This blog was originally published on Travelblog.org in August 2006. Maybe it’s because not many English-speakers visit Corsica – and only a handful of these few write about it – that there have been more than 700 views of this blog to date. This was an especially unique wandering…giving me a tiny glimpse into a very intriguing culture.
The impetus for me to wander to Corsica was to meet my four month old “nephew”, Paul, the first child of our close friends, Baptiste and Vanessa, who live near Paris. Vanessa had been an exchange student of ours nine years ago. Over the past decade, our bond has deepened and we are committed to visiting each other at least once a year – either in the U.S. or France. Two years ago, Lance and I were honored to be a part of their wedding ceremony and this summer I was thrilled to be asked to join them on their family holiday in Corsica. I savored each one of the five days spent with them on this spirited island…
Corsica is one of three islands – Sardinia, Sicily and Corsica – in the Mediterranean Sea that have been absorbed by a larger country, but remains fiercely loyal to their own culture. The Corsicans are disgruntled, to put it mildly, to have been claimed by France. By the time our plane prepared to land, Baptiste and Vanessa had filled me in on the rebelliousness of these reluctant French citizens. They advertise their feelings in numerous ways…
The Corsican symbol, a profile of a defiant man with a sash tied around his forehead, can be spotted on signs, beverage containers, clothing, etc.. Each road sign has two versions of the town or street name – the French and the Corsican, which more resembles Italian. Almost all of the French names have been obliterated by spray paint or bullet holes, while the Corsican names are curiously unscathed. New construction that has not been “approved” by the locals mysteriously burns down overnight, the fire put out quickly before it can damage any Corsican-owned property. I saw more firemen on this small island in five days than I have ever seen at home in a city with over a million residents, making me wonder about their true relationship with fire. There is something to be said about this fierce protection of a culture…there are no McDonald’s, no buildings higher than four stories, no hordes of tourists, nothing much at all from the modern world. Corsica is a breath of pleasantly outdated air.
Nature, not artifact, is the prime attraction of Corsica. The landscape is analogous to the spirit of the people…domineering, rocky, and untamed. The vivid turquoise sea collides with a coastline alternating between jagged rocks and small white sand beaches. As you proceed inland, sage green flowering scrub, known locally as ‘le maquis’, and low level trees (usually olive) grow among the auburn colored rocks. The terrain in the interior of the island is comprised of steep mountains cut with narrow winding roads providing access to the occasional old-world village.
Just after we arrived, we stopped for lunch on the harbor in the seaside village of St. Florent (San Fiurenzu to the Corsicans). Ahhh, back in the land of delectable ‘moule’ (mussels), served here in a bowl the size of a small tub filled to the brim with a savory broth.
Our home for the next five nights was near the town of L’lle Rousse (Isula Rossa) in a small two-star family-style auberge named Les Mouettes (“The Seagulls”). Here ‘family-style’ really means ‘family-style’…the owner’s living room (complete with couches and a television), kitchen and dining area were situated in the middle of the reception area. The accommodations, which include several basic rooms lining a long hallway, a garden area set with tables, and a small pool, were quiet during the day and evening, but not very conducive to recovering from jet lag during those precious wee morning hours. Every footstep across the terra cotta floor tiles, door creak, and spoken word is amplified through the thin walls.
I spent the first afternoon in the garden bonding with Paul, re-bonding with my extended French family after a lengthy absence, and disturbing two year old Louise (cousin to Baby Paul), who claimed ownership of all her family members and refused to share them with a stranger that spoke in tongues. That evening, we enjoyed a traditional Corsican dinner, served family-style, at Auberge de Tesa. The food was amazing and restored my faith in Corsican cuisine that had been lost two years ago after gagging over “double figatelli” (grilled salami) in Cannes. We sipped a sparkling peach aperitif, spread a variety of tapenades on fresh baked bread, decided not to ponder the ingredients of a delicious hearty stew, savored magret de canard (“fatty duck” – one of my favorite French delicacies), tasted several Corsican fromages, and blissfully dipped fresh fruit into the darkest of chocolate fondants.
