Roughing it in Corsica: There's more to this French island than its posh image
March 12, 2012
CORSICA, France -- Recently known for luxuriating the rich in fabulous beachside resorts, Corsica has garnered a reputation for its fine food, exclusive nightclubs and tabloid-gracing clientele. But, this chi-chi image belies the core of Corsica. With her jagged mountains, cockeyed little towns and natives as no-nonsense as the landscape, Corsica's interior is daring and rough.
On a recent road trip to Corsica, we determined to see as much of this curious and untamed island as possible in three days. With scant and sometimes nonexistent public transportation, a car is needed to see inner Corsica. Our ferry docked at Bastia, a scrappy city offering relatively little for tourists, and we immediately set off for Corte (or Corti to the locals) in the center of the island.
Though it's a mere 67 kilometers from Bastia, the drive to Corte can take up to two hours on a nice day. A craggy and mountainous island, Corsica's roads are slow, dangerous, winding and seemingly built to accommodate motorcycles rather than sedans. This meandering route, N193, is the island's main highway.
Heading toward Corte, villages occasionally emerge into view, sitting in the nooks between mountain peaks or speckling down mountain sides. Corte, the once-capital of independent Corsica, perches similarly on a hilltop. It seems to be made from the same rock it sits on and blends into the mountain face as if it has always been there.
Arid and hot, Corte is home base for the traveling outdoorsman. Gorges de la Restonica, a popular hiking destination, draws those Europeans unafraid of a challenge and willing to skirt the occasional free-range cow along the trail. Campgrounds outnumber hotels in this rugged environment and everyone from French families to German backpackers throw up a tent for as little as ,9 a night. Camp Santa Barbara, where we stayed, even has a pool, bar and game room, which almost made up for its proximity to the penitentiary.
Corte offers more refined attractions than campgrounds and stray cows. Though Corte's buildings look ready to crumble, inside this rickety city are restaurants, French bakeries and gift shops with hanging charcuterie and wine lining the walls. Shop attendants will pour generous tasting glasses of vino while plying visitors with plates of wild boar sausage.
Despite Corsica's roughness, it is still French and the food drives this point home. We ate some of our best-ever meals in Corsica. One of them was at the outwardly unassuming U Passa Tempu resting up the steps from the stone fountain in the center of Corte. The waiters, in their brusque, Corsican manner, served us a three course meal: tender veal stew; bubbling manicotti filled with broccui, a mild sheep cheese similar to ricotta; and more broccui, drizzled with honey and accompanied by fig jam.
Gustatory delights aside, we felt impelled to visit Corsica's famous beaches and so headed southwest, through nail-biting mountain passes, to Porto, Ota.
The most remarkable aspect of Corsica, aside from the inhabitants' insistence to defy death at breakneck speeds on mountain roads, is its seamless diversity. In the 84 kilometers to Porto, we traveled from terrain as rocky as the Utah Badlands, to pine forests reminiscent of the Rocky Mountains, to temperate rain forests similar to those of the Pacific Northwest.
Also along the highway: roaming pigs, zip-line courses, ramshackle rest stops selling charcuterie and espresso, a giant statue of Jesus and flawlessly clear natural pools. Runoff from Corsica's tallest Mount Cinto over eons has smoothly carved boulders into pools so refreshing looking, we couldn't help but join the suited, and occasionally naked, bathers for a paddle around the water.
Unlike Corte, which scarcely panders to tourists, Porto, pleasant and comfortable, makes an excellent destination for leisure travelers. Overpriced seafood restaurants and recreation shops dominate Porto's marina. Scuba diving outfits offer daily trips to both certified divers and first-timers and small, coastal cruises serve those fascinated by Corsica's western coastline.
Like many destinations in Corsica, the visitor must work for his reward. The beach in Porto is stony and hopeful swimmers hobble to the water's edge, clinging to each other. But, the water, warm and cerulean, is worth it.
Flying to Corsica takes nearly as long as driving and prices for plane tickets hover around $1,000 each. Driving to the Italian coast and then taking a ferry to Corsica gave us the freedom of a car without the expense of renting. From Italy, ferries leave from Livorno, Savona, Genoa and Toulon. Livorno, host-city to U.S. Army Garrison Livorno, Camp Darby, has the shortest ferry ride, capping off at four hours.
Ferry prices vary depending on the number of passengers, the size of the vehicle, whether it has a trailer and the destination. A round trip ticket from Livorno to Bastia for two adults in an average-sized sedan cost ,180. We went on Corsica Ferries, which sends ships multiple times a days and provides ample lounge chairs and comforts for the weary traveler (www.corsica-ferries.co.uk) Another popular ferry company is Moby Lines (www.mobylines.com) which operates in the warmer months and costs approximately ,200 for two adults and a sedan.