Corsica – Island of Beauty

“It is always sad to leave a place to which one knows one will never return.  Such are the ‘melancholies du voyage‘ perhaps they are one of the most rewarding things about traveling.”   Gustave Flaubert

As mentioned in my previous post, Corsica was a spur of the moment trip that in retrospect offered a visual panoply of grand vistas and chance meetings with characters of genuine appeal who are fondly remembered decades later.  Previously I described what I then thought might be three or four days for a quick look-see but the ‘Island of Beauty’ enthralled and it thus stretched into a two-week long exploration. Finally, I forced myself to end the journey by exciting myself with the prospect of boarding the ferry at Bastia and cross over to Liverno a stone’s throw from Pisa and to finally gaze upon its three architectural wonders. 

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

Corsica, especially on the western coast and the mountainous interior is as constantly a rugged a landscape as one could wish for.  The population is spread thin other than in the few towns of  but a few thousand souls.  It suited me fine having at the time endured an almost palpable and not well disguised dislike for the claustrophobic existence lived in a large city such as Toronto.  I was and remain still by inclination a small town lad who never quite got over his longing for the well-being of belonging that one only gets from knowing your neighbours and growing up at the same pace as your school mates.  I’m certain most of you will agree the best friends are the ones made in the very early years, mine (Jean Henry) for example on the first day of kindergarden.  I remember a rather dainty friend laughed uproariously when dragging her through a dairy farm (to convince her of the charms of country life) I filled my lungs with the ambient air of freshly dumped cow dung and claimed with a lusty, “Ahhh, the aroma of Bouse de vache!”  No kidding, if I could buy ‘bullshit’ as a room freshener I’d be first in line.  Imagine, every morning the feeling you had awoken in a perfect bucolic environment.  

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Driving along the main road hugging the seascape a lone donkey grazing on scrub was I soon discovered not a rarity.  When I asked about it, a local explained that farmers got attached to their animals but when they became too old to perform the daily tasks rather than putting them  down or to take up space and food they’d simply let them fend for themselves and many of these donkeys actually lived to ripe old ages.  Of course, one had to be on the ‘qui vive‘ as they’d be quite nonchalant about car traffic, not that there was much of it.  

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This one was particularly friendly and curious.  It loved the potato chips I offered gingerly from the tip of my fingers as I can tell you for a fact they’ve got big grinding teeth.  I also discovered they particularly loved the chips for the salt content; thereafter I made sure to have a couple of bags in the car just in case.    The whiskered old boy wasn’t shy about sticking his head right inside the car.  I fed him half my chips and after a couple of gingerly given pats on the head I drove off.  I shouldn’t have peeked in the rear view mirror because there it was on gimpy legs trotting after the car for all it was worth.  Yes, of course, I stopped and parted with the rest of the package I cleverly dropped on the grassy side of the road.  While hit was busy munching head down to the task I made my getaway.   Incidentally, I told you (check out ‘Dol de Bretagne and countryside’) for some unknown reason I have a very definite liking for these dumb-ass creatures.  Could they remind me of me?

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Corsica is a land of spectacular scenery, moreover a haven for a variety of wild life I’d not seen anywhere else.  Here for example was a rare ibex that I just happened upon as it showed up around a corner of the tortuous cliffside road.   Apparently a proud male judging from the backward curve of the horns.  

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That was then the euphemistically designated main highway (N. 197 then on to N. 196) along the western coast of the entire island.  I wonder if it has since been improved? I recall coming on to a back-up that was a cause for wonder since the usual car traffic was sparse, at best.  A rare tour bus from the mainland had come to an s-curve and too long it was unable to manage getting around without a certain plunge down a hundred metres to the rocks below.  Unable to go forward, the passengers were unloaded and with much ado, hand signals, frantic gestures, hola’s and whoa’s the bus was ever so gingerly backed up to where it could do a u-turn.  The entire episode took well over an hour; a couple dozen onlookers had gotten out of their own cars and we were now all having a good chat.

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 One wondered if we might witness a spectacular plunge.  For that foolish remark his wife kicked him in the chin, hard,  and served him right.   It only occurred to me later I’d left the camera in the car and, well, one never knows, right?   Of course it was soon known I was a foreigner and one who was obviously loving the experience of the island.  One helpful fellow took out a detailed map and pointed to a side road I needed to take; he guaranteed spectacular scenery unlike anywhere else.  Never one to dismiss local knowledge, an hour later I did just that and he was certainly right on, uncommon scenery and something I’d not counted on, a sense of total isolation, so far out of touch with people a small inner voice started to speculate if sometimes I shouldn’t stick to the more common road.  Of course, the negative vibes were done and gone in a minute or two but I’ll admit the whooshing-whining sound of the wind in the rocks made for a peculiarly eery song.  OY!

