Camping in Corsica

Tristan Rutherford enjoyed being close to the water’s edge during a camping trip around Corsica’s coastline

Visitors on the ferries are often met by dolphins a mile or so from shore. Pods 50-strong are known to cavort off Cap Corse near the north-eastern port of Bastia, their slick backs revolving to glisten in the afternoon sun. Entering Ajaccio – Corsica’s other main port, on the western side – ferries will pass the �les Sanguinaires, an archipelago that glows red at dusk. The French painter Henri Matisse painted these islands and the handsome streets of the town where Napol�on Bonaparte was born.

Our particular ferry was heading for Calvi, further up the coast from Ajaccio and claimed by some as the birthplace of Christopher Columbus. Spreading north-eastwards from the port are the island’s most popular attraction: a chain of fine beaches that snake into the distance like a ribbon of white silk.

As my wife and I disembarked by car from the chaotic belly of the ferry, we saw that the passengers were travelling in the same direction. Whether on foot or by bike, by Harley-Davidson or by VW, everyone had a tent in tow. Much of Corsica’s sandy shoreline has National Park status; buildings may be barred a few kilometres from the beach, but there is a heaven-sent campsite behind almost every one.

Fifteen kilometres from Calvi, Algajola Plage provides an easy introduction to the island’s camping scene. The beach itself is a honey-coloured arc of sand, lapped at by a bright blue sea. It has its own railway stop too, served by a superannuated post-war train that chugs along the coast past every isolated cove. Algajola’s aptly named campsite, Camping de la Plage, is another echo of the 1950s. Like many places in Corsica it is cash only. Guests can buy home-made jam in the camp shop for breakfast and eat pizzas baked in a wood-fired oven by night.

Corsica’s campsite prices are caught in a time warp too. In our ten days at five sites in June, we never paid more than €10 per person per day. The island’s beach bars are an ocean away from the ritzy places on the mainland. Guests can emerge from the water to dine at a plastic picnic table without needing to don a pair of loafers or even dry off first. Our welcome dinner on Algajola Plage was a pot of harbour-fresh razor clams followed by steak frites, washed down with a pichet of fiery local wine.

The 600-mile coastline rivals the Balearics in length but the island receives just one-fifth of the visitors, so many beaches offer desert island bliss. Plage de Saleccia, a two-mile stretch on the northern shore, is in the Caribbean castaway class. Although it regularly ranks among the world’s top ten beaches, its secluded location meant that at one time it nearly became off-limits for good; until the 1980s it was considered as a possible nuclear testing site. Thankfully, its reinvention as a National Park has secured its beauty for visitors who make the extra effort to get here.

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Modern-day smuggling

Only 4x4 vehicles can reach such an inaccessible beach as Saleccia by road, but most visitors seem content to take a 15-minute ferry hop from Saint-Florent – Corsica’s glitziest resort – to the nearby Plage de Lotu (or Loto), which has a tropical feel with its succulent plants and palm trees. From there it is a 45-minute walk to Plage de Saleccia along a sandy seaside path that is part of the old sentier des douaniers (the customs officers’ trail), with the occasional padlocked hut and abandoned car seat tucked under a clump of trees serving as a reminder of modern-day smuggling.

Camping U Paradisu – literally Paradise Campsite – is set 300 metres back from the sands at Plage de Saleccia. There was a take-it-or-leave-it attitude about the place, although this was a minor blemish during our ten days of fun. On the beach that doesn’t matter. By mid-afternoon, when day-trippers are hiking back to the ferry at Plage de Lotu, you could hold a football match on the golden sands of Plage de Saleccia and not disturb another sunbather. Beneath the waves, baby sea bass swam around with tropical fish, our best snorkelling experience in the Mediterranean. On an evening stroll up the beach we found happy campers of all ages; candles and bottles of wine propped up in the sand and swimsuits hanging in the bushes after a final dip in the sea, with some swimmers content to dry off in the nude.

Naturism is hugely popular on Corsica. In this sun-kissed haven governed by liberal French mores, the appeal of unzipping your tent and crashing headlong naked into the sea proves too tempting for many. (Moreover, the island is half the size of Wales but has one-tenth of the population, so there is less chance of anyone seeing you.)

Fellow visitors had assured me that the handful of campsites along the pristine Plage de Linguizzetta – one of Europe’s longest naturist beaches – were more Garden of Eden than Carry on Camping. With this in mind we moved on and motored down the beach-filled east coast to lift the curtain on Corsica’s popular ‘clothes-optional’ camping scene.

