BOBBING about in the Med, the French island of Corsica seems to have more history than it’s 114 miles can contain. Stonehenge fans will love the megalithic standing stones at Filitosa, complete with huge faces and daggers, while the 9th century fort of Bonifacio (pictured above) peers over the cliffs to the north, still on the look out for invaders.
On a more contemporary note, the island featured in 2009’s hit movie, Un Prophete, as home of France’s modern Mafia. Somewhat predictably, though, what I am really into is the local produce.
Many towns around the island, such as Corte and Bastia, host markets selling fresh tomatoes, fig chutney, cured meats and single estate olive oils. I’ve heard they’re great, so check one out on my first morning in the island’s capital Ajaccio.
It’s not the best weather to be honest, but among of these new sights and smells, I’m drawn to the cheese stall. At once black, white and wrinkly, they’re mesmerising: each one a prune-like granny with real goaty flavour. The stall holder is surprisingly friendly, too. Pointing to sell by dates scribbled on little bits of paper, she says “we have to write these – but you can ignore them, of course”.
Like new faces at school, words like lonzo (cured ham) and Patrimonio (home of the island’s aperitif Muscat wine) take on meaning as the trip unfolds. Brocciu, for example, is a type of ewe or goat’s milk cheese. It’s got a thousand forms: fresh, wrinkled, mouldy (see above) and I love its foam incarnation on top of lemon and chilli gazpacho by the harbour in Erbalunga.
It’s served on a spoon with fresh herbs at Ajaccio’s Michelin-star Palm Court while further north, it tops little tomato patties at chic one-star Chez Charles in Lumio. Like getting to know a lover, each setting sheds new light on its personality.
The scrub and forested areas that cover the island also beg exploration. As I drive the winding ‘wine route’ from Bastia to Calvi across the ‘garden’ of Corsica, signs beside the road direct climbers down or up. I remember a Swedish friend telling me that much of his homeland had never had a human foot set upon it, and Corsica has a similar “call of the wild” feel. I look out of my hotel bedroom and feel like one of the few people on earth. Quite an achievement, I think, for an island that was the UK’s first package holiday destination in the 1950s – though it feels anything but.
In fact, Corsica is home to some of Europe’s finest hiking trails, the most famous of which is the GR20. Described by climbers as terrifying, it’s probably off limits to someone like me who, though fit, is not an experienced climber. Known to be dangerous, and icy cold due to a number of summits which top 6,600ft, it’s not for everyone. But fortunately, there are plenty of more accessible routes too, including ones for the whole family around the east coast resort of Solenzara.
Starting from Bonifacio harbour, one of my favourite parts of the trip was catching a tourist boat to the unpopulated Isles Lavessi. Forty minutes from port, they’re home to little more than fish (the Rough Guide reckons it has the best snorkelling in Corsica – I saw at least five species) and a sun-bleached cemetery, resting place of those who drowned in a ferry accident in the 1940s.
Costing around £45 return, I can think of fewer nicer ways to spend a day than swimming and picnicking before making you way back by 6pm on voyage that includes views of ‘millionaire’s island’ (where the region’s royalty holiday) and a tour of Little Dragon’s Cave (Grotto du Sdragonato) where they show you the hole in the ceiling in the shape of Corsica. Other sights include the chalk cliffs and old fortress and town, in places bulging over the edge. You can catch a boat to Santa Teresa in Sardinia from here too. It’s not far, just 50 minutes one way, and costs around £36 return per person.
Over the course of my vacation, I find it hard to imagine any crime, or the island's famous ‘vendetta’ killings (fictionalised in a novel of the same name by Guy de Maupassant) taking place among these film-set views.
It is hot in May, June and September but not oppressively so – unlike the really roasting months of July and August. And while the odd storm blows in off the ocean, it soon blows away again. Much like that other middle-class British favourite, Tuscany, Corsica is hilly, alluring, beachy – yet still somehow totally unspoiled. Kate Moss and Johnny Depp love it and with new flights from Manchester direct, it’s time to get in while you still can.
Ruth Allan travelled with British Airways and then with Air Corsica. British Airways flies daily to Nice from London City Airport with fares starting from £82 and includes a generous 23kg baggage allowance, complimentary onboard drinks and snacks and your choice of seating as standard. Flights can be booked at www.ba.com.
Travellers from Manchester will find connecting flights to London City Airport.
Air Corsica operates regular flights from Marseille, Nice, Paris-Orly and Lyon to the island’s four airports (Ajaccio, Bastia, Calvi and Figari), and also seasonal flights between Toulouse-Ajaccio, Toulouse-Bastia, Clermont-Ferrand-Ajaccio or Ajaccio-Roma and Figari-Roma. Returns from €128 (subject to conditions). Visit www.aircorsica.com or ring +33 (0)825 35 35 35.
It is also now possible to fly direct to Corsica with easyJet. www.easyjet.com
Hotel les Mouettes, Ajaccio
Castel Brando, Erbalunga
Santa Maria, Ile Rousee
Palm Beach, Ajaccio
Stella d’Oro, Bonifacio
Esquinade Restaurant, Erbalunga
Hotel Chez Charles, Lumio
For more information, check out the Corsican Tourist Board – Agence du Tourisme de la Corse – www.visit-corsica.com and the Cercle des Grandes Maisons Corses www.lesgrandesmaisonscorses.com
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