Ajaccio to Porto

Thursday 15th April 2010, Porticcio, near Ajaccio, Corsica
Today has been spent in Ajaccio, capital of Corsica, an honour it shares with Bastia to the north-east of the island.

It's hard to appreciate that Ajaccio is only half the size of Exeter. It has a population of some 60,000 but is so spread out it seems far larger. The airport, on the sea shore, almost within the town, means that transport to and from the city has to skirt around it. Here too there are the trading estates, which lead to congestion when entering and leaving the city.

Everybody, it would seem, owns a car in Ajaccio. Everybody also appears to live in a flat. Thus the sandy seashore is lined by large blocks of modern flats and the streets are snarled solid with cars parked any which way. The flats hide some otherwise attractive streets of older houses, the roads lined by date palm trees. A number of these elegant houses have beautiful gardens fronting on to the streets where bright patches of bougainvillea and camellias encourage one to peer through the railings. Later in the season there will be scarlet hibiscus flowers and oleanders. Already today we were grateful for the shade offered by the magnificent palm trees along with the plane trees and figs.

The day has been full and interesting but something of a frustration. We wasted far too much time trying to find internet access. Everywhere was full of promises that came to nothing. After trying six different places we gave up and concentrated on enjoying what remained of our time in Ajaccio. Unfortunately many of the places we planned to visit were closed, in particular the Fesch Museum, which houses the largest collection of Italian art in France outside of the Louvre. It closed for restoration in 2008 and shows no sign of reopening in the near future. Cardinal Fesch was an uncle of Napoléon and a connoisseur of fine art. He amassed over 3,000 works by the Italian masters and bequeathed them to Ajaccio.

Palace of Cardinal Fesch with his statue, Ajaccio, Corsica

Next to his palace stands the chapel where many of the members of Napoléon's family are buried - though Napoléon of course is at Les Invalides in Paris. Both his parents and several of his brothers – all appointed monarchs of various parts of Europe by Napoléon, lie buried there. His mother's tomb states quite simply that she was the "Mother of kings". Some accolade for an ordinary woman of modest means! Regrettably for us, this chapel was also closed to the public for the foreseeable future.

Chapel housing the tombs of the Bonaparte family

However, next to the chapel stands the public library! This was open! "So what" you mutter. Probably never have you seem a public library with quite such an amazing collection of rare and valuable books. Some 12,000 were confiscated from private collections in mainland France during the Revolution. Never too, are you likely to see such a library with so little sense of security! Even the two massive stone lions that guard the entrance had fallen asleep. We wandered in from the street into a deserted, long, high room, lined entirely with leatherbound tomes from floor to ceiling! On display was one of the eleven volumes of Blaeu's atlas of 1662. It was simply propped up there with a handwritten note asking visitors not to turn the pages!

Entrance to the municipal library, Ajaccio, Corsica

Municipal library, Ajaccio, Corsica

Some twenty years ago Ian produced a catalogue of the satirical Napoleonic prints in the local history collection in Exeter, which houses a specialist collection of Napoleana. The catalogue accompanied an exhibition of the prints, together with a death mask of Napoléon, for an exhibition in Caen. We know that a copy of the catalogue was offered to this library in Ajaccio, specialising in material relating to Napoléon, and were disappointed to find that it does not seem to have been added to the library's collections.

On the other hand, the library made particular reference to its huge, multivolume work La description de l'Egypte the record of Napoléon 's scientific expedition to Egypt with ten volumes of plates and nine of accompanying text. It is regarded as one of the treasures of their collections. A complete set of these used also to exist in Exeter's collections. Since Ian retired however he has discovered that the text volumes were sold off at auction following a stock rationalisation. Fortunately the beautiful engravings remain but without the text their value and use is greatly diminished. Unlike in France, knowledge of historical collections is not widely found in British public libraries. Fortunately the full text is available on the web, but it's not quite the same as having the original.

