No place for shy strangers

Playground for the rich, rough terrain for the rest of us, this island is untameable, writes Scott Spencer.

I came to understand that there are four Corsicas; each of them compelling, each of them quintessentially Corsican. There's the glamorous, sunblasted, sybaritic Corsica of the seaside resorts; the eco-wonderland Corsica of hearty backpackers, campers and hikers; the shadowy, misty, steep Corsica of the mountains; and the Corsica most of us will never know but which, at the most unexpected moments, whispers proof of its presence into your ear.

I'd like to say that my lifelong fascination with Corsica was as a result of my deep reading of James Boswell, who wrote a travelogue detailing his trip there in 1765, or his predecessors Pliny the Elder, Ptolemy or Seneca – all of whom have left us vivid, and still useful, portraits of this wild and untamable island. But the truth is that my interest began in my childhood, when one of my parents' bohemian friends, sensing and generously affirming my anarchic contrarian streak, began to routinely refer to me as “the Little Corsican”.

At the time of his remark, I thought he meant there was something of Napoleon in me, which I did not at all mind since, like many children, I admired Bonaparte, primarily for his being one of the few historical characters who was approximately my height.

Decades passed. Corsica remained uneasily under French rule and, for the most part, its business was conducted with a minimum of attention from the outside world. Every now and then, a piece appeared in the world press about explosive acts committed by Corsican separatists, or a Corsican governor who managed to get himself arrested for burning down a rival's businesses – arson being a staple of vendetta, the Corsican home-brewed justice.

Flying in from Nice, suddenly the clouds part and there it is, sparsely populated, barely developed, fierce and forbidding Corsica. What you see first is the mountains marching down the island's centre. As the plane makes its way towards the coast, we descend into the relative banality of the maquis-choked flatlands until we touch down in Figari, an outpost tucked into Corsica's southeastern pocket. A vigorous spring wind blows us across the funky little airport into the low-tech office of a car-rental company. From there, it is 30 minutes north-east to the resort town of Porto-Vecchio.

Porto-Vecchio is part of the first Corsica, the Corsica of travel posters, of Mediterranean waters filled with winking and nodding yachts, of palm trees and white-sand beaches, of fashion shoots and nightclubs.

The restaurants are plentiful and the prices are comparatively reasonable. The fish – loup de mer, striped bass, sea bream, tuna – is bracingly fresh. The local wines are brooding, somewhat fierce and altogether wonderful. The town's busy port is crammed with yachts and its multitude of shops and cafes are filled with seafaring high rollers, many of them genetically engineered to garner triple-takes. No-nonsense-looking Corsican mothers walk side by side, pushing their no-nonsense-looking babies in strollers and talking animatedly to each other through cigarette smoke.

With some regularity, the peacefulness of the day is shaken by the urgency of gigantic motors as camouflage-green troop carriers fly a couple of thousand feet above, spawning khaki clouds of paratroopers, who slowly drift out of view, dropping to their base at the foot of the mountains. These are the airborne units of the nearby Foreign Legion post and they are a further reminder that while Corsica is willing and able to please your senses, fill your belly, and paint your toenails, it is also capable of kicking your arse, if ever the need should arise.

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The sun is steady and warm and, like any resort, there is a lure towards excess. Along the marinas in Porto-Vecchio and Bonifacio are shops selling ice-cream, woven hats, flags, T-shirts, busts of Napoleon – though not so many as you might expect, except in Ajaccio, where he was born and where Bonapartabilia is key to the town's economy.

Patisseries abound, as do cheese shops, where the local varieties are dark, dry and pungent. You can play in the surf, fish, water-ski, snorkel or sail. Yet all the while, the cloudy, misty reality of the mountains is never far away. They loom whenever you turn from the sea; they watch over the life of the coast like elders gazing down on their air-headed offspring.

Corsica may be in many ways a wilderness, but it is a French wilderness, with a highly functional infrastructure. The roads are rife with adventurous turns and prayer-inducing vistas, but they are well paved and well maintained.

The mountain villages are full of beautiful stone houses, mysterious and mournful in their grey emptiness. Many of them are owned by Corsicans who are in economic exile and who hold on to their properties in the hope of one day returning.

