8 Days in Corsica--Not Enough!

Old Aug 3rd, 2009, 05:41 PM
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8 Days in Corsica--Not Enough!

I am attempting my first trip report for two reasons: I have enjoyed so many wonderful trip reports that others have written; and Corsica is so marvelous and I don't see much about it here. My report may be thin on facts and thick with superlatives, but I hope what I can report about one of the best trips of my life might inspire someone else to go. I went with a good friend in early June, 2008 and we traveled by boat, train, car, and got lost on foot in the mountains--but I'm getting ahead of myself.

An island in the Mediterranean and Napoleon Bonaparte: that's about what I knew when I came to the south of France. It wasn't long before I began hearing more and more about Corsica. There are many people in the south of France who are Corsican or whose families are from Corsica. And for many French people, Corsica is a travel dream, a place they love or a place they haven't been to yet but want to go to. So I began to plan a trip to Corsica. I read, I googled, and I got great advice, particularly from a French friend who discussed various itineraries with me and who told me which ferry boat to take, which side of the narrow-gauge mountain train to sit on for the best views and when to move to the other side of the train. I also got what proved to be not-so-great advice from another French friend, who said it was early in the season so we didn't need to make hotel reservations anywhere. Our lack of a hotel room for our last night became a problem.

We took the overnight ferry from Marseille to Bastia. We boarded half an hour before departure time and we saw no one except the crew member who, when I asked where everyone else was, said with a smile, "This ship is just for you." We laughed and then found out he wasn't kidding. We were on the Danielle Casanova, the newest SNCM ferry, a majestic white ship with gleaming brass fittings and capacity for over 2000 passengers. There were only 137 passengers on that crossing, and I think about 100 of them were in hiding. This was not good for our carbon footprint, but we loved everything about our boat. We learned from an engraved plaque that she is named for a French resistance heroine. Our cabin was comfortable, attractive and clean, complete with bottled water and TV. (Well, we had a lot of trouble opening the door, even after the crew person we summoned showed us how to push hard in a certain spot, but that just made us all the happier every time we managed to get inside.) Marseille looked beautiful as we moved out of the new port and past the old port. As the golds and roses of the sunset faded into dusk and then dark, the 20 or so other passengers on deck disappeared and we were alone. Evening was mild and calm and we stayed on deck for a few hours. In that time only one or two other people appeared briefly and then left. I don't think we realized how lucky we were to have such a smooth sailing until the trip back, when for a while we could barely walk into the wind on the windward side.

We awoke early and got very excited to see the emerging coastline. It was too foggy to make out any landmarks, which was disappointing since that was our only view of Cap Corse, the thumb that sticks up from the fist that is the rest of Corsica. Once on shore in Bastia, we walked to the train station and bought tickets for the 3:23 train that would take us into the mountains and halfway down the island. Left our bags there. We had several hours to explore Bastia and to have breakfast and lunch. I also had the idea that it might be possible to take the bus to nearby Erbalunga. A Corsican friend from there had told me how beautiful it is. And in fact we could have had an hour in Erbalunga if only the not-very-helpful person in the tourist office had told us the bus stop was just across the street. (We asked! She waved her hand vaguely. We should have asked again.) Instead, we wandered around for at least 20 minutes looking for the right bus stop and asking directions of the wrong people. We finally found it back where we had started just as the bus pulled away.

We no longer had time to go to Erbalunga. Instead, we had a leisurely walk the length of Bastia. We had already had a breakfast pastry at an outdoor cafe in the 19th century square of place St-Nicholas where there is a statue of Napoleon Bonaparte dressed as a Greek warrior/bodybuilder. We ended up in the 15th-17th century citadel at A Casarella, a restaurant with a sunny terrace precipitously high above the old port. We asked the waiter what the dishes were at the neighboring table and if they were good and he said, seriously, "No, they are not good at all." He laughed, we ordered them and they were delicious. We left feeling very pleased with ourselves and with Corsica so far. Then we had a nerve-wracking 45 minutes or so waiting for the bus to take us back to town. Made it to the train station in time.

