A view from the Bubble: Corsica

Image credit: Alessandro Valli

We are now back in our libraries, huddled over our laptops, and summer has never felt so far away. In a desperate attempt to cling onto the vestiges of the last few months, I bring you the wild and enigmatic Mediterranean island of Corsica.

A mention of Corsica often evokes different reactions: varying from, ‘Ah yes, I toured the island on my yacht’, to ‘Is that in Spain?’. The fact remains that even those who do visit ‘L’île de Beauté’ often do not see the real Corsica. Few experience the wilderness of the ‘maquis’ (or shrubland), singed every year by ferocious forest fires; the hospitality of its insouciant and proud people; or the traditions such as wild-boar hunting and polyphonic concerts which for me, growing up there, have always been the source of the island’s charm and fascination.

Corsica is famous for its turquoise bays and boating potential along Cap Corse: secret coves where buzzards and kites swoop overhead are the perfect setting for a private swim. ‘Sentiers des Douaniers’, the old customs paths, snake along many stretches of coastline and afford stunning views for walkers. The Restonica Valley in the centre of the island offers challenging hikes on a backdrop of granite boulders, pine forests and chilling glacial lakes, including chains and ladders to help hikers scale the wild terrain. The hair-raising hairpin roads (and the Corsicans’ wayward driving) may deter shakier tourists, but the views from the top of the ‘cols’ (passes over the mountain-tops) are breath-taking. 

Branded simply a tourist destination in the eyes of many, beyond its holiday potential Corsica bears a rich and chequered history, often overlooked in favour of its spectacular scenery and crowded beaches. In the days of the Roman Empire, the philosopher and statesman Seneca was exiled to the rocky and hostile island by the Emperor Claudius on the grounds of alleged adultery with the emperor’s niece. Seneca lamented ‘What other rock is so barren or so precipitous on every side? [...] Who is more uncultured than the island’s inhabitants?’. Yet despite Seneca’s disdain, the Pisans deemed Corsica worthy of conquering in the 11th century, and their rivals the Genoese deemed it worth pinching for themselves in the 13th century. The coastline of Cap Corse today is studded with majestic lookout towers dating from this period.

Although often overlooked in European political history, Corsica also raised two eminent statesmen. We have all heard of Napoleon, but not so many are aware of Pasquale Paoli. When Corsica finally gained independence in 1755, Paoli created the first ever democratic constitution in Europe, which later influenced that of the Americans. An incredibly forward-thinking move, Paoli’s constitution ruled that all citizens over the age of 25 were allowed to vote, including women There was even a short-lasting Anglo-Corsican kingdom under Paoli, until once and for all it decidedly became ‘French’. It was during this of British-Corsican alliance that Admiral Nelson famously lost his eye in the town of Calvi – although more on that in Part II next week.

The Corsicans are ferociously proud of their island, and the National Front for the Liberation of Corsica (FLNC) are a constant, and sometimes militant, presence on the island. In fact, although Corsica is technically considered part of France, the Corsicans refer to the mainland as ‘the continent’ and there is a distinct sense of ‘otherness’. For centuries the Corsican maquis was peppered with bandits or outlaws, many forced into hiding after committing a murder for the sake of the ‘vendetta’: seeking mortal vengeance to protect the family’s honour. Whilst the vendetta no longer exists, the Corsicans still do not hesitate to keep each other in line: our neighbour’s friends torched his car as punishment for over-shooting his wild boar hunting quota, and a family friend had two husbands murdered in broad daylight. Whilst many foreigners fall in love with the scenery, they ought to be aware of the number of holiday villas blown up by the FLNC. A saving grace? They only ever bomb empty properties.

They don’t shoot foreigners either – only the occasional fellow Corsican, and a lot of wild boar. Wild boar stew, freshly-caught octopus, figatellu (a smoked pork liver sausage), and beignets (a type of doughnut, usually stuffed with ‘brocciu’, a Corsican cheese) top my list of Corsican cuisine. And then there’s the wine. Vineyards sweep up mountainsides and villages are dotted with ‘cave à vins’ where the Corsican speciality ‘muscat’ (a sweet fortified pudding wine) can be found. ‘Bergeries’ or shepherd’s huts huddle by the side of the road, selling homemade ewe’s milk cheese.

In many of these villages the elders still banter each other in the Corsican language, playing cards in the shade of the local bar. Many of thesm still harbour the superstitions and deep religious beliefs which gripped Corsicans for centuries. Wild boar skins are draped over fences at the side of the road to ward off evil spirits, and at Easter some towns still carry out the traditional religious processions. Hooded like members of the Ku Klux Klan, local townsmen parade through the streets chanting polyphonic chants, whipping back the crowd if they creep too close, whilst a man drags a cross chained to his ankle to represent Jesus. Nowadays, the chained man shouldering the burden of the cross is a volunteer; a hundred years ago he was a bandit who had come down from his hiding in the mountains to seek forgiveness and absolution.

Whilst in many ways Corsica may seem an incomprehensible and somewhat hostile place to foreigners (especially to the French), at the heart of the people and their culture is an overwhelming warmth and sense of unity. They are a passionate, loyal and proud people. For many, being woken in their glamorous rented villa by the noise of gunshots in the maquis may be the only glimpse they catch of what lies behind the façade of beaches and big coastal hotels. In some ways you could argue that the locals deliberately keep it this way. Their answers to any outsider’s probing questions will be as elusive and evasive as the bandits themselves once were, but theirs is a rich and deep-rooted way of life and cultural heritage, and protect it they must.

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