Corsica ranks as one of Europe’s most beautiful islands. But faites attention — choose your road carefully. It’s no place to be distracted by the spectacular volcanic scenery. Otherwise you might find your car teetering on the edge of oblivion.
Even in such wild surroundings, there’s often a semi-suicidal biker hurtling past you or towards you — headlight blazing, squeezing into space that barely exists between you, the edge of the road and any other cars that happen to be rocketing your way. Next year Corsica is set to host stages of the Tour de France for the first time. It will be a challenge indeed for the riders.
Two-thirds of the French island is mountainous. Wildly sculpted and jagged peaks rise out of the Mediterranean, many well beyond 8,000 feet, where golden eagles, buzzards and kites soar at will.
The mountains are flanked by vast expanses of lush vegetation in Corsica’s celebrated maquis, dotted exotically (when we were there in May) with gorse, prickly pear, aloes, eucalyptus, juniper, myrtle, clematis, honeysuckle and the pink and white wild maquis cistus, all mingling with perfumed wild herbs. At higher altitudes, you’ll find chestnuts, one of Corsica’s great products, along with olives.
The verdant terrain finally rolls down to a coastline of 620 miles, with more than 200 beaches. My wife and I had to share one with a herd of cows.
The coast is occasionally punctuated by dramatic, towering citadels — relics of times past when, as decades and even centuries came and went, Corsica was besieged by an extraordinary number of the most powerful invaders in Europe and beyond — from Carthaginians and Ancient Greeks to Romans, Vandals, Visigoths, Saracens, and even the British.
Often invaders never really conquered the entire island: the indigenous Corsicans simply moved their villages higher into the mountains to maintain a degree of independence in the many hilltop communities.
Visiting them by car can be unsettling: having had a taste of the tortuous mountain routes that riddle the interior, we decided to stick to the main roads during our explorations.
The N193 runs from Bastia in the north-east, down the east coast to Bonifacio at the southerly tip more than 100 miles away.
On the west coast, the roads are narrower, more wriggly and scarier. To avoid them, it’s best to take the N196 back to Ajaccio, birthplace of Napoleon, and then continue through the centre of the island on the N193 until Ponte Leccia.
Here the road divides, taking you either to Bastia, or L’Île-Rousse, where we were based, and on to the former Genoese capital, Calvi — a citadel town which today is home to the 2nd Foreign Legion Parachute Regiment.
Even the N193 takes you close to peaks of well over 2,000 metres, and you can spot Monte Cinto in the distance — at 2,706m, the highest mountain on the island.
To avoid being total wimps, we did manage one recce along a minor road: the route from Monetta, on the north-west coast, across the so-called Désert des Agriates. This leads to the picturesque little port of St Florent.
At only 24 miles, at least we knew that if it did get stressful, we didn’t have too long to wait before we could relax over a good lunch. There was always the worrying prospect of having to drive back — but as it turned out it was pretty much a doddle.
For really nervous drivers, the train could be the answer. The journey from L’Île-Rousse to Calvi takes 45 minutes if you go via the narrow gauge railway, called U Trinighellu. It means “The Shaker” — a pretty appropriate description of the combined vibrating effect of the old rolling stock and perhaps the lack of use of a spirit level when the rails were first put down.
Another option is to go by boat. We enjoyed a leisurely catamaran ride from Calvi to Ajaccio and back, incorporating close-up encounters with towering red cliffs and grottos, with a three-hour lunch break in the capital and time at least to pause outside the house where Napoleon was born.
Intriguingly, in her invaluable and brilliantly researched book, Granite Island: A Portrait of Corsica, Dorothy Carrington suggests that during the brief British rule here, Napoleon was technically a British subject.
We stayed in an apartment in the centre of L’Île-Rousse, with 78 steps (it occurred to me that this was twice Thirty-Nine Steps — a slightly weary nod to John Buchan) from street level to a beautifully appointed balcony. Perched high above the rooftops of curled clay tiles, we had a sweeping view of the harbour, town and mountains.
Breakfast lingered on each morning as we watched flocks of swifts and martins zooming this way and that, screeching and bleeping as they chased myriad insects, and — like Lancaster bombers returning from a raid — large gulls drifting in from the sea to perch on nearby chimney pots.
Eventually the aroma of garlic wafting up from the streets below would set us off in search of lunch, negotiating all 78 steps again, including a tricky top section which I nicknamed the Hillary Steps after the last section of the Everest ascent, in honour of the peak’s first conqueror, Sir Edmund Hillary.
As we reached the narrow street below, we often heard a nightingale which seemed to have taken up residence in a large plane tree just over an adjoining wall. I doubt if we’ll hear one again until we return to Corsica — as I’m sure we shall.