Bonifacio and Porto Vecchio

Thursday 22nd April 2010, Bonifacio, Corsica
Tonight we are as far south as we can be in Corsica, at Bonifacio. Just a few kilometres across the straits lies Sardinia. Will we find it an anticlimax after the stunning scenery here? At all events it's less mountainous so the roads should be easier and less like a helter-skelter ride.

Today we left Ajaccio and made our way southwards passing near Propriano and through the centre of Sartène, both visited recently. Our routes though are new as we make a point of trying not to cover the same ground twice. With so few roads to choose from and most of those unbelievably tortuous, it's something of a challenge.

About thirty kilometres north of Bonifacio we parked Modestine and walked out along a rough track into the maquis. After four kilometres it led us down to the sea and a pleasant sandy beach with maritime pines to offer shelter from the heat of the day. The beach was strewn with Poseidonia - lightweight oval disks of tightly matted fibres formed from the decaying strands of an underwater flowering grass, rolled and tossed into fibrous balls by the action of the waves.

Coastal maquis, Cap de Roccapina, Corsica

Curiously eroded granite typical of the island, Cap de Roccapina, Corsica

Poseidonia ball and the seaweed from which it is formed, Cap de Roccapina, Corsica

There were several family groups on the beach and wet-suited bathers out in the bay. Above us the wrinkled brown mass of the granite hillside was topped by yet another Genoese tower and a naturally sculpted figure of an immense lion.

Beach at Cap de Roccapina, Corsica

Rocher du Lion, Cap de Roccapina, Corsica

Fortunately for us the sun, which has reached 30 degrees today, disappeared and the sky turned ominous. It made walking the four kilometres back up the steep track bearable. All around us the maquis of heather, cistus, arbousiers, gorse, vetch, fennel and thyme stretched up as far as the massive bare rocks and the tower.

Maquis with wild flowers, Cap de Roccapina, Corsica

Feeling virtuous from the activity of our walk we continued south. The route seemed less busy than earlier and the roads were straighter. Rounding a bend we caught our first glimpse of Sardinia. It looks to be just off shore. Dark clouds hung over it and within minutes the first spots of rain freckled our windscreen. By the time we reached this campsite it was falling steadily.

The office was closed and the campsite seemed deserted. A note pinned to the door however told us to settle in and sort out later. Soon we were settled with the old familiar sound of the rain pattering on the roof as we made mugs of tea and read our books. Around 6pm Ian walked down through the rain to the office to check us in. Here he was reprimanded for having attached us to the electricity without informing them first as they needed to know who was using it! He explained that was why he'd come down to tell them and that their sign had said to settle ourselves in. It was raining and we wanted a hot drink. What was the problem? Really, our experience of the Corsican people has not been altogether pleasurable. They need the tourist industry but seem to resent foreign visitors. We wonder whether visitors from mainland France are also treated in the same abrupt manner.

And whilst I'm having a moan... driving skills here are none too hot either. The careful drivers are usually the ones from mainland Europe. I'm used now to drivers overtaking on blind bends and cutting in to avoid a collision with someone doing likewise from the opposite direction. Even I though, was riled by an arrogant driver in Propriano hooting at me for pausing at a roundabout before filtering on!

Friday 23rd April 2010, Bonifacio, Corsica
It rained all night and it has rained all day. It is still raining tonight. So far it's not really been a problem allowing us to linger in bed an extra couple of hours this morning, take leisurely showers and spend a relaxed morning writing postcards, reading and enjoying mid-morning mugs of coffee. By lunch time however we were getting a bit restless. A temporary easing of the rain decided us to drive down into Bonifacio for a look around. In any case we needed money and shopping.

Parking is difficult down by the port and it would have been folly to take Modestine up into the citadel with its narrow streets, sharp corners and low archways. Most of the parking places are owned by boat companies who let you park there providing you take sight-seeing trip around the bay. In the fog and rain it didn't appeal. Eventually we parked a kilometre outside the town and walked back in.

