Cycling in Northern Corsica – Bastia-Saint Florent-Calvi-Porto-Corte-Bastia. 430 Km - Sept 30-Oct 6.
This trip report is for those of you that are looking for a challenging cycling trip. Ever since I saw the TV coverage on the 2013 Tour de France in Corsica where the peloton cycled through the Callanches in Piana and snaked their way on roads that hugged the red cliffs high above the sea, it has always been my dream trip and I couldn’t stop thinking about it. As others that have written trip reports describing the beauty of the island, exploring Corsica via bicycle allows you to soak up the scenery more slowly. While researching cycling options, I did not see much on this forum so I thought it would be helpful to write this report from a cycling viewpoint for those interested in this option. My husband and I are avid cyclists who have cycled in many European countries; Corsica is by far our most memorable trip.
My husband and I also are not ones to ride bicycles with panniers so we were looking for a tour package that included transporting our luggage from point A to point B along with setting up the nightly hotels. These types of bike tours are called “Self-Guided” meaning no sag wagon or support, which we are ok with. After researching we found Europe Active Cycling which are one of the few cycling tour companies available on Corsica. On our arrival at the hotel, we received a set of directions for each day with mileage, profile and points of interests along the way as well as a map of Corsica.
Because of the size of the island, it was difficult to decide which part (north or south) to visit and what time of year to go. We opted to do a northern route starting in Bastia as we were arriving by ferry from Livorno, Italy. We knew that the months of July and August were out due to the number of tourists (read: cars) on the road as well as the high temperatures. We decided to go the last week of September to co-inside with our 10th year Anniversary. This proved to be a wise choice as temperatures were around 20-24C all week except for the day of rain and being in the middle of an unusual storm over the Mediterranean. We also expected car traffic to dwindle down after the popular tourist summer season. During this week, car traffic was minimal on all of our days, except on the major National roads, which made for some quiet and peaceful rides.
Day 1 – Bastia – Saint Florent, 105Km.
From our hotel, we head north on D80 around the Cap Corse. The sun is shining and it’s a beautiful temperature of 21C– perfect for cycling. The road meanders while hugging the coastline and the horizon of the sea goes on forever. Car traffic is minimal which makes for a very pleasant and stress-free day. The road is pristine for cycling. After 36Km, we arrive at Macinaggio, a small fishing village where I top up with water. The climb out of Macinaggio is a gradual climb up to 330 Meters over 14km. We go through a series of curvy downhill’s and end up on the west side of the island. On the overlook, we see a white chalk marking on the pavement overlooking the vista that reads “WOW”. It says it all. The vista is drop-dead gorgeous. We weave in and out of the coves and end up in Nonza at 87 km. We stop for a drink at a famous café called “Tour de Cafe.”. Nonza is a quaint village and if we didn’t have another 18 km to ride, we would have stopped to look around more. We continue to Patrimonio and arrive at 3:30 in Saint Florent. We get a room with a sea view but during this time of year, all is quiet except for 2 people relaxing at the pool.
Day 2 – Saint Florent – Calvi, 105Km.
Checking the weather numerous times after dinner last night, it shows rain in the forecast for today as well as the next. We hope for the best as we put on extra layering as it calls for only a high of 20C. Not 1Km from the hotel, it starts raining. We turn on D81 and decide to follow this road all the way to Calvi, which is a shorter route option of 70Km versus the scheduled 105Km. It’s a quiet climb up to Mte Lavezzo, albeit raining. I could only imagine the views being beautiful but everything is shrouded in clouds. Over the next 25Km, the rain continues. We reach the intersection of N197 and head towards L’lle-Rousse. The road is busier with a good shoulder at times, but we feel safe enough. It finally stops raining but by this time we are wet from the inside as well as outside, but as long as we keep moving we are ok. We see a number of other cyclists; maybe from another tour on the road, so we figure if everyone is wet and cold, we’re doing it together. It finally stops raining on this side of the island and by the time we arrive in Calvi we are ready for a hot shower. We use every chair, every rung in the closet to hang our wet clothes. Even the lamp came in handy as a clothesline. One trick to get your shoes dry after a day like this is to stuff newspapers in them. Nothing is worse than putting on wet shoes the next day. The winds pick up and gray clouds hover over the sea. We read a news report on this storm that is brewing up. It covers Corsica and Sardinia dropping buckets of rain and producing high winds. We hatch Plan B. We arrange a taxi ride for the next day to Porto and decide to be safe and warm versus cold and wet.
Day 3 – Calvi to Porto in a taxi – 70Km.
What is a Medicane? Now we know. It’s a Mediterranean hurri’cane’ meaning: huge storm with high amounts of rain, high winds, and flooding in some areas.
While we sit in the lobby, which is heated, waiting for the taxi, I take the opportunity to dry our (still) wet clothes on the heater. My husband shakes his head as I hang a few things over the heater.
The taxi picks us up at 1pm sharp. I settle in the front seat while J. sits behind me. The driver obviously knows this road by the speed of his driving and his confidence around the curves. He doesn’t speak English but he does gesture with his hands that the trip will be curvy while he also points to his head as to indicate that our head may feel dizzy. Every now and then, he asks us if we need to stop. After 2 times, we say no. Soon after that, we tell him to pull over. J. looks white and my head is spinning.
Clouds hover between the valleys of the mountains. We only imagine the “Wow” factor had we been able to cycle, but we are totally fine sitting in a car, dry and warm. Porto comes into view in a protected cove surrounded by red rocks. We settle in for the night and relax as tomorrow is a scheduled rest day anyway. The reports show the storm is blowing over Corsica heading to Italy and southern France.