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That particular area was as stark visually as anything I can ever recall seeing elsewhere.  Barren porphyritic rocks on either side of the rough gravel road  gouged out by rain and wind, eroded over millennia appear peopled with aliens.

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Did I perceive what others do not? I suppose you had to be there and to feel the unique  and somewhat stark aura.  Here, a mythic monster gorges on a pile of rocks and I dare anyone to tell me otherwise.  

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And a weird Pinocchio gave me the creeps.

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Okay, I’m being a little dramatic  but I have admitted to having been somewhat rattled by the remoteness that accentuated how far I was off the beaten track When I came upon this magnificent Laricio pine (Pinus nigra laricio) the road became so narrow and  looking into a steep shadowy ravine, I thought I’d done well, proved my mettle by not running off much sooner and decided to leave well enough alone.  The only thing remaining was to find a spot where, reminiscent of the bus a few hours earlier, I  could turn around.  I managed after doing the classic back and forth routine a half dozen times always with a wary eye on the deep crevice behind.    This pine tree will grow upwards of 50  metres (160 feet) with a straight trunk, a hard and durable wood that is highly prized for construction and carpentry.  

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And yes, I’ll admit each minute of the return drive to ‘civilization’ was eagerly welcomed.  When I came across this singular pine tree I relaxed, it seemed to me as if it was decorated as a particular gift to me.  Okay, I told you that I’d been suddenly feeling very forlorn and now with the setting sun brightening up the harsh scenery all was well again and as suddenly quite thrilled with my adventure.

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From a personal perspective I’ll admit often to being pleased (almost selfishly elated) I have seen and experienced places that had often been abandoned to their fate and thus remote from today’s rampant tourism.  I said I was selfish but when I ‘discovered’ the totally forgotten Pont du Gard in the south of France, and since I had no bathing suit I was able to swim ‘au naturel‘ under the swooping arches (each one a triumph of Roman architecture) with only the sound of birds above and trout below.  So taken in by the circumstance I could hear the voices of Roman legionnaires diving in from the arches for a dip to cool down in the summer heat.  I remember sublime Mt. St. Michel when not a single tour bus was in a near empty parking area; when Carcassonne was only a medieval town with battered crumbling walls; before Prague became a mecca for Japanese tourists; and Rocamadour as nothing more than a sleepy, out of the way little town remembered only by historians as a  stop on the pilgrimage way to Santiago de Compostela.  Yes, I’ll admit the influx of tourists has ushered in the economic reason to save-guard and even repair the damages wrought by decades, often times centuries of neglect, so hurrah for that and good for me for being there when I could let my imagination run rampant.  

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On another day and another long and remarkable drive through the interior I drove to Corte, the largest town in just about the geographical middle of the island.  Repeating myself but it can’t be helped, Corsica is for the most part an unspoiled wilderness and it is not rare to come across herds of feral hogs, an unattractive (but good meat) admix of escaped domestic swine and wild boars.  

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P1130953Indeed, I assure you the pork meats were of a quality that never failed to satisfy my palate.  Prosciutto thinly sliced was succulent as were the various salamis and dry sausages.  I always travel with a razor sharp Opinel knife and never fail to have locally purchased product in the car for impromptu snacking while enjoying a fine view.  Corsican red wines are dry and perfectly suited to help the digestion with the added appeal of being bargain priced. 

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Much to my surprise as I was on an island south of the Riviera, in what is generally considered a warm Mediterranean sea, around a corner and not all that distant loomed a snow-capped mountain.  Mt. Cinto (2700 m)  is in fact snow-covered year round; a fact proudly pointed out by a garrulous fellow who operated a picturesque watermill and claimed to have been born under the mountain’s shadow.

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The water mill I referred to above and still in great working shape; it smelled so good inside!

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Corte is the largest town in the interior of the island.  The setting is  striking  in the shadows of surrounding mountains.   I love old stone construction for the ageing process and colours that evolve as the years go by.  The only other town that I personally might compare is St. Paul de Vence, ensconced in the sunny hills of Provence beyond Nice. 

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The ancient fort attests to its historic past as the centre of true Corsican patriotism.   As the island was subjected to a succession of attackers the seacoast dwellers sought security further inside the island.  Corte became the capital of a short lived independent country declared by these fiercely independent islanders.   

