Tuesday 20th April 2010, Corte, Corsica
The campsite last night was extremely primitive and at 26 euros by far the most expensive we've yet used but really there was no choice. The electricity was eventually connected last night for a few hours before it went out leaving our fridge to defrost overnight and no hot water this morning. As we'd paid over the odds for electricity anyway we felt it amounted to theft but what's the use of harassing the poor Moroccan chap appointed to manage the site in exchange for meagre living accommodation in a wooden hut in the forest without electricity? He, like us, was obliged to use the far from private sanitary facilities.
So we cut our losses – and our morning coffee and breakfast, and drove up the valley of the stunningly beautiful Restonica river for a further nine kilometres. The route was steep, narrow and winding, criss-crossing the river on tiny bridges without any form of balustrade to protect drivers from the tumbling torrent below. We were almost the first up the valley this morning so there was little risk of meeting anything coming down. The scenery really was spectacular with vistas of the dark, snow covered granite mountains drawing ever closer with each bend in the track.
Eventually we reached the end of the road and parked beside a young German couple busy fixing their skis, poles and rucksacks to their backs. The urge to explore further was such that we forgot our hiking poles and boots, setting off towards the snows in trainers and tee shirts. Already the sun was warm. The path was boulder strewn and soon we were sharing it with the melt waters from the snow and the frozen lake above. From rock to rock we scrambled. The recent trouble with my hips and knees had dramatically improved and we made excellent progress. The sun was hot and bright, there was the constant sound of flowing water, the track was scattered with pink rock orchids and green lizards slithered from under our feet as we approached. It was tough going but eventually we reached the snow field. Here we cursed our stupidity in not wearing our hiking boots. It was too slippery, wet and dangerous for us to continue and we were forced to turn back. Beyond, we understand, is a dramatic rock climb using chains hooked into the rocks for support and eventually a frozen lake in a corrie of the mountain. It eventually feeds the Restonica.
As we reluctantly turned back we met the young German couple struggling up, their skis strapped to their backs. They looked hot and bothered. Is it really worth dragging ski equipment all the way from Germany to Corsica and then lugging it up a difficult mountainside in the hope of finding enough snow to slither a few metres?
Coming down was as complex as going up and by the time we rejoined Modestine even Ian's knees were feeling wobbly. The car park was already filling up as we started the descent, which was far more difficult than coming up. Time and again we had to back-up, edge-in and squeeze past vehicles coming up. Fortunately we met nobody actually on the bridges or creeping round the unfenced edge of the rock. In both directions the mountains, the snow and the river dominated. It is one of the most beautiful inland mountain landscapes we have ever seen and it will remain one of our lasting memories of Corsica. With justification they call it here L'Ile de Beauté.
Returning past last night's campsite we continued on down the valley, eventually stopping where the track widened to make coffee which we carried down the rocks to drink beside the noisy, tumbling azure river as it bounced and cascaded over and around the rocks carrying fir cones rapidly downstream in the fastest flowing parts of the current.
Down in Corte we parked Modestine and walked back into the centre. Corte has a population of around 6,000. It is very different from any of the other towns we have seen on the island. In the 1750s Pasquale Paoli, in defiance of the Genoese and the French, declared Corsica to be a free and independent nation. He drew up its constitution which was later used as a model by the United States. Corsica as a nation did not exist for long enough for it to be known whether or not Paoli's reforms would have worked. He chose Corte as his capital and the National Palace, where he lived, still stands in the town. Next to it stands the house where Napoleon's elder brother, Joseph was born in 1758. Ten years later Arrighi de Casanova, the future Duke of Padua and Napoleon's cousin was also born in the same house. Napoleon's father was a close friend of Paoli and was largely responsible for the establishment of the university at Corte.
The older part of the town stands above the Place Paoli and the main street of cafes, bars and shops. It is a delightful area of huge, shabby, weathered and weary houses staggering up the steep, stepped cobbled streets. The area oozes with battered charm and character. Churches open straight onto the streets. There are fountains where even today residents arrive to fill their jugs and bottles. Restaurants set tables on each step as they rise up the street and still cars find the tiniest of corners to squeeze themselves in to. At a baker's we bought pasties filled with herbs and green vegetables and a black olive fougasse which we ate sitting on the steps beside a fountain with vistas between the houses to the surrounding brown peaks of the granite mountains.