Day 4 – Calvi-Piana-Col de la Croix – 75Km
The sun is out and reflecting off the red rocks in the harbor. We decide it’s a great day to ride to make up for yesterday. We ride up the 14Km road towards Piana at a 6% grade to the Calanches. Many cars have parked along the road near the Calanches and people are walking on the road taking pictures. It’s a beautiful area that is hard to get it all in on the camera. The red rocks tower over the road and looking at the tranquil sea makes up for yesterday’s fiasco. Since we were not able to ride part of the ride into Porto, we backtrack and go on one of the most scenic coastline roads (D81) towards the Col de la Croix, which climbs up to 295 meters. We turn around at the Col and head back to Porto. That night we have the boar boullanaise pasta which we particularly did not like, but it was pasta so we tried to get as many carbs in us as possible as the next day was another long day in the saddle. I can imagine Porto being filled with people and activity, but at this time of year, Porto is quiet and it’s easy to get into any restaurant.
Day 5 – Porto – Corte – 84Km
What a day ! We knew going into this day that there would be a 35Km climb and a 35Km downhill. Just looking at the profile looked like a shark’s fin. It would be challenging but we were ready and the best news: no rain in the forecast. Our only challenge is to keep warm going down from the Col and staying hydrated. Right after the 1st left on D84 out of Porto, it starts climbing. It’s winding up, up and up. You see the what’s ahead of you and the Gorges de Spelunca are mesmerizing and the surrounding mountains come into view. It’s eerily quiet and serene. We make it to the small village of Evisa sitting at 690 meters where our instruction booklet states we can top up with water. We come upon a store where the sign says ‘Snacks” but it is not open. The town unfolds and there are plenty of refreshments and snacks available at small shops. We top up and we continue to climb, and climb, and climb towards Col de Vergio. It’s a solid 5-8% grade with some stretches of 10-15%. We go deeper into the woods where the pines seem to reach the sky and the Col de Vergio stands at attention to our left. We come across 7-8 hunters, dressed in the traditional blaze orange pants and jackets, who have just killed a pig lying next to them on the ground. The dogs bark in excitement of the kill. Finally we reach the top of the Col at 1,477 meters. It’s windy and barren. We don’t linger long so we don’t get chilled. We proceed down on a nicely paved road that has a gentle slope and nice wide curves. The smell of autumn is in the air where the leaves on the trees are starting to change into the orange hues of fall. I smell pine and it takes me back to Colorado and fills my heart with comfort. We meet no other cyclists and just a few cars. Other than the occasional cows, pigs, or lamb chopping on acorns on the side of the road, they sometimes glance up with curiosity only to put their head down and continue to eat. They want nothing to do with us. As we continue to descend, we come across what we feel like is the middle of nowhere and the small villages feel eerily empty of activity or people. We come across a bunch of cows lazing around on the sidewalk, in the gutter, underneath the shade of a tree. It’s a strange sight. The only time their bells jingle is when they are moving. Again, they leave us be.
Now comes the surprise. We start making our way through a Scala di Sta Regina gorge than opens up with red and brown rock formations that plunge down about hundreds of feet and climb up to tower over us at the same height. You really start to feel small at this point. Again, the views take your breath away. We reach Corte after again being confused by the directions we were given. The hotel is out of town and the further we cycle to find the hotel, the more I get frustrated as I am tired and hungry. Our hotel is located on the Gorges de la Restonica where it ends up being a very serene and tranquil atmosphere next to the river. Now if we brought our swimsuits, we could go for a swim or sit in the hot tub. We eat a plate of charcuterie (the best so far!) with a couple of Pietra beers on the patio soaking up the last bits of the afternoon sun. The innkeeper is gracious and so courteous. She suggests eating dinner at a restaurant 300 meters from the hotel. We take her suggestion (as it’s our only option besides walking 2km into town) and again have a wonderful meal in a rustic hotel/restaurant next to the river. We sleep easily as it’s quiet, the bed is comfortable, and tomorrow is our last day.
Day 6 - 97KM Corte – Bastia OR 68km Corte-Bastia
Our muscles ache and we are tired. We move more slowly this morning. We dress for breakfast when J says out of the blue “well, I could take a ride in the taxi, pick up the car and pick you up”. My ears perk up. Did he just say that? I think it’s a good plan, but in the back of my mind I can’t think that we would cop out of riding just because we’re tired. Plus, no rain in site and the forecast predicts full-on sun and 23C. We opt to ride the shorter route (65km versus 97km). Our legs and mind-set don’t have climbing in us today. Once we crest the 1st climb out of Corte, our muscles warm up and we’re good to go. We cruise down N193 with sometime a shoulder and sometime not; however the cars and trucks whiz past us with more or less respect. On the outskirts of Bastia, cars line the highway in each direction. There was an accident backing up cars in each direction for miles. Finally after weaving in and out of traffic, we reach Hotel Alivi; sweaty, tired, thirsty and hungry.
After-thoughts of our Corsica trip: We completed 450 kilometers cycling in one of the most beautiful countries. The vistas were astounding. The conditions challenging yet we persevered and we weathered the Medicane storm. My expectations far exceeded reality. Everyday was a different city, different route, different weather conditions while coming across a wide range of encounters from hotel staff and people we met along the route. From a scenery perspective, I couldn’t stop thinking “wow, wow, wow”. At times I felt I was on the island of Maui and then another day I was in Colorado or Utah. What struck me funny were the cows wondering along the road in the towns while the pigs ate hungrily along the road not caring about us at all. Despite the “Medicane” storm, we only compromised 1 day of not riding. We got tired, we got wet, we ran out of water, we climbed hundreds of meters and descended just as many. All in all, it was one of the most memorable cycling trips we have taken.
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Cycling in Northern Corsica – Bastia-Saint Florent-Calvi-Porto-Corte-Bastia. 430 Km - Sept 30-Oct 6.