The ride through the mountains was stunning and breathtaking. Steep wooded hills and valleys, rushing rivers. I didn't have to follow my friend's advice about when to change sides because we were almost alone in the train car and I could move back and forth as often as I wanted. I wished we had time to stop in Corte and see the only university in Corsica, but we were on our way to Vizzavona, 2 1/2 hours from Bastia, and what I hoped would be an impressively eccentric hotel and a fantastic dinner. Plus our only chance to experience a little of the GR 20, the 170 km footpath that is considered the most difficult in France.
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Old Aug 3rd, 2009, 06:10 PM
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I love hearing about something new, thanks.
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Old Aug 3rd, 2009, 08:08 PM
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About half of my colleagues in Paris are in Corsica at the moment!
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Old Aug 4th, 2009, 04:31 AM
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Looking forward to the rest of your report as we are going to Corsica in September. I too have found little written about personal experiences so I am anxious to read your trip.
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Old Aug 4th, 2009, 04:46 AM
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Should have read -----anxious to read your trip report!

Mrs. Laidback
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Old Aug 4th, 2009, 05:08 AM
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This will be a wonderful addition to trip reports on Fodors. Thanks!
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Old Aug 4th, 2009, 05:36 AM
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Thanks for this report. My husband and I are planning a trip there for September as well and we're getting very excited!
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Old Aug 4th, 2009, 06:36 AM
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Looking forward to the rest of your report!
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Old Aug 4th, 2009, 07:42 AM
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I've always wondered about Corsica as a destination and am eager to read all of your report.
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Old Aug 4th, 2009, 08:32 AM
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bookmarking to read rest. Corsica is on my sister's dream list, so I will have to pass on.
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Old Aug 4th, 2009, 08:53 AM
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Was just thinking about Corsica so am awaiting the rest of your report. How do you think it would be in November?
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Old Aug 4th, 2009, 10:13 AM
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Thanks for your encouragement.

kerouac: all those colleagues of yours in Corsica right now are why I would avoid July and August if possible. Our trip was fantastic in that we were never in a crowd.
Laidback and telechick: September should be great. I had hoped to be back in Corsica with my husband in September, but won't make it.
Isabel: November? I don't know, but I think you could have mild temperatures especially along the coast. On average it is rainy in November in the south of France but as I recall 2007 was wet and 2008 was dry. it could be cold and stormy in the mountains. Corsica is known as "a mountain in the sea" and it is very mountainous.
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Old Aug 4th, 2009, 12:04 PM
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A great report so far on a unique destination. Tagging.
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Old Aug 4th, 2009, 12:08 PM
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I think the population of Corsica goes from 220,000 off season to something close to 900,000 during the height of the tourist season.
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Old Aug 4th, 2009, 01:29 PM
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OUR FIRST NIGHT IN CORSICA

It was grey and misty when we got off the train in the picturesque Vizzavona train station. We called our hotel, the Monte d'Oro, for a ride. The hotel, built in 1880 and named after the nearby 2389 meter high mountain, is delightfully quirky, with period furniture, multiple sitting rooms with big inviting armchair and fireplaces. Our room was very large, plain and clean and located in a separate building. There is also a gite-refuge on the grounds that is part of the regional park.

The dining room is one of the most wonderful rooms I have been in: grand in scale, square in shape, with tall windows that leave little room for walls, a high peaked wooden ceiling, and green ivy growing high above our heads all around the room. There were perhaps 20 tables covered with white tablecloths and only 4 or 5 other groups scattered about the room. But how was the food? Fantastic, one of the best meals of our trip. A tureen of bean soup; after three bowls I had to stop. Sanglier (wild boar) famous for wandering wild in the fragrant maquis (dense scrub formed of thyme, marjoram, basil, fennel, rosemary ) eating chestnuts. Cooked two different ways and served in two large platters. The rest of the meal was equally bountiful and delicious. As we left, we passed a slender young Danish woman who said she had never eaten so much in her life and wasn't sure she could stand up. That's how we felt but at least we were standing.

Day 2: AJACCIO and SARTENE

It rained through the night and was still raining in the morning so I thought my plan to walk through the beech and pine forest to the Cascade des Anglais and experience a little of the GR20 had to be scrapped. After a vast and varied buffet breakfast we found out from Madame Sicurani that the path to the cascade would be quite passable so we quickly packed and set out. My friend, who is better with time than I am, or perhaps just more pessimistic, kept one eye on her watch and made us turn back in time to catch our train. We were just getting to the cascades and had met a young Englishman who was walking the whole 170-km path solo. He had been walking for 8 days and had had rain every day. He had a few more days to go and was thrilled despite the weather.

