Dates: May 29 - Jun 4, 2016
Route: Out- Air Corsica from Nice to Figari. Back- Air Corsica from Calvi to Marseilles.
Sitting at Nice airport, I looked with trepidation at the angry skies out over the Mediterranean. We had just finished a lovely few days in Nice, went to the Monte Carlo Grand Prix and were off to Corsica for a week. Never a fan of small planes or flying through storms, I could only imagine what the combination of the two would bring. But, the excitement of finally going to Corsica after years of dreaming about it brought about a level of excitement that partially masked my flying fears.
Lying between France and Italy and being the birthplace of Napoléon, Corsica has a fascinating if turbulent history. Given its strategic position in the western Mediterranean, the island has been conquered, occupied, and liberated many times throughout history. Despite all this, the Corsicans have managed to develop a unique culture that is mostly a mix of Italian and French but also having been influenced from the many invaders such as Genoese, Romans, Greeks, and even the English. But, the Corsican people have always retained a close link to their land and many have retained ownership over hundreds of years. This is also probably why the island is sparsely populated and has relatively escaped the ravages of consumerism and exploitation of capitalism. We did not see a single McDonalds or Starbucks the entire time we were there, even in the larger towns.
A bumpy flight aside, we finally landed in the small, windswept airport in Figari which is in the southern part of the island. Flying into Figari confirmed all we had read which is Corisa is a very diverse island of golden beaches with aquamarine waters on the coast to towering mountains in the center. Locals told us it is possible in places to ski in the morning and swim in the afternoon within an hour’s drive.
Within 20m of landing, we were in our rental car and on our way to the medieval town of Bonifacio. All of the research we had done and pictures we had seen told us that this is the single “must see” place in Corsica. Thought the town dates back to Roman times, it only gained prominence in the 9th century when the Tuscans took it from the Saracens and built a fortress on the high cliffs that look across the sea to nearby Sardinia. The short 30m drive from the airport brought us not to the old town on the cliffs, but the new town by the water where numerous hotels and restaurants are located. We were staying at recently renovated Best Western Hotel du Roy D'Aragon, which retained the shell of the old building from which it was built. Our room had a nice view of the water and all the sailboats that were docked there. After a quick lunch at one of the many restaurants on the water, we set of to see the vieille ville (old town) which was inside a massive citadel that dominated the view from the harbor. The walk up to the entrance was lined with many small shops and restaurants, each unique and local. We could tell right away the pace of life was very slow and we could see many older people simply relaxing on the street or in balconies.
A climb up a steep set of ancient stairs brought us to our first stunning view at the foot of the fortress which was to our right. To our left was an unbroken set of craggy cliffs around a massive bay which ended in the distance at a lighthouse. The early afternoon sun lit the emerald green and turquoise water which had many yellow rocks. It is said that on a clear day you can look across the Strait of Bonifacio to the other beautiful island, Sardinia. A rough path, bounded by a railing, led down to a rocky cove providing some stunning photo opportunities. Having just had lunch, we decided to do the hike to the lighthouse as the trail started where we had come up. We spent around 2hrs getting to the lighthouse which was about 1.5 miles away but offered many stunning views of the waters below and the cliffs all around and hence photo opportunities.
We returned to our hotel after sunset and after a much needed shower and change of clothes, we setoff to find dinner in the old town. After climbing the same stairs and then up the ramp into the fort, we were confronted by what was to be my favorite memory of Bonifacio. As we came into the massive arched entryway into the old town we heard a soft acoustic guitar and I saw for the first time my favorite restaurant here, L'auberge Corse. Dimly lit, rustic, and teeming with locals enjoying a leisurely dinner or local food and wine. We fell in love with the place and did not bother looking elsewhere. The owners were very welcoming and we started out with some local wine and cheese plate. Between my broken French and their basic English, we spent a few hours here chatting to people around us, playing with the owners’ dogs, and being entertained by local musicians. In the “must see” city of Bonifacio, L’auberge is the “must visit” restaurant.
The remaining three days we spent exploring the old town which is perched atop towering cliffs with steep pathways down to the sea. The far end of the old town starts with views of an old, red lighthouse in an inland channel that is the main exit from Bonifacio’s harbor to the sea. The walls of the old fort afford some great vantage points from which to photograph. My favorite is the end of the fort which rises to the tallest point of the cliffs and afford a near 360O view of the sea and cliffs. There is also a panoramic view of the main lighthouse into the channel and the sea around it.
One final thing that all visitors to Bonifacio have to experience is a boat tour of the cliffs, caves, and small bays. We opted for the longer 2hr tour and were richly rewarded with spectacular views of the city from the sea, as has been with most visitors over the centuries long before roads were built. The azure blue of the sea contrasted with the sheer rock cliffs and dotted with shallow emerald bays will afford you many photo/video opportunities. The seas can get quite rough so hang on tight as we saw a girl hit her head while standing up. There is also a large cave inside one of the many islets dotting the cliffs and this is part of the boat tour.
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La plage de Palombaggia, Plage de Rondinara and Santa Giulia
About an hour’s drive north of Bonifacio lie some of the most beautiful beaches I have seen in Europe. It is all the more beautiful given they are mostly deserted since we went in Sep which is after the maddening summer crowds leave. We left early one morning with the idea of seeing all three and then having dinner in the nearby town of Porto Vecchio. While all three are beautiful in their own right, my favorite was Palombaggia. Bordered by a small forest of Jurassic-looking umbrella pines, this is the postcard Corsican beach of fine white sand, turquoise waters, and red rocks. It was a fine day with a few clouds and a strong wind which provided the white caps to the never ending arrival of waves. We spent a few hours wallowing in the shallow waters as life just evaporated away in a daydream. We then walked a half a mile north through the pine-filled woods to an adjoining beach which has a nice beach café and had lunch there. The other two beaches are also beautiful and worth a visit. Santa Giulia also has fairly modern cottages on the beach which we want to go back and stay in during our next visit. We watched the sunset here and then went to Porto Vecchio for dinner. There is nothing remarkable about this town other than the views over the large harbor where cruise ships come in and ferries leave for the Italian mainland. We walked around a bit at the main town square that houses a large church and ended up at a small pizza restaurant that had a lovely garden overlooking the valley below.