Port, Bonifacio, Corsica

Bonifacio is considered the gem of Corsica. Its situation is absolutely breath-taking. Here the granite of the rest of Corsica is replaced by a white, coarse-grained chalk. The town sits right on the seaward tip of the cliff, looking out across the strait to Sardinia (completely invisible today). In much the same way as the granite throughout the island has weathered into fantastic shapes, the base of the rocks hollowed out and resembling broken eggshells, so the chalk cliffs along this southern tip of the island have been scoured, weathered and hollowed out. Indeed, the base of the cliff immediately below the citadel has worn away so much that the houses of the town overhang the sea. One day perhaps the cliff will collapse into the sea, though it has been like that since the times of the ancient Greeks. It matches descriptions of the land of the Laestrygonians in Homer's Odyssey and it seems quite likely that Odysseus passed this way during his adventures around the Mediterranean.

Houses in the citadel overhang the sea, Bonifactio, Corsica

Eroded cliffs, Bonifacio, Corsica

Cliffs at Bonifacio, Corsica

The port is sheltered from the sea, deep in the centre of the low town and reachable only via a beautifully blue natural "fjord," edged with coves of white sand, passing around the back of the citadel.

Natural waterway linking the port to the sea, seen from the walls of the citadel, Bonifacio, Corsica

Along beside the port is a string of restaurants and bars all offering traditional Corsican food. This tends to be heavy – sausages, cheeses, fish soups, mussels and chestnut based pastry dishes. Business was not brisk with few takers for langoustine under a canvas awning in the rain. The boatmen were having similar difficulty pulling the crowds who were generally more interested in admiring the stunning yachts moored nearby.

Port seen from the walls of the citadel, Bonifacio, Corsica

We checked out the ferries for Sardinia before making our way slowly up the steep ramps leading up to the citadel. Inside there are buildings with vestiges around doors and windows that date back to the middle ages! They are still lived in today! Frequently too we noticed coats of arms above the doorways while inside were dark, narrow staircases as steep as ladders, worn and grooved by the feet of residents over hundreds of years. Many of the arches crossing the narrow streets are in fact channels to carry precious rainwater from the roofs to cisterns. They proved invaluable during the long siege suffered by the inhabitants in 1420-21 when they waited in vain for the relief fleet to arrive from Genoa while surrounded by the troops of Aragon.

Ramp leading up to the citadel, Corsica

Street in the citadel showing arches intended to carry rainwater, Bonifacio, Corsica

Street in the citadel with belfry of Saint Mary Major, Bonifacio, Corsica

Mediaeval vestiges on houses still being lived in, Bonifacio, Corsica

House of the Podestats. The seat of government in mediaeval times under the Genoese, Bonifacio, Corsica

Image of the martyrdom of Saint John the Baptist, carried in procession through the old town, Bonifacio, Corsica

Whichever way we explored the criss-cross of narrow streets, sooner or later we ended up on the cliff edge, overhanging the sea which rolled in beneath us.

Staircase of the King of Aragon. Actually steps cut within the walls and the cliff leading down to a fresh water supply enabling the citadel to withstand times of siege, Bonifacio, Corsica

Beyond the main cluster of streets we came across a huge, deserted and dilapidated area where once, in the 19th century, soldiers of the French Foreign Legion were garrisoned. Now its main function seems to be for residents' parking. Just beneath the garrison stretch three kilometres of defensive walls, safeguarding the citadel. At the furthest tip of the headland on which Bonifacio sits is a marine cemetery. This is where the deceased of the city come to live when they die. Indeed the cemetery is nothing if not a small town of attractive villas with roses at the door. You almost expect to find letter boxes. Inside each of these residences are stacked the tombs holding the remains of family members. Recent ones have their photos on display. There is frequently a small altar with a flickering candle burning. Speculative building was taking place with a terrace of several tombs under construction. Each family had expressed its own taste, some facing their mausoleums with green serpentine and tiles while others have opted for a red-tiled domed roof or a little garden surrounded by iron railings. We'd not have been surprised to see satellite dishes and almost wondered whether they had broadband installed! In Corsican tradition the dead never go away, their spirits lingering on. They are respected and revered so while the living may have existed in poverty and privation, the dead were far better cared for.

Residential villas for the dead in the cemetery, Bonifacio, Corsica

Although Bonifacio is undoubtedly stunning, even today in the rain, it was difficult to enjoy as the narrow streets are permanently clogged with cars. It's where the people live and people have cars, so congestion is inevitable. Tourist vehicles too however, also find their way up into the narrow streets. Finding their way out again seems less easy. It's not enjoyable when, despite the one way system, every few seconds it's necessary to step into a doorway to allow a large 4x4 to squeeze past. The town runs a little train from the port to the citadel which helps keep tourists' vehicles out but there is just too much traffic up there.

