I came to understand that there are four Corsicas, each of them compelling, each of them quintessentially Corsican: the glamorous, sunblasted, sybaritic Corsica of the seaside resorts and the boldface names; the eco-wonderland Corsica of hearty backpackers, campers, and hikers; the shadowy, misty, steep Corsica of the mountains; and the Corsica most of us will never know, but which at the most unexpected moments whispers proof of its presence into your ear.
I’d like to say that my lifelong fascination with Corsica was a result of my deep reading of James Boswell, who wrote a travelogue detailing his trip there in 1765, or his predecessors Pliny the Elder, Ptolemy, or Seneca—all of whom have left us vivid and still remarkably useful portraits of this wild and untamable island. But the truth is that my interest began in childhood, when one of my parents’ bohemian friends, sensing and generously affirming my anarchic contrarian streak, began to routinely refer to me as “the Little Corsican.”
The family friend was an impecunious portrait photographer, an African American bachelor whose studio was his apartment’s one spare room. Like many of my parents’ friends he was a Communist, and we undoubtedly got the Party rate for the portrait he made of 10-year-old me, posed in blue jeans and a horizontally striped T-shirt, with my gap-toothed smile and a big bright part in my wet hair, the rift between the lower left third of my hair and the rest of it as unignorable as the Sino-Soviet split. At the time of his remark, I thought he meant there was something of Napoleon in me, which I did not at all mind since, like many children, I admired Bonaparte, primarily for his being one of the few historical characters who was approximately my height.
Decades passed. My parents’ left-wing friends watched as their sense of History went through the meat grinder of what history becomes when it is bereft of its capital H, when it becomes what actually happens rather than what your theories would lead you to surmise, and they themselves were pretty much stunned by a long slide of bad news, beginning with revelations of the gulag and continuing straight on through the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the rise of the money-mad Russian oligarchs. Corsica itself remained uneasily under French rule, and for the most part its business was conducted with a minimum of attention from the outside world. Every now and then, a piece appeared in the world press about explosive acts committed by Corsican separatists, or a cache of stolen paintings that turned up there, or a Corsican governor who managed to get himself arrested for burning down a rival’s businesses—arson is a staple of vendetta, the Corsican home-brewed justice, as ubiquitous as moonshine once was to Appalachia.
The Corsican flag is one of the few in the world with a human form on it, a dark, Moorish head with a white bandanna, which was once in the flag’s history a blindfold, but which is now tied around his forehead, and the image of this wild youth is painted on the plane from which I get my first glimpse of Corsica. The graphics and design of every other plane I have ever flown on have a kind of reassuring, quasi-military formality to them with the exception of one I once took from the middle of Colombia toward the Venezuelan border that had riotous-looking black crows reminiscent of Heckle and Jeckle painted on the wings. Those crows seemed to be saying, You are going to a place where adventure is prized above security, and, likewise, that dark young man on the Air Corsica fuselage held in his romantic profile a promise that my girlfriend and I were on our way to a place that valued rebellion and individualism.
Flying in from Nice, suddenly the clouds part just as they do when Peter Pan and the Lost Boys begin the descent into Neverland. And there it is, sparsely populated, barely developed, fierce and forbidding Corsica. What you see first is the mountain peaks marching down the island’s center like a granite army with spears held high. As the plane makes its way toward the Corsican coast, we descend into the relative banality of the maquis-choked flatlands until we touch down in Figari, an outpost tucked into Corsica’s southeastern pocket. A vigorous spring wind blows us across the funky little airport, into the low-tech office of a car rental company, and from there it is a half-hour northeast cross-country to the resort town of Porto-Vecchio.
Porto-Vecchio is part of the first Corsica, the Corsica of travel posters, of mauve Mediterranean waters filled with winking and nodding yachts, of palm trees and white-sand beaches, of fashion shoots and nightclubs where exquisite Gauls dance in that unnervingly goofy way that makes some people wonder how on earth the French developed a reputation for sensuality.
Our hotel, however, is utterly and 100 percent sensual. We have reserved a relatively modest room in the swank Grand Hôtel de Cala Rossa. While some grand hotels allow their well-heeled if not necessarily well-born guests to emulate the experience of very old money, to pretend to their dukedoms beneath chandeliers dripping exquisite light, canopied four-poster beds, carved candlesticks, faux heirlooms in every corner, the Cala Rossa seems instead to have been designed for those who wish to escape the oppressive luxuries of the past.
It seems more like a futuristic spa, if the future was, in fact, 1988. At first I thought that what I was seeing was the pinnacle of minimalism, but really the Cala Rossa aesthetic is Perfectionism, owing nothing to any movement or style, owing everything to its knowledge of what will be most pleasing and functional to its deep-pocketed guests. It is one of those places where no one seems to be paying you the slightest mind but at the very moment you need something—a beach umbrella, a vodka tonic, a ride into town—it’s as if one of the staff had been standing there all along. From the terra-cotta-and-turquoise patterned floor tiles, to the big gleaming doors with lacquered driftwood handles, to the little bowls filled with floppy white orchids, to the oxblood leather armchairs, strategically placed in the event you should become fatigued during the walk from the day spa back to your room, the Cala Rossa is one of those places that makes you wish you’d booked for a month rather than just a few days, though, to be fair, it is also the home of the $18 mixed salad, the $30 dessert, and the $100 catch of the day, a place where a month’s worth of continental breakfast buffets would add up to a down payment on a three-bedroom home in Moline, Illinois, my girlfriend’s hometown.
