Sunday 18th April 2010, Calvi, Corsica
Fortunately I am reminded of the date whenever I turn on my computer. When every day is a holiday it's impossible to remember which day of the week it is and time ceases to matter. Sometimes we may linger longer than expected in a place when we discover its unexpected charms, or simply because the sun is shining and we have an accumulation of laundry to wash and dry. That's rather the situation today.
We arrived in Calvi yesterday afternoon after following the coastal route round from Porto through nature's gargantuan rockery, splendid with wild flowers and green stunted trees bent by the winds. Above, ahead and beside us, dominating the view at every twist in the narrow road, towered the naked pink-red granite, the bedrock of the island. Sometimes it appeared contorted and eroded, at others its solid mass rose up to become sharp pinnacles resembling the spines on the back of a dinosaur or the scaly skin of a tortoise. For mile after mile there was no sign of human habitation. Indeed, the only evidence of man was the level road itself, cut, drilled or blasted through the rock, sometimes just a few feet wide, edging its way across the hillside with nothing but maquis clinging to the rocks between it and the sea. Sometimes, on the acute bends, a wall, no more than a foot high, had been built for protection and sometimes, where the road had been blasted through the rock, a vestige had been left standing on the seaward side. Generally though, there was nothing between the road and the sea, hundreds of feet below.
We have been so lucky to experience this most beautiful of drives when there has been so little traffic around. Already we are finding more visitors on the campsites than when we arrived and in another month yesterday's route will be a nightmare rather than a dream.
We were able to find spots to squeeze off the road to admire the seascape where headlands and peninsulas jutted out, forming inaccessible coves far below. We followed a track out onto one of these where the sunshine on the granite changed its colour to flaming red where it met the blue of the sea.
It was awesomely lovely, standing amidst tall white asphodels and bright pink cyclamen surrounded by the humming of invisible bees and the song of the birds. Across the dusty track dozens of lizards scuttled at our approach while giant flying grasshoppers peered back at us with their huge eyes as they perched on the woody branches of heather and myrtle. We even discovered a snake though believe there are no poisonous ones in Corsica. When we returned to Modestine we found her communing with several wild cows and their calves as they foraged along the roadside. Unable to find grass they seemed perfectly content to browse the new leaves of the wayside shrubs.
Later we encountered a brigade of goats scrambling amongst the roadside cliffs, sending chippings and rocks tumbling down all along the inside edge of the road. Others meanwhile were snoozing peacefully on the warm tarmac with no intention of moving to let us pass!
We reached Galéria, down beside the sea where we stopped for a picnic lunch. The wind was chill at sea level despite the sun. The village and harbour seemed deserted, even the church was closed, so, rather than taking the more main inland route, we continued along the coast to Calvi. No recent improvements had been made along this stretch and while it was at least surfaced, it had been badly patched and was potholed and degraded. It was also even more narrow though less twisting than earlier. After another thirty kilometres we bumped our way down into Calvi. Really, on such roads distances are meaningless. What would be nothing back home can take hours here, not least because every bend is a potential vehicle or animal hazard and each new vista is an invitation to stop and linger.
Calvi seems charming. After days in the deserted wilderness along the west coast it seems a sophisticated, pretty place with a smart marina and an entire promenade of little restaurants, bars and cafes along beside the port where the fishing boats unload their catch of langoustine, moules and dorade straight to the restaurants. There are narrow, pedestrianised streets of little shops, mainly geared to tourism but none-the-less delightful to browse.
Dominating the harbour is the walled Genoese citadel while six kilometres of white sand are there for sunbathing, swimming or strolling. We are camping a couple of kilometres outside the town, alongside the beach, in an area shaded by pines and eucalyptus trees.
On the way up to the citadel stands an impressive war memorial while overlooking the town is a statue and plaque to Christopher Columbus! With virtually no evidence for the claim, the Corsicans declare him to have been born in Calvi! History states that he was from Genoa but there is no irrefutable evidence of this. Calvi's claim is based on Columbus using a Corsican word when he named a fish discovered in the Caribbean.
Last night we lowered the level of wine in our bag-in-box further than normal. Feeling woozy we decided blogging and photo-editing were tasks for workaholics rather than alcoholics so completed our perfect day by watching a DVD instead. Which is why we are staying here an extra day, catching up on blogs and laundry. Now we can return to Calvi along the beach to sample more of its delights. What we cannot find anywhere is access to the internet at a realistic price. At eight euros an hour it would seem the last of the Corsican bandits have left the maquis to open cyber cafes in the towns!
Not only have we spent a very enjoyable afternoon around a sun-drenched Calvi, we have also managed to log on to unsecured wifi and load a backlog of over 100 photos on to our blogsite!
After lunch we walked in to the town along the beach, a scene showing the harbour and citadel to particular advantage.
Up in the old, Genoese citadel we wandered a maze of shady cobbled streets, climbing up and down countless steps. In one of the fortresses a group of percussionists were practicing their skills, the dangadang of the drums echoing around the streets. Wandering the battlements we discovered they house a battalion of the French Foreign Legion. We'd not realised it still existed. It certainly explained the young men in their kepis and smart military uniforms we'd seen around Calvi.
