Corsica may not readily reveal its charms—but that’s what makes it so alluring.

Love at fourth sight

We fell in love with the island of Corsica on the fourth day. Prior to that, we—my wife, Sara, and I—weren’t certain about Corsica, nor she about us. The island, known by the French as l’Île de Beauté, came recommended for its many romantic attributes: granite mountains plunging into the sea, the siren scent of its maquis. We knew a bit about Corsica’s fascinating history, invaded by the usual line-up of ungenerous European plunderers, but still unshakably itself; and its people, imbued with a stubborn determination to remain free.

Flying from Paris, we harboured fantasies of the famous Corsican white-sand beaches, but our first vision of the island was the plane arching through grey cloud, ushering us to the rugged shoreline and Ajaccio, the island’s capital and Napoleon’s birthplace.

Our greeting party consisted of a woman at the Avis desk. With an impassive expression and dark, flashing eyes, she seemed not just exasperated, but offended by our very appearance. Could she be blamed? It was the end of tourist season, and she’d clearly reached her wit’s end. We, meanwhile, were hungry, tired, and headachy. We asked about the quickest route to Calvi, a beach haven about 45 miles up the western coast. She pointed abstractedly to a map.

“Follow signs,” she said.

 

 

"This was the first truth we learned about the island: there are few straight roads, literal or figurative"

 

 

 

“What signs?”

“Out the airport. Right, left. Sign to Calvi,” she said. Hovering above the map, her finger mimed circles of confusing squiggles. She seemed certain, though. Her route, while stunning, turned into a six-hour journey of coastal switchbacks, swerves, and nerves. Around every hairpin, it seemed, we were greeted by aggressive rally cars—Porsches, Citroëns, Volkswagens—there for
that weekend’s Tour de Corse.

This was the first truth we learned about the island: there are few straight roads, literal or figurative.

Corsica lies south of Genoa, 50 miles at its closest from the Italian mainland, and just seven miles north of the island of Sardinia. “Colossal undulations of earth,” Guy de Maupassant once wrote about the island, “covered with maquis or tall chestnut and pine forests.” He thought that the Corsicans were “an uncultivated race, bloody, hateful, violent without conscience; but also hospitable, generous, devoted and naïve.”

Designated today as one of the 13 regions of France, but ruled for large swathes of its early history by Italy, Corsica is nearly two-thirds the size of Northern Ireland. It’s the ultimate study in dichotomies, not just temperamentally but in terms of landscape: coruscated mountains; parched scrub-covered desert; verdant lowlands; soft, sandy beaches; pine-thicketed valleys.

Though the southern coast of Corsica is the most traversed by tourists, the historic town of Calvi is one of the most popular destinations on the western coast, located in the Balagne region, with its olive trees and red granite. Calvi has hosted invaders since the Greeks arrived in the sixth century BC, leading to a saying in Corsica, which seems a strange boast: “Often conquered, never enslaved!”

 

The moody isle

The weather was described by the concierge at our hotel as going “from summer to winter in two days.” The next day, conditions were wet and wild, dragging palm fronds across the pool deck, though every once in a while, sunlight would illuminate the town’s dramatic fortress at the mouth of the harbour. The beautiful bay at Calvi, with its two-mile beach, was empty and moody.

With widespread flooding on the island, and the big road rally delayed, we lingered, walking the town’s narrow streets. Lunch was casual and languorous, at a place called A Piazzetta on a tucked-away plaza overflowing with flowers. Bibbed and smiling, Sara vanished into a heap of fresh pasta and tender Corsican prawns; I had the entrecôte in green-pepper sauce. There was a leafy green salad, red wine and the local Pietra beer.

Right there, in that restaurant of red-chequered tablecloths and quaint signs, clocks, and colanders on the wall, we’d found the perfect Corsican marriage of France and Italy.

After wandering in the rain, we drove up through l’Île Rousse, a seaside town founded by the great patriot Pasquale Paoli, where everyone defiantly smoked in the bars despite the “no smoking” signs. We drove on to the Désert des Agriates (a shrubby landscape buzzing with the bees of the sweet-smelling maquis), then to port Saint-Florent and, finally, to the mountain village of Oletta.

As it turned out, a washed-out road now stood between us and our night’s lodging. To circumvent it would mean more hours of hairpins and switchbacks, so we eased past the “road closed” sign. I gunned the car a little, ran the first big puddle and then another, and once the road began to climb we were fine, relieved, and coursing with adrenaline. Now we were the rally drivers.

 

 

"Right there, in that restaurant, we’d found the perfect Corsican marriage of France and Italy"

 

 

There was no pain in arriving at that night’s hotel, a renovated 17th-century palace named U Palazzu Serenu. The owner, Georges Barthes (nephew of the French literary critic Roland Barthes), has created an oasis of eight rooms in a three-story Florentine pile, remade into a hip enclave with contemporary art and a gourmet restaurant. The sockless but impeccable Barthes was both a delight and an enigma.

