Yet all the while, the cloudy, misty, obdurate reality of the mountains is never far away. They loom whenever you turn from the sea; they watch over the life of the coast like elders gazing down on their airheaded offspring.
Corsica may be in many ways a wilderness, but it is a French wilderness, with a highly fictional infrastructure. The roads are rife with adventurous turns and prayer-inducing vistas, but they are well paved and well maintained, and anytime you want to you can traverse the island with relative ease. Our first real look at the interior was in the company of a learned young Corsican named François Zamponi, a father of three, the lead singer in a local rock band, and, at one time, a waiter at my favorite place for coffee in New York City. Zamponi had been living with his wife and children in Paris, but was now passionately repatriated—for, indeed, he did consider this island to be far more than a province of France, but rather a unique and unduplicatible world. “People criticize our traditions of vendetta, but this is a kind of justice that works,” he says, as he navigates his minivan up through a miasma of fog and fern, with a tucked-away horse-racing track on one side of the road, so beautiful that it almost brings tears to our eyes, and Neolithic rock formations on the other, reminiscent of Easter Island. “When people know that justice will come quickly they behave a lot better. Sometimes it’s better to take matters in your own hands and that’s how I want to raise my kids, which is a big part of the reason we decided to move back.”
The mountain villages are full of beautiful stone houses, mysterious and mournful in their gray emptiness. Many of them are owned by Corsicans in economic exile, who hold on to their properties in the hope of one day returning, and who are willing to pay taxes on and rudimentarily maintain dwellings into which they might not set foot for years. “Without a house in Corsica, you don’t feel Corsican anymore,” Zamponi explains. The population of the island is just a shade over a quarter-million, while the number of Corsicans living abroad is nearly three times that. The diaspora is primarily economic, but it has its political side, too. Once you are away from the resort towns, you notice that the bilingual signs marking the boundaries of places in the mountains like Corte, Sartène, and Zonza have been systematically defaced, with the French spelling spray-painted out of legibility and only the Corsican remaining. Of course, to the casual visitor, one of the most remarkable aspects of the Corsican experience is that you can mate the wild, sparsely populated vigor of the land to the haut- bourgeois creature comforts of a French holiday. As my girlfriend was wont to mutter: Why would the Corsicans want to break with France? What do they want? Their own foreign policy?
In the mountainous heart of the island there are innumerable waterfalls and rock pools, raging rivers that look like molten aluminum, olive groves, chestnut trees, pastured sheep and donkeys, and satellite dishes galore. Few people with the wit and curiosity to venture away from the luxury hotels and the glamorous beaches fail to visit the interior’s most photographed natural wonder, the Col de Bavella, an expanse of high-altitude, immense, otherworldly granite needles with no apparent evolutionary purpose save the triggering of fear and trembling. They are notched into the rocky terrain like missiles ready for liftoff. Here in the Alta Rocca area, the wind has sheared the tops off the pine trees and forced them to grow gnarled and dreamily contorted, like bonsai trees that are tortured to turn growth into intensity.