Sun, flowers and history in Corsica

THE blue Corsican sky rained men as we breakfasted on warm baguettes and chestnut flavoured honey on the terrace of our villa overlooking the bay of Calvi on the island’s north-west coast. As they leapt from their plane the parachutists from the nearby Foreign Legion base distracted us from another arresting sight – Calvi’s ancient citadel, perched Camelot-like on a granite promontory. The Genoese built the citadel, with its narrow alleys and red-roofed houses, in the thirteenth century before seizing the entire island a few years later and constructing the protective citadels and coastal towers that still characterise Corsica. Even though the island has been French since 1768, its towns and villages, with their tall, wooden-shuttered houses in sun-faded pinks, yellows and peaches, still feel and look Italian.

In Calvi’s restaurant and bar-lined harbour, fishing boats jostle with pleasure vessels from expensive catamarans to smaller yachts and the zodiacs that speedwet-suited divers to the many local dive-sites. As in much of the Mediterranean,the British have a history in these waters. In 1794, during the wars with revolutionary France, the sailors of a British fleet disembarked with their cannon and bombarded Calvi. During the action Horatio Nelson was blinded in the right eye. (Contrary to common belief he didn’t wear a patch to hide this sightless eye but a green shade to protect his left eye from the sun.)

But it’s Nelson great enemy – “the Corsican Monster” as the British called Napoleon Bonaparte – who most people associate with the island. From Calvi we took a boat trip southwards to Ajaccio where he was born. During the three hour journey, we explored the dramatic coastline of the Scandola Nature Reserve where jagged red granite cliffs plunge into the transparent crystalline waters of this World Heritage Site. Ospreys circle the peaks and cormorants perform aerobatics as they slice into the sea for fish. At the water’s edge, sea urchins, anemones and mussels cling to the rocks. Higher up, a yellow shrub – euphorbia dendroides to give it its Latin name – blazes yellow. As we sailed into Ajaccio’s harbour, the breeze filled the spinnakers of a flotilla of large vintage yachts competing in a regatta. Tucked away in a side street we found the Maison Bonaparte – Napoleon’s birth place. When the British briefly seized Ajaccio in 1794, they used the house as an arsenal before partially destroying it but Napoleon’s mother Letizia restored it. Ajaccio is certainly a fine place for Napoleon aficionados.

His statue is everywhere. In the Cathedral you can see where he was baptised while the Salon Napoleonien in the Hotel de Ville houses Bonaparte family paintings and artefacts. A fine art collection including works by Botticelli, Titian and other Renaissance masters assembled by Cardinal Fesch – Napoleon’s uncle – is exhibited in the arcaded palace he built for himself. Nine members of the family including Napoleon’s parents are buried in the adjacent Imperial Chapel. Exploring Corsica is like reading an adventure story. Even in the quietest places you come across stories of drama and violence. In the village of Calenzana – a short drive up into the mountains from Calvi – a plaque commemorates how long ago the locals killed 5,000 German mercenaries in the pay of the Genoese. They first dropped bee hives on their enemies then, wearing protective garments to protect themselves from the angry bees, poured from their houses to finish off their enemies with clubs. Today Calenzana is the point of departure for hikers tackling the famous high-altitude GR 20 trail running 124 miles along the spine of the island from north-west to south-east. The walk is strenuous but fixed ladders and chains help in the trickiest places.

Being lazy, we preferred to drive around the island along its dramatic, twisting roads. In late May, sunbathers were bronzing on soft-sand beaches in 30C heat while snow still gleamed on the serrated ridges of mountains rising over 8,000 feet. The coast feels southern European lush with oleanders, palms, citrus and olive trees. In the garden of our villa lemon trees bowed under the weight of fruit. In surrounding lanes, sticky yellow flowers were forming on the patches of prickly pear reputedly brought to the island from America by the Genoese Christopher Columbus. (Some claim Columbus was born in an ancient house within Calvi’s citadel).

Along the coast, low dense bushes of sweet-scented pink and white rock roses – the maquis plant that gave its name to the French WWII Resistance – flowered among scarlet poppies and yellow broom. Switching off the air conditioning we wound down the car windows to breathe in the herb scented air, catching the fragrance of wild rosemary, sage, juniper and fennel. Drive up into the mountains and the vegetation changes to forests of oak, silver-barked eucalyptus and chestnut trees with shiny pointed bright green leaves. Ascending higher, we smelled the tang of the graceful parasol-shaped Corsican pines.

Corsican cooking – earthy and robust – reflects the island’s produce. Corsicans have been making flour from chestnuts since the sixteenth century. Today they use the chestnut in everything from breads, cakes, beers and mousses to honey.

Order a kir and the waiter might ask you whether you’d like it with chestnut liqueur instead of cassis The free-roaming pigs you see rooting about in the forests also scoff on the chestnuts, giving the charcuterie a distinctive flavour. The island’s sheep and goats produce milk for many fine cheeses. We enjoyed a typical Corsican meal beginning with an assiette de charcuterie – thin slices of salamis and hams. Next came a copper pan of wild boar stewed with olives and herbs and finally fiadone (a baked cheesecake made with Brocciu), a mild Ricotta-like white cheese accompanied by fritelli (fritters made of chestnut flour). The robust and full-bodied Corsican wines – made on the island since the days of the Greeks and Romans – go well with this style of food. So does Corsican beer like La Pietra to which chestnut flour is added, or the pale-gold and myrtle-flavoured wheat beer, Colomba.

On our last night we sat in a bar on Calvi’s waterfront. Glitter balls sparkled above a pair of black and white images of Audrey Hepburn as light shone from the yachts in marina and we reflected on our week in Corsica. As befits the birthplace of Napoleon – a small man with big ambitions – it’s a small-scale island but with big-scale possibilities.

Diana Preston went to Corsica with Travelzest’s VFB holidays, staying at the Casa Cassaninca. Prices from £322 pp based on six sharing and including flights from Gatwick and car hire.

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