My internal clock had completely shut down. In the mornings, I slept soundly until someone politely knocked on my door as lunchtime approached. Strong French coffee sipped under the trees of L’lle Rousse’s central plaza jerked me back to life. Live classical guitarists, who I found out were Polish (where I was headed in a few weeks to search for family with my father), turned this plaza into one of the most perfect places on the planet.
My good weather karma failed me for the second time in all my travels – another message that the Corsicans submit to no one. On the second day on the island, a gusty wind began to blow that would not cease until the day we left. The sea emptied itself of boats and jet skis, but the determined mainlanders (most of whom were from the north of France and desperate for a glimpse of the sun) anchored down their beach towels and chased their umbrellas, refusing to relinquish a single day at the beach.
After a couple of days, the wind prevailed and drove us into the mountains. As the elevation swiftly increased, clusters of strange hairy hides began to appear on the barbed wire fences lining the road. We couldn’t resist the urge to investigate. They were dead sangliers, the local wild boar that we had been eating regularly since our arrival..grotesque desiccated heads attached to stiffened bristly hides. Was this where the Corsicans traditionally dried carcasses or was it yet another subtle Corsican warning? As we continued up the road, Baptiste pointed out all the gravestones in the back yards…even the Corsicans who had passed on maintained their strong family ties and fierce independence. We passed by or through several quaint old villages – including Belgude and Pigna - finally stopping for lunch at 3:30 p.m. (!) in St. Antonine. The feast began with fresh squeezed grapefruit juice, followed by chevre salad sprinkled with superb bacon and dried figs, and charcuterie with an assortment of Corsican saucisson (including un-grilled figatelli, which wasn’t much better than grilled), and ended with a perfectly simple chataigne (chestnut) cake.
An evening in Calvi (Calvi…ahhh, one of a few points the French and Corsicans agree upon!) was one of the highlights of the trip. First, a delicious seafood dinner on the beach, followed by a classic French experience peppered with Corsican rebelliousness (to remind everyone they were most definitely not in France). The setting was Tao, a piano bar situated inside one of the city’s former citadels perched above the sea. As we walked through a thick haze of cigarette smoke, we found the perfect seats along the wall directly in front of the piano. The next two hours were filled with old French café music sung, and often improvised, lustily by Tao who encouraged the spirited – and heavily intoxicated – audience to join the chorus. I have yet to find any place in the U.S. where the young so enthusiastically embrace the music of the old…they are missing out!
The next day, the guys took immediate advantage of a brief lull in the wind and rented two jet skis for a quick ride before sunset. They all assured me that it didn’t matter that I left my bathing suit back at the auberge…my underwear passed the “cute test” (a BIG thank God for today’s choice of undergarments!). I was encouraged to strip down and climb aboard the jet ski behind Baptiste. I was a bit confused as I watched Vanessa, who sat behind her brother-in-law, remove her sunglasses and all her jewelry, even her wedding ring. I became a tad concerned when she mouthed “I’m SO sorry!” to me as we zoomed away from shore. The next 20 minutes I never released my death grip on Baptiste as he maxxed the engine and we flew up and over the waves. The fate of my flopping designer sunglasses and cute underwear didn’t even register…the only clear thought I had was how badly I wanted to live.
On the last night, alive but tired, we opted for an early dinner…at 10 p.m. The next day I said goodbye to most of my adopted family – and was honored to receive a kiss from Louise who had consented to having an American “ta ta” (auntie) – and flew back to the beautiful, but gloomy, Paris. We made one indulgent stop before going “home”…at Laduree’s, the creator of the “macaron”. For the next hour, my mouth was graced with violet, caramel with salt, dark chocolate, and coffee – imprinting this place in my memory forever.
Although I don’t get to place a check mark by the Corsican “Calanque” entry in my copy of 1000 Places to See Before You Die, I scratched enough of Corsica’s surface to appreciate its proud spirit and well preserved old-world culture. Most importantly, I relished my time with family…