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[France] A week in Corsica

    Corsica

    I spent 8 days travelling around Corsica (30th August to 7th September 2017) and I was rather blown away by how beautiful and interesting it is, and amazed at how it is somehow rather unknown still.

    The landscape is the big reason to go: I was blown away by the landscape – and I have been living in Switzerland for the last few years. There is so much variation: High alpine ranges, dolomite like peaks, gentle valleys, beaches. One minute you could be in rural south Australia, then you come over a pass and it is like the chestnut filled pre- Alps in northern Italy. The water is especially amazing – it is super clear water everywhere. The sea, the rivers, the lakes were all perfect. Plus the interior often feels very wild and often untouched.

    The culture is fascinating. The people are very independently minded. I started to forget it was part of France and just started to think of it as its own country. It was pretty common to see the French names for places painted off the road signs leaving just the Corsican names to help guide you. This was a place that took vendetta very seriously once (apparently the last one was due to a stray donkey which set off a chain of violence and death in 1954).

    For an island in the Mediterranean with Tuscany to one side and the French Riviera to the other it is surprisingly untouristy.

    Other than the locals driving on windy roads I felt as safe as I have anywhere else.

    Basic itinerary

    We just booked flights, car, accommodation in that order, then turned up and planned a day ahead or off-the-cuff as we went along.

    • Day 1. Flew into Ajaccio and explore. Stayed in Ajaccio.
    • Day 2. Picked up rental car from the airport and headed off to Corte for 2 nights.
    • Day 3. Corte area. Hiked high up in the Restonica valley.
    • Day 4. Drove to the coast through mountain passes. Corte – Ponte Leccia – Morosaglia – Campana – Cervione. Down to the coast and stayed at Solenzara for 3 nights
    • Day 5. Scenic drive through mountain passes. Solenzara river – Col de Bavella – Zonza – L’Ospédale
    • Day 6. Porto Vecchio and relaxed by the beach.
    • Day 7. Attempted to visit Bonifacio, gave up due to traffic and went to the beach. Stayed at Monacia-d’Aullène for 2 nights.
    • Day 8. Bonifacio and beach.
    • Day 9. Sartène, drove back to Ajaccio through the mountains and flew out.

    General Points

    • None of towns are very big or require more than a few hours to see. Focus on the nature.
    • Do not expect everyone to speak English. My attempts at speaking a few words in French at least amused people and generally got the basic message over.
    • Tourism is very seasonal. Apparently it is rammed in august, but almost nothing is open in winter. If possible stay well away in August, at least from the coastal spots.
    • Interestingly it was mostly French and German tourists. Corsica is the only place outside a German speaking country where I have seen the German speakers vastly outnumber the English speakers.
    Corsica
    The cliche view of Corte.

    Getting about

    • Drive. Public transport is very very limited. That said driving is a bit of an experience….
    • Local drivers can be utterly fucking mental (even for a rural/mountainous place). Overtaking is basically the local sport. Watching it from a safe spot is really entertaining, having someone swerve out in front of you is not so much fun. Any gaps in traffic going with you are tempting targets to overtake into, and any gaps in oncoming traffic are fair game no matter how small. Needless to say blind corners can mean nothing and cutting corners is common, even when you are right in front of the oncoming car. My girlfriend from the rural and windy Black Forest thought they were mad.
    • Parking Is a case of park wherever you fit: on the pavement, over multiple spaces, putting on hazard lights apparently means you can stop anywhere for however long. Anything goes so long as the road is mostly passable.
    • Getting into or even past the coastal towns can be a nightmare as the main roads tend to be limited in size and go right alongside or through the towns. Getting past Porto Vecchio took us far too long for such a tiny town. Bonifacio was an utter mess as it bottlenecks down to a single point, we actually gave up twice when we found 5km queues each time and went back early the next day. Inland at least where the population is less dense was mostly fine with empty roads.
    • Goats, cows and pigs are often let to just roam at will in the mountains. It was not uncommon to turn a corner on a mountain road to find a herd of goats sat in the road.
    • I actually did really enjoy driving there, and the roads are almost all absurdly scenic with constant mountain or sea views.
    Corsica
    Goats in the road. A common sight on the smaller rural routes.

    Prices

    • Generally a bit expensive. Think France plus the cost of being an island. 20-25E for a meal with desserts and drinks (3 course menus from 15-25E are pretty common and good quality). 4E for a coffee and pastry in a cafe. Breakfast in hotels seems to be a fairly steep at 8-10E per person, if you opt for it (I didn’t at that price).
    • I didn’t keep too careful an eye on the prices other than to avoid anything that seemed overly expensive (for better or worse I seem to have hit the point where I have more money than time). But if you keep the food and accomodation simple it should be easy to do without breaking the bank.
    • There is camping everywhere which should help keep costs down.

    Food

    • One of the most interesting things about Corsica is the rejection of international chains. Other than a few European supermarkets like Spar there were no chain shops, and not one McDonalds in sight. They even have local coke.
    • The flip side of this is that food choices can be a bit limited There are mostly two types of restaurant: Corsican and Pizza. In bigger places there might be a few French restaurants too. It was not unusual to walk down a street past 3 or 4 Pizzerias in a row.
    • Chestnuts are very popular. Chestnut biscuits, chestnut bread, chestnut beer, chestnut cake, chestnut ice cream (amazingly good).
    • Oddly for France it seems that beer is more popular than wine (again hardly feels like France). Pietra beer is everywhere and pretty good, Colomba is less common but also pretty good.
    • The local meat and cheese is very good.

