This article follows a first article on Corsica elsewhere on the Associated Content site.
Having explored the clutch of pretty hamlets which make up Canari on Cap Corse my friend and I decided to explore further afield. As I’d already seen the vertiginous and winding Corsican corniche between the small ferry port of Ile Rousse and the house where we were staying, I opted not to drive! We decided to leave Cap Corse and head south and west to the town of Porto. The idea was to visit the Gulf of Porto and the spectacular nature reserve, Scandola. This volcanic coastline is characterised by impressive cliffs, islands and rocky outcrops, dramatically fashioned over aeons by volcanoes, storms, salt, wind and sea. Glass-bottomed boats take tourists on a tour of the coast, showing them the fantastic marine life as well. As well as the buzzards, peregrine falcons, puffins cendrés and cormorants wheeling around the reserve, you get to see a dazzling array of fish and coral in the turquoise seawater.
Fabulous. Except that we never got there. We’d allowed a few hours for the trip to Porto but the road through the mountains, within Cap Corse, was endless. After an hour marvelling at strange volcanic peaks and valleys (with me shrieking from time to time as the car got too close to a sheer drop) the rain started. Not just rain – torrential rain. Rain to end all rains. Apocalyptic rain. It hammered down for hours.
As soon as it stopped the sun came out again. But by then it was clear that going to Porto was an all-day trip. The distance as the crow flies was probably less than 150 miles. But these were Corsican mountain miles and Corsican corniche miles. The going was slow.
We decided to take a boat out from the village of Galeria instead. It was close by and we abandoned the Porto plan. Nothing doing however. This was September, Galeria was a small settlement and the cruise boats were few and far between. We had a picnic on a gorgeously beautiful mountain road and set off on the return journey. At the first corner we came across a goatherd shifting his goats across the road. Around 150, sauntered and cantered by, one large billy goat coming over to nibble at my dress.
On the return journey I noticed how pro-Corsican-nationalist graffiti in the occasional villages we passed through. La Corse serait jamais une maison secondaire. Corsica should never be a holiday home. Or in the Corsican language, Corsu: Terra Corsa a i Corsi. Corsica for the Corsicans. And sometimes just Liberta!
The names of towns and villages are displayed in both French and Corsu and often in Cap Corse the French versions are erased with black paint.
Although Corsican nationalist sentiment is fairly clear, we had quite a sociable time in Canari. My friend, who is French, had met many of the villagers before on previous trips to visit our French friends there. And those friends, the Callonecs, had raised their children in Canari and had bought their home in the village back in the 1970s. We found people perfectly friendly in the bar, the post office, at the baker’s, butcher’s and fishmonger’s vans, at the one hotel and at the lyric music rehearsals taking place in the old church. (Canari hosts a very well respected and attended lyric music festival each September. )
The day after the Porto-trip-that-wasn’t, we explored an abandoned hamlet, Imiza, on a hillside overlooking the sea. The walk up to Imiza was lovely, through wild garrigue with wonderful sea views. The old dilapidated houses were built of dry stone and the heavy grey-green slate so common in Cap Corse. They were clearly hundreds of years old and in total ruin. Built into the rocky hillside or emerging directly from it, they were now just stone and wood gently falling apart. Restanques around the buildings showed that the inhabitants had once grown crops, vegetables at least, in beds that were shored up by the stone walls. There were fig, olive and cherry trees that had become wild and tangled with bushes. A network of short stocky slate paths was weaved between the homes which now had blackberries and other spiky plants growing into and out open doorways.
An old wooden style gave access to what must have been a little herb garden. Crossing it, I noticed a long dark grass snake – a couleuvre – zig-zagging gently away from me.
Life in this hamlet in a previous century must have been a mix of heaven and hell. Heaven for the views and the nature in spring and summer; hell for the hard work involved in subsistence farming high on the hillside, especially in winter with scant comfort. Now, it certainly looked like Paradise Lost.
We ate at the Bon Clocher that evening, the restaurant in Canari’s only hotel. The freshly-caught oven-baked fish was priced by the 100 grams and you ordered it without knowing how heavy your fish would be…. Ours was vastly expensive. More expensive than eating in London or Paris. Which is saying something. Still, it was really excellent. Chapon (or rascasse rouge – scorpion fish) is a Corsican speciality but not a fish I’d eaten before. It’s not handsome – it has a huge head and lives among rocks 500 metres deep in the Mediterranean sea. But it tastes really delicious. It was a real pleasure – even though I was sitting inches away from the lobster tank where one lobster in particular was giving me a pretty dirty look.
