Monday 12th April 2010, near Propriano, Corsica
We've had a lovely day exploring the immediate surroundings and have returned to the same campsite for a second night. Having found it so pleasurable here last night we were rather shocked when we were greeted by the person on reception saying she supposed we'd come for another cheap night's accommodation using our ACSI camping card. Did we realise we were costing them money and we should by rights be paying 28 euros a night not 15? It's hardly welcoming is it? If the site owners undertake to provide holders of ACSI cards with a reduction out of season they really shouldn't make visitors feel uncomfortable if they later regret the arrangement. In any case, nothing is open here yet - restaurant, pizzeria, swimming pool, laundry etc, and there are dozens of empty pitches. Indeed there are only two camping cars here tonight. Surely 15 euros to have us on a pitch is better than nothing. There is no way we'd pay 28 euros to be here anyway. Corsican campsite owners appear to have double standards - objecting when camping car owners don't use their sites yet either not bothering to open or complaining that we should all be paying nearly twice as much as the agreed price. Ian had quite a struggle before they would connect the electricity for us. They'll really love us if we turn up again tomorrow night, which is highly probable with nowhere else in the vicinity open.
The road beyond here leads nowhere except to a little village and a headland sloping down to the sea. On the top stands yet another Genoese watch tower from where a wide sweep of the sea can be scanned. The tower has been well restored and houses an exhibition explaining the origin of the towers. It all seemed rather complex.
Corsica has suffered invasions throughout its history. During the period of Genoese rule it found itself caught between the two great forces of Europe – the Ottoman Empire and the Spanish Hapsburgs. In addition, the Moors from North Africa had been driven out of Spain under Ferdinand and Isabella in the late 15th century and had turned their attention to raiding the coasts of Southern Europe and to privateering in the western Mediterranean. Raids on isolated villages along the Corsican coasts were frequent with villagers being captured, taken as slaves or hostages and carried back to the Barbary coast. Sometimes these Corsican captives were offered freedom if they accepted the faith of Islam. Faced with slavery or freedom many willingly chose this option and went into the employ of their wealthy Moorish captors. Some even became kings, such as the Corsican pirate raider who became king of Tunisia and led raids on his own homeland, taking his fellow Corsicans back as slaves!
During the 14th and 15th centuries the countries of eastern Europe were weakened from perpetually fighting their neighbours. Thus they fell easily to the advancing Ottomans who rapidly overthrew the Balkan countries and those surrounding the Adriatic, including the possessions of some of the Italian states. The panicking Genoese decided on a defensive strategy against the Turks and the Moors which for Corsica included constructing a chain of a hundred forts and other defences right around the coast.
Our climb up to the tower was through a large and beautiful natural rockery, the path winding between granite rocks and boulders where juniper bushes, olive trees, myrtles and pines had grown up where ever they could gain a hold. Around the base of the rocks tiny spring flowers sheltered from the sea breeze. Each bend in the steeply climbing path gave different vistas across the bay with the high bare mountains of the interior dimly visible through the dark grey distant clouds. Near to, there was a slight mizzle and the air was chill.
Later the sun appeared and we stopped on the cliff top for a picnic lunch before turning inland to visit the typically Corsican town of Sartène. Built on a high granite outcrop the buildings are all in granite so that they appear to grow straight up from the rock. They are huge, five or six stories in height and constructed mainly between the 16th and the 18th centuries.
The town has always had a bad reputation as a hotbed for quarrels where generations of families have continued feuding and murdering under the Corsican system of vendettas. It is claimed that something of the atmosphere of those not too distant times pervades the town even today. Certainly it is claustrophobic and dank in the narrow streets of fortified houses in the old town. In the past every family would have gone in fear of their lives as they passed through these streets, never leaving their homes without carrying a weapon.
Traditionally Sartène is famed for its parade on Good Friday, known as "la procession du Catenacciu". Penitents walk through the streets of the town dressed in white and wearing a hood with slits for their eyes so that their identity is unknown. There is a chief penitent, dressed in red. He carries a heavy cross and has a chain around his ankle. He must, like Christ, fall three times as he drags his burden through the streets. In the past, these really were serious penitents atoning for their sins, both committed and yet to come. Usually the sin was murder. It wasn't a cheery seasonal festival like Semana Santa in Spain, but part of the oppressive terror of the vendetta and the belief in evil spirits and the dead that has in the past so preoccupied the Corsican people.
Up on the hillside opposite the town stands the monastery of St. Francis. Living on charity the Franciscans were very widespread around the island until Corsica officially became part of France when a minister worked out that the Corsicans were paying more per head to maintain the monks than they were to the French government in taxes! The monks were driven out and it is only relatively recently that they have been invited to return.
Yesterday we read in the Corsican daily newspaper that hooded brigands had forced their way into the Franciscan monastery at Sartène and forced the monks to hand over the collection from the recent Good Friday parade. They robbed the monastery of more than 2,000 euros leaving the elderly monks traumatised.
In the centre of the town stands an open square surrounded on three sides by tall granite buildings including the church. Around the square there are cafes and as the sun had appeared this afternoon they were crowded with customers. On the fourth side the square is open offering views out across the countryside to the mountains.
