After six years living in the south of France, a visit to the island of Corsica is long overdue. The crossing from the port of Nice takes little over five hours, most of which I spent on deck with other dog owners and a couple of families. When the Cap Corse mountain range come into view, we all make for the side.
We disembark at Bastia in the early evening and make our way to a beach on the Gulf of Saint Florent for the night. Plage du Lotu is worth the difficult drive, but it took nearly two hours along a rough dirt track and isn’t recommended unless you have a robust 4X4.
The white, sandy beach is a haven for those seeking privacy. Just one boat appears on the horizon during the entire morning and our only companions are the wild cows who inhabit much of the island; there’s not a house in sight. Plage du Lotu is in the edge of the Désert des Agriates – the only official desert in Europe – but the famous maquis of the island grows just as well here are it does on Corsica’s mountains.
It’s mid-October and rather than visit Corsica’s famously good coastal destinations, such as the Ile Rousse and the Calanques de Piana, we head straight into the heart of the Ile de Beauté. We spend the next few days in a small, hillside village. History books often claim that Napoléon Bonaparte was born in Ajaccio, the current regional capital, but it was in fact in little-known Omessa that the soon-to-be emperor drew his first breath.
Our lodgings are a former shepherd’s hut and pen – a bergerie – that owner Ange-Marie Franceschini has restored according to the traditional Corsican style, which has more in common with North African cultures than those of Southern France. Even though it’s getting late in the year, the daytime temperatures reach nearly 30°C. Inside the stone property, which has walls over a metre thick in some places, it’s cool and refreshing.
Set into the slope of the valley and in the shade of Monte Cinto – Corsica’s highest mountain – the property and its terrain cover two and a half hectares, on which Ange-Marie has planted 500 olive trees. He originally intended for it to become an olive oil press, but says the project couldn’t survive on ‘love and fresh water’ alone. The swimming pool can, however, and is fed directly from a mountain spring into another of his stone-walling creations. The water that spills over the brim in turn feeds the fruit trees and vegetables planted on the lower terraces. It’s rustic and luxurious. Even though Ange-Marie says he resisted tourism at first, it’s clear that he excels at it. There is still plenty of life in the garden and we dine on ripe tomatoes and fresh figs from the trees that he picks from the garden along with some wild mint. Ange-Marie insists we must return in the spring when it’s at its best. During these months, he and his friends come down to play the guitar on the balcony and sing traditional songs in the island’s trois voix.
“It’s becoming a forgotten art,” he says in a strong accent that sounds more Italian than French. “My children who live on the continent don’t know how to sing in this way. The best months to come are May and September – it’s not the same when all the tourists come. Days like these are good; warm, dry and crisp at night.”
When it comes, we are plunged into total darkness without a single other light in the valley. The ‘emptiness’ of Corsica is somehow its most appealing aspect. Around 300,000 people live on the island and there can’t be more than a few hundred in Omessa and its valley.
From the village the next day, we drive northwest to the Gorges d’Asco to visit the 15th century Pont Génois, which was built during Genoese occupation of the island. It’s picture-perfect, with mineral-rich waters flowing beneath it and an almost lavish architecture. After a (very) brief swim under the bridge, we follow a path into the valley and hike for almost an hour.
The cry of red kites follows us almost everywhere we go. While these large birds of prey have disappeared from much of mainland Europe, they are thriving in the beautiful and desolate landscape of Corsica.
Corte, Corsica’s fourth largest city, was once the capital under the Corsican patriot and leader Pasquale Paoli in the 18th century. He’s still very popular and some shops bear the words Corti Capitale. He led the Corsican Resistance against the French after their conquest of the island in 1768. He fled to the UK, but later returned to accept the French Revolution. He soon broke with ‘new’ France to help create the rather unknown Anglo-Corsican Kingdom, a ‘client state’ of the UK, between 1794 and 1796. When it ended, Corsica became an official part of France. The walls of buildings in Place Paoli are riddled with bullet holes that could have come from one or many of the battles that have taken place in these streets. It bustles with people today and there are plenty of bars and restaurants to visit within this medieval city. Le 24, a wine bar and bistro just a two-minute walk away, does stylish and tasty food with good wine at a price less than we’re expecting.
In most places, the finest foods seem to be cheeses and charcuterie, and everyone appears to be perfectly happy with that. The cheese is always fresh and the meats are always Corsican. The wines are delicious, varied and in abundance: almost all restaurants offer an extensive Corsican wine list. For a change, French wines are in the minority.
We set aside a day to do a walk expressly by Ange-Marie. From Les Bergeries Le Figuier, it’s a 30-minute hike up to a small chapel. Then it’s an arduous hike two hours to the summit of a 1,600m mountain. From the peak, you can see from the western coast and Monte Cinto to Cap Corse and to the rolling hills and beaches of the eastern side of Corsica. Huge black cows roam in the forests below and herds of very independent goats mill about on rock crops beneath the Sant’Angelo chapel. The entrance is barred, but other walkers from the villages of Lano and Rusio nearby have attached a notepad in pen for people to record their visit. They leave their times and it’s reassuring that other people struggled with the steep trek too. People also write about the eagles they’ve seen from the summit and that day, a helicopter flies overheard. From this height, the pilot is almost visible.
Off-season, there are just two Corsica Ferries a day to Nice and we take the first. The price is reasonable at around 280€ return (including the dog). Ferries also depart from Toulon, Livorno and Savona to Bastia, Porto Vecchio, Ajaccio and Ile Rousse.
We’ve explored just a small part of an 8,680km2 island and are awed by its diversity in nature and landscape. There is still the entire south and coastline to be discovered...