We made our way through the cool pedestrianised streets down to the sea front in search of the daily market. We've not really discovered markets in Corsica and with the terrain here it's obviously not possible for itinerant market traders to travel around from town to town as they do in mainland France. There was the usual pleasant atmosphere and most of the produce was locally produced or sourced. There was a busy fish market where the produce was so fresh the fish were still twisting and flapping their gills while spider crabs lay on their backs waving their long legs in the air. There were stallholders selling dried sausages and smoked hams, others sold Corsican cheeses, mostly based on goats milk or ewe's milk. Samples we tried were mild and creamy. There were dried herbs, honey and various jams, including figs and oranges. There were sacks of chestnut flour, local wines and olive oil. There were kumquats, oranges and lemons and stalls selling typical Corsican biscuits known as cannestrelli. These come flavoured with herbs, or figs, or nuts, or lemon and aniseed. Generally though, we have found them rather dry. We bought our lunch from a stallholder selling olive-oil based pasties filled with cooked lettuce and goats cheese, pumpkin or onion. We tried them all, sitting on the sand below the citadel while our feet cooled off in the sea. We also tried miniature doughnuts smothered in sugar but filled with ewe's milk cheese. Everything was delicious and really cheap.

Daily market, Ajaccio, Corsica

Assorted fish on sale in the market, Ajaccio, Corsica

Picnic spot on the beach beneath the walls of the citadel, Ajaccio, Corsica

It never takes Ian long to find the highest point in a place. Ajaccio has several rather imposing statues of Napoleon, one of which stands on the Place d'Austerlitz above the town. On our way there we passed a highly incongruous Anglican church. It was apparently built by a Scottish lady, Miss Campbell, for the English community that settled in the city in the 19th century and built themselves large and beautiful houses at this end of the town. A resident of obvious wealth she wrote the first tourist guide to Corsica in the 1860s, called Southward ho! Curious to see such a typically English building we went inside to investigate and were greeted by a room full of young women in black leotards practicing their ballet routines beneath the stained glass windows! No longer used as a church it is now a national dance centre and the plié has replaced the prié!

Former Anglican church, Ajaccio, Corsica

Monument to Napoléon, Ajaccio, Corsica

Statue of Napoléon, Ajaccio, Corsica

Napoléon and his four brothers - all kings!, Ajaccio, Corsica

The town hall has a Salon Napoléon. Here we found a copy of his death mask, paintings of family members including his father Charles, mother Letitia, uncle Cardinal Fesch and brothers Joseph and Jerome as well as Napoléon himself in his coronation robes. There was also a display of hundreds of commemorative medals recording battles and major events in the life of the Emperor – another collection that has a parallel in Exeter.

Town Hall, Ajaccio, Corsica

Death mask of Napoléon, Salon Napoléon, Ajaccio, Corsica

Napoléon in his coronation robes, Salon Napoléon, Ajaccio, Corsica

In the town is the home in which Napoléon and his siblings spent their childhood. It is modest for someone who became an Emperor and held most of Europe in terror. The family occupied one floor but gradually bought further space as the family grew. It is reputed that Napoléon's mother went into labour while at mass and was brought home in a sedan chair. She only made it as far as the couch on the landing upstairs before the future emperor made his appearance.

Napoléon's birth house, Ajaccio, Corsica

Cathedral, Ajaccio, Corsica

Finally we discovered a small, independent museum of Corsican history – le Musée A Bandera. It traced the role Corsica has played throughout the history of Europe from the time of the stone age settlers at Filitosa, through later invasions and occupations by the Pisans, Genoese, Aragonese, French and English. It continued with Corsican involvement in the two World wars and the occupation of the island by the Italians and the Germans. It erred on the side of too much text, and that only in French, and required far more time and effort than we had available at the end of a long day on our feet in the hot sun. Still, we picked up some interesting snippets, such as an account of a woman privateer, born in Ajaccio and imprisoned on the hulks off Plymouth.

After all that we were grateful to rejoin Modestine waiting a couple of kilometres away on the outskirts of the town – no chance of finding a parking space anywhere near the centre – and return to last night's campsite. Lack of internet access is something of a worry as we are reliant on it for everything from emails and blogs to all our financial transactions. Guess we will pick up wifi somewhere eventually.

