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Corsica, with a Collie

ISSUE:  Fall 2004

I stood with Bella in the sunny piazza in Livorno, one noon in May. My wife had gone to buy French francs; the era of the euro had not yet arrived. I noted to the collie that this was a city full of pretty girls … but what were we getting into? A couple of Francophile friends, hearing we were bound for Corsica, suggested gently that we should remember that that was the place where they set off bombs. The top French official in the island, the Préfet de Corse, was assassinated at Ajaccio in 1998. Our children wondered why in heaven’s name we had to take the dog along. Well, as to this last the answer was simple: the collie had never been to Corsica. Nor had we. We had often flown over the island after taking off from Rome for America, and its high mountains and cliff-backed coasts were appealing. We were giving ourselves a week there; that seemed ample time for an island not much over a hundred miles from north to south and about fifty miles wide. There would not be many tourists there in May. Most of the visitors to Corsica are French and Italians, and they go vacationing in July and August.

Nor did the occasional bombings, or the shooting of Claude Erignac, the prefect, worry us. The Corsican bombers’ aim was independence, or at least more island autonomy. The main independence movement denied they had shot M. Erignac, but they did bomb French government offices and tourist developments being built without permits. They seemed to have, in part, ecological concerns. They would hardly go after an older American couple with a small Fiat and a collie.

Mary Jane came back with francs, and the Fiat made its way to the dock, following signs for Corsica Ferries, one of the two lines plying between Livorno and Bastia. As we reached the dock we saw our ferry coming in from Bastia. She was a proper ship of several thousand tons, her superstructure white and her hull painted bright yellow, and her name was Corsica Victory. It was a Monday, and she had little to discharge: a few German motorcyclists, several German and Austrian tour buses with middle-aged passengers, a dozen cars with French and Italian plates, and a big flatbed truck laden with two-foot strips of Corsican cork.

An hour later, the Fiat was parked on the vehicle deck and we were sitting in deck chairs at the stern, collie at our feet, watching the continente recede, the Apuan Alps fading to hazy gray in the north. Mediterranean voyages can be short—ours would be just four hours—but on calm, sunny days like this they are very pleasant. Travelers who go up and down Italy, and do not go to sea, miss one full dimension of the Mediterranean world. We dozed in the sun. After an hour Capraia came in sight to starboard, an Italian penal colony and the only volcanic island among the half-dozen smaller pieces which stand up from the sea between Corsica, Sardinia, and the Italian peninsula.

People ventured out onto this sea a long time ago; Corsica was settled seven thousand years before Christ. I could imagine Stone Agers in dugout canoes coming across these waters. Prehistoric dugouts could be big, but presumably the Corsica adventurers waited for good weather. Even so, some were no doubt lost. Archaeologists said the first people had come to Corsica from Elba, and storms come up frequently on the thirty miles of sea between Elba and the nearest point on Corsica. Tales of the adventure were probably handed down for millennia. I thought of the Delawares, who, some say, preserved into the last century an account of the ancient migration from Siberia.

Soon we could see ahead of us the three- and four-thousand-foot ridges that stretch south from Cap Corse. At six p.m. we came into Bastia and left our yellow ship. With a little luck the Fiat found its way to the edge of the old port, and we found a decent and inexpensive room at the Hotel Vecchia Posta. (I write of a time not only before the euro but before the rapid descent of the dollar.) We had a pleasant dinner in a restaurant looking out at sailboats and small trawlers. It was a good beginning. Next morning, after an hour’s stroll, we had seen enough of the old but not ancient town of Bastia—we could always see more when we returned to take our ferry back to Italy—and we started west out of town on D-81, bound for the Nebbio district, known for its wine. As in mainland France, the “D” roads are the smaller Departmental ones. D-81 climbed through many hairpin turns to a 1,750-foot saddle just three miles west of Bastia. It was not bad for a secondary road, I thought. Worse was to come.

Beyond the divide we came down into pleasant country. The sun was shining on the Gulf of St. Florent ahead of us. Soon came vineyards, and then the village of Patrimonio. There were signs for caves that sold wine. We decided to drive into a shady courtyard, walked into the Cave du clos Marfisi, and bought from the attractive proprietress three bottles of a rich red Canonau, so good that we were sorry later we had not bought a case.