The sunlight was brilliant in the streets and we were far too hot. None of the bars advertised wifi access. We tried several places unsuccessfully until, to our astonishment, we picked it up in a pretty, cool church at the top of the town! With nobody else around we sat in a corner near a side altar sorting emails and loading up several blogs. We made a donation to the church collecting box afterwards so hopefully it can be regarded as ecclesiastical diversification. One email announced the death of Ethe, an elderly German friend of Ian's mother. A sad moment for Ian as an important link with his mum's past has finally gone. They had been close friends for seventy years! We were of course conveniently placed to immediately put up a candle in her memory. We last saw Ethe in June 2007 when our travels took us to Goslar and Göttingen
Above the town stands the citadel which, although impressively dominating the town, can only really be visited as part of a tour of the museum which today we did not wish to do. We contented ourselves with clambering up to the Belvedere with extensive views of the city and its surroundings including the confluence of the Restonica and the Tavignano as they each wind through their pine clad ravines down from the neighbouring mountains.
Back down in Corte our attention was attracted, as it always is when travelling, by the front pages of the newspapers on display outside the Maison de la Presse. The Corsican daily paper announced that last night a bomb went off in the villa of a politician and two elderly men were shot dead in separate ambushes! Our necks couldn't crane round enough to read the full details but it would seem Corsica is still a wild and unruly place to live! There was one word in the article neither of us had ever encountered before and we don't carry a dictionary. So we crossed to the nearby student bookshop to check it out in one of the French-English dictionaries there for sale. Unfortunately were seen by the manager who was angry with us for touching one of the books, snatching it away from us as if we'd been about to steal it. When we tried to explain what we were doing she pointedly wished us au revoir. Maybe it was a bit cheeky of us but we'd done no harm and had been interested in the stock in general which had a large Corsican collection but an otherwise rather limited stock. Probably English tourists don't often go into French academic bookshops. We ignored her blatent invitation for us to leave and continued to browse the shelves –keeping our hands in our pockets. Meanwhile she went back to chat with her colleague and, unaware how much we could understand, complained bitterly about how dreadful we were to touch the books and what a cheek we had trying to use a book without buying it. As we left we thanked them for their help and said how very welcome they had made us feel. Hopefully it embarrassed them as much as they'd tried to embarrass us.
Returning to Modestine we discovered the public library. The staff couldn't have been more friendly and helpful, sitting us down with several different dictionaries to search through. The word we wanted, guet-apen did mean, as we thought, ambush. We also discovered in their Corsican collection, that our fascinating book about Corsica by Dorothy Carrington, Granite Island has been translated into French and is in the library's collection. We picked the book up in a car book sale in Devon little dreaming we'd one day use it as we travelled around Corsica, comparing our impressions of places today, with hers of over fifty years ago! Not surprisingly she is no longer alive or it would have been good to let her know how much pleasure and interest her book has given us.
This evening we have found a pleasant rural campsite to the north of the town where hopefully the electricity won't be cut off as it was last night.
Wednesday 21st April 2010, Ajaccio, Corsica
This morning we were up and away into Corte by 9am hoping to catch the train to Ajaccio. It was the train ride we wanted rather than to visit Ajaccio again. The chance to be a train passenger on one of the most beautiful routes in Europe seemed a delightful prospect after having spent the last few weeks with my attention riveted on bends and gears. It was not to be. Despite assurances from the tourist information office in the citadel yesterday, that this stretch of the line was unaffected by current track works, we arrived at the station to be told that the train could take us down to Ajaccio but we'd have to take a bus back. There seemed little point in doing that when we could do the route by car with the advantage of stopping whenever we wished. It was also rather expensive so we reluctantly decided it wasn't worth it. A pity as the route winds through the mountain valleys of the interior like a corkscrew. Frequently the train winds right back on itself so that passengers at the front end can look down on those at the back. It also passes through tunnels under the mountains, one of them four kilometres long, and across viaducts, some of them designed by Gustav Eiffel.
