Stunningly beautiful and geographically rugged, Corsica has inspired stories that focus on its vendetta tradition. Really. I was taken aback to find so many works that used vendetta as a theme: Balzac’s Vendetta; Guy de Maupassant’s “The Corsican Bandit” and other stories; Alexandre Dumas’ The Corsican Brothers; Journal of a Tour to Corsica by Boswell (1879), or Columba by Prosper Merimee (author of Carmen). A father casts aside his beloved daughter when she falls in love with the son of an enemy; a son kills 14 family members to avenge his father; and two brothers feud. Even a contemporary thriller, Mazzeri, by Peter Crawley (2013) included retribution for long-held feuds while it also featured a love story and Russian thugs.
The Rose Café, in contrast, by John Hanson Mitchell (2007) is a memoir about sitting out the Vietnam draft working in a café in Corsica. It includes delightful character sketches while also charting the summer love affairs of the patrons and staff.
Travelers to this French island, once dominated by Italy—hence the Genoese towers on nearly every outcropping by the sea—can learn about its history through Dorothy Carrington’s thorough Granite Island (1971), still the most authoritative source. The icon of Corsica, the image of a black Moor with white bandana, derives from the defeat of the Moors in the Middle Ages when an Aragon king added a illustration of four such profiles to his coat of arms. When has a country ever adopted a defeated people as its symbol? Still, the head shows up on its flag, license plates, and ferries.
We watched the ubiquitous ferries enter the historic harbor of Bastia from the terrace of our hotel high up in the Citadel.
From Bastia, a good day trip goes north to Cap Corse. A lot of travelers circumnavigate the cape by car, but an alternative is to go to the end of the road at Matinaggio and then hike the Sentier des Douaniers, the trail used by custom officers to try and catch smugglers. The entire trek takes eight hours, but that can be shortened by any amount of time, either turning back, or catching a boat ride after a couple of hours.
That offers an opportunity to stop for degustation of Corsican wines, cheese, and sausage at the delightful Terra de Catoni; its owner retired from corporate life to re-invigorate the family vineyard.
White wines are particularly good, and the fromage tends to be chevre or sheep cheese. The longur is a smoked pork fillet that reminds me a lot of the hams that my Dad smoked after the fall butchering on our farm in Missouri. Our lunches when traveling tend to be cheese, bread, fruit, and wine, so stocking up on local farm fare is helpful.
On the way back to Bastia, the village of Erbalunga features a distinct Genoese fort overlooking its harbor. Its church was reputed to host some interesting relics, including a piece of clay that formed Adam. I took a lot of delight in reading Gertrude Forde’s account (1880) from her journal of a visit to a grotte (cave) near the village. In fact, if I were to recommend one fun read for visiting Corsica, it might very well be the two volume work of this intrepid woman and her two friends. Frankly, we cringed on driving some of the vertiginous roads of the island, but these 19th century women got about by carriage, and if she ever felt that the driver was “asleep at the wheel” so to speak, she had her umbrella ready to poke him; fortunately, he always seemed to wake up in the nick of time before any precipice. And, believe me, there are definite drop-offs. We crossed the island from Bastia to Porto via the Col Vergio highway, which overlooks two impressive gorges and a summit graced by a Lady of the Mountain sculpture. De Maupassant describes the area around this mountaintop “bandit’s hideaway”: “ ….. “ Wonderful hiking opportunities exist along the route, including the Sentier des Condamnees (trail of prisoners) that was used for logging and the nature trail, Sentier de Sittelle (Nuthatches), which is signed by pictures of the bird.
Serious hikers follow the “Mare to Mare” (sea to sea) or “Mare to Mont” (sea to mountain) trails. All of these are well-signed. Another good way to hike the mountains is to take the “little train” from Bastia to Ajaccio, but stopping along the way at Vizzavona to do an easy hike such as the Cascade d’Anglais (waterfall) and then hopping on a return train.
Porto itself is home to UNESCO-designated sea preserve and calanques. A boat tour or kayak expedition is a good way to see these sites, which may include Girolata, a village that is accessible only by water or a 90 minute walk from the highway. Forde describes in her 19th century narrative why Porto is so impressive: “These rocks are impossible to describe; their grandeur can only be felt. . . They rise almost perpendicularly to their fearful height….” They felt the Porto rocks to be the “most beautiful site in Corsica. . . . It is impossible to imagine anything more sublime than these blood-read precipices—more wonderful, more perpendicular, and more lofty . . .and again falling beneath us in an unfashionable gorge that made one shudder to look into.” When Forde and her party reached, Porto, only five houses existed. The threat of malaria resulted in a chill in tourism. Today, many hotels exist, and bus tours predominate as passengers take one of many boat cruises to the Preserve of Scandola. (Beware meeting tour buses on the narrow roads into the village.)
And, speaking of possible obstacles on the road: who let the hogs out? Some 45,000 feral pigs inhabit the island and may lounge on roadways, along with the occasional cow that displays bovine cognition lower than that of the rooting pig. At a picnic and hiking stop along a mountain road, we found the pigs to be just as demanding as the marmots of some of our national parks, begging for handouts.
It’s a far cry from the days of Gertrude Forde when 9 francs a day would pay for expenses of food and lodging. A bottle of 1769 Vineyard Corsican wine costs more but is still reasonable. That is the year Napoleon was born and Corsica’s independence died. In spite of patriot Paola, Corsica became a part of France, which, ironically, Napoleon countenanced as Emperor.
Forde noted in her preface that “The popularity of Corsica is increasing so rapidly, and information regarding the island is so difficult to obtain, that these sketches may not be unacceptable to intending travelers.” And this was 1880. Corsica is not a well-known destination for USA travelers but definitely one of natural beauty worthy of a trip. And how interesting that a 19th century journal about such travel still inspires.
Note: Historic reads such as de Maupassant and others can usually be downloaded for free via the very helpful Gutenberg.org. This LINK contains a list of dozens of books about Corcsica. Our favorite travel guides include the DK Guide to Corsica and Walk and Eat Corsica, one of a helpful series for hikers.