We continued west toward L’Île Rousse, a well-known resort town. An American friend had insisted that we go see L’Île Rousse. Why, was not clear to me. We had brought swimming suits, but summer would not hit Corsica for some weeks. My thoughts were turning to hiking, somewhere inland. Somewhere not too high; we could see snow on peaks to the southwest. Meanwhile we were driving through the Desert des Agriates, not a desert in American terms but far less than lush. We were several miles inland from Corsica’s northern coast, in a zone of little rain—perhaps 25 inches a year, compared with three times that much precipitation in Corsica’s central mountains. There had once been forest here, but the trees had long since been cut. Over centuries the land had been burned and reburned so that now the vegetation was low gar-rigue. In the Mediterranean lands, where ancient forests have been cut but there are decent rains, the land gets covered with a thick maquis of evergreen growth ten or twenty feet high. Eventually, after centuries, a big-tree forest may take over again in some places, though this is arguable. In drier, burned-over parts like this there is only garrigue. It was not just low; it was flowering. We stopped the car, and stopped again, to admire and smell and photograph the flowering plants and the herbs, broom and heather and sage and rosemary and thyme. Napoleon once said that he would be able to smell his Corsican homeland from out at sea, for all the flowers and herbs. We had no doubt of it.

L’Île Rousse was, as I had guessed, not much in May; nor would I want to come back in August and see it packed with French bathers. We picnicked beyond the town, under the old Genoese tower on the islet that gave the place its name, reddish rock with every crevice full of things in bloom. Then we drove to the citadel of Calvi on the northwest corner of the island and started south down a narrow road along a high corniche. This was no longer D-81 but D-81B, and after Calvi the road got still narrower to prove its subordinate status. Small, upright slabs of slate were cemented along the sea edge of the road: not enough to stop a car, just markers beyond which came air and a long drop to blue water. Dramatic, but we wanted to make Porto, fifty miles south, and it would take many hours if we kept on this road at what this tourist thought a safe speed. (I had already learned that Corsican roads were populated by occasional small Renaults which always passed on curves.) We returned to Calvi and took the interior road south. This was a greener road, with trees and farms—and everywhere, on kilometer posts and signs, the graffiti of the patriots, mainly “FLNC” for the Corsican National Liberation Front.

We came down to the west coast, to a small bay with a rocky beach and clear water. There were pines and eight-foot stalks of asphodels in bloom and only a few villas—but more were building on the hillside. This was Galeria, and for me, for now, it was the proper size for a Mediterranean resort, which means small. We waded in the cold water, bought two expensive Cokes at the beachside bar, and turned our way south toward Porto, across the empty country.

Corsica’s permanent population is only about a quarter million, in a country of 3,300 square miles. That is fewer people than Corsica contained a century ago. Today neighboring Sardinia, twice the size, has more than six times the population of Corsica. For decades Corsicans left the island for France, where they became prominent in the civil service and in crime. In recent decades the birth rate has dropped. The population level has been maintained by inflows from Africa—first, French pieds noirs who fled Algeria in the 1960s; more recently, workers from the Maghreb, who now make up a sizable part of the labor force in larger towns like Bastia and Ajaccio. In some coastal towns the graffiti say not FLNC but “Arabi fora!” which, in Corsican, means “Arabs out!”

It seemed to me as I drove, my wife dozing next to me and the collie sprawled in the backseat, that independence might be impossible now for Corsica. Too few Corsicans and too little economic activity other than tourism. Perhaps half of Corsican household income comes from French social benefits. Corsican nationalists who say they want to cut ties with France must wonder sometimes if they could really afford to do so. But while recent surveys have found that only seventeen percent of Corsicans want full independence, only fourteen percent of Corsicans think of themselves as French. Most Corsicans are pressing for greater autonomy, within France. They have made progress; they can imagine a bright future for the island. A professor at Corsica’s national university has argued that of all Mediterranean islands, it is Corsica that with proper development could become a modern Garden of Eden.

I knew already that Corsica was very different from France. Alexandre Dumas had said so in 1841; it was still so. Corsican dialects are Italian, not French. I found that when I spoke Italian to a Corsican I could understand much of what came back at me. Moreover, Corsica had already once enjoyed independence. After centuries of domination by the city-state of Genoa, Corsica was a real if unrecognized republic from 1755 to 1769, under a General of the People named Pasquale Paoli, who created the only democratic government in Europe—years before our own revolution and while France was still suffering under Louis XV. James Boswell came to call on Paoli in a Corsican village in 1765. Paoli told Boswell that Corsica’s struggle had been difficult but if he returned in twenty or thirty years he would find Corsica a flourishing state.

Four years later, Paoli was defeated by the French, to whom the Genoese had sold their interests. Paoli moved to London and became a close friend of Boswell and Johnson. In America, admiring Pennsylvanians named a town for him. His lieutenants in Corsica had included a young lawyer named Bonaparte, who later made peace with the French and whose son made himself emperor of the French. What a jumble, I thought, that all made of the Corsican question.

