A view from the Bubble: Corsica (Part II)

The Calvi Harbour

Last week, I brought you a taste of the rich cultural heritage of Corsica – but many visitors overlook this side of the island in favour of its glamorous hotels, beaches, and yacht culture. But the villages, towns, and wilderness also warrant exploring, and here is a taster of some of Corsica’s gems.

Calvi: popular for its large-berth yacht mooring, stunning seafront and characterful 13th century Citadel. Many people overlook that Calvi is of historical significance too. Having suffered barbarian invasions in the 5th century, Pisan control, followed by 500 years of Genoese rule, a Franco-Turc invasion, and the Black Death in the 16th century, this coastal town is best known for the Siege of Calvi in 1794 when British forces captured Calvi and Admiral Nelson famously lost his eye.

In fact, Calvi is similar in history and charm to the small town of St Florent, or ‘San Fiurenzu’, situated at the foot of the Cap. San Florent. Both have quaint and shady backstreets winding up to a citadel behind the bustling ‘port de plaisance’ on the seafront. An eclectic mix of people come here, from the minor Mediterranean yacht set perusing the port on their foldable bicycles, to scruffy Italian campers on Vespas. On street corners you find overpriced shops selling local charcuterie and homemade cheese to unsuspecting tourists. Everywhere are gelateria, offering a range of ice cream flavours as eclectic as that of the people: from ‘brocciu’ (cheese) to liquorice, to ‘maquis’ and fig.

As you look out to sea in places like Calvi and St Florent, date palms frame the view of the shimmering blue horizon. This exotic feel recalls the historical Arabic influences in Corsica, reflected in the island’s national flag. A Moor’s head on a white background, it was inherited from the Kings of Aragon; although they never conquered Corsica, they did claim it as their own. 

Calvi and St Florent certainly are wonderful places to enjoy some sea and sun. Whilst many Brits flock to Spain or Greece in the summer months, the North of Corsica is relatively untouched. Calvi is only a stone’s throw from the beautiful Isles Sanguinaires, Calanques de Piana, or Scandola Nature Reserve, a UNESO world heritage site accessible by boat ride, slicing through the shimmering waters. For the active types, in a town like St Florent windsurfers abound, paragliders float down to land gracefully on the sand, and strings of sailing school catamarans bob about on the waves.

For the truly adventurous, the world-famous GR20 attracts hikers from all over. Heralded by experts as the toughest long-distance trail in Europe, 180km of rugged mountain terrain takes you diagonally from the North to the South of the island over the course of roughly 15 days, sleeping in refuge huts along the way. The mountain scenery is breath-taking and the cooler summer temperatures are a godsend for many. However, its toughness must not be underestimated.

For those of us who do not quite identify with the ‘elite hiker’ category, it is possible to walk individual sections of the GR20 in a day trip. The Restonica Valley soars high above the university town of Corte in the centre of Corsica, its spiky mountains piercing the blue skies. In a few hours’ hike you can reach the glacial lakes of Capitellu and Melu, where ice still lingers on the lakeside in the height of summer. This walk-come-scramble is attempted by all from unequipped holidaymakers in jelly shoes to adventurous families, with babies strapped to them like rucksacks. Unlike in Britain, there are no health and safety regulations, and the path is marked out with yellow paint spattered on boulders. In parts, there is no path at all: walkers pull themselves up the slippery smooth boulders using chains screwed into the rock, and in some places rusty ladders are used to scale the mountainside. Cows wander around the lake in a quasi-Alpine scene, against a backdrop of stunning mountain scenery and pine forests. But in the height of summer, nothing beats the freshness of a dip in the icy lake water.

Another wonderful lake tucked high up above sea level is the Lac de Tolla. Every year many tourists visit the very popular capital of Ajaccio, but only the locals know about the beautiful hilltop village of Tolla perched over the lake. Dammed by a ‘barrage’ providing hydroelectric power to EDF at one end, it opens out into secluded gorges at the other which, in the summer, the local youths explore in kayaks rented from the ‘base nautique’. This is a quintessentially Corsican place: local rivalry with the neighbouring village reigns strong; no one locks their door at night; and in summer the elders still play pétanque under the war memorial past midnight, or drink pastis on the terrace of the bar ‘Chez Claude’, where the wizened and monosyllabic Claude sits puffing on his cigar until the early hours.

In Corsica, there is something for everyone. From breath-taking mountain or coastal scenery, pine forests and hiking, to white sandy beaches, glimmering turquoise waters and sea-front bars, Corsica is an island to be explored. 

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