire island.  A bientôt mes amis.  
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6 responses to “Corsica – The Beautiful Island

  1. I love Bonaparte,s quote. You really know how to embrace your travels with love yourself. I cannot imagine anyone not wanting to run to Corsica after reading your blog. I myself am leaving immediately…but in my dreams. Thanks again Jean-Michel .

  2. As I mentioned the photos are not great, nevertheless I wanted to share my admiration for this rugged island and its folklore that deserves far more attention from those dreaming of a unique adventure. My own experience was proof again that following your inner star will lead to a great destination.

  3. Did you know there are now cheap, direct flights to Corsica from UK ? The other option is which you did by driving down through France and catch the ferry to the island. This makes a nice holiday when you can rent a car for a month and discover the rugged beauty of Corsica. I learned it is the most mountainous Mediterrean island. That will definitely make the drive a hair raising experience !!!!

    • To be perfectly candid the roads were particularly daunting; first of all for the most part it was basically very narrow and roughly paved. As well, the local drivers were not given to patiently follow so they’d pass at the first opportunity. Most of the time it was without care if there was a curve ahead or not. Looking down the ravines one could see rusted car wrecks testifying to the speed demons who took one chance too many. Years later I had the same feeling of déjà vu in Portugal. I imagine there has been a lot of road work since my trip as tourism has become more popular of late. Yet, I’ll admit to really hope for return as I thoroughly enjoyed my experience especially my contacts with the local folks.

  4. Thanks for the wonderful trip. I can almost smell the wild flowers. The shepherd and his son sound like an intriguing pair. Same with the German woman…
    I don’t know if I’ll ever get there but thanks for taking me part of the way.
    Jim Kernaghan
    London, Canada

    • Without doubt I did myself a huge favour by acting on impulse. I had enough of the Riviera (too busy) and when I discovered the ferry from Nice to Corsica it just seemed like a good idea to get aboard proving once again that too much preparation isn’t always best. I’m working on another chapter that will show you just how wild this island is especially in the interior. Nice of you to notice I made good friends with the locals and shared my good fortune (free goat milk) with a friendly fraulein.

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