Treasure island – Why lovers of the outdoors should head to Corsica
With mountains making up two-thirds of its landmass, a stunning coastline and a rich diversity of habitats, there is little wonder that Corsica is such a magnet for lovers of the outdoors, writes Michael Cowton
I AM IN Homer’s ‘lair of the fearsome Laestrygonians’, gazing out to sea from ancient ramparts perched high above the glistening Mediterranean. Far below my vantage point on a limestone plateau, the waters have carved the rocks into honeycombed grottoes. A mere twelve kilometres from Sardinia, it is an otherworldly scene, although I have yet to encounter any of the man-eating giants that so plagued Odysseus and were responsible for destroying his fleet.
Nestled in an isolated position on the southern tip of Corsica, Bonifacio is the island’s oldest town and much celebrated as one of the most spectacular in this part of Europe. Its rich and diverse history can be traced back to 828AD when a castle was first built on the peninsula. Coveted by various powers over the centuries, with the French, the Turks and the Genoese all having laid claim to the town, it lingered in general prosperity until the late 18th century when the French once more gained control of the island. Bonifacio was to experience a commercial decline, only marginally stabilised year-on-year by the influx of tourism.
A natural harbour plays host to visiting yachts, and whilst the sheltered port area is a popular draw for visitors, content to linger in the cafés and watch the comings and goings, the quieter fortified Haute Ville old town has a haunting quality all of its own. An extraordinary diaspora of slowly crumbling architecture and faded glory, I sensed a melancholic air as I wandered through the fascinating warren of narrow streets. I found it almost too easy to slip into the sleepy rhythm of the place as I sat with a coffee and reflected on my extraordinary surroundings.
Corsica presents a mix of old world and stylish, bustling coastal towns, dense vegetation, magnificent forestry and craggy mountain peaks, all cross-crossed by hiking trails such as the infamous GR20, a challenge too far for many a seasoned walker.
Spending my first night in Bonifacio, I was booked into the Hotel Santateresa. A former military barracks, the hotel has been renovated in modernist fashion. Situated in a prominent position at the end of the peninsula overlooking the Strait of Bonifacio, the hotel is close by the Marine Cemetery, a windswept, ghostly place of elaborate mausoleums, and recognised as being the second most beautiful of all Mediterranean cemeteries.
For dinner, I was hoping for Corsican authenticity, and decided to chance my luck at La Bodega in the Haute Ville, a small, intimate restaurant in the heart of the medieval town’s ramparts. The compact, convivial dining room comprised a tight cluster of rustic tables seating a maximum of eighteen diners. I arrived at 7.30pm to find that I was the first through the door. By 8pm, the cosy place was full. Bonifacio is distinctly more Italian than French in atmosphere, and much of that influence translates to its food. La Bodega’s menu is limited, but judging by the comments from my fellow diners, the quality of the dishes served was second-to-none. With wild boar being one of the island’s specialities, I looked for Sanglier on the list. And there it was, served in the form of a stew on a bed of tagliatelle. The friendly owner suggested a local beer to go with the meal, and after I had cleared my plate, he brought me a complimentary chestnut-based liqueur. I found out later that had I arrived the following evening, the restaurant would have been closed for the season.
The next morning I had arranged to link up with two representatives from Corsica Aventure in the village of Tizzano, a journey of around an hour-and-a-half by car along a twisting mountain road, which in part hugged the coast in bursts of eye-catching splendour. Missing the D84 turn to Tizzano, a few minutes later and I found myself in Sartène. By all accounts the ‘most Corsican of Corsica’s towns’, it was founded in the 10th century and is steeped in tradition. Set high on a steep hillside, the multi-storey townhouses appear as if to be hanging on for dear life, much as did the inhabitants of old. For, back in the early 19th century, internal vendettas were rife, and the warring families bricked up windows for fear of attack, whilst guards patrolled the labyrinthine passageways. In the Place de la Liberation, the Eglise Saint-Marie church is where the warring factions eventually signed a peace treaty. The fortress-type houses can still be seen today. Whilst you may be eager to seek an authentic Corsican experience, Sartène remains off the commercial tourist trail.