Once we had walked back through the rain to Modestine , stopping to buy some food shopping, it was time to return to our campsite. Although we unplugged the electricity before we went off, the campsite lady insisted we were not to connect it again. So we left her to trudge all the way up to the top of the campsite in the rain to flick the switch for us. I guess she has her reasons but what they are we cannot fathom.

Saturday 24th April 2010, Bonifacio, Corsica
It was still raining when we woke this morning. The two huge Dutch motorhomes have been sitting here since we arrived. They are too large to drive into Bonifacio and the winding mountain roads must be a nightmare for such huge vehicles, passing as they do through tiny villages with barely passing space for two cars. So their owners are sitting it out waiting for the weather to improve so they can ride their bikes down to the beach, or the supermarket on the edge of the town. We are more fortunate and also not very good at sitting around waiting for the rain to stop, so we drove back up the coast to Porto Vecchio which turned out to be so much nicer than our books had led us to expect. Furthermore, the weather improved and we have spent a very enjoyable day.

Porto Vecchio was once an old Genoese town fortified against likely attack from Barbary pirates. Originally there was just the one gate into the town, built on a promontory above the surrounding coastal plains with the sea below. Today there is a flourishing port from where ferries cross to Marseilles. There are also salt pans where sea salt is harvested. In the immediate area there are cork oaks and until recently a cork factory existed down beside the port. Souvenir shops in the town sell all kinds of cork products from shoes and handbags to bow ties, purses and even postcards.

Salt pans, Porto Vecchio, Corsica

Parking on the edge of the town we walked into the centre where we discovered exactly what we needed and spent the next hour over a coffee in a pleasant, friendly bar offering free wifi. We left sooner than we would have wished as customers arrived for lunch and we were taking up space.

Later we browsed the streets and little shops and discovered the arts centre where we were told there would be frolics and games in the town centre this afternoon. Meanwhile we followed the history trail around the town learning all about salt pans, pirates and the art of tipping boiling oil and night soil onto your enemies as they try to storm the town gate.

Town ramparts, Porto Vecchio, Corsica

Town gate. To the centre for boiling liquids, to the right for night soil – now protected by a stale pipe, Porto Vecchio, Corsica

We also discovered the 19th century granite church with its pierced belfry. Such granite belfries are common in Corsica, just as they are in Brittany. Here though they are more solid and generally less attractive. The church was bizarre inside having at some stage been given a baroque make-over with gothicky bits and classical columns. The tromp l'oeil effect was very cleverly done but the building seemed very cold and indifferent. Of course the sliding glass doors and the air conditioning units fixed between the stained glass windows didn't help much. Nor did the poor quality reproductions of religious paintings by Raphael and others. There had been no lack of money for its construction, just a sad lack of taste.

Main church, Porto Vecchio, Corsica

After lunch we walked down to the port with its marina of little ships and the usual parade of bars, cafes and ice cream parlours. At the ferry terminal we enquired whether we could get a crossing to Sardinia. The delightful man in the office apologised, explaining it only went to Marseilles. We said it didn't matter, we were only asking on the off chance as it looked about to depart and what was our chance of getting free wifi while we were there? He found us a table and a password and left us to it. So we caught up rather well on our backlog of messages until the system packed up. Everyone says Corsica is dreadful for internet as the connection is always being dropped.

Port area, Porto Vecchio, Corsica

Back up in the town centre several marriages were in full swing on what amounted to a conveyor-belt system with couples appearing on the balcony of the mairie to wave to their friends below and kiss, as evidence they had been legally married in the mayor's parlour. The mayor was there with them to prove it. The civil ceremony seems to be done with just the immediate family. Afterwards they cross to the church and there is a religious ceremony attended by everybody.

The fun and frolics we'd been promised earlier turned out to be a kids' theatre performance and lots of old fashioned games played with marbles, wooden ramps, magnets, and bits of wood with holes in. All good clean innocent fun. Later this evening there was to be a jazz concert but we needed to drive back to our campsite at Bonifacio before dark.

