The French island of Corsica, 170km off the coast of the French mainland and 90km from Italy, is a large granite mass that dramatically rises out of the middle of the Mediterranean Sea. The most mountainous of the Mediterranean islands – and the fourth largest after Sicily, Sardinia and Cyprus – Corsica is not on the radar for most Australian travellers.
Getting there is simple, however. The quickest way from the European mainland is by plane but catching a ferry from Nice is a romantic way to arrive as you watch a stark citadel, which dominates the Corsican town of Calvi, come slowly into view as you approach.
Citadels can be found all over the island, a reminder of Corsica’s occupation by Genoa for more than five centuries. It was a rare period of stability in an otherwise turbulent history. Corsica’s geography can be held to blame, holding its strategic position on the main maritime routes of the great European powers with most of those powers invading at some point during Corsica’s history.
Corsicans enjoyed a short period of independence from 1755 to1769 under the leadership of Pasquale Paoli, forming the first democracy of modern times. This freedom wasn’t to last, however, and in 1769 Corsica was declared a region of France and remains so today. The emblem of the Moor’s Head, adopted by Paoli as the nation’s flag, remains the official symbol of the island, the blindfold lifted from the Moor’s eyes representing Corsican liberation.
The memory of this nation’s liberation lives on as that symbol appears everywhere; it is painted above doorways of houses and restaurants and printed on labels of Corsican produce. Corsicans do not consider themselves French; there is a strong nationalist pride amongst its people. The extremist group, the National Liberation Front of Corsica (the FLNC), made its violent presence known for many years, attacking French interests to force change.
The violence ceased in 2014, and it may not just be coincidence that change is afoot now with the pro-independence party having been recently elected in Corsica in France’s regional elections held in December 2015. The newly-elected president of the Corsican assembly, Jean-Guy Talamoni dedicated his election to “those who have never accepted French rule … and have never ceased to fight for the survival of the Corsican nation”.
Corsica, certainly the subject of an interesting history, is also a lesson in geology. There are several ways in which you can take that lesson. Hiking some of its mountainous trails is one. The famous GR20 traverses the island from north to south across the mountain range that splits the island in two. The trail requires ascending 15 granite peaks, is 180km long and takes about 15 days to accomplish. For those not interested in aching thighs, there are many less strenuous but nevertheless beautiful hiking trails throughout Corsica.
The ultimate way to appreciate the majesty of the Corsican landscape is to view it from the sea. On the western coast, south-west of Calvi, is the , a United Nations World Heritage Site on the Cape Girolata Peninsula. Along this coastline, huge natural rock formations of red granite rock in sculptural shapes appear at random out of the Gulf of Girolata and caves and inlets abound. Rather than feeling hostage on a large cruise boat with 50 others, choose a smaller skippered private boat, which can fit inside the inlets and caves.
If you are not the boating type, a fun way to see the coastline is to take the little train that runs along the coast to all the villages of Balagne from Calvi to L’Ile Rousse. Squeezed full of happy holidaying French families, this train ride is a joyful insight into French family life at its most endearing.
L’Ile Rousse is the largest of the Balagne villages and boasts a popular market place offering local produce, bordered by a long line of lively open-air restaurants, serving up that same produce in inventive ways. A warm goat’s cheese salad was my chosen fare for lunch, washed down with the Corsican beer, Pietra. There is a long sandy beach there but if you are looking for somewhere more intimate and less populated, a stop at the tiny village of Algajola is sure to satisfy you. It, too, has a long sandy beach but for this Australian, there was a little more space between families to enjoy its ambience. At the cost of 10 euros for the day, I was able to hire a lounge and umbrella and spend the day on that beach, alternately lounging and dipping into the warm Mediterranean water.
Though scenic, Corsica’s roads are narrow and challenging, with much of the time spent pulling over to allow for oncoming traffic. Most tourist guidebooks recommend seeing Corsica by car but after experiencing one or two of these roads I knew that the driver’s seat with me in it was not going to be a good mix. I found a driver to take me to some of the prettiest and oldest villages in France, which are in the hills behind Calvi.
At Sant’Antonino, sitting on top of its Corsican world, I ate at a roof-top restaurant called I Scalini, the Italian word for step. It is appropriately named; I lost count of how many old stone steps I scaled to reach it.
Once there, I could have been eating in an Italian home with a large helping of lasagne, crusty bread and red wine, surrounded by young families. Overlooking the valley and the north-west coast of Corsica, a long way above Calvi, it was a fitting way for me to say my final farewell to the mountain in the sea.