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For the second part of our holiday, we wanted to go see the interior and northern part of Corsica. We decided to base ourselves in Calvi as it had an airport and we could book our flight back to the mainland from there. Though it was a shorter drive (3.5hrs) along the west coast, we chose to go via the interior so we could see Ajaccio, the largest town, capital of Corsica and birthplace of Napoleon. We set off from Bonifacio around 10am with a small bit of sadness as we had fallen in love with the city, people, landscape, and beaches. The drive was rather boring with rolling hills and small towns dotting the wayside. We expected this as all our research suggested that the SW interior was unremarkable. We reached Ajaccio by early afternoon and from the outskirts we could tell it was a city we would not like. Ajaccio is the largest port on the west coast and the main harbor was filled with ferries and ships. Driving into town through bad traffic, we saw nothing that struck our fancy. We decided to do a drive through the harbor and cliffs overlooking the sea and made a decision to carry on to Calvi. We drove past the Maison Bonaparte but did not stop.
As we were driving out of town, there was a sudden bump and we heard a sound that felt like there was something stuck to the car and was repeatedly hitting the road. Being the typical guy, I just ignored it and kept driving. Finally, we pulled over to look and discovered a massive screw had decided to embed itself in the back tire. This was not good!! The tire did not appear to be leaking but we still had a 3hr drive through the mountains. Looking around we saw a gas station with a garage but it was closed. Looking at the map, we saw that Ajaccio airport was only 2 miles away and had an Hertz, the company we rented from. Long story short, Hertz were rock stars and gave us a new car despite the liability really being on us to fix flats. They reasoned that since we brought the car to their garage, they could fix it. Kudos for great customer service.
Soon after we left Ajacio in our new car, we entered the proper interior of Corsica. As stunning and warm the beaches are, the mountains stand in stark contrast rivaling ones in the French and Italian alps. As we climbed up mountainous roads, the temperature quickly dropped by 20°F and we even saw fog in places. We drove on for about 1.5 hrs past small farms, villages, and the occasional town center. Around 7pm, we stopped in the small and cozy mountain town of Vivario. There was only one restaurant open inside the warm and welcoming hotel U Campa. It’s towns like this I love because hardly anybody speaks English but are yet friendly. I know enough French to get by and after a lovely dinner of local food we were on our way to Calvi. We did say we would come back one day and spend the night at the lovely hotel as it is in the heart of the mountains and had lots of hiking and exploring to offer just outside.
Calvi and Bastia
We arrived in Calvi a little after 11pm and had no problems getting the key from the front desk of the Saint Erasme hotel. One thing I always do in Europe when arriving late is to call ahead as in many small towns, the attendant is also the owner and they go to sleep. The nice lady had given me the code to the hotel and left the keys for us. We went to sleep right away to the sounds of a storm raging outside. We woke up the next morning to our first cloudy day in Corsica and set off to explore the town and the ancient citadel that it’s known for. Walking up the main drive to the massive entrance gave us progressively better views of the city, the waterfront around the marina below, and the open Ligurian Sea in the distance. We spent most of the day exploring the old city inside the citadel including the Cathedral of Saint-Jean-Baptiste which contains a famous crucifix and other carvings. We ended the day at a lively local pizzeria, chatting away to locals and our waiter. After dinner, we walked along the marina which offered panoramic views of the citadel which is lit at night. After an hour of night photography, we returned to the hotel.
The next few days we spent exploring the region by driving around the northern parts of the island. The coastline here is very mountainous and rugged, with mostly small villages and farms. The drive presented many postcard like photo opportunities including a herd of mountain goats that crossed the nearly deserted road in front of us. The tinkling of the bells mixed with the cold wind blowing down the side of the mountain reminded us that we were no longer in the southern beaches that Corsica is known for. One of the coastal towns worth visiting is Saint-Florent which has a very panoramic harbor and a small fort with the rugged mountains as a backdrop. This is the quintessential “seaside village” that you only need a few hours to see but one that tempts you to settle down in one of the many café along the harbor and order some local wine and cheese and watch life go by. Other than the harbor, there are many small streets and quaint shops to explore in the old town. There is also a long sandy beach along the west coast of the harbor. One point of interest (and a great photo) along the way is the Église San Martinu near the village of Patrimonio. The other one is the monument just as you reach the peak of the mountains and start the descent towards the main town of Bastia.
The last city we visited was the northwestern port of Bastia which was the capital of Corsica until 1811 when Napoleon relocated it to his birthplace, Ajaccio. And like Ajaccio, we did not like the city as we drove in due to the horrible traffic and most of the sea views marred by the large ferries that depart for points in Italy and France. We finally got to the old town and went for a short walk but were not impressed. Bastia reminded us of many older European cities that once held old world charm but over the years succumbed to the ravages of modernization and urban sprawl. We decided to leave and take a more scenic and mountainous route back to Calvi. This was a good decision as we ended up exploring small mountain villages that seemed frozen in time and offered many photo opportunities. We got back to Calvi well after sunset and had our last dinner before we flew to Marseilles in France the next morning.
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