 

Choosing the naturist way

My fellow visitors turned out to be right when it came to Camping Riva Bella, midway between Bastia and Porto-Vecchio. We parked by a freshwater lake fringed by scented eucalyptus. Families of grey-coated llamas padded along the banks as an egret swooped overhead. Beyond, bungalows and tent pitches are hidden by Aleppo pines, which run right into the dunes. In turn these soften into a 50-metre-long carpet of white sand that washes into the sea. In Camping Riva Bella’s case, it is not protected status that has kept hotels away from the beach: camping grounds are the only form of accommodation in these parts, because the surrounding swathes of land are cordoned off and under French military control.

As first-time naturists, my wife and I were glad that nudity wasn’t, for want of a better phrase, in your face. Clothes are worn for dinner in the organic-influenced restaurant. By day there’s no hint of exhibitionism; it’s more as if campers have simply forgotten to put garments on. The campsite offers 30 per cent reductions to those who stay 30 days or more. With a tent by the sea and no clothes to wash, it sounds like a heck of a retirement plan.

Corsica’s sandy south-east corner is the area that attracts the most dedicated holidaymakers. An endless string of perfect white arcs – each deserted outside the French school holidays – can attract the same family of visitors for 20 years in a row. All are listed in the glossy guidebook Corse Plages Vues du Ciel (Corsica’s Beaches from the Air) – which is available from newsagents. The finest two are reckoned to be Plage de Rondinara and Plage de Palombaggia, south of Porto-Vecchio. It would be sacrilegious – not to mention illegal – to build a high-rise apartment complex next to either one.

Plage de Palombaggia’s Camping Asciaghju is not the most elaborate of campsites; there is no swimming pool, no table tennis equipment and no bungalows to let by the week. But what the site lacks in facilities it makes up for in friendliness and location. A dusty downhill path leads from the tent pitches to the beach and within five minutes you are in sandy seventh heaven. Plage de Palombaggia is a triple-bayed delight that could stand in for Tahiti in any film. It must be among the simplest and cheapest places in which to while away the summer.

A wander along the beach revealed enough activity to keep you occupied for weeks. Coastal paths weave in and out of grassy dunes and sandy forest floors for several miles. Boisterous sections of white sandy beach are interspersed with secluded coves. In the lunchtime haze it’s a riot of colour: parasols, beach tents and windbreaks, plus sarongs hung as shade from the trees.

 

A beach to yourself

Jet skis offer a rare moment of showmanship; otherwise the most energetic action is snorkelling or perhaps swimming to an offshore island. Indeed, the electricity grid didn’t reach Plage de Palombaggia until the 1970s, so visitors are used to making their own fun. The only current now used fires up a hodge-podge of beach bars that lie camouflaged with palm leaves in the surrounding dunes. By late afternoon the masses have returned to their hotels and holiday villages on Corsica’s southern rim. As with Plage de Saleccia, campers waking from a doze realise they have the whole beach to themselves.

But the coastal roads become busier as spring turns into summer. Come August, only a few isolated headlands on the rocky west coast escape the traffic jams. That’s where we were heading, on seldom-used back roads that cut through Corsica’s mountainous core. Palms gave way to pines, which turned into vineyards. Farms and scrubland appeared as we gained altitude, before forests and mountains gazed down on the road. The island’s birdlife changed too. Seagulls and swallows became hawks and eagles, before we wheeled slowly back down to the coast.

 

Dinner at sunset

Camping Les Roseaux on the peninsula of Belv�d�re- Campomoro served up a final slice of holiday delights. At €5 per person per night in springtime, it offers a base on one of Europe’s least expensive – and least visited – shores. Like many island villages it has no museums or specific sights. Instead we bought brocciu (ewes’ milk cheese) from the farm shop and made a loop of the headland on a breathtaking coastal path.

For our final night’s dinner we reserved a table above the beach at U Spuntinu, a restaurant grillade where we dined on red mullet and duck at sunset as boats bobbed at anchor in the languid gulf. The next day we were woken up at dawn by birdsong, which was quickly drowned out by the sound of braying donkeys in the neighbouring field. A 70-kilometre coastal drive north to Ajaccio completed the circle in our Corsican journey. We drove on to the ferry and then walked up to the guardrail, to find the mainland lost in the morning mist.