Friday 16th April 2010, Porto, Corsica
It has been a wonderful day. We've been driving northwards along the west coast of Corsica through perhaps the most impressive landscape we have ever seen! The route follows the coast so to our left we've had a sea of the deepest blue imaginable while to our right, for much of the day the mountains of pink granite, weathered into the most bizarre shapes, rise vertically to culminate in sharp needle points. The road surface has been reasonable and there has been little traffic. This is particularly good as the route winds around a groove in the rock face for much of the time with little or no protection against slipping over the edge. Hugging the rock face we gingerly follow each convoluted bend, praying there was nothing coming the other way. Being right hand drive I have even less vision round corners than local vehicles.

We had left Ajaccio behind by 9am and made our way along what began as a perfectly pleasant coast road with sweeping vistas of the maquis covered hillsides. At Sagone we stopped to buy croissants and once the road wound up high above the sea we found a spot to stop and make coffee as we basked in the bright sunshine looking out to sea, sleepily watching, beyond an olive grove, the waves breaking gently on the rocks below. Around us were fragrant herbs - wild asparagus, fennel and thyme.

Picnic spot near Sagone, Corsica

Our route continued along to Cargèse, a pretty settlement developed by the French in 1771 to provide shelter to immigrant Greeks escaping the tyranny of the Ottoman Empire. Their descendents still live in the village today and speak Greek, though they have integrated with the local community. The village has two 19th century churches, facing each other across a patchwork of gardens. One is Greek Orthodox, its interior decorated with classic Greek icons, while the other is traditionally Roman Catholic with lavish trompe l'oeil roof decorations disguising the fact that it is actually a neo-baroque building. Until recently, and possibly still continuing, services were held by the same priest on alternate Sundays in each church, attended by both the Greek and Catholic community.

Catholic church seen from the Greek Orthodox church, Cargèse, Corsica

Interior of the Greek Orthodox church, Cargèse, Corsica

Harbour, Cargèse, Corsica

From here the route turned away from the sea as we drove up into the mountains to Piana. This area, in particular the chaos of rocks known as Les Calanche beyond, is on the UNESCO World Heritage list. Just above the village we followed a sign to a belvedere. Had we realised the route we'd probably have thought better of it but fortunately we met nothing as we spiralled out way up the narrow lane to eventually round a rock and find ourselves on the edge of the world with the sea below and the massive pink granite rocks and mountains all around us, rising ever higher, the snow still covering many peaks and the few clouds hanging like cotton wool around the summits.

We gazed in awe. So much beauty is hard to grasp and it was all ours! Eventually the brisk wind up there forced us down to the village, a pleasant place but rather too touristified with several restaurants and bars. Away from the square however there were little streets of houses, a fountain and an active village community. In a meadow at the foot of the village a newborn foal and its mother were evidence that rural life is still going on despite the tourists and the heritage status of the area.

Panorama showing Piana in its setting, Corsica

Calanche seen from the belvedere at Piana, Corsica

Houses in Piana, Corsica

Ponies with Les Calanche beyond, Piana, Corsica

Once we had left Piana we entered Les Calanche. To call it breathtaking would be an understatement. How a stone as hard as granite can weather the way it has is astonishing. It looks more like a friable pinky-red sandstone scoured with countless rounded hollows, shaped and eroded into all kinds of imaginary and fabulous beasts. The road winds down the cliff with gullies and outcrops of weathered stone stretching down to the sea and huge flanks of bare mountainside towering above. The best time to pass through is reputed to be at sunset when the rocks glow bright pink.

Driving through Les Calanche, Corsica

Roadside scenery, Les Calanches, Corsica

Les Calanche, Corsica

This evening we are still in the area, camping at Porto, the first place reached coming down from Les Calanche. This evening we are overlooked by the sharp peaks of the mountains towering above us. As we drank our wine outside the rock glowed pink and the summit was swathed in cloud that ebbed and flowed. Meanwhile the sun sank as a scarlet globe into the Mediterranean.

Porto with its Genoese tower, Corsica

View outside our door on the campsite, Porto, Corsica

Can't help it! Another view of our neighbouring mountain, Porto, Corsica

View down to the sea after sunset, Porto, Corsica

Whew! Too much effort trying, inadequately, to describe something far too glorious for words. Looking at the map this evening the route around the coast tomorrow will be even more convoluted than today. Away from the boring east coast there are very few easily navigable roads. This coastal route and all the routes through the mountainous interior look on the map to be as twisted as a colon with diverticulitis!