Local colour

From tiny mountain hamlets to cosy harbourside communities, breathtaking villages are scattered across the idyllic island of Corsica, all with a different to tell. Carolyn Boyd falls for their charm...

L’Hexagone isn’t the only part of France that can boast some stunningly beautiful villages; Corsica also has its fair share. Whether they have picturesque harbours, complete with coloured fishing boats bobbing on the water, or spectacular views of the island’s magnificent coastline, you can be sure to fall under their spell. Late summer is the ideal time to explore them. The landscape is starting to show signs of autumn and the colours are enhanced by terracotta roofs. What’s more, there are fewer tourists (and hence cheaper hotel rates) and pleasant temperatures, making it easy to get off the beaten track and see a slice of genuine Corsican life.ErbalungaTen kilometres north of Bastia, the gorgeous fishing village of Erbalunga is the highlight of Cap Corse’s east coast. Set on a rocky promontory, the village was a haven for artists in the 1920s and it is little surprise that they were inspired by the village. With colourful small boats tied up along the jetty and a ruined Genoese tower looking out towards Italy, the harbour is the perfect place to sit and sip a cool glass of Corsican ros� wine at one of the many caf�s. Alongside the water there are crooked little houses stacked up against the water, and set back from the harbour there are some impressive villas. Known as Maisons d’Am�ricains, these houses – which are found all over northern Corsica – were once home to rich families who had earned their fortune in the sugar cane industry in Latin America and returned home to Corsica to enjoy their wealth.The port was once more important than Bastia or Ajaccio and served Pisan ships which traded in wine and olive oil. These days, it serves as a treasured bolt-hole for Bastians who come to eat at the well-to-do Le Pirate restaurant (tel: (Fr) 4 95 33 24 20, www.restaurantlepirate.com) at the waterside. The village is also famous for its Good Friday procession known as the Cerca (Search), which begins at the St-Erasme church at the entrance to the village. Starting on the evening of Maunday Thursday, the procession winds its way from the village to the Benedictine nuns’ convent that sits behind the village. At dawn on Good Friday, the procession leaves from the church, with the men carrying crosses weighing 40kg, and the women carrying those weighing 20kg. The penitents then parade a distance of seven kilometres through other villages in the area – Pozzo, Poretto and Silgaggia – and then back to the church at Erbalunga. Here they perform a candlelit ceremony in which they form a spiral known as the Granitola, which unwinds to then form the shape of a cross.NonzaIf Erbalunga is the must-see village of the east coast of the Cap Corse, then Nonza is surely the highlight of its west coast. Perched on a rocky pinnacle jutting out into the Golfe de Saint Florent, the village is steeped in history and folklore.The beautiful orange and yellow church in the centre of the village dates from the 16th century and is one of the two village sites dedicated to the memory of Corsica’s patron saint, Ste Julie. Inside there is a chapel dedicated to St Erasmus, the patron saint of sailors, and a rather eerie painting of Ste Julie herself. The story goes that Ste Julie was martyred here in the 5th century. She had been sold into slavery at Carthage and was being taken to Gaul by her master when they downed anchor at Nonza. Her master joined in with a pagan festival and when Ste Julie refused to take part, she was tortured and crucified by the Roman prefect. The gruesome story goes that her breasts were cut off, thrown against a rock and, on the spot where they landed, two holy springs came up. By following the steps down from the village towards the beach, you’ll find the fountain, and if you’re willing to tackle the hundreds of steps beyond it down to the beach you’ll be rewarded by a sensational view of the village’s watchtower, which looks as though it might fall into the sea at any minute.Unfortunately, the massive stretch of grey sand might prove disappointing for beach-lovers; its grey colour is a result of pollution from the asbestos mine further up the coast, and swimming is prohibited on account of the strong currents. Better then, to head through the sunny village square and up a snaking trail of steps to the top of the village. Here you can enjoy a bird’s eye view of the village’s rooftops and take a closer look at the Paoli watchtower. It was built in the 16th century but the incident that provides its claim to fame took place in 1768 when a single man managed to take on the might of the French army who had conquered the rest of Cap Corse. As the French closed in on Nonza’s garrison its Captain, Jacques Casella, was abandoned by his troops and left to defend the tower alone. With a single canon and a system of ropes rigged up to a line of muskets he managed to maintain a constant attack, thus fooling the French into thinking he had an entire army with him. Eventually the French offered a truce which was accepted by Casella on the condition that he could parade out with his army with dignity. Casella emerged on crutches completely alone, to the astonishment of the French SpeloncatoAs you stand in the village square of Speloncato, there’s no doubt that it is the hub of the village, yet all around