TIZZANO TO PHARE DE SENETOSA
I met up with Sarah and Nicola from Corsica Aventure slightly later than planned. Our objective was to walk to Phare de Senetosa, the most remote lighthouse on the island. We drove along a dirt track towards the scenic sandy cove of Cala di Barcaju a distance of around 3km. Parking the car, we set off on foot along one of Corsica’s wildest and, as it transpired, most scenic coastal stretches, for a further 6km.
The path, which is waymarked by the occasional small cairn and small rocks daubed with yellow fluorescent paint, cuts through the maquis, over extraordinarily shaped granite outcrops and past secluded beaches, strung out like pearls along the Mediterranean.
Corsica boasts a rich and contrasted flora, with thickets known as the maquis covering forty per cent of the island. Dense, fragrant, prickly and invasive, the maquis colonises abandoned land, and is particularly prevalent along the coastline, where, apart from a combination of exotic and wild flora, you will also find garrigue, a low, soft-leaved scrubland ecosystem and plant community, which thrives on the moderated Mediterranean climate’s annual summer drought, and is also prevalent in forests and woodlands on the island.
Part way through the walk we caught our first glimpse of the lighthouse, a mere dot on the end of Cape Senetosa, and standing sentry atop a hill to its right, a 17th century Genoese watchtower.
We arrived at our destination after a good two-and-a half-hour leg stretch, with a couple of interludes in between for a snack break and swim. The lighthouse is an extraordinary stone structure, with two turrets framing the main building, which itself houses a small museum with artefacts including an original radio transmitter, diver’s helmet and a selection of historical images. The lighthouse, whose piercing beam of light continues to penetrate the night sky 22km out to sea, is used as a seasonal refuge by hikers, its spectacular surroundings a protected reserve guarded by the Conservatoire du Littoral and a team of guardians that maintain the accommodation blocks, refectory, kitchen and sanitation, and the general upkeep of the buildings.
Nicola had carried in our pasta-based evening meal, along with bread, cheese and paté, and the meal was prepared in the fully equipped kitchen, complete with plates, glasses and cutlery. We purchased two 50cl pitchers of local red wine at €6,5 each to accompany the dinner, which was enjoyed at one of two long refectory tables.
With water being scarce and pretty much undrinkable due to the heavy chlorination, it is possible to purchase bottled water at €3,50 for 1.5 litres. Other drinks available for purchase include coke and orangina at €3, a Pietra beer costing €5, and a small coffee is €1,50. There are male and female shower rooms, with vouchers costing €3 for two, with hot water available for a fixed time. Whilst it is important to travel as light as possible, most items need to be carried for an overnight stop, although sleeping bags and liners are made available.
The following morning after an early breakfast we decided to hike up to the Genoese tower, which involved a pleasant walk through a wooded area and a short scramble over boulders to the crest.
Having enjoyed the return walk to the car, that afternoon I drove high into the Alta Rocca mountains. I was overnighting in Zonza. At an altitude of 800 metres, the quaint granite village includes buildings dating back to the 17th century. I arrived early. With no one at reception at the Hôtel Clair de Lune, I left my bags in the hire car and walked up the hill to the centre of the village. Clustered together was no shortage of bars and restaurants. The wooden terrace at the Auberge de Sanglier overlooks the village square and offers panoramic views across the mountains, whereby the Restaurant de l’incudine is known for its homemade Corsican dishes and desserts. I opted to try a Corsican pizza at Hôtel Restaurant L’Aiglon, and was not disappointed.
My target the next morning was the Col de Bavella, a high mountain pass at the southern end of the mountain chain, which crosses the island. The Col de Bavella is overlooked by the silhouette of one of the most stunning landscape features of Corsica, namely les Aiguilles de Bavella (Bavella needles). I breakfasted early in order to make the most of the morning, and I arrived at the dedicated parking area in swirling low cloud, as rain hammered on the car roof. I could see precisely nothing. I sat and waited, and waited, and waited, such is the lot of a photographer. After two-and-a-half hours, I decided to drive a short distance back towards Zonza, intent on pulling in at one of the roadside viewing points I had passed on my drive up from the village.
