Corsica: Strange and Lovely by Nancy S. Tardy

Indigo ink washed over the black sky each morning awakening the Mediterranean island of Corsica. My last memory of the previous night was the barking of the three-legged dog protecting her stoop across the narrow alley-street in the old town of Bonifacio, built on limestone cliffs overlooking the sea about a thousand years ago.

Some experts believe that Bonifacio, Corsica, was the home of the giant Laestrygonians in Homer’s Odyssey over a thousand years ago.
In mid-January, 2007 I left my home in the desert southwest of the United States to explore this island for a couple of weeks. Having first experienced its natural and peaceful beauty on a day tour from a cruise ship docked in the harbor of Ajaccio, its capital, a few years ago, I made a promise to return. Planning this itinerary suddenly became a priority when I received an email from Untours, a well-known travel company long noted for their unique and affordable approach to travel. They place their clients in apartments, mainly in Europe, with support and social contacts available nearby to allow them to immerse themselves in the neighborhood, town, or city . As a single female traveler, I had longed to experience the independence of apartment rental, and the email advertised their new business division aimed at the more independent individual, The RIGHT Vacation Rental, which operates as only a booking agent for apartments spread over a wider geographical distribution than their core company.

My booking through this division of Untours provided a chance to stay in the small, picturesque town of Bonifacio, Corsica, at a reduced winter rate of only $533/week. In return, I would be on my own, though the owners lived nearby and could respond if I had an emergency. Marie-Jo and Emilio had converted the 4th floor of an old building into two apartments, one the small, studio apartment that I chose, and a larger one-bedroom unit. Both have the latest appliances and are tastefully and comfortably furnished.

The studio apartment rented through The RIGHT Vacation Rental was newly renovated, though its rustic ceiling was left intact to add a charming contrast.

Corsica is rich in history and steeped in mystery. Fewer than 300,000 Corsicans live on this enigmatic land of brooding solemn beauty where a huge emigration has transpired over the past 60 years. At this time almost a million Corsicans live and work abroad, primarily in France, North Africa and the United States. The out-migration resulted from a number of factors. World War II cost a number of lives, and many survivors moved away after the war. No real industry exists on the island, with the exception of approximately 1.5 million tourists visiting the island during the months of July and August. This granite island limits agricultural options.

Only three cities of size are located on the island. Ajaccio and the business center of Bastia total about 60,000 people each. The smaller interior city of Corte is the location of the University of Corsica and was the capital of independent Corsica in the eighteenth century. Many small villages with tall buildings fronting the narrow streets are etched into the island’s almost impenetrable underbrush, called maquis, which is an intertwined mass of rosemary, lavender, arbutus, myrtle, thyme and other fragrant herbs. During the spring blooming season, the peppery scent of the Corsican countryside is pervasive throughout the island. In fact, Napoleon, Corsica’s most famous son, said that he could smell his native land while exiled on Elbe.

A small church on a pedestrian street near the harbor in Ajaccio wears a lighted headdress.

The maquis has figured into Corsican history in more ways than merely creating a heady aroma. It has provided concealment for hundreds of years to bandits, those committing vendetta murders and others avoiding the law. Only recently did the authorities arrest the man who killed the second-highest ranking French official on Corsica in 1998 He was able to hide for six years in remote stone huts in the maquis receiving aid from tight-lipped friends and relatives.

Though Corsica has a history of bandits, family vendettas and civil protests, even single women can travel there comfortably today without fear of violence. Probably the greatest challenge to those choosing to travel during the months of July and August, the summer holiday season for the French and Italians, is the difficulty in finding a parking place and a place on the beach large enough to lie down. Corsica is famous for its picturesque, half-moon shaped beaches and pristine water ideal for snorkeling and scuba diving. But be advised that those attractive post card photographs of sand and solitude are taken during the winter months. Its harbors are home to multitudes of pleasure boats and yachts, as well as fishing boats.

The Bonifacio harbor is home to pleasure boats, yachts, and fishing boats.

