Beautiful and difficult, sultry and steel-willed, French yet not French, Corsica is an island unto itself—and its roads are half the fun.
From the terrace on Sartène's main square, I can look out over the Rizzanese Valley as far as the blue sea beyond Propriano, a coastal town 10 minutes away. I'm at least 100 feet up, but then every spot in this town seems to overlook a steep drop-off, natural or man-made. The stone buildings rise from the ground as if in competition with the hills. I've come to Corsica to attend the wedding of a friend whose family has had a house here for five generations. With its pool and garden, "La Traverse" is more Italian villa than Corsican stronghold, but it has the same fortified presence as the rest of the town's architecture. The island is a mountain in the Alps chain, 100 miles southeast of Nice. It became French in 1789, but with a long history marked by invasions—beginning with the Greeks and Etruscans in 563 B.C. and interrupted by less than 15 years of independence in the 18th century—most Corsicans perceive France more as a beastly neighbor than as la Patrie.
I stand in the back of L'Église Ste.-Marie because I've arrived late for the ceremony, and because almost the entire town has decided to attend. The church is in the center of the old part of town, and whatever goes on here has been everybody's business since the last of the warring Sartenais families settled a bloody vendetta in this sanctuary in 1834. I watch a local woman shout along while a male chorus chants Corsican wedding songs in the choir loft. A group of townswomen cluck their tongues in disapproval, but their scorn only drives her on. She's Corsica personified: stalwart, standing her ground, unflappable. This music, so much a part of the island's culture, is beautiful, but it sounds weighed down by its ancient history. Even through this decade, some on the Granite Isle have put up a violent defense of its national identity, most notably a separatist group called the Corsican National Liberation Front. The island is safe for travelers, but there's an unspoken code of conduct that includes minding your own business and not asking too many questions. Not that relations with France are entirely hostile; indeed, Napoleon himself was born Corsican.
A car is ideal for wending one's way around this mountain stranded in the Mediterranean. I've invited a friend who was also a guest at the wedding, Laetitia d'Ornano, French with Corsican origins, to spend the next four days driving around Corsica with me. On the over-enthusiastic advice of more than one habitué, we plan to cover the whole island, but after the trip we will agree that half the distance or twice the time would have been better. Bleary-eyed from dancing all night at the wedding reception, we climb into our rented Renault and head south to Bonifacio. Only 20 minutes into the drive, we can't resist a swim at Cap Roccapina, a white-sand beach surrounded by granite cliffs and watched over by a rock that looks like a lion against the horizon. I think of Aslan in Narnia.
Ask the natives what not to miss on their island, and inevitably they'll direct you to Bonifacio. It's a pleasant port town (20 minutes from Roccapina), but after an hour we get the feeling that Corsicans corral all the tourists here, perhaps to keep them away from the places they themselves go. Bonifacio has chalky white cliffs, and mystical sea caves—one with an opening in the top shaped like Corsica—reachable only by boat. From the Esplanade St.-François in the Haute Ville, we spot a hazy Sardinia, eight miles away. We could get there by ferry; it's just a 40-minute ride. Instead we walk around the Cimetière Marin, making up stories about the hundreds of mausoleums. Then we descend a steep rampart to the port, roam in and out of its tacky souvenir shops, and finally wander into a fabulous fish restaurant, L'Albatros. One of the waiters is the real-life inspiration for Ocatarinetabellatchitchix, the central character of Astérix en Corse, a must-read comic book for anyone who plans to discover the island.
The next day we drive an hour to get to a beach near Porto-Vecchio. La Golfe de Santa Giulia is one of those places with lounge chairs and umbrellas, where you sit alongside nearly naked German tourists and buy snacks at a counter between the toilets and the towels. But the water is blue like the paint on a Greek house and clear enough that you can see the bottom even when it's too far down to touch. We learn that there's a cove called Palombaggia 15 minutes down the road, and that it's almost empty in early June. But it's late and we're eager to see the famous mountains on our way to the center of the island.
The road to Quenza through the Ospédale forest leads past beech trees, mountain streams, and startling gorges. Every turn holds a change of scene; I feel as if I've landed inside an IMAX movie. I also feel guilty that I'm driving so fast just to get somewhere instead of stopping to take a six-hour hike through the forest. Two hours from Porto-Vecchio we arrive in Quenza and check into the Sole e Monti, a little inn whose food has received great write-ups in the French press. The rooms, unfortunately, are no improvement on Y Camp. We dive into charcuterie, lamb stew, and Torracia wine (from a vineyard near Porto-Vecchio), and grieve for the world's vegetarians.
In the morning we discover L'Aiglon, a small hotel and restaurant in neighboring Zonza that's been in the same family for a century. Black paper menus handwritten in gold ink offer wild boar or terrine of starling and myrtle, sheep cheeses, leg of pork with fig cream and polenta, and a chestnut-flour cake. The rooms upstairs look lifted from an auberge in Provence.
Hikers abound in Zonza because it's five minutes from a gateway to Col de Bavella, a stop on the Grande Randonnée 20 trail that crosses Corsica. The shimmering shrine of the Virgin Mary here—the island is thick with them—is Notre Dame des Neiges. The statue, in a clearing at the top of the pass, is strewn with messages, flickering votive candles, and melted wax left by hikers and other pilgrims. Like an angel, she towers above the pine and chestnut trees, their branches wind-twisted into genuflections.
