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The Greeks called it ‘Kalliste’ (the beautiful one); and Corsica certainly is beautiful in a savage, rugged kind of way. It’s known today as l’Île de Beauté. Although part of France since the late 18th century, it’s not quite French but not quite Italian either (the Genoese ruled it for hundreds of years). We spent 10 days there at the beginning of this month. This was our third visit – we are hooked.
Corsica’s history, culture and landscape are so enthralling that I wanted to share them with my readers, so I have written a series of posts about the island. I won’t bore you with a travelogue, i.e. yesterday we went to x and saw y. Rather, in each post I will focus on a theme, starting off today with a general introduction to Corsica.
The island is less than 200 kilometres long from the tip of Cap Corse to the toe of Bonifacio. One long mountain range runs from north to south, like the spine of a sleeping prehistoric monster. The rugged scenery, rocky coastline and stern villages have a primitive appeal. Whoever designed Corsica’s coastline should receive an international award. Corsicans claim that the aromatic scent of the island’s hillside vegetation (the maquis) reaches well out to sea. We certainly noticed the unmistakable perfume while walking in the mountains, especially after rain.
Many visitors to Corsica stay in the coastal areas. The main towns, Ajaccio and Bastia, are bustling, noisy places where traffic hurtles down narrow streets that were not designed for it. Squeezed between the mountains and the sea, the coastal towns and villages can’t spread any further. Many of them, such as Calvi, Bonifacio, Porto Vecchio and Propriano, are picturesque and colourful, but they are havens for sun-seeking tourists. The emphasis is on yachting and water sports. Restaurants advertise “genuine Corsican specialities” at eye-watering prices.
However, there is another Corsica. To find it, you have to turn your back on the coastal playgrounds. Then the austere and jagged landscape of this lump of granite reveals itself, rising nine thousand feet above the sea at Monte Cinto. The switchback roads snake into the mountains with sheer drops on one side. Often, they are wide enough for only one vehicle. They are not for the faint-hearted, especially as Corsican drivers aren’t noted for their prudence. Scrawny cows that graze freely on the mountainside amble along the roads, presenting an extra hazard.
Central Corsica is noted for its spectacular landscape, rushing rivers and thick forests of pine, chestnut and beech. The snow lingers on the mountain tops until early June (as on Monte d’Oro below, above Vizzavona, one of our first stops). This time, we decided to travel everywhere by public transport with backpacks. I’ll tell you more about how this went in a later post. We also wanted to talk to some native Corsicans and find out how it really is there, so we stayed in hotels and chambres d’hôtes that gave us a rather different view of the island from the normal tourist destinations.
A troubled history
I’m not going to try to relate very much of Corsica’s history, which is troubled and turbulent, beyond a few comments to explain why it is the way it is. Occupying a strategic position in the Mediterranean, countless invaders conquered the island throughout its history from Neolithic times to World War II. The islanders rebelled from time to time but usually lacked consistent leadership and were often more interested in fighting amongst themselves.
Corsica was briefly united under Pasquale di Paoli, a visionary who proclaimed Corsica a republic in 1755, drew up a democratic constitution and imposed law and order. However, his forces were no match for the might of the French army and were defeated at the battle of Ponte Nuovo in 1769, after which he fled and the island became definitively French.
The most famous son of Corsica is, of course, Napoleon Buonaparte. Small in stature he might have been (we’ve seen his dress uniform and it is minuscule) but he changed the face of Europe. He had an ambivalent relationship with his homeland and never did much for Corsica. When accused of this he replied, ‘I never had the time.’
The history of modern Corsica is dominated by the struggles of radical nationalists to achieve independence from France. One of our hosts, Antoinette, said that they are a very small handful, although they make a lot of noise. Most Corsicans were outraged by the assassination of the French préfet, Claude Erignac, in 1998. His alleged assassin, Ivan Colonna, a shepherd from Cargèse, is now on his third trial. During our stay, he was brought back to the scene of the murder in Ajaccio for a reconstruction, but this seems to have been inconclusive.
The nationalist movement itself is riven by disagreement, splinter groups and private vendettas. Mafia groups have also partially appropriated it as a cover to benefit from the huge amount of money poured into Corsica by France and the EU. In fact, Corsica is the most heavily subsidised area of Europe, but a fair bit of it doesn’t get spent on the purposes for which it was intended. I’d better not say any more.
To find out more
There are plenty of guide books about Corsica. The best one in my opinion is the Rough Guide, despite the small typesize, but the Lonely Planet guide isn’t bad either. However, if you really want to get into the history and culture of the island you can’t do better than read the excellent Granite Island: A Portrait of Corsica by Dorothy Carrington (first published 1971, now a Penguin Classic). I enjoyed this book so much that I immediately read it a second time, cover to cover.
Carrington first went to Corsica in 1948 with her third husband, the painter Sir Francis Rose, having lived a Bohemian existence in Europe during the thirties. She was immediately captivated by the place and eventually lived there full time. Carrington became an authority on Corsican history and culture. She was instrumental in getting important but neglected Neolithic sites properly excavated.
Carrington also drew international attention to the almost-forgotten democratic constitution drawn up by Pasquale Paoli, which underpinned the short-lived Corsican Republic, 1755-69. Paoli’s constitution was, for its age, a model of liberal democracy and predated the Constitutional Convention of the United States by 32 years.
Obviously a formidable and persistent lady, Carrington travelled all over the island by bus or train, met the locals and stayed with shepherds in remote bergeries. She studied the Corsican way of life, based on subsistence agriculture, which was beginning to disintegrate in the wake of World War II and modern communications and transport networks. She writes of her first departure from Corsica:
When I went aboard the ship that night…I felt confident and serene; for I already knew, by one of those decisions taken below consciousness, so as to seem like a judgement passed, an order received, that Corsica would be my lot.
I won’t say that we travelled in Carrington’s footsteps. However, her book greatly influenced my view of Corsica this time. Ten days wasn’t nearly enough.
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