Southern belle

Elizabeth Thorold explores the sun-soaked south of Corsica in the first of a two-part tour of the island

As we sat on the restaurant’s terrace high up in the mountains in Zonza, in the heart of southern Corsica, the chatter of French voices mingled with the sounds of the evening birdsong. We each had a huge plate laden with slices of delicious-looking home-produced charcuterie and were drinking in the panoramic views of the mountains that surrounded us; soaring craggy peaks backlit by a gently lowering sun. Only a few hours earlier, we had eaten our lunch on warm white sands that met clear turquoise waters near Propriano on the west coast of the island; with such breathtaking natural beauty, it is not hard to see why the discerning French choose Corsica for their holidays. The island is just 183km long and 83km wide and offers some 1,047km of coastline from rocky headlands and sheer water-carved cliffs to tranquil azure bays and long, long stretches of pristine beach. As the most mountainous of all of the Mediterranean islands, Corsica’s highest peak, Monte Cinto at 2,706m high, is just 25km from the coast and the mountainous interior is easily as spectacular to explore.Ferries run regularly from the C�te d’Azur so you will see plenty of French mainland registrations on the roads but now with easyJet flying in to three of the island’s airports, it won’t be too long before Brits discover this jewel of the Med too. It was our first time in Corsica and, having flown into Ajaccio, we decided to concentrate our efforts on the southern half of the island to start with. We arrived in the mountain village of Zonza halfway through our exploration of the south and found it a tiny bustling hub of activity right in the middle of the southern of Corsica’s two departments, Corse-du-Sud. Pretty much equidistant from both the east and west coasts, it is hard to believe that this picturesque little granite village is just some 40km away from the warm lapping shores of the Med.

Mountain magicFor all the Mediterranean’s attractions – and Corsica’s beaches are exactly what you would want from an island paradise – the Corsicans however are mountain folk and Zonza encapsulates this perfectly. In the past, native islanders were forced into the formidable mountainous interior as Corsica was subjected to waves of Genoan, Pisan and French rule. Tight-knit communities stoically continued through centuries of upheaval and attack and whether it’s food or family, the mountain ways have been preserved even today. As the elderly sparky Monsieur Pietri served our second course, the local speciality Corsican cheese cannelloni, he pointed out with a fierce local pride that no, he wasn’t from Zonza, rather he was from a village 5km away – which apparently is quite a different matter.Zonza is a great base from which to explore the southern interior, and its concentration of family hotels, chambres d’h�tes and restaurants are popular with walkers as well as motorists. There are some spectacular waymarked walks to be done in the Alta Rocca, as it is known, and the fact that the famous GR20, a notoriously demanding grande randonn�e, passes by here is testament to that. However, there are walks for all levels and abilities and you don’t need any specialist kit other than plenty of water and sunscreen. For the less active, a visit by car to the nearby Col de Bavella to gaze upon the immense mountain ridge is also a must; a short drive from Zonza itself, the needles’ of Bavella rise up to cut through the landscape. At the pass, a snow white statue of Notre-Dame-des-Neiges perches on a pile of granite stones with candles and votive plaques at her feet, looking over some of the best views on the island.

Narrow streetsLanding in Ajaccio some days earlier, we picked up a hire car – essential in order to get the most out of this island. Just a short distance away from the airport, we found ourselves driving along palm-tree and mimosa-lined boulevards with the port to one side and apricot-coloured town houses on the other.Like most of Corsica’s towns and cities, a citadel dominates a strategic promontory and Ajaccio is no exception. In Ajaccio’s case however, the military are still there and so visitors have only selected days when they can take a look. The old town that overflows out of it though is a lovely network of narrow streets and tucked away on the Rue Bonaparte you’ll find Maison Bonaparte. This, the Bonaparte familial home where Napoleon I was born, is now a museum – but it has to be said that there is something of a mixed reaction to his legacy to the island. In Corsican history, Napoleon is portrayed as something of a self-serving Frenchman who betrayed the island by annexing it to France. His presence cannot be ignored whatever the argument, but outside of Ajaccio there is little celebration of him and other names such as Pascal Paoli, the eighteenth-century spearhead of Corsican independence, take precedence.Today Ajaccio is the island’s capital and the seat of the French government in Corsica and we weaved our way through its bustling market on the Place du March� before exploring further. The market is an Ajaccien institution and baskets are filled with the usual fresh fruit and vegetables alongside Corsican cheese, charcuterie, honey, jams and sweet Muscat wine before heading to the fish market that has the morning’s catch on sale. The tourist office is on the same square and the compact size of the town means you can easily find your way to the principal sights such as the Mus�e Fesch that houses a fine collection of art or down to the equally fine beaches. Reasonably priced accommodation is somewhat scarce in Ajaccio so if you’re going to splash out, you might as well do it here. We checked into Cala di Sole on the Route des Sanguinaires and enjoyed a fabulous sea view and beachside restaurant as well as a dip on what felt like our own private beach. From Ajaccio, the north coast has to be explored and a trip to Porto via the pretty towns of Sagone, Carg�se and Piana makes for a good itinerary. Porto is near the northern border of Corse du Sud and it is a great departure point for discovering the natural wonders that lie either side of the port. To the north of Porto, the R�serve Naturelle de Scandola can be explored by boat. As a protected site, no hiking, fishing or swimming is allowed; however, a guided boat tour highlights the best of this red granite cliff-scape – a haven for natural wildlife and marine life. We also made a stop at Girolata, a tiny place only accessible by boat or on foot, which still has a handful of permanent residents. The quiet port enjoys a simple life based on fishing and welcoming the daily tourists, like us, who dock for a fleeting half hour.To the south of Porto, Les Calanches is the name given to the vast chaotic mass of eroded granite pinnacles whose reddy-orange, sun-soaked hues are set off perfectly by an azure sea. There are several well-signed walking routes and in just a short time we took in dappled forest and high open vertiginous paths that afforded superb views and a rainbow of colour.