    Thoughts on places

    • Ajaccio. Nice for a few hours. The claim to fame (and face of most of the tourist tack) is it is the birthplace of Napoleon – though sadly we arrived too late and left too early to see his family house on the inside. But there was at least the Micro brasserie impériale around the corner did a good beer. The old-town isn’t amazing, but could be much worse. The area between Napoleon house and Place de Gaulle seemed to have the best atmosphere at night. The airport is boring and tiny, but it is only 400m walk from the beach at least.
    • Corte. A bit of a disappointment at first, though it grew on me. The town is bigger and less mountainous than most photos make it look, and the Citadel whilst holding an impressive position really does have ugly bland buildings inside. Chestnut ice cream from the Delair Jean-Luc at the Gaffory square is a must try.
    • The Restonica valley is utterly stunning. I want to go back to Corsica just explore some more of the middle parts of this. The road in starts right at Corte but it is mostly single lane with some sections being almost devoid of passing points. Oh and there are rather large drops, sometimes without barriers. Worth it though. We drove up to the end car-park and hiked up to the Lac de Melu and Lac de Capitellu. A swim in the latter was cool but very nice. The road and car park were filling up by 9am on a weekday at the start of September (mid-July to mid-August the top of the valley is only open to buses). At the lower parts of the valley there were endless attractive pools in the river to swim in. The middle part is dominated by towering steep rocky walls, and the top is alpine like.
    Corsica
    Restonica valley.
    Corsica
    Lac de Capitellu.
    • Scenic drive (Ponte Leccia – Morosaglia – Campana – Cervione). The first part is on very narrow very windy roads – we had locals tearing down dangerously fast against us. The views start of the dry internal region with rocky peaks from the central range sticking up. Once you pass over the Col de Prato the world changes to green chestnut tree filled valleys with views down to the ocean and tiny villages that cling to the ridgelines. A particular highlight was the ruined but still quite intact Le Couvent d’Orezza which you can wander through at your own risk. Highly recommended (mind the goats and cows wandering the roads).
    Corsica
    Typical landscape.
    Corsica
    Le Couvent d’Orezza.
    • Solenzara is pleasant if uninspiring. Basically just a town built along the main road for tourism (think standard forgettable med tourist town). A range of shops, hotels, and places to eat. Makes a fantastic base for the Solenzara river, mountains and beaches. Plenty of free and easy parking too.
    • Scenic drive (Solenzara river – Col de Bavella – Zonza – L’Ospédale). Stunning landscape and views. The road was almost always nice and wide double-lanes so driving was very relaxed. We joined the G20 route for a bit at Col de Bavella to climb higher for some better views and quiet from the road.
    Corsica
    Solenzara river.
    Corsica
    Col de Bavella.
    • Porto Vecchio. The old town is very small and mostly given over to tourist shops/restaurants. It features possibly the ugliest church decoration in Europe (Eglise de Saint Jean Baptiste) complete with creepy statues that are possibly better described as “cutesy” uncanny-valley dolls. Worth a look if you are in the area, but don’t go out of your way for it.
    • Bonifacio. Simply amazing. Getting there can be a pain as the traffic can be an utter mess (limited parking and VERY limited roads going in). We tried twice one day and found 5km queues so we gave up and went back before 9am the next day (christ knows how the locals put up with it). If you buy a boat ticket you can park at the SPMB car parks (a 5 min walk from the port) all day for free. Normal car parking is expensive so it is probably worth it as it is, also taking a boat to see the grottos along the cliffs and the town from below is really a must do there to appreciate the place. The lower port area and upper citadel are worth a good look around and feel like two very different places. Walk along the end of the peninsula to visit the surreal town-like graveyard at the end, and along the cliffs across from the citadel entrance for more nice views. The nicest old town of any big town that I went to in Corsica. There are also the King Aragon steps, but those seemed a bit pointless after the boat and cliff walks.
    Corsica
    Bonifacio.
    Corsica
    The coastline near Bonifacio.
    • The south west coast. An area almost devoid of humanity, just a few villages and roads. Plage de Roccapina is very nice, the track down is a little bumpy but you can do it in a normal car. There are plenty of other small beaches with varying degrees of ease to access.
    • Sartène. Pretty much the model Corsican town: tightly packed stone houses clinging to the mountainside. There isn’t much to it, but what there is is very nice.

    Things I would do with more time

    • The G20 hike. Or at least a few sections of it.
    • Piscia di Gallo (near Porto Vecchio). A waterfall we drove near near, but as it was the end of a very dry summer (the fire service were constantly driving around as if it would discourage fires from even thinking about starting) we didn’t even bother with the walk to see this.
    • The north east as a whole. The mountains crashing into the sea look amazing there.
    • Occi. An abandoned village in the north east.
    • Filitosa. A site filled with megalithic statues in the south west.

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