As the rain started to ease off, I grabbed my cameras ready to capture a few images, whilst the distant peaks played a game of peek-a-boo through the swiftly moving clouds. Finger poised, and the rain started to pelt down once again, so I retreated to the car, more intent than ever not to give up. After a further half-an-hour, there was a brief window in the weather, long enough for me to fire off a few shots of the needles. Well, in all honesty, I presumed they were the needles. I might have been completely wrong, because, believe me, it was pretty much impossible to make sense of any signage in driving rain and viewed through fogged-up spectacles.
Three hours of the morning gone, and I decided to head back down through Zonza. The village had woken up by this time. The shutters were rolled back on the local Spar, and the bar where I had sat the previous evening and enjoyed a couple of beers with the FT Weekend Life & Arts spread out in front of me, was once again entertaining a couple of locals. During my sojourn at the bar I had unintentionally caught the attention of an elderly chap who had walked, nay, stumbled in, clearly inebriated and happy to lock on to any poor soul daft enough to catch his eye. I had no idea what he was gabbling on about, but the others in the bar clearly knew him and where happy to engage the gentleman in conversation, once he had grown bored with my company. I had wanted an insight into rural Corsican village life, and I had certainly experienced it.
I drove through Zonza and on to Levie, which is also set high in the Alta Rocca and comprises reddish-orange roofed stone houses set against a glorious mountain backdrop. The village is home to the Musée de l’Alta Rocca, which principally offers an insight into Corsican archaeology.
I called into the petrol station just outside Levie, the only one I had seen in the area, and, once having fuelled up, I asked the pleasant lady at reception: ‘Parlez-vous Anglais?” The response, short and sweet, and not entirely unexpected, was “Non.” I then scrambled some semblance of the French language together, asking for directions to Ferme Auberge A Pignata, my final stopover. Clearly impressed with my French, she proceeded to rattle off a stream of sentences. I managed to pick out the fact that I needed to be 4km the other side of the village, to take the Rte des sites Archaeologiques to the right and then hang a left further along the road. Off I drove, and once through the village I stopped and asked a bearded man who was out walking his dog for route clarification. I fired off some faltering French. He smiled, and replied in heavily accented English. Ah well.
Arriving at the auberge, I was immediately taken with the setting, nestling as it was within green oaks and chestnut trees. Guests may make use of an indoor heated swimming pool, hammam, massage room and outdoor solarium. I was shown to a pleasant upstairs room with a private balcony overlooking the grounds, and complete with table and chairs. One of Corsica’s oldest rural inns, the Auberge A Pignata is run by the delightful Rocca Serra family, and offers elegant, modern living spaces, including a restaurant and a pleasant lounge with bar, library books and television.
A PIGNATA TO PUNTA SERRADU
Corsica Aventure had suggested that I take a particular walk from the property, which would afford me panoramic views. The A Pignata to Punta Serradu route covers 1.5 kilometres, with an altitude gain of 600 metres. I left the auberge via the driveway and turned left at the junction with the country lane. Workmen were busy relaying a section of the lane, which I left after approximately 130 metres, turning left just before a wooden pylon with a sign indicating RICCI. The wide track headed steadily uphill through a densely wooded area. Rounding a bend, I found myself on a concrete surface, which ran for a couple of hundred metres. Arriving at a small, isolated single storey stone house, the landscape began to open out and I stopped to take in the views of the Bavella mountain range to my right.
The stony track switchbacked relentlessly uphill. This area had been heavily deforested, and I was soon stepping over the remnants of felled trees. Rounding yet another bend, the track suddenly narrowed to a path and I found myself pushing through wet bracken. I eventually came across a small wooden gate, which I passed through and continued to loop uphill. Watching out for a large green water tank to my right, I turned left. This short section followed a watercourse, which had been dug out to accommodate a water pipe, which I noted was in a state of disrepair. The ground was slippery underfoot, and I stepped carefully across the mud and over stones until I reached a small clearing. The path was completely undefined here, and after being confronted with a dense penetration of undergrowth, instinct told me to retrace my steps and instead angle across to my right. I push upwards through stubborn undergrowth and found the track again, and then realised that I should have continued past the water tank for a few more metres, before following it left and further uphill to a grey steel gate.
I swung the gate open, making sure I closed it behind me, and followed the clearly defined wheel tracks between more bracken. I could just make out the orange roof of a small stone hut with a tall metal mast next to it, and then I was in the clearing, the end of the climb. I made my way to a ringed orientation table, which sat atop a cluster of large boulders. It had taken me about an hour of steady, but relentless climbing to reach the clearing, which was well worth the effort as it afforded stunning views.