Our next night's reservation is on the north coast in Pigna, 75 miles away. We save time by cutting out of the mountains and driving north on the eastern coast highway through anomalously desolate land. The sandy, windswept town of Solenzara provides us with Cokes, and then we're on our way back to the interior, through the city of Corte and on to Pigna, five minutes up the mountain from the overrun port town of L'Île Rousse.
An artist's colony has settled into Pigna's conglomeration of granite houses. The village is a cultural restoration project that has extended from refurbishing buildings to fostering Corsican crafts. Antoine Massoni, an organ restorer, spent two years working on the 18th-century Romanesque organ in Pigna's Church of the Immaculate Conception. Next to the church, Antoine's girlfriend, Marie Darneal, carves and paints wooden musical toys at her shop, La BoÓte ý Musique. "They're not traditional—yet," she says. But they play melodies from Corsica's distant past, such as a moresca, a centuries-old dance about Moors fighting Christians on horseback.
A walk through stone passageways leads to shops like Savelli's épicerie, selling olive oils and aperitifs, and to craftsmen's studios for pottery and musical instruments. A 350-year-old house at the edge of the village has been turned into the Casa Musicale, an inn and restaurant. The tables on its dining terrace all face west so guests can eat goat stew or a tart of zucchini and brocciu (creamy Corsican cheese) while they watch the sun go down. Laetitia and I stay in rooms separated by a common area where goat-horn wind instruments, citterns, drums, and a harpsichord await the next weekly concert. At night, we hear only the bells of a far-off herd of sheep.
On our last morning, we ask at the Casa Musicale about a good beach and are directed to Rinalta, 20 minutes away. We turn at a sign that reads SINBAD SNACK PLAGE. Sinbad's is an open-air diner on the beach, and Sinbad himself wears swimming trunks, a white chef's shirt, and no shoes. The Salade Sinbad comes chock-full of fresh shrimp, crab, avocado, corn, tomatoes, and olives. A pirate flag stuck into a dune drives the "Sinbad" theme home. A fellow in a straw hat, who appears to live in the shack next door, comes out to rent kayaks and body-boards to us sand crawlers.
The last leg of the drive takes us down the west coast. The D-81 hugs the hardened, rocky shore from L'Île Rousse almost all the way to Ajaccio, passing red granite, wild brush-covered hillsides, and blue-black-amethyst water. This route cuts into one of the most phenomenal natural landscapes in Corsica, Les Calanche, a massive rock park that Guy de Maupassant saw as "a nightmarish menagerie petrified by the will of some eccentric god." It's a mecca for climbers; there are also easy walks, more like scrambles, we can take from the side of the road. Our fast-forward odyssey is near an end. We drive on to Ajaccio, silenced by Maupassant's god.
Elizabeth Garnsey is an assistant editor at Travel & Leisure.
Hotels and Restaurants
Hotel Miramar Rte. de la Corniche, Propriano; phone and fax 33-4/95-76-06-13; doubles from $200. Ten minutes from Sartène, and across the road from Valinco beach.
L'Aiglon Rue Principale, Zonza; 33-4/95-78-67-79, fax 33-4/95-78-63-62; doubles from $46; dinner for two $33.
Casa Musicale Pigna; 33-4/95-61-77-31, fax 33-4/95-61-74-28; doubles from $35, dinner for two $150.
L'Albatros Marine de Bonifacio; 33-4/95-73-01-97; dinner for two $100. Try the day's fresh fish or the moules marinières.
Le Sinbad Plage de Bodri (also known as Rinalta Beach); 33-4/95-60-43-88; lunch for two $20. Great food without leaving the beach.
Points of Interest
Musée Fesch Rue Cardinal-Fesch, Ajaccio; 33-4/95-21-48-17. In France, only the Louvre has a better Italian Primitive collection.
Les Grottes Marines Bonifacio; 33-4/95-73-11-88; $12.50. Hour-long excursions to sea caves, including the Grotte du Sdragonatu. Hire a boat at the marina.
Books & Music
Corsica by David Abram and Theo Taylor (Rough Guides) — Great on lore and language.
Astérix en Corse Text by Goscinny, illustrations by Uderzo (Dargaud).
Memoria (Olivi Music) — Petru Guelfucci's sultry ballads are atmospheric and — for those who understand Corsican — politically charged.
From Ajaccio, take N196 south to Propriano, stay overnight at the Hotel Miramar, and while you're there, visit Sartène, also on N196.
From Propriano or Sartène, drive south on N196 to Bonifacio. (To stop at Cap Roccapina, turn off after about 15 miles, at the dirt road marked camping roccapina.) In Bonifacio, pick up N198 and follow it to Porto-Vecchio, then turn onto D368 at the roundabout to get to Zonza. Stay at L'Aiglon.
From Zonza to Solenzara, drive the steep and winding D268 (Route de Bavella) through Bavella Forest, for about 11/2 hours. At Solenzara, turn north toward Ghisonaccia, back onto N198. Drive northwest into the mountains on D344, passing through Ghisoni. From there, travel north on D69 to N193, which leads to Corte, and on N103 to N1197 (get on at Ponte Leccia), until you arrive at Île Rousse. Follow signs marked direction calvi until you reach the Cinéma L'Île Rousse, and turn left at the small sign for Pigna, which is a 10-minute drive up the road. Stay at Casa Musicale.
N197 from L'Île Rousse leads to Calvi. At Calvi, pick up D81, which hugs the coast all the way to Ajaccio, passing through Piana and Les Calanche.
Note: This is a fast-paced trip around the island. For an easier drive, plan on five or six days to complete the whole itinerary, or skip Bonifacio and go directly from Sartène to Zonza.