Love on the Rocks: A Wild and Wonderful Journey in Corsica
The rugged and mysterious island of Corsica may not readily reveal its charms—but that’s precisely what makes it so alluring.
We fell fully in love with the island of Corsica on the fourth day. Not the first, or second, nor the third exactly. And not until midday on the fourth, to be absolutely fair, but fully then, drunkenly so, because—Let’s just say it was the hog in the vines. Prior to that, we—my wife, Sara, and I—couldn’t be entirely certain about Corsica, nor she about us. The island, known by the French as l’Île de Beauté, came recommended for its many romantic attributes: granite mountains plunging into the sea, the siren scent of its maquis. We knew a bit about Corsica’s fascinating history; its ancient culture built on milk, meat, and honey, invaded by the usual lineup of ungenerous European plunderers, but still unshakably itself; and its people, who retreated from the coast to mountain strongholds, imbued with suspicion, nobility, and a stubborn determination to remain forever free. And I’d collected adjectives from the books I’d read about the island, words describing the Corsican gestalt: grandiose, insular, introspective, tough, proud.
Travel can be teleportation, the escape from one energy field to another, in which we find ourselves anew. In this case: husband and wife, temporarily leaving behind kids and obligations to taste a new fleck of salt, to share the same wonder. Flying from Paris, we harbored fantasies of the famous Corsican white-sand beaches, but our first vision of the island was shrouded in gray, the plane arcing through pewter cloud, ushering us to the rugged shoreline and the city of Ajaccio.
Our greeting party consisted of a woman at the Avis desk—she of impassive expression and dark, flashing eyes—who seemed not just exasperated, but offended by our very appearance. Could she be blamed? It was the end of tourist season, and she’d clearly reached wit’s end with bumblers like us. We, meanwhile, were hungry, tired, and headachy. We asked about the quickest route from Ajaccio, the island’s capital (and Napoleon’s birthplace), to Calvi, a sensualist’s beach haven 40 miles up the western coast as the crow flies. She pointed abstractedly to a map.
“Follow signs,” she said.
“Out the airport. Right, left. Sign to Calvi,” she said. Hovering above the map, her finger made a bunch of squiggles, raising doubts. She seemed so certain, though. Her route, while stunning, transformed what would otherwise have been a benevolent, three-hour journey into six hours of coastal switchbacks, swerves, and nerves. And around every hairpin, it seemed, we were greeted by aggressive, glamorous rally cars—Porsches, Citroëns, Volkswagens—there for that weekend’s Tour de Corse. This was one of the first truths we learned about the island: There are few straight roads, either literal or figurative. Everything squiggles. And our brain-sloshing progress brought us right to the sandy coastline of nausea, the woozy border of upchuck.
Besides hunger and exhaustion, a frisson of fear was our most palpable emotion on that road. Every corner brought headlights looping through the gloom, until I no longer trusted myself, and pulled over. We swam in the bracing sea at Galeria, and then, revived, carried on to Calvi in the dark. (To repeat: 40 miles, six hours.) The wind whipped up suddenly, and shadows massed and flickered. In the winding margin between land and sea, it seemed Corsica’s whole unruly history crowded close: happiness, hex, vendetta. The air was damp, electric. We drove on toward that night’s hotel, wondering what might come next.
Long, long ago—millennia in the past—Corsica broke free of Provence and, with a stubborn mind of its own, drifted east to its present location. Today it lies due south of Genoa, 50 miles at its closest from the Italian mainland, and just seven miles north of the island of Sardinia. “Colossal undulations of earth,” Guy de Maupassant once wrote about the island, “covered with maquis or tall chestnut and pine forests.” He thought the Corsicans “an uncultivated race, bloody, hateful, violent without conscience; but also hospitable, generous, devoted, naïve.”
Designated today as one of the 13 regions of France, but ruled for large swaths of its early history by Italy, Corsica is approximately two-thirds the size of Connecticut. It’s the ultimate study in dichotomies, not just temperamentally but in terms of landscape: coruscated mountains, parched desert, verdant lowlands, soft, sandy beaches, pine-thicketed valleys.
