Scale new heights on the island of Napoleon
With precipitous cliffs, wide bays and delicious food, Corsica will enthral everyone from hikers to historians
Known as the mountain in the sea, Corsica boasts majestic peaks, forest-backed beaches with crystal-clear water, dramatic gorges and a plethora of hilltop villages where panoramic vistas are ubiquitous.
These gems are not easily accessible to nervous drivers or those prone to car sickness: with mountains making up two-thirds of the island, the hairpin bends feel like traversing the spiral shell of a Corsican sea snail. One scenic route wound 1,218m into the Alta Rocca mountains to the Col de Bavella, where a monumental sculpture of Our Lady of Snows was framed by extraordinary needle-shaped rocks that pierced the sky.
Hikers headed into the peaks above, part of the challenging GR20 route, that, walking seven hours a day, takes a fortnight to complete.
More tempted by hunger than hiking, we set off for the terraced Auberge du Col de Bavella. The bar was propped up by men clad in the dark-green uniforms of the forestry department. Hikers trickled in, thirsty for a cold beer. With the serpentine route downhill to be negotiated as postprandial entertainment, we drank water. Most other diners had no such concerns and quaffed bottles of Corsican rosé to take the edge off the heat.
Enormous platters of côte de boeuf briefly seared on the grill; entrecote steaks flavoured with the local herbs known as maquis; and roasted goat were greeted with hoots of delight by our carnivorous party. Food fit for cave dwellers or hikers returning to civilisation from the wilderness of the mountains.
Driving down through giant pine forests we encountered a cluster of cars at the side of the road. This indicated wild swimming. Using tree trunks as hand rails, we scrambled down the steep slope to a series of rock pools linked by small waterfalls from which icy water cascaded. The mountains formed a ring around the valley and we luxuriated on the hot rocks like lizards in a geological bowl.
Breathtaking environments are commonplace in Corsica, the third-largest island in the Mediterranean.
At the southern tip, the medieval town Bonifacio has an unusual setting. Perched above the sea on eroded limestone cliffs, the town hangs precipitously over the ocean.
Homeric scholars have suggested that Odyssey references the harbour of Bonifacio, which was on the Mycenaean trade route. Yachts now occupy the small, square port where Odysseus’s ships might once have been greeted by Laestrygonians hurling rocks.
Myths abound in these parts, where storytelling is part of the national identity. Historically, much of the population lived in isolated mountain villages tending sheep and goats; singing became an important part of the culture. The traditional polyphonic music, both religious and secular, is a cappella sung by small groups of men. It has undergone a resurgence in recent decades with regular performances across the island.
As a red harvest moon rose above the limestone cliffs, we took our seats on wooden pews in a simple, white stucco Franciscan church for a concert by Le Chœur de Sartène. The voices, weaving round one another, had an archaic sound that was deeply moving and hypnotic. Emerging hours later into the dark night, we found the full moon had turned the sea silver. Ancient sounds, ancient signs.
Corsica is famed for its prehistoric remains and is the leading European region for megalithic statue art. For thousands of years, large, carved stones lay buried in the wild undergrowth that covers the coastal plains. A series of anthropomorphic standing stones called menhirs (long stones) were discovered at Filitosa in 1946 by a farmer. The terrain has been tamed for tourists and distracting piped music plays as visitors traverse the site. Nevertheless, a visit to see these granite statues is highly recommended.
The megalithic monuments are thought to venerate the dead. Archaeologists disagree as to whether they represent the vanquished or the victors, but they are considered to be warriors. Some stones have detailed carvings of weapons, helmets and faces. Shaded by a 1,000-year-old olive tree, we observed a row of menhir statues a short distance away. A father played peek-a-boo with his son, a game perhaps as old as the statues themselves.
Further inland, towering mountain ranges loomed, stacked in tiers. Silhouetted against the sun they appeared like black cardboard cutouts with jagged peaks so irregular one imagined a celestial toddler at work, wielding their first pair of scissors. Up in these mountains lies the university town, Corte, where Pasquale Paoli established a short-lived constitutional state in 1755. It hosts the island’s anthropology museum, which exhibits an engrossing array of artefacts from music to cheese making.
Especially gruesome were the weapon cabinets in which a selection of knives including a stiletto, was displayed. Corsica was once notorious for its custom of vendettas: the blood feuds that resulted in a cycle of revenge killings in which male family members avenged the death of one of their own. The stiletto played a starring role in these murders, which plagued the island for centuries.
The traditional polyphonic music, both religious and secular, is a cappella sung by groups of men.
A more peaceful time was to be had at U Museu, a restaurant alongside the walls of the citadel. Renowned for its traditional cuisine, the wood-panelled interior had a wild boar’s head overlooking the diners. The menacing teeth made one grateful to be encountering the animal on a plate rather than on the mountain slopes.
Corsican soup might seem a strange choice on a day when the ochre-walled buildings shimmered in the heat. Yet this rich soup flavoured with strips of local charcuterie and packed with leeks, potatoes, tomatoes, garlic and beans was welcome in any weather.
Followed by wild boar stew, this was the food of the mountains. Slow cooked to melting tenderness, the deep flavour elicited a pleasurable sigh; it was served with customary saffron potatoes that lit up the plate.
Lip-puckering lemon sorbet and a fabulously rich caramel ice cream left us replete and energised to explore the small town in which Napoleon Bonaparte’s father once lived. The memory of Napoleon, Corsica’s most famous son, is ever present on the island, especially in Ajaccio, his home town, where statues and museums pay tribute to the French emperor.
While Corsica is part of France, it feels rather Italian. From place names such as Porto-Vecchio to the local canistrelli biscuits, the island’s culture harks back to the days when it was governed by Pisa and Genoa. Groups of Italian youth gathered on the beaches as if they had stepped out of an Elena Ferrante novel.
The political scene, however, is decidedly French. Controversy raged on the island over the summer when a local mayor banned the burkini. Ferries arriving from mainland France were diverted away from ports without the requisite security measures in an attempt to protect the island from attack.
Reality is less magical than the environment. Yet, gliding along coastal roads that hug the cliffs, with sandy crescents slung along wide bays below, all seems well with the world.