Prehistoric timesLeaving Ajaccio, we headed south and quite apart from the paradise beaches, the next stop has to be the extraordinary prehistoric site at Filitosa. When Charles-Antoine Cesari unearthed several statue-menhirs on his farmland in 1946, he enlisted the help of archaeologist Roger Grosjean who then undertook a systematic dig. The results are the Station Pr�historique de Filitosa and a tour of these ancient stones is quite an experience; atmospheric music is piped out as you make your way round 8,000 years of mystery and history’ and while a lot of the menhirs’ significance remains a mystery, there certainly is an impressive sense of time and space to the site.Further south again is the town of Sart�ne, described by French dramatist and historian Prosper M�rim�e as the most Corsican of all Corsican towns. The medieval heart of the old town is characterised by narrow alleyways leading off the main square that are dotted with boutiques selling Corsican specialities from charcuterie to confiture and the town’s museum of prehistory further expands upon Filitosa’s finds.From here, our route took us inland along the winding D268 to Zonza. The route is punctuated by perched granite villages: Ste-Lucie-de-Tallano is known for its olive oil – a visit and tasting at one of the local producers is a must – while Levie is ideally situated for a gentle walk out to yet more prehistoric sites, Cucuruzzu and Capula. The latter are Bronze Age settlements found in among gnarled twisted ancient trees and further evidence of Corsica’s fascinating ancient heritage.Leaving Zonza the other way, heading southeast, our next port of call was Porto-Vecchio. As the Corsican dialect tends to cut the last syllables, you will more likely hear it referred to as Porto Vecch’, and it is a chic resort with a pretty old town on the east coast of the island. While a morning spent exploring the leafy main church square and the boutiques of the citadel would be time well spent, Porto Vecchio is also popular for its proximity to glorious beaches. Notably, the white sands of Palombaggia and the gulf of Sta-Giulia are packed in the peak tourist months of July and August but much quieter during the rest of the year.

Italian influencesOur final stop in Corse du Sud was the southernmost tip of the island, Bonifacio. The town’s idyllic marina is lined on one side with dazzling untouched white limestone cliffs and on the other with the haute ville, the old town that rises seamlessly from the narrow steep promontory and that is topped off with a perched citadel and marine cemetery.Tastefully furnished bars and restaurants line the quay and to lunch there is wonderful as the midday heat is tempered by the cool breeze coming off the water. Looking up at the old town and then out across the water makes it hard to choose which bit to discover first but we went with a climb up into town before a boat trip out of the harbour. Bonifacio’s architecture is distinctly Italian to the untrained eye and there is much evidence of centuries of self-defence whether against pirates, Genoa, France or anyone else. The tall skinny town houses were once only accessible by ladder but have now been replaced by steep narrow staircases. Similarly, if you look up, buttresses connect houses to adjoining houses and lead to the church. This was a device to harvest rainwater stored in a reservoir under the church porch that meant Bonifaciens had access to drinking water in times of siege or drought.The marine cemetery is also worth a visit. So-called for its position on the furthest tip of the promontory rather than after its inhabitants, the cemetery is a fine example of familial tombs that you will see all over Corsica. Respecting the Genoese tradition of keeping the dead in tombs above ground rather than burying them underground, the south-facing prime spot of the cemetery indicates the reverence in which the dead are held.Bonifacio’s port has been lauded throughout the ages so a boat trip is a great treat if you’re here. We took one of the many ferry trips out of the harbour to explore the coast; all around the limestone cliffs have been sculpted by the sea to make magically lit caves or lone spits. Viewed from the sea, Bonifacio is perhaps even more impressive and the high town houses that edge the haute ville look dangerously precarious seen from below. Southern Corsica has a wild rusticity to it with the odd dash of Riviera chic but has remained remarkably underdeveloped. This too is a precarious position and long may the cautious planning and over-zealous protection remain to maintain this careful balance. Now it just remained to be seen if the north was as captivating as Corsica’s seductive south… Fact fileAll you need to know to plan your tripWHERE TO STAY H�tel l’Incudine20124 Zonzawww.hotel-incudine.com

H�tel Cala di SoleRoute des Sanguinaires20000 Ajacciowww.caladisole.fr

WHERE TO eat Restaurant la Terrasse20124 Zonzawww.hotel-laterrasse.fr

WHAT TO DOStation Pr�historique de Filitosa20140 Petreto-Bicchisanowww.filitosa.fr