“I like to walk alone in the desert,” he said, “for months.” This was followed by, “I made my little fortune in roses.” He said no more.

As we ate in the hotel restaurant, four men wearing matching black vests walked in. They were friendly—irrepressible, actually. Italians.

It would soon become apparent that they were part of a rally team led by one of the Prada family of Milan. The men were miserable about the conditions—and complained about the “impossible” weather and the “unkempt” roads.

The team said they’d be on their way by 6am. Yet, when we left them at midnight, it seemed they were just getting started. Anyone for dessert? “Of Corsica!” said the team manager in theatrical, heavily accented English, and they broke out laughing.

 

The real Corsica

On the third day we woke late and threw open the shutters to a view down the mountain of the ocean. We took a leisurely drive to Saint-Florent, wandering the picturesque quays and eating fish fresh from the boat.

On the fourth day, a crisp wind stirred the pines, but it was warm in the sun. After breakfast, we drove to a vineyard in nearby Patrimonio, the Domaine Orenga de Gaffory, where we met the owner, Henri, and his exuberant wife, Anne. In 1872, Henri’s great-great-grandfather invented a world-famous, bittersweet aperitif known as Cap Corse Mattei made from grape must, oranges and quinine, and today the family produces 18 wines on 208 acres. They helped make the wines that led to Patrimonio receiving its own appellation in 1968, but it still stings that it didn’t come sooner, as viticulture on the island is as old as the Greek traders who brought it here in 570 BC. “It’s an outrage,” Henri said, as if the matter had been settled yesterday. His Corsican pride didn’t seem exaggerated or unreasonable. Excellence was his obsession.

We toured the winery and sipped the wines, which were fantastic. By the time we’d finished, we were invited back to the Orenga de Gaffory home for lunch.

It’s said that to find the real Corsica, you need to travel inland, away from the waterfront restaurants and hotels with their Egyptian-cotton sheets, down the back roads and up the ravines. You have to get a little dirty, and eat the food of the land. We drove the potholed road with Anne, who proclaimed, “It’s wonderful to live in the vines!” We bounced deeper into the grapes until we came upon the house: a stone building filled with copious fine contemporary art, much of which was Corsican.

 

 

“The men are macho; the women hold the power"

 

 

Soon the four of us were seated at a long table, and out came a feast: fried aubergine, rice, crusty bread and, for spreading, an orange brick of poutargue—a strong, salty jelly-butter consisting of fish eggs that tasted delicious. One of the neighbours had shot a wild boar and the meat, sliced and tender, had an earthy smokiness. Consuming such strong flavours, while gazing out the window at the vines undulating like a sea of their own, I felt my defenses crumbling, and there it was: a sudden rush of love for Corsica.

Henri claimed that the most notable attribute of the Corsican people is protective behaviour towards others. He spoke of the devastation that followed the First World War, when many men left the island to fight and never returned. “The economy was destroyed; chestnuts became our potatoes.” Famine followed, and Corsica shifted from patriarchy to matriarchy. “Even today,” he said, “the men are macho; the women hold the power.”

In his library, shelves sagging with old books, Henri pulled various tomes from their places, revealing family trees and mysterious scripts. In some cases, the books dated back to the 17th century, the pages nearly disintegrating in hand. In that room was the history of his country, the intensity of its passions, the continuum of his forebears. These people had been here all along, while invaders and day-trippers revolved through, trying to get closer to the simple grain of Corsican life.

“If I’m gone from here—and the vines—more than three days,” Henri said, “I can’t breathe anymore.”

 

A new dawn

With the time left to us, we made a mad, final swoop south—passing through Corte. The city lies in the furrow of two mountains and is considered the centre of the island. While not exactly stylish, it possesses that electric current of Corsica. We’d found the country wearying at times, but constantly breathtaking.

Which is what made our last destination, the Domaine de Murtoli, near Sartène in the south, such a surprise. It was a decadent paradise: almost 6,200 acres of mountain, beach, and farm, overseen by the Canarelli family on their ancestral estate. Installed in our 16th-century villa, we peered down at the oak trees in the valley below. We could have settled in for a long time, we said. Become Corsican.

The next day, we drove down winding roads to reach the white-sand beach at last. We lounged, ate and swam. That night, dinner at the stunningly restored farmhouse was lamb, fresh from the farm. Then we retired and woke before the sun, realising the dream was over.

When we returned the car at the Avis desk, our friend was there again. We were leaving, and she was staying. The island was hers, though we had a deep yearning to come back.

When we returned to Corsica, she’d have to reckon with our bumbling, but also our feelings for her—the bittersweet home of Napoleon Bonaparte, of Pasquale Paoli and, yes, the woman at the Avis counter.

It was the best kind of love, though—an unfinished story.

 

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