Both natural and man-made wonders make the northern coast of Corsica a delight to discover, as Jon Bryant found out when he took a driving tour
Both natural and man-made wonders make the northern coast of Corsica a delight to discover, as Jon Bryant found out when he took a driving tour. With roads twistier than an episode of Bergerac, driving across northern Corsica is often a heart�-in-�the-�mouth experience. However, once you have calmed down from the spiralling, mountaintop passes and cliff�-edge overtaking, the Haute�Corse d�partement offers a delight in historical landmarks, unusual wildlife, great beaches and regional specialities to enjoy. After the ferry journey from the south of France, it’s tempting to drive off the boat at Bastia and head straight up the coast, but the capital of northern Corsica is definitely worth exploring. A good place to start is the relatively new Mus�e de Bastia, built within the old palace of the Genoese governors. It used to be the island’s ethnography museum but reopened in 2010 as the museum of Bastia’s history; it includes portraits, statues, four�poster beds and a decorative shield from the time of the British occupation in 1794. The town is a mix of the ancient (and just about standing) and the heavily restored. Faded art deco facades sit next to Italianate ochres and peaches on the old harbour front, and behind them stand the giant pair of bell towers of the �glise Saint� Jean�Baptiste. The church, an historic monument and the largest church in Corsica, is noticeably too big for its location. It is typical of those found in many Corsican locations; the construction of an oversized church was more a sign of wealth than faith. Outside, on the market square, you can buy local produce including chestnut pur�e, boar sausages and olives as big as ping pong balls and eat them while admiring the statue of Napol�on Bonaparte dressed as a Roman emperor in the tree�lined Place Saint� Nicolas. It was in Bastia that the Genoese, who took control of the island in 1347, set up their capital and developed the trade for olives, vines and fruit trees which made the northern regions richer and more politically motivated than the south. Locals consider the north to be the ‘authentic’ half of the island and its people more enterprising. North of Bastia, on the D80, is the Cap Corse, a 40 kilometre�long peninsula that sticks out like a finger from the top of the island. Its beach resorts were once ports used to export olive oil to the Italian peninsula. Worthy of a stopover on the eastern flank are Erbalunga, home to an artists’ colony, and Macinaggio, from where you can look across to the island of Elba. Or you can join the old customs officer’s path – the Sentier du Douanier – to reach the island’s fingertip. It’s a four�hour walk from Macinaggio or a short drive and windy stroll to see the �le de la Giraglia and lighthouse at the northern extremity of Corsica. At Pino on the western flank, take an interesting detour along the narrow, pine tree�lined road towards Luri to reach the pinnacle�top Tour de S�n�que, or Seneca’s tower. The Roman philosopher was exiled to the black rock in 41AD after seducing Emperor Claudius’s niece and a thousand years later, the wealthy da Mare family built a tower on the site. It’s quite a climb but offers amazing views of the cape. Continuing down the west side of the finger, just before you turn the last corner for the village of Nonza, you pass a huge, abandoned factory that, until 1965, supplied most of Europe’s asbestos. You can still see the sheer cuts into the grey mountainside where the fire�resistant amianthus (a type of asbestos) was extracted and look down at the sand which has turned a silvery grey. They don’t recommend swimming on Nonza beach for several reasons, notably the strong undercurrent, but there’s something about the word asbestos and the fact that there aren’t any other silver�shaded beaches on the island which makes other bays a lot more appealing. For photo opportunities however, even in July, deserted Nonza beach is unsurpassed. In Nonza itself, there are some lively bars, a flower�covered ruined fortress, the �glise Sainte�Julie and a square observation tower leaning over the cliff edge. It also has the charismatic Le Rire de l’�ne restaurant with its excellent squid salad and chestnut pudding. Glamour capital A ride into nearby Patrimonio is recommended for the wine tasting – the local vintage was the first Corsican wine to be awarded an appellation d’origine control�e. If you visit at the end of July, the village hosts an outdoor guitar festival whose line�up has included Al de Meola, Jeff Beck and Elvis Costello. The stars always stay in nearby Saint�Florent, the self�styled glamour capital of Haute�Corse, full of boutiques selling bikinis, parasols and snow globes containing Napol�on’s head. The restaurants lining the marina offer crayfish, sweet muscat wine and the local fiadone or ricotta�cheese pudding drizzled in eau de vie. You don’t need to drink alcohol to feel tipsy in Saint�Florent, you just need to smell the dessert trolley. Leaving the resort for l’�le Rousse you head immediately into the mountains and the grey wilderness of the D�sert des Agriates. Here, there’s nothing but pillowed hills, wild flowers and the occasional broken�down sports car. The hillsides of the desert have been ravaged by fire. Indeed, one of the indigenous plants that cover the hillsides, cistus, is so flammable that the locals use it to start their barbecues. In 1974, a fire destroyed the Parc de Saleccia botanical gardens, killing almost 2,000 olive trees and destroying much of the gardens. The Demoustier family owners