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Discovering a super great place to sleep as I had in Algajola, it meant a return each evening (all except one night when I was too far and far too exhausted to return) and so time did become a factor as the sun was setting.   It really wasn’t a problem per se except there were times when I wanted to spend more time in a particularly enticing area.  Of course I always consoled myself by promising another trip in the future.  Yet the hunger for new travel sensations keep me looking for fresh vistas elsewhere, but one of these days, I’ll keep to my  promise.     

The highest viewpoint at the far north end of the island (Cap Corse) on my return to Algajola after a pulse raising drive through a long day.  The wind blew so hard I had a problem standing up but rather had to bend into the wind to get there.  Sitting on that bench to admire the vista was in fact problematical as my eyes teared up; I lasted but a minute before retreating to look from behind a large nearby rock.  

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Another day saw me going once more to Calvi to embark on a day’s boat excursion to a remote beach and a restaurant that I had been promised was a guaranteed feast of fresh seafood.  Nothing is as enticing to me as fresh fish and off I went.  The day long excursion more than exceeded my hopes.   The photo here was taken a few days later finally on my way to Bonifacio hence to finish my happy trip in Bastia.  Just imagine at the very far bottom the small beach we landed in and where four adventurous women from France had decided to open a restaurant for just a very few months each year.  What an awesome idea! 

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This indolent cat was only enticed to let me scratch his chin when I offered a bribe of fish (the head).  It grabbed the tidbit and took off without so much as a ‘miaowed‘ thanks.   It really should have been grateful as after all I like sucking the juice out of a good fish head.  Yes, I do.  

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Enjoying my delicious barbecued ‘dorade‘ (sea bream) I noticed this most beautiful sight.  A young girl, maybe ten years old,  was having the time of her life exercising her horse with a swim.  On the beach they cantered away with her showing off great style.

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Considering there was no way to get there except via a very narrow and dangerous climb from way above, I wondered how they got there and where they bunked?  One thing I can aver about Corsica there was always something a little out of the ordinary to be discovered on a daily basis.  

P1110944Notice above the remnants of a fort harking back to the days when Genoa a powerful and independent city-state controlled Corsica by building over one hundred  forts around the entire island.   Below, a closer look and the cacti cover where I was startled by a rather large, green and yellowish snake slithering off a sun-drenched rock.  Few creatures make my skin crawl more than snakes that on the whole mind their own business.   Later I learned it was not venomous although the bite was painful – good not to have found out personally.  

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What turned out to be my delicious lunch is held in the man’s hand.  An avid fisherman myself I ran down to the dock to see what he had and sure enough he was delighted with an unusually big catch of ‘dorade‘.  And, no kidding, he took that one in his hand, the biggest one to the restaurant along with the rest of his catch, with me helping to carry the box (and stay very close) and we made sure that one was mine, all mine!  I’ve never met a fisherman yet I didn’t find ‘très sympa‘. 

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Finally the day came when I decided at long last to take a look  at  Bonifacio at the far southern tip of the island.  That meant giving up my splendid accommodations in Algajola but there’s an end to all good things, right?  I drove slowly to enjoy every bit of the scenery and slept one more night in a fine resort hotel.  As I mentioned tourists were scarce and I got my choice (balcony and great seaside view) for less than half the high season rate.   As is my standard modus operandi I chatted with the hotel staff, at the front desk and in the restaurant and one of them told me since I was the curious type to check out a mysterious site, one few people heard about and with not much information regarding its past.  Well, that was rather enticing and so early next morning with a sketched map to guide me I ventured out.  In 20 minutes or so I found what I was looking for.   The photo was taken in a misty low light and mist still hovering above what I took to be an area with some large rocks.  The result isn’t very good but one gets the idea.  

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I’ll admit again that I experienced more back of the neck chills in Corsica than anywhere else.  I had left the car some ten minutes down the road and walking along a narrow, hedged lane was a little lugubrious.  An owl hooted, so help me, and at about the same time a huge hare jumped out in front of my feet.   MAMA!  A double whammy!  But I wasn’t to be scared off, right? I kept on until I noticed a small clearing and what at first I took to be large rocks.  No, what I found were ancient man-made stone carvings.   When I returned to the hotel for my breakfast I was told no one had an explanation other than it was thought by a local amateur archeologist to be at least 5000 years old and no one knew where the people had come from.  I wonder if there’s since been more information discovered? I’ll need to do some research on that subject.   I did see something akin in Bretagne but what would druids be doing in Corsica? But on the other hand why not?  The menhirs were if nothing else totally at home in this isolated meadow.

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Years later, working on this post, thanks to the wonders of search sites I discovered the following: Filitosa is a megalithic site the period ranging from the end of the Neolithic era and the beginning of the Bronze Age until around the Roman occupation of Corsica.    Would I have been more satisfied then to know what I know now? I doubt it very much.  I enjoyed the mystery much more and one good reason that at times we should leave the shroud of secrecy keep things interesting.  Don’t you think? 