Ahead of us was another jumble, wooded peaks and steep slopes falling to the blue sea. I woke my wife and went ahead in low gear along the most dramatic corniche I had ever traveled. It took us two hours to reach Porto, in the bay we could see ahead of us, no more than a dozen miles away in a straight line … but the only straight lines in Corsica were the small slates along the cliff edge. Eventually we came to a wider place, with a roadside stand, and stopped to look and walk. I had caught sight of a large bus coming along the corniche toward us, and I did not want to meet him where it was too narrow to pass, which was most of the road. Three French hikers came by with big packs, and we talked. They had come from Paris hoping to do the GR-20 trail, the grande randonée that crosses the island via the high inland peaks and ridges. It is 125 miles long, and it takes an experienced hiker two weeks. These hikers had found there was still too much snow inland, and so instead they were doing the sea-and-mountains foot route along the western coast. They had left the ridges to walk down to the coastal village of Girolata, accessible only on foot or by boat. Girolata is not a primitive place, being well known to Mediterranean yacht owners, but along the way is the little cove of Tuara, where the hikers had found no people at all, just two cows.

Should we go down to Tuara? It was a question of walking two miles and descending a thousand feet, on a nice afternoon. But the aging collie was limping after spending much of the day in the Fiat. So we walked just a little way down and told ourselves we would return some day. We drove on toward Porto. One never knows if one will return. We had, sometimes: to the Val Badia and Val Gardena in the Dolomites; to the ridges of the Central Apennines; to the glorious high passes near Crested Butte in Colorado. But I had never gone back, and at seventy I probably never would, to Panama or Cameroon or the green steppes of Mongolia.

Porto contains several hotels, fortunately not oversized, in a lovely cove with fine vistas of cliffs and the sea. We chose the pink Hotel Monte Rosso, behind which the high, reddish fingers of Capu d’Ortu rose four thousand feet, with only a little fringe of cloud to tell us rain was coming. Next morning was wet. We drove beyond Porto and walked an hour in drizzle through the Calanche, a spectacular place of red, eroded cliffs and gorges where there was also, as almost everywhere in Corsica, a profusion of herbs and wildflowers in bloom.

When later we reached Ajaccio, which is Corsica’s largest city but contains no more than 75,000 people, it was just too big for us. We were country people now. We passed up the chance to see the place where Napoleon was born and found a haven in the Hotel Belvedere, perched 1,500 feet above the sea in high, green maquis outside the village of Coti-Chiavari. We were aiming south now, for the menhirs and for Bonifacio.

The people who first settled Corsica were hunters and gatherers. A couple of thousand years later came new immigrants, who brought farming. For thousands of years they all stayed in the Stone Age, even after others in the Mediterranean began using copper and then bronze. As we drove down to a gentle, verdant valley, where the little Taravo River flowed south toward the nearby sea, I wanted to think that this had been an old Arcadia. There is at least one site in Germany where the remains of many people who died violent deaths seem to prove that war was already known in the Stone Age. But perhaps in Corsica the villagers had farmed the good soil, and hunted in the ancient forests, and fished in the clear streams, and lived in peace.

After World War II, at the edge of Filitosa village in the Taravo valley, a landowner named Cesari realized that his land contained amazing Stone Age ruins. There were a number of the tall, carved stones known as menhirs, dating from several thousand years before Christ. Many of these had been incorporated later into stone chambers and buildings by people who invaded Corsica around 1500 B.C.—mariners who may have come from the distant Eastern Mediterranean, who may have been some of the marauding Sea Peoples who ravaged Egypt then. The present Cesari, Jean-Dominique, sold us tickets to the site, which covered a large area. As we were leaving, my wife told M. Cesari that beyond menhirs, it was interesting for us Americans to see that local farmers used stone fence posts just like those in central Kansas. Intriguing, said M. Cesari. We promised photographs. Were we his first American visitors? No, there had been others, once even a bus full, but so long ago that he could not say when.

That afternoon we drove down little roads near the south coast and found, after some searching, the rows of many more granite menhirs in the dry pastureland under low mountains. Nearby we found, too, the amazing Dolmen of Fontanaccia with its roof monolith of many tons. Local people must always have known it was there, but Prosper Merimée, who was France’s Inspector General of Ancient Monuments as well as a master of fiction, is credited with “discovering” it in 1839.

Bonifacio was not far beyond, at Corsica’s southern tip. There are frequent ferries to Sardinia, less than an hour away, so we assumed Bonifacio must be a big place. It was unique, not big. Steep chalk cliffs surround a small, perfect harbor. Here, it seems, Ulysses came. The cannibal Laestrygonians on the cliffs cast great rocks down on Ulysses’ men on their ships and then carried the victims home to eat. Ulysses, fortunately for him, had anchored his ship outside the harbor, and he and the last ship’s crew rowed away, safe for the moment.

