Corsica: Returning to old haunts on the Med's most beautiful island
Probably the most compulsive liar you are ever going to meet is your own memory.
They often say you should never return to the places of fondest recall because they will never be quite the same. Oftimes, it is simply because they have changed over the years but on other occasions it’s because they were never in the first place quite what your mind so clearly recalls today.
I was last in the idyllic little Corsican hilltop hamlet of Piedicroce –‘The Foot of the Cross’ – during the long, hot summer of 1974, that’s 38-years ago, leading 25 wealthy Americans on a three-week cycling tour of the beautiful and mountainous Mediterranean island.
I’ve dined out ever since on my story of how Piedicroce’s war memorial bears the names of 18 soldiers with the surname Casanova, who died during The Great War but does not say whether they were killed by the Germans or by jealous husbands,
It’s a nice story but on my recent long overdue return I discovered a serious flaw. The memorial is still there right enough, beside the church, just where I remember it, but there’s not a single Casanova inscribed on it – so the memorial I’ve recalled so vividly for all these years must have been in another place at another time!
Another memory is of sitting on the terrace of the Le Refuge Hotel – yes, that spot at least proved as I remember it – listening to the cock crow as I ate my breakfast and surmising that maybe it was the same fowl that would be in the coq au vin I had pre-ordered for lunch – though, maybe in reality, I ended up opting for the lamb!
It’s times like these that make you realise that while planning your own holiday can have its merits, and in these days of the internet it is easier than ever to do so, it helps if, even when returning to old haunts, you can compare notes with an expert and call on their up-to-date on-the-ground knowledge – which is why I chose a tailor-made package put together by the highly experienced team at Corsican Places (tel: 0845 330 2059, www.corsica.co.uk) part of the highly recommendable Serenity Group with whom I have previously holidayed in The Gambia and who are also specialists in Sardinia and the Cape Verde Islands,
Like my fellow members of the British Guild of Travel Writers, you could dump me in the middle of the Gobi Desert with a broken compass and an out-of-date map and I would find my way out – though it has to be said that if you put six of us in a lift together we’d have trouble deciding which button we should press – but there are times when I appreciate having other people sort out my needs,
When things go well with a self-planned holiday it’s fine but it’s when problems sneak up on you that you appreciate the smiling face of a rep like Corsican Place’s Diana, who met me at the airport off my first-rate easyJet flight from Gatwick and whisked me straight to the front of the Avis car rental queue.
To my mind, using the services of a travel agent or tour operator who actually knows the place he or she is sending you to is as commonsense as taking out proper travel insurance. Besides, they’ll likely know deals you would not find for yourself and, importantly, if things go wrong, you have some redress.
With years of experience, attested to by a ‘Best Destination Specialist Tour Operator’ award from Atout France (the French government tourism development agency) Corsican Places certainly know their French onions.
“The Corsicans love having the Brits as guests,” Diana’s boss Rob Ashton-Kane told me later, “We get the right type here – well-behaved, polite, and they are good spenders too. It’s a quality destination; part of France but with an independent streak and almost an Italian edge to things.
“Though French is the lingua franca, they have their own language – but don’t ever suggest to them that you think it sounds Italian! In reality the accent, dialect and vernacular change quite dramatically from one valley to the next so they often have to revert to French in order to understand one another.”
Working with his team of expert inspectors Rob, whose wife is also employed by the company, has spent more than a decade putting together a portfolio of superior rental villas, self-catering apartments and hotel rooms and suites across the island – in popular beach resorts and hidden little villages up in the hills.
“Corsican Places has 25 years’ experience on the island and eight staff members who are based here, mostly year-round, so help and advice is always at hand,” says Rob,
Help and advice was bursting out of the voluminous and meticulously researched 106-page information folder that had been left for me by Corsican Places in my room at the perfectly sited Best Western Santa Maria Hotel, down in the port at Ile Rousse, right where the ferries from Marseilles dock and in the lee of the Balagne Mountains.
The info filled document brimmed with places to go, things to do and first on the agenda was a walk through the old town, with its elegant colonnaded square and statue of Pascal Paoli, the father figure of all true-blooded Corsicans.
A little history: after years of dispute between various Mediterranean powers, the Genoese finally took control of Corsica in 1284. Pascal Paoli launched an uprising, which did not end until 1769, a year after the Genoese had sold the island to France who put the ruthless Comte Marbeuf and General Morando in charge.
Eventually Paoli secured help from the English, who ruled Corsica from 1794 to 1796 when the newly born French Republic regained power. As for Paoli, he died in exile in England and was buried in Westminster Abbey, his remains being returned to his homeland many years later, Meanwhile, that upstart Napoleon Bonaparte had ruled the roost – a Corsican who had forsaken his roots adapted his surname and become the most French of all Frenchmen (There’s an excellent Bonaparte Museum in Ajaccio).
After many decades of unrest and occasional violence, in1990 France’s national assembly finally approved a statute recognising the Corsican people’s right to maintain an identity of their own, with special cultural, economic and social rights but remaining within the French Republic.