you there is a warren of streets, packed tight with charming little homes for the dozens of people who live here. Disappear up into the labyrinth and you’ll soon be wandering up steps, through tunnels and around bends, to emerge eventually at the top of the village. Here you’ll find an outcrop of pink rocks, you’ll be treated to one of the most spectacular views in the Balagne area. The village is named after the caves and grottoes that hide among the rocky landscape (spelonche is Corsican for caves) and it sits in the shadow of the Monte Grosso massif, one of Corsica’s highest mountains. The village was once home to Cardinal Savelli whose former palace is now the H�tel A Spelunca (tel: (Fr) 4 95 61 50 38, www.hotel-a-spelunca.com) next to the church in the square, Place de la Lib�ration. Savelli was an 18th-century papal minister who earned himself the nickname Il Cane Corso’ – the Corsican dog – ruling with an iron fist. With its caf�s, fountain and elegantly shaped orange tree, the market square is the real heart of the village. We sat for a while at the Bar La Voute, where the owner took a break from his card game with friends to serve us the traditional Corsican beer, Pietra, made with chestnut flour. A few children were playing in the square’s 19thcentury fountain and it was the perfect place to watch the world go by. Rather more people than we saw that day descend on the village twice a year for the village’s very own eclipse. On 8 April and 8 September every year, the sun – having already sunk behind the Monte Sant Angelo at around 6pm – reappears for a few moments later through an eightmetre slit in the nearby Pietra Tafonata, illuminating the market square and the Baroque church of St Michel.Sant’AntoninoThe orange-roofed buildings of Sant’Antonino, Corsica’s oldest inhabited village, huddle atop a small granite hill in the heart of the Balagne area. It’s one of Corsica’s two Plus Beaux Villages and is something of a honeypot for tourists, who are drawn there by the promise of breathtaking 360 degree views and the chance to walk its centuries-old streets.The coaches parked in the car park just outside the village of Sant’Antonino (visitors’ cars are not allowed in the village – not that they would fit) give away its popularity, but once you walk into the village and get among its narrow cobbled streets its easy to lose the crowds. A good place to start a visit is in the 16th-century church Sant’Annunziata, incongruously located on the edge of the aforementioned car park. It offers interesting Baroque d�cor and an 18th-century organ and is perhaps the largest indoor space you’ll find in the village, such is the tightness of its streets. The village has a maze of alleys and around each corner there’s a glimpse of the surrounding views, whether that be the turquoise sea beyond the coast between L’�le Rousse and Calvi, or the green valleys inland. Each little street offers something different to see – an archway, a tiny angel statue sitting in an alcove, a house built into the rock or a small shop selling handicrafts. A Stalla offers local produce – from typical Corsican charcuterie to the traditional chestnut flour canestrelli biscuits. Around another corner we stumbled upon a charming little church shaded by trees, its single bell poised to call worshippers through the chapel’s tiny green door. Many of the village’s inhabitants are artisans, with the odd millionaire thrown in, but back in the 9th century the counts of Savelli built the now-ruined castle from which to defend their clan.PianaThe second of Corsica’s Plus Beaux Villages sits high above the Golf of Porto close to the Calanches de Piana, a Unesco World Heritage Site on the dramatic east coast. As you approach by car you’ll be treated to some of the most spectacular views on the island. These are a joy for any passenger but, with the roads so windy, drivers will need to pull over (there are a few stopping places) to get out and have a look.The village’s long-defunct castle – four kilometres south – was once home to the Seigneurs de Leca whose reign came to an end in 1429 when they revolted against the Genoese with catastrophic consequences. The Genoese killed all the Seigneurs, as well as the entire male population. It took two centuries for Piana to recover and what you see of it now dates from 1725. The village is dominated by its huge, peach colour Baroque �glise de Sainte-Marie with a beautifully painted ceiling dating from 1792. Many of the paintings came later and were the work of the 19th-century artist Paul-Mathieu Novellini. As you wander the narrow streets of the village, glimpses of the stunning Calanches de Piana appear through the gaps between the tiny, terracotta-roofed houses. Window-boxes abound, with geraniums and red roses adding a riot of colour to the shady streets. There are few souvenir shops and restaurants, but the main draw is the fabulous Les Roches Rouges hotel (tel: (Fr) 4 95 27 81 81, www.lesrochesrouges.com) hiding among eucalyptus trees just outside the village. This grand old hotel was built in 1912, but was left empty for two decades before being restored with all its original fixtures and fittings. It oozes character and style, and the lobby/bar area is something of a museum in itself with maroon leather seats. Even if you’re not staying at the hotel, it is well worth a visit for a meal (menus from €34) or an ap�ritif on the grand balcony which offers sensational views of the Golfe de Porto.