Looking for the ultimate Mediterranean hideaway?Follow in the footsteps of photographer Deborah Donenfeld and her family—to a rented stone villa that overlooks the sea
My husband and I had been talking about renting a villa somewhere in France during our kids' summer vacation. Then, at a cocktail party, a friend mentioned that she and her family had just been to Corsica. Her description of life on this remote French island off the coast of Sardinia was so enchanting that we ended up taking the same rental—the spacious top floor of an old stone house—that she'd had. That was four years ago, and our family has returned every summer since.
We go to Nonza, a village built into a cliff high above the Mediterranean, in Cap Corse, the skinny northern part of the island that looks like an extended index finger—it's known as the mountain in the water because the cliffs burst right out of the sea. Nonza has one café, two restaurants, one boulangerie, one tiny grocery store (if you can call it that), and a post office. Our house is a five-minute walk, on twisting paths, to the town square or place—far enough away that we're not woken by church bells (though we have occasionally been roused by a donkey's brays). The slow pace of life is so soothing after a year spent in New York City, where I work as a photographer, my husband runs a photography agency, and our children, Jules, 10, and Manon, 7, have their own grade-school whirl. In Corsica, we all stay up late, sleep in, and nap in the heat of the day. We buy our food from camionettes, vans that set up shop in the place for about a half-hour every few days. As we pick out fresh tomatoes, peaches, yogurt, cheese, and fish, we chat with the locals, who we now count as friends.
When we're in Nonza, our children have so much more freedom than we can allow them at home. Jules often gets up and goes out to buy our croissants, and Manon walks alone to and from the place, where all the kids congregate. When I'm not around, the villagers automatically look after them—and also make sure they're well-behaved. (Once, a Corsican grandmother sternly reprimanded Jules for bouncing his ball during siesta; he never did that again.) Many of the people who come to Nonza grew up in the village, and they bring their children back every summer (the winter population of 60 swells to about 500, but, miraculously, it never feels crowded, even in August). Manon joins in games of hide-and-seek and trades tattoos that come in packages of bubble gum, while Jules and his pals play barefoot soccer. We all spend afternoons at the beach—down 600 steep stone steps, so we usually drive—or jumping into swimming holes in the nearby river. Needless to say, our kids have become happily immersed in the language and culture here.
If we're feeling adventurous, we head for another of the many villages in Cap Corse, each with its own ancient tower, its slightly different landscape. The roads wind from town to town, with the turquoise sea on one side and the mountains on the other. We stare out at dramatic rock formations that look as though they're about to topple into the ocean. The scent of wild herbsthyme, rosemary, myrtle, and juniperchanges with the terrain. Thankfully, the French government protects much of the area from development; there are no big new hotels or even houses here. And for us that's the main draw: Corsica offers our family the chance, year after year, to step into village life—and to take a dreamy step back in time.
Getting to Nonza from the U.S. is a schlep— but a worthwhile one. Fly into Nice or Paris (Orly), and take the connecting flight to Bastia, in northern Corsica. From Bastia, rent a car for the circuitous hourlong drive northwest to Nonza. Expect summer temperatures in the seventies and eighties.
Most Corsican villas are rented directly from private owners, as ours is, but there are a few online sources. Be warned that air-conditioning is rare in these parts, and not all rentals come with bed linens and towels—or washing machines.
www.homelidays.com A French site with a dozen or so properties in Nonza. Fully equipped two-bedroom stone cottages from $600 per week.
www.voyagesilena.co.uk You'll find a higher-end selection here—two-bedroom villas, for example, from $1,750 per week.
Nonza's two hotels are in former family houses near the town square.
Casa Lisa A charming, well-established little place, with beautiful views from almost every one of its five rooms. 33-4/9537-8352; casalisa.free.fr; doubles from $60.
Casa Maria Tidy, family-friendly B&B. Its five rooms were recently renovated and have air-conditioning. Breakfast is often served under a grape trellis. 33-4/9537-8095; www.casamaria.fr; doubles from $150, including breakfast.