are still repairing the damage but it has been a lifelong dream to build a Corsican version of the Generalife gardens of the Alhambra in Granada, Spain. There is a new stone amphitheatre for concerts and plays in the gardens. You could easily spend a few hours there. Mme Demoustier explains that when they close the gates at night, “other visitors, such as rabbits, tortoises, boar and hedgehogs also have a wander around!” The garden’s indigenous plants can also be seen along the roadside as you enter l’�le Rousse, one of the twin cities of the Balagne area and known for its almonds, lemons, figs, olives and tiny mists of wild bees. The Corsicans are very much like their bees, tough and resistant. It may be because they eat the island’s honey, made from pollinating the tough, resistant plants of the macchia (scrubland). The Sardinians use the bitter honey as a kind of natural Viagra, according to the Corsicans. ‘Corsicans are all granite like their mountains’, wrote the German historian and traveller Ferdinand Gregorovius after his wanderings there in 1852. They have a reputation for being impassioned, jealous and vengeful. The waves of invaders have affected their psyche, and left them easily� offended. Fuelled by a cycle of retaliation, Corsican vendettas sometimes lasted generations. Often the original cause of the vendetta was forgotten but failing to take revenge was seen as degrading even when the original ‘crime’ could have been something as simple as an accidental touch of a sister’s hand. Bandits (literally ‘the banned’) would hide out in the impenetrable macchia among the wild sheep or else barricade themselves in a tower with mattresses and straw at the windows for up to 15 years. As recently as 2003, a nationalist goatherd who had assassinated the French prefect in Ajaccio six years previously was found hiding in a shepherd’s stone hut near Vico in the west. Corsica is an island of tall tales and taller towers. To protect the island against pirates, the Genoese erected hundreds of watchtowers (torri). Fires lit on their roofs could alert the entire island in three hours that pirates were approaching. The doorways were 20 feet off the ground and accessible by a removable stepladder. Some of the more fearsome pirates who raided the coastal towns had, in fact, been born in Corsica and been kidnapped as children, only to return to wreak a strange kind of vengeance on their former neighbours. They knew to attack at night and in the rain; that way the island’s warning system was rendered useless. Seven kilometres west of Saint� Florent is the Torre de Mortella. Sheared in half by British cannonballs and looking like a giant molar, it was built by the Genoese for both defence and lookout and was so resilient against the bombardment that it inspired the British to build them in all its colonies, hence the spread of the Martello towers that are still found in the former British empire from Sydney to Sri Lanka. The British had sent a fleet to the island under the command of Admiral Samuel Hood and, with the help of the independence leader Pasquale Paoli, took control of Corsica in 1794. Sir Gilbert Elliot was installed as the viceroy in Bastia and, for the next 16 months, the island was under Corsican �British rule. Horatio Nelson (then a captain) lost his eye on 16 June, 1794 in the battle for Calvi, the biggest port in the Balagne, and said he never wanted to see the place again. Even with his one eye. Calvi has since become one of the trendiest towns on the island with a seafront parade of restaurants, caf�s, good beaches and snow�covered mountains above them. The town still has a big military presence in the form of the headquarters of the French Foreign Legion’s 2nd Foreign Parachute Regiment on the outskirts; however, ships approaching the island tend to carry cars rather than cannon nowadays. Near the Legion’s entrance, park beside an old British red telephone box for views over Calvi. Driving around the island, it would be nice to imagine that the brief Anglo� Corsican interlude was a happy time for the islanders, freed from the oppressions of the uncivilised occupier. Unfortunately, the locals detested the British and their taxes as much as they had the Romans, Vandals, Byzantines, Genoese, Pisans and French… Leaving Calvi, the mountain roads towards Bastia and the Nebbio travel along the self�styled Strada di l’Artigiani, passing the workshops of the region’s many potters, glass�blowers, beekeepers, instrument makers and jewellers. A spooky attraction is Aregno, whose peach, olive and cream polychrome Romanesque church is lined by graves – so the rain would become blessed as it hit the roof and then fall on the dead. Polyphonic singing Following the same route, there’s the permanently windy mountaintop village of Saint�Antonino, where they still use donkeys to shift things around the village, and Pigna, where the celebrated U Palazzu restaurant and hotel has the original frescoes still on the walls and a giant olive press taking up most of the dining hall. Pigna is also a renowned centre for Corsica’s polyphonic, a cappella singing and there is a festival there each August. Little is known or heard of the polyphonic singing outside of Corsica. Indeed, Corsicans feel that history has dealt them a certain injustice so on their behalf I’m setting the record straight. Calvi was the real birthplace of Christopher Columbus, not Genoa; the original recipe for a cola drink came from Bastia, not Georgia in the US and Corsica has the best beaches in the world, not Thailand! As for the motoring tourist, Corsica has the most spectacular views in the world – just keep your eyes on the road.