Spring and autumn are the best times to visit. Weather is comfortable and a wide range of hotels and restaurants are open and less crowded. In the low season around December and January, hotels, shops and restaurants in the beach and tourist towns are often closed, though Bastia and Ajaccio function normally year around. In Bonafacio, the oldest and most photographed town in Corsica, only a few small grocery stores, restaurants, boulangeries, as well as an internet café and ATM, were open for business in January; however, these met my needs adequately. Those not fluent in French will find it helpful to keep their English-French dictionary with them at all times, as the English speakers dwindle in number the further one travels from the cities. Having said this, I had no problems booking and registering at hotels, traveling by public bus and train and dining out using my very limited French language skills.The locals were unfailingly courteous and helpful.

Charter flights from England and multiple ferry options from both Italy and France shorten the travel time during high season, but getting to and around Corsica in the off season is a bit more difficult and time-consuming. From the United States I flew to London Gatwick, spending the night at nearby Gables End Guest House, which was previously recommended in the Intercom section of International Travel News. I caught an early flight the next morning to Nice and on to Bastia. Four international airports on Corsica connect it with mainland Europe, including one near Bonifacio, but I wanted to explore the island a bit before settling into my apartment. Airport shuttle buses, called navettes, connect the center of Bastia with the airport for a minimal charge of approximately $15, but due to the late hour and my unfamiliarity with the city, I chose a taxi ride of $60 to be deposited at the door of my hotel, The Best Western Bastia. On returning to the Bastia airport to fly home, I spent my final night at the comfortable Les Voyageurs Hotel, located across from the airport shuttle bus stop. I found the transfer by the navette efficient and easy. Bastia provides a smooth introduction to Corsican food and language and is worth a stopover of a day or two to obtain money, relax, and arrange public transportation, if needed.

If you prefer to travel by bus or train, do consider a ride on the famous Corsican train, called the Micheline, which connects Bastia with Ajaccio, with a separate line to Calvi, a resort area on the west coast of the island. Though a bit seedy and rickety, this train provides incredible views of nature and village life not seen from roadways. It rattles up and down mountain slopes and over tall, graceful brick bridges, one of which was designed by none other than Gustav Eiffel of Eiffel Tower fame. The cost and the travel time is about the same ($30 and 4 hours) whether you take the train or the bus. In 2007, the rolling stock and the train tracks are undergoing an upgrade; visit the combined website for train and bus travel to obtain latest information.

Many travelers do rent cars, but the narrow, serpentine 2-lane mountain roads and high volume of traffic, even on such a small island, result in all trips being measured in hours rather than distance. Interestingly, no domestic flights or domestic ferry routes connect Corsican cities or towns to one another. Therefore, the bus and the train are the only public transportation options for travel around the island. Multiple bus companies split the available routes, so that the traveler must first study what company goes where and locate the pickup point, often a street corner in smaller towns. For those using the bus services, research is essential followed by checking in person with tourist information centers in towns along your route.

What does one do in Corsica in off season? First, the Mediterranean weather in January can be cool and breezy with some rain, but, if you are appropriately dressed it is perfect strolling and sightseeing weather. Exploring local cemeteries and churches is an excellent way to learn the history of your surroundings. Ferries do run all year from the various coastal towns to other countries-Bonifacio is connected to the nearby island of Sardinia by ferry; an enjoyable day trip for shopping and lunch. While not inexpensive, I found the food, wine and coffee served in Corsican cafes and restaurants to be of excellent quality and the service attentive. However, especially in small towns, seasonal menus are the norm; seafood is served mostly in warm weather, while heavy stews, red meats and Corsica’s famous charcuterie, or deli-style meats, are wintertime specialties. Staying in an apartment provides all the comforts of home, so eating in can be an option for one or more meals each day. The great pleasure of having time to read, walk, contemplate, study French and enjoy leisurely meals which included island specialties, such as the chestnut torte from the Kissing Pigs Restaurant, left me relaxed and refreshed. The next time wanderlust strikes you, consider a real getaway to Corsica. You won’t be sorry.

Charming Les 4 Vent restaurant in Bonifacio serves delicious meals including a Tarte Tatin dessert, which is second to none.