Here there stands a bust of Pasquali Paoli, who did so much to arouse a spirit of Corsican independence during the 18th century when he forced out the Genoese and ruled Corsica as an enlightened despot. He introduced reforms and new laws, attempted to crush the vendetta system and founded a university. Genoa eventually sold Corsica to the French who invaded in 1768, defeating the nationalists and forcing Paoli to flee to England. He returned in the 1790s and with British naval support he defeated the French and offered the sovereignty of Corsica to King George III. He was not however chosen to govern the island and to avoid internal conflict he was obliged to return to live in England for the rest of his life where he received a pension from the king. The British ruled Corsica for only two years, 1794-96, since when it has been part of France.
Nowhere in the town could we officially get internet access. However, we found a corner of the main square where we managed to pick up a free hotspot. It wasn't really practical because of the bright sunshine on the screen but at least we managed to download our email.
Just outside of Sartène stands a perfectly intact Genoese bridge with its high arch spanning the river Rizzanesi. On either side the granite paving slabs disappear into the maquis. Impossible now to work out where it may once have led to. Other than the towers and a few bridges there is little of the architectural splendours of the Genoese to be found in Corsica.
Tuesday 13th April 2010, near Propriano, Corsica
We are back at the same site for a third night. It has been so enjoyable just to potter round in the locality for a few days.
Most of the Corsican villages in the interior are very isolated, set amidst steep terrain, generally on an exposed buff rather than sheltering down in the valleys. This apparently was on account of the raids by Barbary pirates and many of the huge, solid, granite houses are built like fortresses with machicolations from where boiling liquids could be poured down upon invaders. Their windows are small and defended by iron bars and they are built directly onto the living rock, their walls thickened at the base for extra protection.
Up in the hills above Propriano is the village of Fozzano. Peaceful enough today it has not always been so. It is the real life setting for a 19th century novel by Prosper Mérimée, inspector of historic monuments for the French government. He made a tour of Corsica in the 1830s attempting to identify ancient archaeological sites. His failure to discover Cucuruzzu may have been because his mind was on more literary matters. In Fozzano he met a redoubtable widow in her late 50s and learned of a long standing feud between two warring families in the village which had existed over several generations. This woman formed the heroine for his acclaimed novel Colomba though he changed many details of the actual feud, making Colomba a young woman and setting the novel in the north of the island. He did though, capture the overpowering sense of hatred and evil that could consume Corsican families as they struggled to retain their honour and avenge themselves on their neighbours.
Fozzano is built entirely from granite with narrow streets and steps threading their way through the village. At the top is one fortified house, once occupied by the Durazzo family while Colomba Bartoli, and her family occupied another lower down. Each murder that took place between the families had to be avenged by another murder. Thus each family lived in fear for their lives, barred up in their fortified houses, only going outside when essential. Colomba was a vicious, powerful woman obsessed with vengeance, ceaselessly urging her only son to restore the family honour by avenging himself on the neighbours. Eventually, in 1833, an ambush took place and shots were fired. Two members of the neighbouring family were killed. So too was Colomba's only son. Thus the vendetta might have continued. An apparent truce however was forced on the villagers by the judicial system around the time that Mérimée met Colomba. He found her to be an embittered old woman consumed by hatred. When she died she was buried in the village.
Today we found the two fortified granite houses. They now stand empty and abandoned. The machicolations serve only as bees nests, the walls have flowers growing from their crevices while the barred windows in the tower are empty holes. In the churchyard we found monuments to the neighbouring Durazzo family but nothing for that of Colomba. Her grave is supposed to be in the village but we found nothing. The present day villagers have made no attempt to commercialise on her history and the wonderful travel book by Dorothy Carrington, Granite island, that we have been using is forty years out of date. So we assume there is nothing left to see.
Mérimée's novel captured the intensity of feeling in the Corsican character back in the 19th century in an isolated village where there was little else to do but engender hatred and dream of revenge. Today though the village was a peaceful place with several elderly men sitting on the wall chatting while a lady waved to us from her garden. Everywhere there was the sound of bees and the roadsides were filled with wild flowers. In the gardens there were orange and lemon trees, kumquats, cactuses and olives while the bright pink flowers of the Judas trees softened the severity of the hewn granite walls. Numerous elderly dogs slept in corners around the village. None bothered to bark as we passed. Corsican dogs are generally very docile, peaceful creatures. So too were a couple of donkeys we discovered. Friendly and curious but basically content to stand all day with us so long as we'd scratch behind their ears.
The village church was locked which was a pity as, long before Colomba, the village was famed for its miraculous statue of the virgin Mary. This was found floating out in the bay by fishermen but nobody had the strength to move it from the sea shore. Two elderly men from Fozzano arrived and carried it effortlessly back up to their mountain village where it has been performing miracles ever since.