We got to the 11:24 train and found it nearly full of other tourists. (What a difference from the previous day, when we felt we were in our own private train car.) After just one scenic hour we were in Ajaccio, Napoleon's birthplace. We would rent a car for the rest of our trip--but first we planned to find a hotel for our last night. Which turned out to be a problem.
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Old Aug 4th, 2009, 01:38 PM
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Oops, I left out Sartene. I'll come back to the rest of Day 2.
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Old Aug 4th, 2009, 05:48 PM
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Day 2 continued

In Ajaccio we settled in with our bags at a great patisserie and took turns going to nearby hotels to look for a room for our last night. We were leaving on an early morning ferry so we wanted to stay in town. We didn't find anything so we decided we would call a few of the hotels as we continued on our trip and hope for a cancellation. We had a week and we weren't too concerned. Little did we know. There had been a big storm just before we got to Corsica and flooding had caused some seaside hotels to close temporarily. But losing those few hundred rooms was not the problem, we were told. It was unusual for such high demand that early in the summer.

We saw quite a bit of Ajaccio as we went from hotel to hotel, but our plan was to save our sightseeing for our last day. So we picked up the rental car and left, heading south for Sartene. We drove along the gorgeous Golfe de Valinco. Our original plan was to stop and see Filitosa, a 6th century BC settlement that is the most important prehistoric site in Corsica. We were behind schedule, however, and had a dinner reservation in Sartene so we decided to come back to Filitosa the next day. We did stop at a beachside tourist office where we got a booklet of farm accommodations and some helpful advice about finding a place to stay near Bonifacio, the town at the southern tip of Corsica that is perched on unbelievably steep limestone cliffs; if you've ever seen a picture of Corsica it was probably of those cliffs. Just before our trip I had met a man from Bonifacio and I had asked him to recommend a good but not too expensive hotel in Bonifacio and he said there were none, everything in Bonifacio was expensive and we should stay outside of town. There were two farms in the general area, one much closer than the other. The closer one was full, but the farther one had a room for us. So we were set for the following night. Before driving on, we sat for a while on the beach. It was cool and breezy and there was no one else on the beach and we had a great time.

Sartene was described by local author Prosper Merimee as the most Corsican of Corsican towns. There are a lot of severe grey stone houses in Sartene. We had been driving through serious Mafia, vendetta, separatist countryside. I had read about not-so-distant vendetta rules that meant if a single woman's skirt lifted in the breeze to reveal her ankle to a passing man she either had to marry him or be stoned to death. Serious. It wasn't long ago that generations of men and boys couldn't leave their homes because of family feuds that meant possible death. The only thing most tourists see is some graffiti and the road signs defaced by separatists who want to be independent of France.

We found a brand new hotel, basic and spotless but not totally finished, just outside of town and very close to the lush and luxurious Auberge Santa Barbara where we had a dinner reservation. The wine from Sartene is considered the finest in Corsica and we walked into town and bought some to take home with us. By then it was pouring and we hardly saw anyone on the streets.

Dinner was the best gastronomic meal of our trip. We sat by a window looking out at green lawn and palm trees. Quite a contrast from the austere dark grey rock of Sartene.

The next morning the sun was shining and it was a perfect day to see the stone statue-menhirs at Filitosa.
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Old Aug 4th, 2009, 10:16 PM
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November is not the best time to visit Corsica. Though the first 2 weeks are usually nice, it might be rainy, cold and windy.
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Old Aug 5th, 2009, 04:23 PM
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Day 3: STONE STATUES AND LIVE GOATS

Filitosa is a fascinating prehistoric site owned and maintained by the family that discovered the stone menhirs, statues with faces, armor, clothing carved into them 4000-5000 years ago. The descriptions of Filitosa don't mention how beautiful it is. One group of menhirs is arranged around a 1000-year-old olive tree. We walked through wildflowers and woods and open hillsides for a couple of hours. There are informative audio stations along the route and an interesting little museum.

