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Corte and Vizzavona
Corsica remains off the beaten path for many American travelers, despite all it has to offer. I journeyed through Corsica for a week in June and began my trip in Bastia, a port city near the north. For the next stops on my trip, I journeyed into the inland heart of Corsica, a proud and mountainous region, to the towns of Corte and Vizzavona. Corte, nestled between some of the island’s most impressive mountains, was once the home of Paoli’s Corsican nation. And the island’s university is there so any lingering nationalist sentiments in Corsica are all the more evident. Every street sported some sort of graffiti demanding “Corsica libera,” “libertà per u nostu patriotti,” or hailing the FLNC (fronte di liberazione naziunale corsu) in the Corsican language which is a romance language that looks fairly similar to Italian.
I checked in to the Hôtel-Residence Porette (a large budget hotel which is great choice for solo travelers like myself, families, or hikers who need a place to stay after enjoying some of the area’s natural attractions) but spent most of my time in Corte exploring the vielle ville (the old part of the city) which is located high above the modern city. The citadelle, Corsica’s only inland citadel, which now houses the Musée de la Corse (Corsica’s ethnographic museum) was one of my first stops. The museum’s permanent collection includes artifacts documenting the people’s agricultural past but also explores modern issues, including industrialization and tourism, with a beautiful collection of ads for island tourism spanning the decades. The museum visit ends with the citadel itself. From the crow’s nest lookout, a 360 degree view of Corte and the surrounding mountains, valleys and towns is striking. The citadel itself is best photographed from the belvedere, a windy lookout point flanked by restaurants in the old town, which I discovered while navigating the winding streets searching for lunch. I settled on U Museu, at the foot of the citadel, which has pleasant terrace dining and reasonable prices. My pizza was delicious and I finished every bit of the generous portion, hungry after my arduous walks up and down the stairs leading to the old city.
Corte is home to several quaint churches and many tucked-away shops, from jewelry (featuring the red coral and white seashell designs that pervade the island) and souvenirs to wood crafts. I discovered a pottery shop, tucked into a residential area, where customers could stand and quietly watch the artists at work on their wheels. An old man, whose daughter made the pottery, struck up a conversation, surprised that I was an American traveling in Corsica, and impressed at my knowledge of both French and Italian. Throughout, I was surprised to continuously be the only American around, or often the only native English speaker at all (though I did run into a handful of British tourists). This was a big change from Paris, where I’m used to hearing English on every street corner. It was refreshing not to be immediately pegged as an American when I spoke French. Most of the other tourists were mainland French, Italian, or German, especially retirees, decked out in the sneakers and fanny pack ensemble that guidebooks frequently warn against to avoid looking too touristy.
For a final meal, I picked up a cheap, convenient, and massive pizza from Pizza Restonica, a stand just across the street from the hotel, which seemed to be a favorite hangout for locals. Leaving Corte was scenic, as the train wound around the mountains, in and out of tunnels, and over valleys on my way to Vizzavona. I had decided to make an unplanned diversion from my original itinerary. I had meant to travel next to Ajaccio, the modern capital of Corsica, but discovered that, unless I was willing to pay over €100 per night for a one-person room, I couldn’t get a hotel in the city on Saturday night. So I arbitrarily picked Vizzavona as a midway stop though I knew nothing about it except the number of a guesthouse I had found online.
As the train pulled into the Vizzavona station, I realized why I was unable to find much information on the town -- it was tiny! Next to the station was a restaurant and convenience store run by the same family who ran the ticket counter. Across the dirt parking lot was one more restaurant. Otherwise, Vizzavona consisted of two guesthouses and private homes with spectacular views of the surrounding mountains still capped by tiny patches of snow, even in June. The temperature was significantly cooler than elsewhere in Corsica and suddenly it seemed unimaginable that this alpine landscape was still in the middle of a Mediterranean island.
I Laricci, the guesthouse I had chosen, was a picturesque cottage with red shutters and flowers dotting the yard and terrace, looking out at the mountains. In the back was a similarly quaint bunkhouse with hostel-style shared rooms and bathrooms. The whole place had a homey atmosphere. As hikers rinsed their boots and hung their laundry, guests and residents napped on lawn chairs, gardeners tended the rose bushes, and a little girl practiced her violin in the house. Most of the other guests were hikers, as Vizzavona is roughly a halfway point on the GR20, the difficult two-week trail across the island. The guesthouse was also situated near a few short day hikes for those less ambitious travelers. So I went on a 20-minute hike to see a prehistoric rock shelter to work up my appetite for dinner which was included for a few euros more than the cost of the bed. The dinner bell rang at 8 o’clock, and all of the guests gathered for a three course Corsican dinner: a brocciu (local sheep’s cheese) omelet, veal with potatoes, wine, and ice cream.
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