When you first hear of the island’s Gallic-Italian crosspollination, the mind explodes with thoughts of Corsica as the love child of Tuscany and Provence. It’s not. But that didn’t keep my wife from dreaming.
While the eastern coast of Corsica is the most trammeled by tourists, the historic town of Calvi is one of the most popular destinations on the western coast, located in that garden of the island known as the Balagne region, with its olive trees and red granite. So enticing is Calvi’s location that it has hosted invaders since the Romans arrived in the sixth century B.C., leading to Corsica’s motto, which seems a strange boast: “Often conquered, never enslaved!”
The weather outside was described by the concierge at our hotel, with an authoritative mix of concern and awe, as “a hurricane,” and so Corsica had gone “from summer to winter in two days.” On this day, the conditions were wet and wild, dragging palm fronds across the pool deck, while every once in a while, a little chalice of sunlight would illuminate the town’s dramatic fortress, out in the distance, set at the mouth of the harbor. The view, even in stormy robes, was like a postcard, one that we suddenly found ourselves inhabiting. The beautiful bay at Calvi (named by the city’s Genoese founders for the calvus, or bald rock upon which the fortress was built), with its two-mile beach, was empty and moody, reflecting blues and slate grays.
With widespread flooding on the island, and the big road rally delayed, we lingered, walking the town’s narrow streets out toward the 13th-century fortress, which is presided over by the St.-Jean-Baptiste cathedral. Lunch was, at last, the anticipated feed of our dreams, casual and languorous, wind and rain at the window of a place called A Piazetta, on a tucked-away plaza overflowing with flowers before a small church. Bibbed and smiling, Sara vanished into a heap of fresh pasta and tender Corsican prawns; I had the entrecôte in green-pepper sauce, with the expansive appreciation of a Parisian on Sunday. There was a leafy green salad, red wine, and the local Pietra beer.
And perhaps right there, in that restaurant of redchecked tablecloths and quaint signs, clocks, and colanders on the wall, perhaps we had found at the table the perfect marriage of two countries in our own marriage (my wife’s surname is French and mine is Italian, which hadn’t occurred to us before, and it seemed fate of some sort that Corsica would draw attention to and even consecrate this mixing). Everything was followed by tiramisu served in a glass pot. After wandering in the rain, we returned to our own rally car. Then, it was up through l’Île Rousse (a seaside town founded by the great freedom fighter Pasquale Paoli that gave the feeling of a hangover in the rain, everyone defiantly smoking in the bars despite the No Smoking signs). We drove on to the Désert des Agriates (a desiccated, shrubby landscape buzzing, in a burst of blazing sun, with the bees of the sweet-smelling maquis), then to St.-Florent (another beautiful port, perhaps my favorite) and, finally, to a fork in the road leading to the mountain village of Oletta.
As it turned out, a washed-out road now stood between us and our night’s lodging. To circumvent it would mean more hours of hairpins and switchbacks, more head-sloshing nausea. We eased past the road closed sign and drove to the edge of a small lake formed in a declivity. How deep was it? We sat awhile, watching for other cars. Of course they came—this was contrarian Corsica, after all—blasting at high speed. Though the water was halfway up the doors, most all of them made it (only one seemed stranded from earlier). So I gunned the car a little, eased off the brake, ran the first big puddle and then another, and once the road began to climb we were fine, relieved, and coursing with adrenaline.
Now, we were the rally drivers.
There was no pain in arriving at that night’s hotel, a renovated 17th-century palace named U Palazzu Serenu. The owner, Georges Barthes (nephew of the French literary critic Roland Barthes), has, in touristic parlance, “created an oasis.” But it was! Eight rooms in a three-story, 300-year-old Florentine pile, remade into a hip, design-y enclave with contemporary art and a gourmet restaurant. And the sockless but impeccable Barthes was both a delight and an enigma—a fragrant, modern-day Renaissance man.
“I like to walk alone in the desert,” he said, “for months.”
“I made my fortune in roses,” he said.
“I found myself in the Arab-Israeli War,” he said. Then no more.