We had lunch in Propriano which was a harbour used by the Greeks and Romans, drove back through Sartene, stopped at a beach near Roccapina. Finding our farm was an adventure. We drove past the little airport of Figari and turned up a dirt road that went on and on and up and up what seemed like forever but was about 7 or 8 kilometers. We passed no houses and no cars and saw no one. We didn't know if we were on the right road until finally we arrived at our farm. What an incredible place! Built over several years by the owner, it's a complex of several buildings, a stone-lined stream leading into a pool next to an infinity swimming pool with a panoramic view of the valley we had driven up from. Besides horses and farm animals there was a little zoo.

We had a wonderful dinner seated at long tables with a view of the pools. I don't remember what the meat course was--sanglier?--but I'll never forget the fig confiture that was offered as accompaniment. Breakfast the next morning included a line-up of six different kinds of homemade jam, each of them delicious.

Day 4: BONIFACIO

Driving into Bonifacio you don't really see the white limestone cliffs. You have to see them from the sea, and that's what we did. There are several boat companies and many parking lots and we chose one at random. As we glided out of the harbour out to sea we saw the 187-step staircase carved in the rock that leads down to the water. The boat hugs the contours of the cliffs and goes into some caves so narrow you can't believe it's possible to maneuver in them.
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Old Aug 6th, 2009, 05:49 PM
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Day 4 continued: BONIFACIO and Days 5 and 6: COL DE BAVELLA AND ZONZA

After the boat ride we walked up to the citadel area at the top of the cliffs and had a dizzying view down to the sea. Then we left Bonifacio and headed up along the southeastern coast of Corsica. We had time to stop at one or two beaches, but it was hard to decide because we wanted to see them all. Some are just a short walk from the road, others are farther. Dazzling blue water, soft sand, interesting rocks.

We turned inland at Solenzara and went up the steep and switchback-full route de Bavella to the Col de Bavella, where every tour bus stops for the view of jagged pink and grey peaks. Sadly, all we saw was grey fog. There wasn't even a hint of a mountain peak out there. We were staying in the nearby mountain village of Zonza for the next two nights, so we went back to the pass the next morning and were rewarded with a fantastic view. There is also a giant statue of Notre Dame des Neiges, whose body is covered with hundreds of handwritten messages of thanks and prayers.

We set out for a two-hour walk to the Trou de la Bombe, a round opening in the rock through which you can look way down. Most of the time we were walking through pine and chestnut trees. The most exciting moment was when we came upon some cows in a clearing. All went well until, on the way back, my friend who was leading the way realized we were no longer on the path. It was about 6 pm and there was no one else in sight. We knew we weren't far from the path but we had no idea which way it was. We tried going left, right, and back up. Then I had the idea of going down to a river we could hear but couldn't see. That was a bad idea. We found the river but it was impossible to walk along it, it was too dense and rocky. We went back to approximately where we had been. I didn't think anyone else would be walking in that late in the day. I reassured my friend that we would be all right even if we had to wait for the first hikers of the morning to appear. True, I had heard it could be dangerous to be caught by bad weather in the mountains, but it wasn't cold and it wasn't raining. We didn't have any warm clothes, or food, but we still had a little water. Then suddenly we heard voices above us. We called out to them, then scrambled up to find them, and followed them out. Our two-hour walk had taken about four hours.

Day 7: CUCURRUZU, SAINTE LUCIE DE TALLANO, AND OLMETO

Heading west, we went to the archaeological site of Cucuruzzu with Bronze and Iron Age rock shelters and signs of tool-making and animal husbandry. It was the only thing we did that I felt we could have skipped. But then we wouldn't have gone to the nearby farm-auberge where we had a magnificent lunch of Corsican specialities sitting outdoors with a panoramic view of wooded hillsides and distant mountains. We were the only diners, and after lunch we had a tour of the elegant rooms and indoor swimming pool.

Sainte Lucie de Tallano is a quintessential Corsican village, with narrow streets and granite houses. We saw here, and elsewhere, stone houses whose front doors were above street level, reachable by ladders which could be pulled up to keep invaders out. Sulphur springs supply hot water to the village and built into the fountain in the central square is a rare stone that is found nowhere else in the world, which we forgot to look at. Instead, we had a long conversation with a man who makes olive oil and an unusual lemon preserve. His shop was so small that it had a counter just beyond the doorway, and we stood outside on the street.

That night we stayed in Olmeto, a small mountain village along the road.

Next we would go to Porto and Piana, two towns on the west coast that I thought would be the highlight of the trip.
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