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Finally made it to Bonifacio but for the first time the weather didn’t cooperate – it was a foggy and rainy day hardly suited for taking good photos.  I spent but a very few hours walking around but in particular going to the port with the idea I might take a ferry over to Sardinia across a narrow passage.  For once I passed on a spur of the moment idea and finally headed for Bastia where I’d catch a ferry across to  Liverno, Italy.   Bonifacio is spectacular from any angle.  Here I took a tour boat so I could see as much as I could, as fast as I could since I had decided to move on to Bastia as I couldn’t make myself leave without a hard self-administerd kick in the butt.  The usual fortress at the highest point of a town anywhere in Corsica.

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Seen from a different angle around the cliffside along with impossibly built homes that might be more suited to cliff-dwelling birds.  

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I had to repulse the idea of boarding a ferry to Sardinia clearly seen from the boat’s deck.  Once again, it became another self-made promise that has yet to be honoured but it may yet happen when I do make my return to Corsica.    Reluctantly I headed out and yet again was totally thrilled with more splendid vistas succeeding one after the other that I kept leaping out the car and taking yet another photo.  I won’t bother with telling you where other than it was heading north towards the eastern coastline.  

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Finally, I made it to Bastia, straight on to the Italy bound ferry and went on to enjoy more of the splendid country I never get tired to visit.

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I leave you and Corsica with this popular photo of the ‘kissing rocks’ (Golfe de Porto) as a friendly ‘aurevoir‘ and hopefully you’ll get the urge to go see for yourself.  You’ll love every moment of your stay, the outstanding photo ops you won’t get anywhere else in such profusion and interacting with the fiercely proud yet friendly local population.  You have my personal  guarantee.

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8 responses to “Corsica – Island of Beauty

  1. Thanks for the wonderful trip even though it was vicarious. Looks like a spectacular place with fascinating and proud people.

    • As I looked through my slides I was reminded how unrelentingly spectacular each kilometre was that I drove through an essentially wild country. It’s no wonder the ‘maquis’ traditionally harboured the fugitive from the law to stay free indefinitely until they’d get fed up with the loneliness and finally surrender. Incidentally, ‘maquisard’ was the name chosen by the French underground during WWII and you can imagine the reason. Corsicans have a mixed reputation on the mainland (famous and fierce gangsters for example) but at home they are always friendly and generous. Thanks as always for the generous praise.

  2. Omg what a tremendous suspense story. At the same time so inviting and different. Your photos as always are priceless…such as the mystic rock monster, the unique pine tree and all. I love all your photos. Another adventure that you made so enticing. It was nice to mention your friend Jean. Thank you merci for another cultural voyage..

    • Comme toujours un grand merci pour les compliments qui ne sont presque pas mérités si non, un tout petit peu, n’est ce pas? The more I looked at the slides the more I recalled the sceney was so spectacular that one almost ran the risk to start taking it for granted. Oh, hum … another fabulous view. Oops, almost missed the curve … OY!

  3. John, this is such a nice story! But don’t you think some of the photos are not quite up to the usual standard? I really like the warmth of these photos, though. Anyhow you got me interested in Corsica now. I’d definitely love to go one of these days!

    • As a writer I’m pleased to read you enjoyed the tale of my adventures through spectacular Corsica. As for the photos I agree some of them lack quality but I explained in the previous post these were taken from slides I projected and then used my digital camera to photograph. The results were at best mixed, from adequate to poor, as you point out. I’ll take another look and I agree there are a least two or three for which I may find a better substitute. As for the chance encounter with the ibex, it’s now such a rare creature in the wild I was fortunate to get what I did and so I can’t change even if I wished to do so. In the event you should go to Corsica I’m sure you’ll enjoy every moment of your stay.

  4. This is one terrific story on Corsica. Too bad you did not see Sardinia because it is one of the islands I have wanted to explore one of these days.

    • Of course I would have dearly loved to cross over to Sardinia and I was very much tempted but then where would I stop? Once there, why not go on to Sicily, hence up the lower boot into the heart of the mainland. And there is the problem, too much to see with not enough time (although that particular trip I offered myself three glorious months) and money is always a consideration. Ferry travel with a car is generally expensive especially traveling alone one can’t divide the cost by two. I’m glad you enjoyed Corsica and somehow I think I did the better one of the three possibles, especially since I speak French whereas my Italian is only adequate, at best. I think you’ll enjoy Pisa and Florence up coming next. Thanks for being a good follower and I do appreciate your comments very much.

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