(Later, he would kindly ferry us in his boat from lovely St.-Florent to the famous isolated beaches of the Désert des Agriates. We passed the gleaming white sands of Loto and Saleccia—where Allied troops once landed—and at Trave, the best of them all, we dove off the bow and came up seeing blurry bands of blue-white-blue that made up the horizon, afterward returning to eat juicy oysters and tender Saint-Pierre fish at a quayside restaurant called La Gaffe.)
This evening, though, as we ate in the hotel restaurant, two men wearing matching black vests walked in, followed by two more. They were friendly—irrepressible, actually. Italians. Their clothing bore a strange label. I read it, like, five times to make sure. fuckmatiè. Was that good or bad?
It would soon become apparent that the four were part of a rally team, the Fuckmatiè in question, owned by the Prada family of Milan. The absent driver was the fashion designer Miuccia Prada’s son Lorenzo Bertelli. Yes, they planned to drive the next day, after a messy start and cancellations. The men were miserable about the conditions—and a ballyhoo of complaint went up about the weather and the crumbling roads, described as “impossible” and “unkempt.” Their pace notes, used by drivers to anticipate the road ahead, were up to 500 pages long for the Tour de Corse, double that of other rallies.
The team said they would rise and be on their way by 6 a.m. Yet, when we left them receiving two more bottles of wine at midnight, in that little mountain hamlet, in that Zen manse on the hill, it seemed they were just getting started. Anyone for dessert? “Of Corsica!” said the team manager in theatrical, heavily accented English, and they all broke out laughing.
On the fourth day, the sun rose in a blue sky, and there was joy. Joy among the Corsicans and joy among the rally drivers. Joy among the tourists and joy among the two of us—Americanos of French and Italian surname—and joy among all other rain-weary beasts of the kingdom, including the boars and hogs, who might not have been rain-weary, exactly, but I wasn’t able to interview one, so let’s just assume. We threw open the windows and, with the mountains out one, we could see all the way down to the glittering sea out the other. A crisp wind stirred the pines, but it was warm in the sun—sweater-on/sweater-off weather—which merely fed into more dichotomies about the island: rough and soft, impenetrable and transparent, opulent and penurious.
“It’s a bit like a deranged Disneyland,” said my wife.
“It’s like a spanking that feels good,” I said.
After breakfast, we drove to a vineyard in nearby Patrimonio, the Domaine Orenga de Gaffory, where we met the owner, Henri, and his exuberant wife, Anne. The Orenga de Gaffory family reigns as nobility here. In 1872, Henri’s great-great-grandfather invented a worldfamous, bittersweet aperitif known as Cap Corse Mattei made from grape must, oranges, and quinine, and the family has built its holdings over the years, producing 18 wines on 208 acres today. It’s one of Henri’s proudest claims to fame that his family helped make the wines that led to Patrimonio receiving its own appellation in 1968, but it still stings that it didn’t come sooner, as viticulture on the island is as old as the Phoenician traders who brought it to Corsica in 570 B.C. “It’s an outrage,” he said, as if the matter had been settled yesterday, or not at all. His Corsican pride didn’t seem exaggerated or unreasonable. Excellence was his obsession, and it was the excellence of Corsica that he wanted reflected in the world beyond. He also had a sense of humor. Pointing to the OG initials of his family name emblazoned on his bottles, he pronounced, “I’m the Original Gangster!” We toured the winery and sipped the wines, which were fantastic. By the time we’d finished, it was lunch, and, impromptu, we were invited back to the Orenga de Gaffory home for food.
It’s said you won’t find the real Corsica on the coast, for that’s where the invaders came and colonized. To find the real Corsica, you need to travel inland, away from the porphyry cliffs and calanche (rugged, redgranite formations), away from the waterfront restaurants and hotels with their Egyptian-cotton sheets, down the dirt roads and up the ravines, to the hidden places. You have to get a little dirty, and eat the food of the land. We drove the potholed road with Anne, who proclaimed, “It’s wonderful to live in the vines!” We bounced deeper into the grapes until we came upon the house. On a rise over the land, this stone building was filled with fine contemporary art, much of it Corsican. Henri and Anne have created their own astonishment—the stone skin of an ancient house hiding a modern one inside.