“Without a house in Corsica, you don't feel Corsican any more,” our guide, a learned young Corsican named Francois Zamponi, explains. The population of the island is just a shade over 250,000, while the number of Corsicans living abroad is nearly three times that. The diaspora is primarily economic but it has its political side, too. Once you are away from the resort towns, you notice that the bilingual signs marking the boundaries of places in the mountains like Corte, Sartene and Zonza have been systematically defaced, with the French spelling spray-painted beyond legibility and only the Corsican remaining.

In the mountainous heart of the island there are innumerable waterfalls and rock pools, raging rivers that look like molten aluminium, olive groves, chestnut trees, pastured sheep and donkeys and satellite dishes galore. Few people with the wit and curiosity to venture away from the luxury hotels and the glamorous beaches fail to visit the interior's most photographed natural wonder, the Col de Bavella, an expanse of high-altitude, immense, otherworldly granite needles with no apparent evolutionary purpose save the triggering of fear and trembling. They are notched into the rocky terrain like missiles ready for lift-off.

Any one of the dozens of small villages that serve as the human outposts in this area will have a bar or a cafe where you can stop for a beer or, better yet, a glass of the local aperitif, made of myrtle, which, along with mint and laurel, is a primary ingredient of the maquis, the tangle of pungent vegetation that grows wild throughout the island.

In Corte, the principal city of the Corsican heights, we sit in a little, minimally decorated, restaurant on a city square, eating what we instantly declare to be the best pizza we have ever encountered, a polyphonic blend of contrasting cheeses with a crisp, yeasty crust. Corte was the birthplace of Corsican nationalism and remains a steep, stony town, secretive – even a little stern – with a fascinating ethnology museum, a couple of magnificent promontories from which to survey the surroundings when the weather permits and little else to entice the casual traveller. In fact, enticing travellers seems the furthest thing from the town's collective consciousness, which is the case with all of the Corsican mountain towns and villages we visited.

The people here, my girlfriend says to me as we eat our sublime pizza in Corte, don't seem like the types who try too hard to get along. Around us are mainly men; dark-haired, carelessly shaven, muscular, hard-working guys from the quarries or little factories, as well as men who look as though they don't have anywhere in particular they need to go.

In one cafe, near the starting point for the hikers hoping to traverse the G20 (a two-week trek through prehistoric vegetation and wildflowers), two wizened men yank an immense Campari umbrella from the table it shades on sunny days and power through a blinding rainstorm to offer their escort to my girlfriend, who, in fact, is so traumatised by the ferocity of the rain that she would rather have stayed in the car. But Corsica is no place to be wussy; in fact, it is no place to be prim or shy. It's a place to get drenched, it's a place to be exhausted, it's a place to be just a little less civilised than you normally are.

TRIP NOTES

GETTING THERE

Air France and Air Corsica fly from Nice – less than an hour away – to the island's four airports, including Figari.

WHERE TO STAY

A Pignata is a family-owned hotel and restaurant in a restored farmhouse. Route du Pianu in Levie has doubles from $140. Phone +33 4 9578 4190, see apignata.com.

Grand Hotel de Cala Rossa, Lecci, Porto-Vecchio, has doubles from $1880, including breakfast. Phone +33 4 9571 6151.

Hotel Alta Rocca, Route de Palombaggia, Porto-Vecchio has doubles from $478. Phone +33 4 9570 2201; .

La Villa, Chemin de Notre-Dame de la Serra, Calvi has doubles from $777. Phone +33 4 9565 1010, see hotel-lavilla.com.

FURTHER INFORMATION

See corsica.net.

Travel + Leisure 

Each month, The Sun-Herald Travel brings you an exclusive bonus extract from Travel + Leisure magazine. The November edition is the Islands + Beaches issue and features stories on getting away from it all in Mauritius, the 25 most affordable beach resorts and foodie travel in Java.

Today, we bring you an edited extract of a feature on Corsica. Each month, Travel + Leisure has the best travel photography and writing from around the world. The magazine's correspondents travel independently and do not accept free travel of any kind.

See travelandleisure.com.au

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