Back here the rain had also stopped. We filled the campsite washing machine and sat outside Modestine with glasses of wine as we waited for it to overheat and turn Ian's shirts into rags and my undies a gungy shade of grey. This it did to perfection in a mere two hours at 95 degrees! (The campsite had told us it was preset, just put the money in, press the knob and leave it for thirty minutes.)

As if that wasn't disturbance enough, there was a clanking of bells and an agitated bleating noise swiftly followed by the arrival of at least 100 scrawny, ragged sheep in assorted colours, covered in mud and stinking to the heavens. They surround the three vehicles here, covering the grass with pee and splatty droppings, while one got tangled in our electric cable temporarily putting Remoska out of action. Having created mayhem and thoroughly investigated the showers and washing up facilities they disappeared down to the bottom of the campsite leaving behind a trail of manure and a fragrance that lingered long after they'd gone.

Unexpected visitors at the campsite, Corsica

After supper the washing machine finally released our grey rags and they are now hanging from the neighbouring pine trees to dry overnight – always assuming they don't get rained on or eaten by sheep.

Sunday 25th April 2010, Bonifacio, Corsica
Probably our last day in Corsica. The sun was up long before us, having finally chased away the rain. By the time we'd finished breakfast outside the temperature was 29 degrees and our washing completely dry if somewhat crumpled.

During the morning we finished reading Dorothy Carrington's Granite Island which continues to enthral us, both for the content and for her literary style. She really has brought together the different facets of Corsica, its history, people, customs and landscape providing an in-depth record of the country in an excellent and readable style. Originally published in 1971 it covers her experiences and researches on the island from 1948 onwards. She obviously feared the old ways were dying out and much of the island's culture would be lost under the tide of tourism, improved living standards and employment opportunities in mainland France. Most of her fears, we think, have been realised. The county has lost much of its magic and charm with the inevitable tide of progress. One cannot really wish it to be otherwise, Corsicans have as much right to modern technologies and comfortable living conditions as everybody else. It is sobering, though, to compare our impressions with her experiences half a century ago.

This afternoon we drove just a few miles around the surrounding countryside enjoying the sublime scenery of this most southerly tip of Corsica. We visited several sandy coves, parking in the maquis and following rough tracks down to the turquoise sea where tiny fish swam right up to the shore line and the beaches were sometimes heavily littered with poseidonia.

Local cove, Bonifacio, Corsica

We later drove up onto the headland near Bonifacio and walked out across the cliffs to the lighthouse. Here we watched the ferry ships from Corsica and Sardinia as they passed in mid-channel between the two islands. Really it looks no further than between Southampton and the Isle of Wight. The white, chalky, grooved and weathered cliffs of Corsica gleamed in the sunlight with strangely shaped off-shore island stacks, while Bonifacio crouched right on the edge at the furthest point.

Lighthouse, Bonifacio, Corsica

Off shore stacks, Bonifacio, Corsica

Coastline at Bonifacio, Corsica

Coastal rock formation, Bonifacio, Corsica

Spring has advanced greatly since we arrived in Corsica three weeks ago – it seems far longer as we've seen so much. The maquis has blossomed with bright flowers shining amidst the spiked green foliage. We've learned to identify many of them, the more easily now they are flowering. The cliffs today were covered in this low, spiked woody scrub along with cactuses and agaves whilst bright flowers cowered trembling in every crevice of the rocks. Many of the bushes are wild herbs, myrtle, cistus, juniper, holly, heather and thyme. Together they combine to give a heavy fragrance on such a hot afternoon. Clinging low to the cliffs they form a natural rockery surpassing anything a landscape gardener might dream of creating.

Finally this afternoon we made our way down to a little cove to where a car ferry of sorts appears to operate. Quite what it is we never discovered but there is a tiny landing stage while out in the cove is moored a rather battered little ferry obviously intended to carry vehicles. As there are several little off shore islands here we imagine it is used to transport tractors and farming equipment. It's certainly not a car ferry to Sardinia.

So tomorrow we pack away our books on Corsica, unearth our map of Sardinia and our Italian phrase book, turn up at the port and hope we can get on the ferry without pre-booking. We know absolutely nothing about Sardinia. We hope you will join us there and travel the island discovering some of its treasures. Ian says they have maquis there too and the thorns on the shrubs are all so spitefully vicious the Sardinians call it the Maquis de Sarde. Certainly not one of his better puns.