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.
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.
Any one of the dozens of small villages that serve as the human outposts in this area will have a bar or a café where you can stop for a beer or, better yet, a glass of the local aperitif, made of myrtle, which, along with mint and laurel, is a primary ingredient of the maquis, the tangle of pungent vegetation that grows wild throughout the island. In one café, near the starting point for the hikers hoping to traverse the G20 (a two-week trek through prehistoric vegetation and wildflowers), two wizened men yank an immense Campari umbrella from the table it shades on sunny days, and power through a driving, blinding rainstorm to offer their escort to my companion, who, in fact, is so traumatized by the ferocity of the rain that she would have rather stayed in the car. But Corsica is no place to be wimpy, in fact it is not a place to be prim or shy. It’s a place to get drenched, it’s a place to be exhausted, it’s a place to be just a little less civilized than you normally are.
In corte, the principal city of the Corsican heights, we sit in a little, minimally decorated restaurant on a city square, eating what we instantly declare the very best pizza we have ever encountered—a polyphonic blend of contrasting cheeses; a crisp, yeasty crust. Corte was the birthplace of Corsican nationalism, and the place where the revered Corsican patriot Pasquale Paoli established a national university in 1765, which was suppressed and shuttered four years after its inception, not to reopen until 1981.
To this day, Corte is a steep, stony town, secretive, even a little stern, with a fascinating ethnology museum, a couple of magnificent promontories from which to survey the surroundings when the weather permits, and little else to entice the casual traveler. In fact, enticing travelers seems the furthest thing from the town’s collective consciousness, which is the case with all of the Corsican mountain towns and villages we visited. Even the ancient mill in Sartène, where olive oil is pressed in the old style, and the San Giovanni-Battista church in Carbini, where, legend has it, the townsfolk were so pleased with the bell tower that they resolved to kill the architect so he wouldn’t build another, seem to accept visitors with a kind of poker-faced equanimity.
The people here, my girlfriend says to me as we eat our sublime pizza in Corte, with the fog shouldering against the windows of the little café, giving the place a kind of noonday intimacy, they don’t seem like the types who go along in order to get along. Around us are mainly men, dark-haired, carelessly shaven, muscular, hardworking guys from the quarries, or the little factories, as well as men who look as if they don’t have anyplace in particular they need to go.
I know why that old leftist shutterbug called me the Little Corsican, I say to her. It wasn’t really a description; it was a prescription. He was inviting me to lead a life of internal exile. Internal exile? My girlfriend smiles. Like the Rasta-haired kids playing Hacky Sack in the park? Sure, I say, like anyone who makes his own culture inside of another culture. Like anyone who doesn’t want to be dominated, or even conform.
Look around you, I continue, my voice rising. These people, this place, no one tells them what to do, no one has ever told them what to do. You look around you, my companion counters, her eyes gesturing toward the window. I half turn in my chair to see what she is looking at, and the moment I do she takes the last piece of pizza off the scorched and battered tray. You could have had it anyhow, I say. Really? She says, rather skeptically. Yes, I say, of course. I feel a rush of self-pride, almost unseemly in its sudden force. My parents were Communists.
Air France and Air Corsica fly via Nice—less than an hour away—to the island’s four airports, including Figari and Campo dell’ Oro.
Great Value A Pignata Family-owned hotel and restaurant in a restored farmhouse. Route du Pianu, Levie; 33-4/95-78-41-90; apignata.com; doubles from $119; dinner for two $107.
Grand Hôtel de Cala Rossa Lecci, Porto-Vecchio; 33-4/95-71-61-51; doubles from $1,582, including breakfast.
Hôtel Alta Rocca This secluded three-story modern building has 17 rooms with balconies and views of the sea. Route de Palombaggia, Porto-Vecchio; 33-4/95-70-22-01; doubles from $402.
La Villa With an infinity pool overlooking the Calvi coastline. Chemin de Notre-Dame de la Serra, Calvi; 33-4/95-65-10-10; hotel-lavilla.com; doubles from $654.
Cantina Grill Reserve a streetside table at this small brasserie with well-priced dishes like grilled pork sausages. Quai Banda del Ferro, Bonifacio; 33-4/95-70-49-86; lunch for two $55.
Le Calenzana (Chez Michel) Simple Corsican cuisine, including the house specialty, lamb cooked in a wood- burning oven. 7 Cours St.-Blaise, Calenzana; 33-4/95-62-70-25; dinner for two $48.
Le Jardin du Magnolia Freshly baked bread and traditional Corsican wild boar, served under a 150-year-old tree at the charming Hôtel Le Magnolia. Rue Alsace Lorraine, Calvi; 33-4/95-65-19-16; dinner for two $122.
Snack Bar le Zampo Zonza; no phone; lunch for two $40.
Claudia Gordon, with Betty Maclean Travel, knows Corsica well, and can arrange a detailed itinerary. 800/865-8111 or 239/513-0333; email@example.com; consulting fee from $200.
An Account of Corsica by James Boswell (1768).