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around Corscia

Jay Collier drives the right way around The Beautiful Island in a motorhome, and finds fascinating coastal towns steeped in history

With many years of motorhome travel behind us, a new die was cast when we came across a book entitled The Granite Island by Dorothy Carrington. This island, known to the ancient Greeks as Kallisto and to present-day inhabitants as L'Ile de Beauté, is Corsica.


Corsica has a long and turbulent history; the indigenous population has at various times been enslaved, besieged and subjected to pirate raids  – though more often driven to the mountainous interior, from where to wage rebellion. During World War II Corsica was occupied by 80,000 Italian and 8,000 German troops, relentlessly harassed by islanders conducting guerilla warfare from hideouts in the maquis – those vast areas of tangled, almost impenetrable vegetation which gave name to other underground resistance movements.


Corsican allegiance has been paid to the Papacy, Pisa, Genoa, the Kingdom of Aragon, and backwards and forwards to France. There was an Anglo-Corsican Kingdom for two years from 1794, when British naval action off the Corsican coast cost Nelson his eye. Finally, in 1811, Corsica was made a departement of France. Even today not everyone is happy with that arrangement and the initials FLNC (Front de Liberation Nationale de La Corse) decorate many a local wall.

  

Native families have not always been able to agree even amongst themselves. Hair-raising stories are told of blood feuds which claimed over 900 lives in an average year, all in the name of honour. One disagreement over a chestnut tree set two families on a course of 36 revenge killings. Corsican vendettas were recorded in Roman chronicles but, officially at least, finally died out in the 1950s.

It is almost to be expected that Corsica has made few concessions to tourism but the dearth of published material for motorhomers stirred our pioneering spirit. So when our friends chose Corsica for their holiday, they were instructed to assess its suitability for our 7-metre home on wheels.


Their answer was not encouraging, largely due to their own hair-raising experience in a hired car on a single track road up a precipitous mountain-side. Narrow is even less negotiable with a motorhome but we actually had no plans for high altitude travel on this occasion. Our advisers finally seemed to be swayed by the promise of a consignment of Corsican red wine and we received a cautious blessing.


Photographer's dream

So off we drove early one October morning, heading south. In retrospect the most stressful stretch of the entire holiday was the 270 miles between our Peak District home and Dover, what with motorway repairs, volume of traffic and the M25. We had booked an overnight crossing from Marseilles to Corsica, whiling away the evening hours in one of the restaurants. Overall it was impossible to find fault with anything on board; we even docked a few minutes early.

Top and above: Calvi

Bonifaccio by Jean-Pol Grandmont (Own work) CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Corsican traffic by Jean-Pol Grandmont (Own work) CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Gulf of Ajaccio by Jean-Pol Grandmont (Own work) CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Bastia is the most northerly major town on the island and really the most modern, yet its past role as the capital under Genoese administration has bestowed a decidedly Italian air. By contrast beautiful Calvi on the opposite coast, facing France, owes more to the whims of tourism. On the southerly tip of the island lies Bonifacio, a photographer's dream, especially if one walks along the cliff-tops to look back at its incredible position, with views of Sardinia just out to sea. Wild camping is not exactly forbidden on Corsica but is not particularly easy, so it was campsites for us. A leg-stretching walk achieved the Haute Ville, a tangle of narrow streets and tall buildings split by perpendicular staircases where once were only ladders that could be pulled up in times of seige. A fairly level walk from the town opens up the sky and sea again, with dizzy views of what scholars believe to be Homer's 'excellent harbour, closed in on all sides by an unbroken ring of precipitous cliffs, with two bold headlands facing each other at the mouth so as to leave only a narrow channel in between' – the actual town being home to Homer's cannibalistic Laestrygonians.

Scents of the maquis

German fortifications can be explored at the furthest point of the rock, in evocative contrast to the whitewashed necropolis close by. Isolated family tombs are found all over Corsica but here are a large number built on a street pattern, established over countless generations. This necropolis is only a fraction of the size of one at Ajaccio; anything less resembling an English churchyard is difficult to imagine.

  

None of the coastal towns is a disappointment. Propriano, a bygone target for pirate raids, is a good base for exploring minor coastal roads in the south-west. Five km along the D517 towards Olmeto Plage is an excellent beach campsite.

Anyone with at least a passing interest in plants is in for a treat on Corsica. Even at the end of autumn the breeze-blown scents of the maquis, with their combinations of lavender, rosemary, thyme, juniper, myrtle and thorny brooms, are still seductive. The so-called strawberry trees are smothered in soft red arbouse berries and all over the island stand cork oaks, their rough trunks stripped down to a smooth red, renewable surface. Sheltered villages hide behind groves of orange, lemon and lime or amongst the extensive sweet chestnut forests of Castagniccia, a region famous for its distinctive nutty honey and delectable pork from pigs reared on a surfeit of chestnuts.

  

Autumn proved to be an ideal time to explore this lovely island, most holidaymakers having been and gone. We kept hearing too how we would love L'Ile de Beauté in spring when it is particularly stunning … maybe next year.     

Green Adventures June 2016

Motorhoming Corsica