The starter was octopus salad and the dessert was a traditional pastizzu – a Corsican flan rather like creme caramel but in pastry. The restaurant was packed, because of the singers and audience for Canari’s annual lyric music festival, and the hotel owner and chef came out to chat several times. “I’m fed up!” the chef said in a good-humoured way. “Too many diners. Too much work! How d’you like the chapon? Isn’t it a great fish?”
That night the whole of Corsica shook with an electric thunderstorm. Outside ‘our’ house we watched lightning playing over the French coast too. It was so enormous I wondered for a moment if there was nuclear war. I understood now why there were two charming tarentes de Mauritanie – chunky little geckos – stuck by their adhesive pads to the ceiling in the kitchen. They’d sought shelter from the storm before we humans realised it was approaching.
In the morning I went out for my douche d’été – hot shower in the garden. (The house was being renovated. The only hot water was via a kitchen tap so we’d rigged up an outside shower with a hosepipe.) Stretching high in the sky from north to south, exactly opposite the house and with both feet in the sea was a huge bright rainbow, perfectly defined against the blue sky. Taking a hot outdoor shower, with small songbirds breakfasting on wild figs in the fig trees around me, with that rainbow arched over the sea, was paradise.
The storm had stirred up the sea though and it was only the following day that we could swim and snorkel again. At a rocky Canari inlet, La Scala, we snorkelled among rocks and coral teeming with bright little fish and sea urchins, keeping a look out for the Mediterranean jelly fish that can deliver serious stings.
A local guy was diving in a wetsuit, with a weight attached to his waist. When he eventually returned to shore he had a few sea bream and some smaller fish. Will you sell them? I asked, thinking of the hotel prices. No, he laughed, I’ll grill them and eat them.
That evening we watched the sun set over the sea, ate Corsican saucisse and drank the (very good, light) local rosé wine. (When you’re in Corsica you drink Corsican wine. The Corsican wine producers know a captive audience when they see one – we didn’t see any non-Corsican wines for sale!)
I thought a bit about the week I’d spent there. I’d been struck by the simple beauty of the homes and hamlets, by the donkeys, cows, cats and dogs who live in these villages almost as members of the community, by the lush green vegetation everywhere, by the incredible narrow twisting ‘corniche’ roads, by the hours it took to go anywhere. You hear Corsu, the Corsican language, but not as much as you hear French. Corsican nationalist sentiment is palpable, and visible in the graffiti and the French village systematically names crossed out. You sense the islanders welcome the tourists’ money but not the tourists. (In Canari, there is a house which had its garden walls rather incompetently blown up some years ago by nationalists because it was a rarely used holiday home.)
But overall you have a sense of Corsican pride – that the Corsican people have a clear identity and love their island. Two ‘neighbours’ there told us the day before we left that they don’t feel at all French even though, legally, they are. “When we go to France” they said “we feel like total foreigners!”
You also get the impression it’s an incredibly close-knit society, particularly in Cap Corse with its 5000 inhabitants who pretty much all know each other. I don’t know for sure but I guess social problems – vandalism, petty crime – are often dealt with by older men in the villages applying a bit of common sense. We’d seen bored-looking soldiers from France’s famous Foreign Legion around the the Cap, but no policemen.
The next morning we locked the house up, put the old iron key – as big as my hand – under a rock by the door and set off for the ferry. Our Corsican Ferries boat would take seven hours to sail back to Toulon on the French coast. Very early that morning I’d been woken up by the distinctive sound of a wild boar snuffling about hoovering up fallen figs. In the dim morning light I’d watched as he scoured the ground efficiently, devouring his free breakfast. You watch out, I thought, or one of the guys in this village will turn you into saucisse.
Those relationships though – between wild boar and wild fig, and Corsican villager and wild boar – seem very natural and very typical of the Corsican way of life and its closeness to nature.
If you like islands, tranquil holidays, lots to explore, the Mediterranean sea, and plenty of unspoilt nature – plus the chance to explore a culture and cuisine that may be unfamiliar – then visit Corsica. It’s hard to imagine that you’d be disappointed.
For Corsican tourism, vacations, travel, hotels and cuisine, click the links below.