Soon the four of us were seated at a long table, and out came a feast: fried eggplant, rice, crusty bread, and, for spreading, a strange orange brick of something they called poutargue, consisting mostly of fish eggs—a strong, salty jelly-butter that tasted delicious. To everyone’s delight, one of the neighbors had shot a wild boar in the vines earlier (wild boar love to eat grapes, and Corsicans adore eating wild boar, or cignale, as they’re called), and the meat, sliced and tender, had an earthy smokiness. Consuming such strong flavors, while gazing out the window at the vines stretching away from us in leafy green, undulating like a sea of their own, I felt my defenses crumbling, and there it was, at midday on the fourth day: a sudden gush of love for Corsica filled the empty space. Henri claimed that the most notable attribute of the Corsican people is protective behavior toward others. He spoke of the devastation that followed World War I, when many men left the island to fight and never returned. “The economy was destroyed; chestnuts became our potatoes,” he said. Flour and bread were made with the nuts, furniture from the trees. Famine followed, and Corsica shifted from a patriarchy to a matriarchy.
“Even today,” he said, “the men are macho; the women hold the power.”
After dessert of a cédrat (citron) ice cream, we were given a tour of the house. In his little library, shelves sagging with old books, Henri pulled various tomes from their places and opened them gingerly, revealing family trees and mysterious scripts. In some cases, the books dated back to the 17th century, the pages nearly disintegrating in hand. It was a special moment, and Henri seemed to know it. In that room was the history of his country, the intensity of its passions, the continuum of his forebears, including a revolutionary ancestor, a general, who connected Henri to a vital past. Yes, these people had been here all along, while the rest of us invaders and day-trippers kept revolving through, trying to get closer to the simple grain of Corsican life.
“If I’m gone from here—and the vines—more than three days,” he said, “I can’t breathe anymore.”
With the time left to us, we made a mad, final swoop south—passing through Corsica’s spiritual capital, Corte. The city is notched in the furrow of two mountains and is considered the nexus of the entire island. While not exactly stylish, it possesses a ferocity that is the electric current of Corsica. And, we wondered, wasn’t that ferocity somehow better than the ease of Tuscany or the straightforward pleasures of Provence? We’d found it wearying at times, but constantly breathtaking.
Which is what made our last destination, the Domaine de Murtoli, near Sartène in the south, such a surprise. Once through its gates, we were lost in a decadent paradise: almost 6,200 acres of mountain, beach, and farm, overseen by the Canarelli family on their ancestral estate. Installed in our spectacular 16th-century villa, U Fragnu, we floated in the infinity pool, peering down at the cork oak trees in the valley below. Activities at the Domaine included hiking, horseback riding, hunting, fishing, golf, and a spa. We could have settled in for a very long time, we said. Brought the kids over. Become Corsican.
At La Grotte, an actual granite cave retrofitted as a restaurant, we ate grilled cod to live Corsican folk music. The next day, we drove down winding roads to…the white-sand beach, at last! Six miles of it—nearly ours alone! We lounged, and ate, and walked. We swam, and the waves seemed to pile and increase, bearing us out, then depositing us back ever so gently on shore. That night, another dinner, this time at the stunningly restored farmhouse, consisted of lamb fresh from the farm. Then we retired one last time to U Fragnu and woke before the sun, realizing the dream was over. It was time to go home.
The road offered the appropriate brain-sloshing on the way to the airport, and when we returned the car at the Avis desk a little green of complexion, our friend was there again. She smiled, knowing full well what she’d wrought. Now, we were leaving, and she was staying. The island was hers, returned to the Corsicans at last, though we had our memories and a deep yearning to come back, even before fully having taken our leave.
“Corsica has paid the penalty of being too much coveted,” Dorothy Carrington once wrote. I wanted to apologize to the island in advance. When, all hungry and jet-lagged, we returned to her again, she would have to reckon with our bumbling, but also the overflow of our feelings for her, the bittersweet home of Napoleon Bonaparte and Henri Orenga de Gaffory, of Pasquale Paoli and, yes, the woman at the Avis counter.
It was the best kind of love, though: to be continued.
Michael Paterniti’s collection of essays, Love and Other Ways of Dying, is out now in paperback.