We returned the way we had come, down to the sea at Propriano in search of lunch. The town boasts an excellent marina where the rich and the beautiful moor for cocktails as they drift around the Med in yachts registered in Barbados, London and Cannes. If they have sense they will not bother to come ashore. Really the town has nothing to recommend it. Everywhere except the restaurants closes for three hours in the middle of the day and prices are noticeably higher than we have found elsewhere on the island.
After sharing a sandwich by the waterside we went for coffees on a shady terrace before setting off in search of the nearby thermal baths. That's the trouble with outdated guide books. We found the complex shut up, dilapidated and sinking rapidly into a ruin.
With nothing else worth seeing in the town we drove up into the hills to Olmeta, a small town overlooking the Golfe de Valinco. Here we wandered through more narrow granite streets of fortified houses dating back to the 16th century. Some are occupied, many are abandoned and falling into decay.
Finally we returned to this campsite, avoiding the lady on reception in case she made further unfriendly comments and settled with glasses of wine on our pitch outside Modestine while supper cooked. Time now perhaps for a DVD. We so rarely seem to find time to relax of an evening. Guess you can see why!
Wednesday 14th April 2010, Porticcio, near Ajacio, Corsica
We have moved on round the coast to another campsite offering low season discount to ACSI card holders. Actually, Corsica is an excellent place to use the card as prices are generally so high, even now, that the saving are considerable. Here the staff are far friendlier and although the facilities are less lavish (there are no doors on the showers, glass in the windows or hot water for washing dishes) we have not been made to feel like scrimping cheap-scapes. That may be what we are but we don't appreciate it being pointed out to us.
It has been quite chilly at times today and overnight temperatures have dropped to seven degrees. However, once we reached the archaeological site of Filitosa, lying out on the open hillside in clear, flowery meadows, the sun was almost too hot as we followed the steep footpaths across the hills and fields. Amongst the curiously weathered granite boulders were ancient olive trees, oaks, eucalyptus and pines.
Ian's account of Filitosa: The site of Filitosa is much more open than Cucuruzzu, but it demonstrates many of the same features, such as the use of hollowed out granite boulders to provide shelters, probably for the earliest settlers on the site. There is also a fortified enclosure with an entrance between two massive stones, complete with storage chambers and walled rooms, but the most remarkable part of a visit to the site is to come across the platform in the middle of the enclosure with its five guardian statues, among the earliest examples of representational sculpture in Europe. Who are these mysterious warriors who stare at us across the millennia? It is thought that the sea peoples that Rameses III of Egypt defeated about 1192 BC included the Shardanes who were settled in Sardinia and that it is these people that are depicted on the statue menhirs at Filitosa. The Torrean peoples of Corsica, named after the tower-like structures that they erected, were basically a stone-age culture, yet they depicted warriors armed with bronze swords. Perhaps, in the period around 1400-1200BC they depicted invaders from Sardinia in an attempt to capture their power, absorb it and control it. But they could equally have been portraits of their own chieftains, sculpted in low relief in slabs hewn from nearby quarries and carefully polished, perhaps originally being heightened with colour. Whatever happened, the menhirs were broken soon after they were made, perhaps as part of a ritual or else by later conquerors, and reused in the reconstruction of the tower-like building which could have been a shrine. Fragments of menhirs are also scattered around the site and in the museum and several have been re-erected in front of a centuries old olive tree. The quarry used for the granite can be seen, its stones weathered into contorted shapes, one looking remarkably like a life sized dinosaur. The whole is set amid flowery meadows on which cattle graze, but unfortunately the atmosphere of the site was spoiled by music being piped from mushroom-like excrescences around the site and speaking columns that delivered over-loud information at various points around the site. The money invested in that would have been better spent in refurbishing the displays in the little museum and providing personal written and audio guides in the way that has been done for the delightful walk around Cucuruzzu.
Once we had looked at the museum about the excavations and the history of the site it was lunch time. So we made our way down to the coast following the road round to the little harbour of Porto Pollo for a picnic on the quayside. Here there were French families from the mainland, where, presumably the children are on Easter holidays from school. Some were fishing for crabs in the clear sea water while others seemed to have hired small yachts and were preparing to put to sea. (Hiring a boat around here is incredibly expensive – we saw prices as much as 5,000 euros a week in Propriano, though up to eight people can sleep on board.)
After lunch we explored the sandy beach, soaking in the splendid views along the coast and back inland where the snow-capped mountains of the interior mingled with the white clouds above, suspended in a bright blue sky. For the rest, the hillsides were a thick mass of dark green maquis stretching from the coast up to the distant peaks. Through it, isolated granite outcrops showed baldly white like islands in a sea of green.
The afternoon was spent driving the winding helter-skelter coast route towards Ajaccio. It is stunningly beautiful with uninterrupted views along the coast in either direction - blue sky, azure sea, green maquis and white mountains.
Silhouetted against the silvery horizon were the dark shapes of the Iles Sanguinaires off the tip of the peninsular just beyond Ajaccio. The roads would be a nightmare in high season but for us it was perfect with hardly another vehicle around. Eventually the route wound down to sea level where we stopped for tea and a snooze before exploring the sea shore and the grassy woodland behind. We reached here early evening and will investigate Ajaccio tomorrow.