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Corsica’s Wild Beaches, Mountains, and Beauty

Cliffs overlooking the Mediterranean Sea in Bonifacio, on the southern tip of Corsica.

Photo: David Cicconi

In Porto-Vecchio, the restaurants are plentiful and the prices are comparatively reasonable. The fish—loup de mer, striped bass, sea bream, tuna—is bracingly fresh, like a slap in the face that returns you to full consciousness. The local wines are brooding, somewhat fierce, and altogether wonderful. The town’s busy port is crammed with yachts, and its multitude of shops and cafés are filled with seafaring high rollers, many of them genetically engineered to garner triple-takes. No-nonsense-looking Corsican mothers walk side by side, pushing their no-nonsense-looking babies in strollers and talking animatedly to each other through the squint of cigarette smoke.

It wasn’t so long ago that Porto-Vecchio, like most of the Corsican coast, with its streams and tidal pools, was a veritable petri dish for the cultivation of deadly diseases, most particularly malaria, which for centuries offered a line of microbial defense from waves of would-be invaders, ranging from pirates to royal navies. The primary reason that the true cultural heart of Corsica is in the mountains is that, until the mid 20th century, the coast was virtually uninhabitable during the summer months, and even Corsicans whose livelihoods depended on the sea maintained homes at a safer altitude. During World War II, however, U.S. military engineers, hoping to transform Corsica into a base in the war against the Axis, drained the vast networks of standing water in which infectious mosquitoes had been breeding since ancient times, and then, for good measure, drenched the coast with DDT, a wild whack at the local ecosystem that not only helped the war effort, but would soon turn Corsica into a beach resort, where glittering discos have taken the place of malaria wards.

Yet no matter how white and soft the sand, how temperate the sea, and how ready to serve the waiters at the various seaside cafés, there remains something muscular, even truculent, about the Corsican coast. For one thing, the local bathers have a distinctly proletarian vibe (so, by the way, do I), and the families you see mixed in with the tourists give the beaches a kind of workingman’s holiday-camp feel. Tough-looking girls with transistor radios the size of the Gutenberg Bible; hefty men dandling infants on their barstool knees.

With some regularity, the peacefulness of the day is shaken by the urgency of gigantic motors as camouflage-green troop carriers fly a couple of thousand feet above, spawning khaki clouds of para troopers, who slowly drift out of view, dropping to their base at the foot of the mountains. These are the airborne units of the nearby Foreign Legion post, and they are a further reminder that while Corsica is willing and able to please your senses, fill your belly, and paint your toenails, it is also quite capable of kicking your ass, if ever the need should arise.

The sun is steady and warm, and like any resort there is a lure toward excess. Along the marinas in Porto-Vecchio and Bonifacio are shops selling ice cream, woven hats, flags, T-shirts, busts of Napoleon—though not so many as you might expect, since he was a Frenchman, and except in Ajaccio, where he was born and where Bonapartabilia is key to the town’s economy, many Corsicans are reluctant to pay him homage. Life here is typical for a Mediterranean resort. Parking your car is a task on the level of solving Rubik’s Cube. Patisseries abound, as do cheese shops where the local varieties are dark, dry, and pungent, with a taste that is not so much gamey as feral. You can play in the surf, fish, water-ski, snorkel, or sail. You can dine on a kind of rustic Franco-Italian cuisine, fresh from the sea, or the earth, or hot from the oven.

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