We parked and walked along the promenade by the harbor, where we found a room at the small, elegant, but inexpensive Hotel la Caravelle. We dropped our suitcases and walked a reluctant collie up the long ramp to the old town, Genoese rather than Laestrygonian: narrow streets and tall stone houses, a small Gothic cathedral, and occasionally a café where one could sit on the brink of the cliff to view the splendid coast and sea. In the morning we walked through the old town to the end of the headland, passing the garrison where, to Corsicans’ disgust, a Foreign Legion regiment had been quartered for two decades after leaving newly independent Algeria in 1963. The Legion was gone from here now—though some units still remain in Corsica—and the soldiers we saw were regular French Army. My wife took my picture on the headland beyond the end of the old town, with white and yellow daisies and red poppies (and a collie) at my feet. It might just be the place where, three thousand years ago, after anchoring his ship, Ulysses climbed “a craggy hill, a place of outlook.”

Hiking still appealed and the weather had improved. We spent the rest of our week inland. We saw the Forest of Aitone, with great pines and beeches. It was what Italy and Greece and other deforested Mediterranean countries must have been like, before the cutting started. The cutting began in ancient times, but much Mediterranean virgin forest was cut within the last century, as Norman Douglas recorded in 1915 in Old Calabria and R. H. Bruce Lockhart still later in What Price Glory?

We devoted a day to the Castagniccia, the Land of Chestnuts, named for its thousands of huge, old trees, which are beginning to die of the blight. For centuries in the Castagniccia, chestnut flour was villagers’ staple food. Now the region is depopulated. The trees remain, slowly dying but still majestic. Nothing so fine will ever replace them.

Pasquale Paoli was born in the Castagniccia. The house where he was born still stands at Morosaglia, a small village in green uplands, a half mile above sea level. Paoli died in England in 1807; his remains were brought home and interred here in 1889. The house became a museum. But then it was closed—intentionally, the nationalists said. An old man was digging his vegetable garden across the road. They won’t ever reopen the museum, he said, and this place is dying. You’re Americans? Buona salute. (In fact, the museum was later officially recognized by French legislation—thanks to pressure by the Corsicans—and is now open.)

But we concentrated on Corte, the handsome small city near the center of the island which was Paoli’s capital. Paoli founded the Corsican university there—and the French closed it. Two centuries later, in 1981, it was finally reopened, and now there is a modern campus with four thousand students. Even counting the students, there are no more than ten thousand people in Corte. From the old citadel, another former Foreign Legion garrison, one looks down at green countryside just behind the town.

Corte is at the junction of two streams, one of which flows down from the Restonica gorge. After Paoli’s defeat in 1769, Carlo Bonaparte fled from the French up this gorge with his wife, Letizia, who was six months pregnant with the future emperor. Up this gorge now, the guidebook said, was good hiking; and there, just a mile or two up from Corte, we found a pleasant place to stay, the Auberge Restonica. It belonged to Dominique Colonna, a Corsican who became one of France’s soccer greats. It was not elegant, but it was very comfortable. The big windows of the dining room looked out at the adjacent forest and the noisy stream coming down fast from the mountains. After dinner, we marched Bella a couple of miles up the narrow road which went on for ten miles to the head of the valley. Beyond that, the map showed, lay a semicircle of peaks, the highest of them Monte Rotondo, 8,600 feet above sea level. The collie, said my wife, can stay home tomorrow, and we can go hiking. I was pleased to agree.

In the morning we set out in the car, aiming for the head of the gorge. We thought we had gotten used to narrow roads in Corsica, but it was unnerving to see a sign that warned of a 1.9 meter road width. That was just over six feet; our Fiat must be nearly that wide. The road widened a little and I parked. We put on our packs and started walking up the road. After a half-hour we came to a trail which, the sign said, would lead us overland in two hours and a half to the Bergerie de Grottelle, where the road ended. That sounded good; and it was good. We walked up and away from the road and kept on uphill for several miles through beeches and pines and larches, past little orchids and cyclamen and lemon thyme, and the only obstacles were three streams full of snow water. We managed to cross without wetting more than our feet. Eventually we came out of the trees into a rocky cirque, with peaks and large patches of snow above us. There was one final stream before the bergerie, too deep to cross. We scrambled up the slope a couple of hundred yards and picnicked in the sunshine, just under a spectacular waterfall coming down from Monte Rotondo. It was enough. Next time, God willing, we would do more.

Now I sit on my deck in Colorado, listening to a magpie and looking at the aspens. I think of our old sweet collie, now gone—and of Paoli’s old republic. Last year the centralist French state offered Corsicans some proposals on further autonomy—which the dissatisfied Corsicans narrowly voted down. The Corsican elections in March 2004 hardly changed matters. Greater autonomy, but not independence, is in the cards for the beautiful and troubled island. I turn to a poem that Piero Leca wrote about his dear Corsica, personified as a lady: “… me cor trema di gioja / e mi mettu in ghinocchje per amarla.” My heart trembles with joy, he says, and I fall to my knees to love her. One does not need to be a Corsican, but only a traveler in Corsica, to understand that.


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