With its luscious vegetation, sheer rocky mountainsides and stunning land and seascapes around every heart-stopping, hairpin bend, Corsica holds a special place among the islands of the Mediterranean. But how to navigate it skillfully to enjoy the best it has to offer? Perhaps a few guideposts might help.
Gourmet food – Corsicans enjoy the best of both worlds, surf ‘n turf being a byword for the finest of cuisine, ranging from tender maquis-fed veal to a local twist on the classic French bouillabaisse. To enjoy local taste, ask the chef at ‘Le Caroubier’ restaurant (Sofitel Golfe d’Ajaccio Thalassa Sea & Spa) for his special starter, ‘oeuf poché à la mode Corse’ (poached egg, Corsican-style), a blend of local cheeses, including the well-known Brocciu, egg and a mix of charcuterie with dill presented in a tasty, pudding-like mound. For something more substantial, veal and lamb on the French island are too good to miss, so try the former, soft and roasted with rosemary accompanied by tender chicory, at ‘Le Caroubier’ or the roast rack of lamb with autumn vegetables and garlic preserve at ‘La Palmeraie’ restaurant (La Signoria Hotel) in Calvi. As for sea offerings, few can compete with the variety at ‘La Gaffe’ restaurant in Saint Florent – from botargo (salted, cured fish roe) served on freshly baked bread, to Corsican-style bouillabaisse to Denti fish (a family of sea bream) slightly pan-fried and served with young turnips. For dessert, head to Calvi and enjoy chestnuts and pear sorbet or roasted figs with citron (local lemons) and white cheese sorbet at Michelin star restaurant ‘La Table de Bastien’ (La Villa Hotel).
The French island is also cheese heaven, among the best being Brocciu, a sort of ricotta; Calenzana, a soft, strong tasting sheep variety; U Fium’ Orbu, a soft washed rind; or A Filletta, unpasteurized sheep cheese, usually decorated with a young fern leaf with an earthy, herbal taste. Try them at the stalls of the makers at the many open markets (sample the varied charcuterie also while you’re there) or choose from forty different varieties at ‘La Palmeraie.’ Near Porto Vecchio, ‘La Table’ restaurant (Grand Hotel de Cala Rossa) offers ‘tomme fume,’ a delicious smoked cheese made outside Sartene, with a texture like aged Parmesan.
Wine tasting– while wine-making is an ancient craft on Corsica, practiced by successive inhabitants since the Phocean traders in 570 BC, only in recent decades have commercial vineyards really gotten started – and boy, are we glad. The result: hearty reds, fragrant rosés and sharp, dry whites, many of which stand up well against mainland French varieties. Today, Corsica has nine AOC regions including the island-wide designation Vin de Corse AOC, with the three leading grape varieties being Nielluccio, Sciacarello, a black grape unique to Corsica, and Vermentino. Of the eight wine-making regions, the most well-known is Patrimonio, established as Corsica’s first Appellation d’Origine Controlee (AOC) in 1968 and located on the northern coast, west of Bastia, on chalk and clay-based soils. We found a convenient tasting venue for its products roadside between the bustling harbor town of Saint Florent and the sleepy mountain village of Nonza.
Of the various wine-tastings we experienced, the most enjoyable was at Domaine Orsini at Calenzana in the Balagne region. We were escorted to a seat at a small wooden table deep inside a well-designed cave and presented with a plate of nougats and gelees (also made by the company) and a comprehensive printed menu of wines and flavored ‘eaux de vie’ to choose from. After half a dozen samples, we were naturally feeling quite content with the world and left particularly impressed with the complexity and heavy tannins in the reds.
Along a dusty road leading into the foothills outside Calvi is the village of Lumio where we stopped one afternoon to taste wines from the 60-hectare vineyard, Clos Culombu. Facing south towards the gulf with the 2,000-meter-high Monte Grosso as a backdrop, the winery could not be in a more delightful spot. Making our visit even more memorable was the vineyard’s hosting of a special modern art exhibition, the colorful works focusing playfully on the various spellings and meanings of the name ‘Culombu’ (Calvi claims the explorer, Columbus, is its native son). Not surprisingly, my wife, Columbia, was particularly delighted.