So we continued our route south from Corte, for much of the route following along beside, above or below the little narrow gauge railway line. We had an hour's start on the train and before it caught up with us we had climbed up to the top of the Vizzavona pass between the mountain range separating Haut Corse in the north from Bas Corse in the south.
Here we stopped for a walk in the woods and to look at the snowy peaks. From the col we watched the exit tunnel for the train expecting to see it pass below us. However, it wasn't until we stopped in the pleasant little roadside village of Bocognano that we heard it rumbling its way along the valley to Ajaccio. Apart from an awesome view from the village square Bocognano had nothing of particular merit but it was a very pleasant little village with several narrow streets of houses and a really beautiful flowering camellia bush.
It also had a charcuterie that made the sausages for the whole village as well as selling honey and vegetables. At the other end of the main street was a boulangerie artisanal. Inside it was low and dark with the bread oven behind the counter. Everything was baked on the premises and trays were piled high with Corsican specialities. We couldn't resist so both lunch and supper today have consisted of vegetable pasties with herbs, onions and pumpkin, crisp quiche, muffins made from Chestnut flour and sheep's milk cheese pastries sprinkled with icing sugar. We'd have missed that experience on the train.
Another delightful experience we'd have missed was the tortoise zoo. As in so much of southern Europe, tortoises can be found in the wild on Corsica. They happily munch their way around the maquis and are rarely seen.
A Cupulatta (it means tortoise in Corsican) started as a hospital for injured tortoises brought to the centre by the island's residents. Often the shell had been damaged – run over by a lawn mower or a car, perhaps limbs torn off by a dog. Over the years the centre took on a major role in tortoise conservation and is now perhaps the leading centre for breeding endangered species of tortoises in Europe. It has both aquatic and land tortoises and this afternoon we wandered around in the maquis, surrounded by the wonderful landscape, enjoying these strange reptiles. The centre now has over 170 different species of tortoise out of the 300 or so that are currently known, and some 3,000 tortoises are to be seen trundling around. They range in size from a tiny newly hatched creature the size of an old penny to a 300 kilo Galapagos tortoise with its huge scaly claws and long leathery neck protruding from its carapace, more like an armoured tank than a creation of nature.
Tortoises can live for a couple of hundred years, and on a hot dry day in the spring, a young tortoise's fancy turns to thoughts of love. The females, regardless of size or species, find it all a bit of a bore and the males frequently seem to have difficulty working out which end to approach from. Sometimes two males work from opposite ends in the hope of one of them striking lucky. They are quite unfazed by camera touting tourists and once they sort out what to do there is the rhythmic thumping and banging of shells and the wheezing gasps of delight from the wizened, scraggy necked and enthusiastic male, his mouth wide open, clinging on as best he may as the female wanders off to enjoy a juicy strawberry!
The aquatic tortoises seemed less active, climbing onto each other's heads around the pool to snooze, motionless in the afternoon sun. If they overheat they simply slip off their floating log and plop back into the water.
An ideal climate for one creature can be equally suitable for another and the frog population have not been slow to move in. The ponds were teeming with them, bright green, croaking away in raucous chorus. The sound is created by large air bags either side of their chins which inflate as they croak.
We were a good couple of hours there and enjoyed it all immensely. We both had pet tortoises as children and find them delightful creatures. Unfortunately the population worldwide has decreased by around 80% in recent years, due to exploitation, animal trading and using for food – particularly in China. They are now protected by law and the centre here plays a major role in breeding particularly endangered species. Personally I had no idea tortoises were so widespread around the world. They can be found not only in the Middle East, the Mediterranean countries and North Africa, but all over Africa, Asia, North and South America, Canada, China and Russia!
Looking at our map when we left we decided, in view of the time, to spend the night just south of Ajaccio. So here we are again, back on the same site we used a week or so ago. That's what happens on an island. Sooner or later you wind up back where you were before. It's pleasant enough and this evening we walked on the sandy beach looking across the bay to Ajaccio and beyond to the Iles Sanguinaires on the horizon.