The tall buildings with their shuttered windows and palm trees at their bases were more evocative of Italy than France but then the fort was built by the Genoese - which also goes a long way to explaining Corsica's insistence that Colombus was born here in Calvi rather than mainland Italy. They can reconcile the generally held view that he was born in Genoa while still maintaining that he was born in Corsica. We even found the remains of the house in which he is said to have been born!
The baroque cathedral is delightful. Unostentatious and rather shabby, its faded yellow walls and rounded cupola are seen at the top of a cobbled street leading up from the square outside the Caserne Sampiero of the French Foreign Legion. Its doors are left welcomingly open. Inside the marble baptismal font is so worn with use over the centuries the carving and inscription are quite worn away. A lantern window in the top of the cupola and whitewashed walls keep the interior looking bright while either side of the altar are 16th century busts of various wealthy Genoese patrons.
Nearby stands the house where Napoléon and his family took refuge with his godfather Laurent Giurega when fleeing from Ajaccio in 1793.
From the ramparts of the citadel there were stunning views along the coast in either direction and down onto the bustling harbour with its boats and restaurants. It was at Calvi, we have discovered, that Admiral Nelson was badly wounded in his eye during a raid on the town by the British fleet as it assisted Pasquale Paoli in his struggle to oust the French from Corsica in 1794.
During the rest of the afternoon we searched in vain for wifi access in one of the bars. Eventually we chanced on an unsecured network and once connected, carried our computer to the nearest bar where we spent a couple of hours catching up with emails and blogs.
Monday 19th April 2010, Corte, Corsica
We left Calvi this morning continuing our route northwards. Some twenty five kilometres up the coast is Ile-Rousse. Compared to Calvi its attractions are few but it does have agreeable sandy beaches and in the season is just a pleasant coastal ride by train from Calvi. The town was originally laid out as a series of parallel streets by Pasquale Paoli, whose statue stands in the central square near the seafront. He intended it to become a major port but was forced to flee to England before its completion when the French arrived. These streets are now the oldest part of the town and have developed into a very pleasant shady tourist area of bars, restaurants and shops selling Corsican products. There is an open sided market hall with a small market of fish, vegetables, wine, honey, jam, cheese and dried sausages as well as the inevitable canistrelli, the too dry biscuits made from chestnut flour, so appreciated by the Corsicans.
A curiosity we discovered was the impressive residence, now used as an hotel, where the King of Morocco, Mohammed V and his family lived in exile after they were forced out of Morocco in the 1950s.
The narrow-gauge railway runs along beside the seashore – or so it is supposed to do. For the past few months no trains have been running between Corte and Calvi or Bastia while repairs are carried out to the network. Network means the line from Bastia to Ajaccio via Corte in the centre of the island, with a branch line off at Ponte Lecchia leading to Calvi. Ponte Lecchia is the only place where there is more than a single track, and that for only a few yards. It was with amusement therefore that while passing through Ponte Lecchia this afternoon we noted the warning sign "Danger! One train can hide another" at the level crossing on the edge of the town. Even when the line is in use it is doubtful whether it would ever be possible for this hazard to occur in Corsica!
Leaving Ile-Rousse, we drove up into the Désert des Agriates. The twisting, road led steeply up through the eternal maquis to a col where the wind blew violently over the ridge. From here on the road was fairly level and totally deserted. Even the maquis seemed unable to retain a hold and the landscape was of dry, eroded granite, the very bones of Corsica, protruding through its sparse covering of scrub and heather. Beyond was the sea. A few tracks may lead down to it but as far as we could see there was absolutely nothing except the road winding eastwards to eventually end up back in St. Florent where we first started our adventure around Corsica.
Having tasted the scenery, and with no wish at present to return to St. Florent and drive around the whole island again, we retraced our route and made our way into the interior towards Corte, which Pasquale Paoli made his capital in the 1750s. The road was wide and smooth with a couple of stretches of dual carriageway! We had forgotten what driving is normally like! At one point we turned off the road to investigate the mountain village of Urtaca. Modestine wished we hadn't as she struggled up the final hairpin bends in first gear to arrive on the square feeling extremely hot and bothered. We left her by the church to cool down as we explored this very pleasant, typical little village bypassed by tourists. We were accompanied throughout by a large, friendly dog walking several paces behind us as we climbed the steep steps between the houses - too narrow and steep for streets - and looked out across abandoned terraces of olive trees towards the snowy mountain peaks of the interior.
There are several campsites in Corte but none listed in our ACSI bargain campsite guide. Several were open; all were what we politely term "rustic". They were also expensive for what they provided. Tonight we are at a very rural location up the beautiful valley of the Restonica river, high in a small mountain valley. You will be bored by now with glorious pink peaks rising above pine forests with azure bubbling rivers gurgling through, so no photos. We were told we could only have electricity from 7pm so we are still waiting for Remoska to cook our supper. The sound of the river, a few feet away, is fresh and soothing as is the sound of the birds as they settle for the night. Tomorrow we will explore higher up the valley where we believe there is a permanent snow field. And there is still Corte, nine kilometres down below to investigate.