Nature and history – while Corsica is a tapestry of intrigue with Romans, Greeks, Etruscans, Moors and Goths among many leaving their mark, not to mention the island’s revolutionary sons, Napoleon Bonaparte and Pasquale Paoli, its prehistoric era is also fascinating. And no better places to delve into this mysterious epoch than at the archaeological sites at Filitosa and Cauria. Filitosa, a two-hour drive south from Ajaccio, is the site of the island’s largest grouping of megalithic tombs. They are grouped apart amidst gently rolling hills that grant picturesque views over the surrounding countryside. The purpose of the megaliths still remains unknown, with theories ranging from deity worship to tributes to tribe leaders, but the skill and strength needed to transport these huge rocks, weighing many tons, very long distances is mind-boggling.
Cauria is an hour’s drive south of Sartene and actually comprises three sites; the menhirs (standing stones) of Stantari and Renaghju, and the dolmen (tomb) of Fontanaccia, otherwise known as ‘A Stazzona di u Diavulu’ (The Devil’s Forge), made from six giant slabs of granite. These ancient artifacts stand at the end of a winding 500-yard dirt track leading from a makeshift parking lot. Visitors are rewarded with an easy walk into a bucolic interior with an impressive line of menhirs greeting one in a lovely valley of olive trees and maquis, with jagged rocks rising dramatically out of the mountainsides nearby. After missing the turning (watch closely for the sole signpost), we arrived in the early evening and the absence of other people and the enhanced serenity of the setting granted an almost spiritual dimension to our visit.
Feeling the local pulse – Corsica offers many secluded spots for quiet contemplation but also some eye-candy little towns with diverse activities. Of the former, Erbalunga and Centuri, both in the most northerly region known as Cap Corse, are my two highlights. Both are small, rustic fishing villages with old stone harbor walls and little outdoor cafes providing delightful vantage points to watch the world sail by. Of the latter category, Bastia, Calvi, Ajaccio, Bonifacio, Corte and Porto Vecchio are worth visiting. Bastia for its cafes and restaurants gathered in an arc around its central marina; Calvi for its spectacular Genoese citadel complex with provides panoramic views over the coast and countryside; Ajaccio, featuring the house-cum-museum where Napoleon Bonaparte grew up and the Palais Fesch-Musée des Beaux-Arts with its famed Italian collection; Bonifacio – hard to find a more lofty old town, its warren of winding, cobblestone streets a treat to wander through; Corte, a lively student town in the northern interior, stronghold of former revolutionary leader, Pasquale Paoli, and capital of the Corsican Republic established in 1755 (bullet holes can still be seen on walls and the local museum grants interesting insights into Corsican culture); and Porto Vecchio, a chic old center, with a mix of gift stores, fashion boutiques, restaurants and cafes clustered together along its warren of streets.
Skyline drives – with treacherous, winding coast roads that would challenge even the formidable skills of Formula One champions, driving in Corsica is not for the faint-hearted. But the effort is well worth the reward with incredible views down ‘over the edge’ into the abyss below. After travelling over 1,500 dizzying kilometers around the island over a two-week period in a Citroen provided by Hertz, I found two particular places worthy of pit stops. The first is the 74-kilometer (46 mile) stretch of the D81 from the northerly town of Calvi to Porto and particularly the segment from Galeria to Porto, a twisting road that nudges rock wall on one side and a sheer drop into the Mediterranean on the other. The vistas, however, are stunning, especially over the village of Girolata, which can only be reached by sea, and the Scandola natural reserve, a UNESCO-declared protected site. The second pit-stop is in the southern half of Corsica, along the D368 from Porto Vecchio to the mountain village of Zonza and onward on the D268 to Col de Bavella, a mass of towering rippling rock looking shaped much like a huge church organ whose 1,500-2,000 yard peaks are a mountaineer’s paradise.