Back at the auberge, dinner that evening was nothing short of exceptional, the produce being sourced from the kitchen garden and with the charcuterie handed down through the generations. The starter was a delicious butternut velouté soup, followed by Daube (pain de viande aux champignons), a classic French meatloaf made with ground beef, mushrooms and other ingredients, and served in a terracotta pot. The loaf was accompanied by Cannelloni au brocciu. Corsica’s best-known cheese, brocciu is used in many traditional recipes, and made for an excellent accompaniment to the meatloaf. There then followed a cheese course with fruit and salad, followed by dessert, a homemade citrus ice cream. Traditional, authentic, hearty, rustic, all of that and more about sums up a superb dinner at Auberge A Pignata.
I was only to spend a short time in Corsica, but it proved long enough for me to experience a land of both natural and savage beauty. From its sharply sculpted coastal rock formations, to its scented woodland and sweeping valleys, its coastal towns and mountain villages seemingly suspended in a time warp, and not to forget its charming, hospitable people, the island is packed full of rewards for the visitor seeking outdoor adventure, history or culture. Whatever your pleasure, you will not be disappointed.
WHEN TO GO – Spring and fall are the best times for hiking. It is relatively mild year-round along the coast, but expect more extreme weather at higher elevation, including abundant snowfall in winter
GET ME THERE – Air Corsica offers flights twice a week to Ajaccio, Bastia and Figari from April to October, as well as a newly added weekly route to Calvi from 18 May 2019. The number of flights will increase to ten per week during the peak months of June to September. Prices are £60 one way from London Stansted. For reservations, visit www.aircorsica.com. Corsica has six ferry ports, Ajaccio, Bastia, Calvi, L’Île-Rousse, Porto-Vecchio and Propriano, which can be reached from the French cities of Nice, Marseille and Toulon via Corsica Ferries (www.corsica-ferries.co.uk) and Moby Lines (www.mobylines.com), and Italian ports of Genoa, Livorno and Savona
GETTING AROUND – The most convenient way to travel is by car rental, with vehicles available from major carriers at the airports. The main roads are good, but some mountain roads are winding and require care. EU driving licences are valid. Buses are an alternative form of transport, although routes between the larger centres often only have departures once or twice a day, and less frequently in remote areas. The island’s ‘U Trinighellu’ (little train) operates along a principal line, which crosses the mountains from Ajaccio to Bastia via Corte
CASHING IN – The official currency is the Euro. There are few ATMs in rural areas, and many establishments, including chambres d’hôtes, do not accept credit cards, so make sure to stock up on ready cash before you leave the larger towns
EATING OUT – Corsica’s cuisine sits somewhere between French and Italian, with an earthy style of food, which is distinctly Corsican. Wild boar is the island’s most celebrated dish, so look out for ‘sanglier’ on the menu. Pork is also common, and meat dishes, many of which are stews, are often served with pasta or polenta, made of chestnut flour
Restaurant La Bodega, 1 Avenue de la Carotola, 20169 Bonifacio. Tel: +33 (0)6 73 75 94 70
WAKE UP HERE
Hôtel Santateresa, Quartier Saint-François, 20169 Bonifacio, T: +33 (0)4 95 73 11 32, E: email@example.com, W; www.hotel-santateresa.com
OUTFITTER – Corsica Aventure, 2 Boulevard Masseria, 20000 Ajaccio, T: +33 (0)4 95 50 44 08, E: firstname.lastname@example.org, W: www.corsica-aventure.com/gb. Offers a range of active holidays for self-guided walkers, including the GR20, as well as a choice of walks with a local guide. English spoken
MAP – IGN PDF MAP scale is 1:25,000 / 1cm=250m. Corsica Adventure alerted the author to the useful app IphiGeNie, which shows IGN topgraphic maps and localised GPS positioning
READING MATTER – Lonely Planet Corsica; DK Eyewitness Travel Guide to Corsica; The Rough Guide to Corsica
ADD-ONS – www.go-to-corsica.com
- Main image | Looking towards Phare de Senetosa on the walk from Tizzano | All images © Michael Cowton/Essential Journeys