Corsica is a splendid destination for a long weekend, a week, even better two weeks, vacation from Paris. Hop on a plane at Orly and in less time than it would take to drive to the Normandy Beaches, one disembarks in Ajaccio, Corsica’s seaside capital city. Corsica is also easily accessed with ferries from Nice, Toulon and Marseilles, and by flights to other airports on the island via Nice. Justifiably well-known in France as the ‘Ile de Beauté’, Corsica is less known to American and British Francophiles. This is a pity because the island offers infinite variety and natural beauty to travelers with just about any inclination and energy level.
Indeed, many Parisians, upon hearing that you are heading to Corsica, get that typical dreamy eyed look when talking about their beloved rural places. They rave about the cheese, the charcuterie, even the wines. Those who know and love Corsica also wax enthusiastic about the beaches, the mountains, the ancient perched villages crowned with Pisan and Genoese Baroque churches or the many charming seaside towns, all guarded by ancient stone citadels built squarely on their heights, now peaceable reminders of centuries of defending Corsica from sea-borne invaders.
Many will caution ominously about the challenging driving on narrow winding roads, insanely aggressive drivers, and even warn you about the freely rambling semi-wild pigs frequenting the high lushly forested plateaus, carpeted with ancient pine, oak and chestnut trees.
All of the above, excepting the ever-aggressive drivers, I can happily report is true, after two late-October weeks exploring this compact and contrast-packed island from north to south, and east to west.
An Ile de Beauté indeed, Corsica’s scenery simply never quits. The west coast is lined with beautiful crescent-shaped gulfs, bounded by long peninsulas crowned by round, stone, Genoese towers. It is home to convivial small towns and yes, seemingly endless beaches. The southwest region is where lovers of prehistory will delight in visiting Filitosa and Cauria, two exceptional megalithic sites with menhirs of a style unique to Corsica, dolmens, and stone alignments.
The pleasures of the west coast are not limited to land-borne ones. There are several marine reserves, notably around the stunning red limestone Calanches of Piana and Porto which have been declared Unesco Heritage sites. The diving is said to be unparalleled with rich variety of fish and coral reefs populating the clean waters.
On Corsicas’northeast corner, Cap Corse points its stony finger up at Europe. This mountain-spined rugged cape is ringed with a spectacular drive on narrow, cliff hugging roads on the west side, narrow not as high roads on the east coast, and is crisscrossed by hiking trails. If you drive the Cap, the wine-making village of Patrimonio near the yachting mecca of St. Florent and the base of the Cap is a good overnight stop prior to heading up and around the cape. I recommend commencing with the west coast and driving around to Bastia, a convivial small city and major ferry port, sited on the east coast.
The north coast, from charming Calvi over to Cap Corse is a fine area to explore, replete with beautiful beaches, good wind for windsurfing. Just slightly inland lies the worth-a-visit Balagne region. The Balagne is a compact area of alluring hill towns, full of appealing old houses built of enduring stone, artisans shops, Genoese-baroque churches and characterful winding streets. Many have spectacular views out over verdant valleys to the distant sea. These villages are home to, among others, shepherds who still take their flocks up into the high mountains in summer and early fall along ancient transhumance paths. Other residents stay put, specializing in crafts, food and wine and olive oil production, or farming in the nearby valleys. Indeed the Balagne has enjoyed a resurgence of visitors in recent years, encouraging many talented young Corsicans to remain on their beloved island to settle and make their living.
The east coast is typically not as mountainous or hilly as the west, again with splendid beaches north and south of resorty Porto Vecchio. Bonifacio, an atmospheric centuries-old town sitting squarely on the high limestone cliffs of the island’s south east corner, is a yachting destination and jumping off spot for Sardinia which lies only eight miles across the straits.
In the center of the island, a spine of rugged granite mountains is home to the GR 20, one of France’s finest long distance hiking trails, crossing peaks and mountain passes ranging above 8000 feet. Spectacular gorges run up into the high mountains, notably those of Spelunca, Asco and the Escalier de Santa Regina. There are various east to west walking trails too, in addition to the north-south running GR 20. Indeed, almost sixty percent of the island is under protection of a natural park or nature reserve. The Corsicans are very serious, and smart, about protecting the very natural beauty of their island.
Dining on Corsica tends towards a simple rustic cooking, with many Italian influences. Most restaurants serve wood-oven pizza with delicious thin crusts and toppings than range from grilled vegetables to fruits de mer to duck confit. In autumn the menus feature lots of braises, such as sanglier cooked in red wine, veal with olives, or roast pork.
Delicious chestnuts grow prolifically on Corsica, beloved by the pigs and the people. Chestnuts find their way in cakes, patisserie, biscuits, and various cooked dishes. Fresh salt and fresh-water fish is abundant, generally simply sauced and well cooked. Corsicans are very fond of beignets, often filled with the local fresh goat cheese called Brocciu. Plentiful goat, sheep and cows milk cheeses are excellent as is the artisanally produced charcuterie, all making for fabulous picnics.
We loved sampling the wines grown in various parts of the island. Whites, reds and roses are available in abundance, many made from ancient grape varieties native to Corsica and not found elsewhere. While many wines were light though flavorful, we found several vineyards making intense smooth reds with loads of flavor, and some delicious dry whites with undertones of fruit. Prices were extremely reasonable, in general, well under twelve euros for top quality bottles, and around five or six Euros for more everyday wines.
When is a good time to visit Corsica? Spring and fall are highly recommended. Summer is hot and generally mobbed when over 2 million visitors descend to enjoy the island’s beaches, harbors, diving reserves and hiking trails. If you have a long weekend, basing in Calvi on the northwest coast, Bastia on the northeast coast, Corte in the northern center, or in Ajaccio, on the mid-west coast all work, in combination with selected drives to beaches or up into the mountains. If at all possible, take the time to explore and enjoy this unspoiled Ile de Beauté.
Sally Peabody is a Paris Specialist, writer, and President of Your Great Days in Paris. Check out her articles in the Bonjour Paris Archives and visit her website for more articles and information about Sally’s services and custom tours in and around Paris.