That identity manifests itself in many ways. Take the cuisine for example: French, Italian, Greek, Spanish, Phoenician and Moroccan influences manifest themselves in a mouth-watering melange.
Most famous are the many varieties of farmhouse cheeses and charcuterie while the signature dish is civet de sanglier au châtaignes (cignale cù e castagne in Corsican) an unctuous stew of wild boar and chestnuts. Other dishes to jump out of the menu include slow-roasted spring lamb with rosemary, veal medallions with citrus fruits and honey and all manner of delights from the fish counter, including the famed mussels from the Diana lagoon, halfway up the east coast. These are coated in flavoured breadcrumbs and served grilled on the half-shell.
Corsican wines, especially the rosé offerings, have a growing reputation.
Being set just five minutes’ pleasant walk along the waterfront from a web of tiny streets jam-packed with neon-lit eateries, the Best Western Hotel Santa Maria proved perfectly placed.
Unlike most chains, Best Western has no defined image when it comes to its properties. Diverse is an understatement. As Corsican Places had promised it would be, the Santa Maria proved one of BW’s better properties, with comfortable air-conditioned rooms, spacious public areas, a large pool, its own sheltered beach and a copious breakfast to set me up for the day.
I resisted the lure of the sunbeds and spent my days exploring. To the south lay the popular resort of Calvi and, a lot further down the coast, the stunningly beautiful jagged red rocks of Les Calanches and the breathtaking Bay of Porto, guarded by an imposing mediaeval watchtower – surely one of the most romantic places in the world to watch the sun go down.
Inland was the dramatic Parc Naturel Régionel de Corse, with its tumbling streams and deep gorges and the steep cobbled backstreets of ancient Corte, the headquarters town of the famed – or should that be infamous? – French Foreign Legion.
It doesn’t look much on the map, but set at least five or six hours aside for the dramatic drive round Cap Corse, that spectacular promontory that sticks out of the top of the island, pointing finger-like to the far-off mainland France – and hope, as you negotiate the endless twists and turns, ups and downs and often precariously narrow stretches of one of the planet’s most fabled coast roads, that nobody in the vehicle is a car sickness sufferer. After all that nail-biting drama, you could stop for a strong coffee at one of the popular student thronged pavement cafés in downtown Bastia, the island’s self-important second city – if you could ever find a place to park in what must be one of Europe’s most traffic-logged towns.
Beyond my reach this time was the capital city of Ajaccio and, with views across to neighbouring Sardinia, super-photogenic Bonifacio, with its houses built precipitously into the side of the near sheer cliffs. But 30-degree temperatures, clear blue skies and balmy evenings had made it a memorable September sojourn on a remarkable island where even fractured memories could not spoil things. Like Sicily, Corsica was once bandit-ridden and had its own version of the Mafia but it is now a very safe and peaceful place and the locals are very friendly.
When I stupidly reversed down a hidden ditch, two passing motorcyclists and a 4X4 driver stopped immediately to offer their help and had me back on the road in a few minutes. When I proffered my thanks the truck driver responded warmly: ”You are never on your own in Corsica.” – a lovely comment that made my day.
Corsican Places (0845 330 2345; www.corsica.co.uk) operates its own charter services from London Stansted to the NW Corsican town of Calvi and to Figari, in the south of the island. They also run charter flights from Manchester to Calvi and offer feeder flights from Belfast International for all these services.
The company is the UK’s leading tour operator to the island, offering the widest range of accommodation, with villas, apartments, residences and hotels across the island. Self-catering choices range from simple lodgings to premium properties, embracing both modern and character options at all price levels. Hotels on offer vary from the small and family-run, to the five-star and luxurious.
Their villa and hotel packages include a choice of direct flights from the UK, combined with transfers and good value car hire from reputable companies such as Avis, as well as the services of Corsican Places highly knowledgeable local representatives.
Among the flight options are easyJet services to Bastia – the island’s second largest city – in the northeast or to Ajaccio, the capital.
Now operating over more than 600 routes and more than 30 countries, easyJet carries 55-million passengers a year across its network. Employing 8,000 people, including 1,000 pilots and 4,500 cabin crew, the company flies a fleet of 200 modern aircraft, which have an average age of just four years.
On average, easyJet flies its customers at an average price of 1100km for £4.50 (€5) per 110km. That’s cheaper than any other airline that flies to centrally located airports. 18 per cent of easyJet’s passengers are flying on business. A million more business passengers flew with easyJet in 2011 than in the previous year.
While most other airlines are in the red, easyJet posted record profits in 2011 and has 15 additional Airbus 320 aircraft on order – since 2013 a new aircraft has been added to the fleet at an average rate of one a fortnight.
easyJet offers low cost flights from Belfast International to some 22 destinations, including London Gatwick, London Luton, London Stansted. Onbound flights to Bastia and Ajaccio, in Corsica, operate from Gatwick.
A further option is to fly from Dublin to Bastia with Air France.