Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

August 18, 2017
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Tour de Corse

Corsicans may drive like madmen, but the pace on this rugged French island is definitely laid back

Ah, yes, the Mediterranean. Idyllic white-sand beaches, calm and soothing salt water maybe if you're reading a guidebook whose last edition was some time in the 1960s. These days, Europe's beaches are littered with hamburger chains, condo developments and more tight Speedos than actual sand.

Corsica is a whole other strip of riviera. At less than two hours' flight from Paris, it offers the beauty of paradise without the beasts of tourism -- it's untamed yet modern, rugged yet manageable, French yet not at all. The coastline is 1050 kilometres of dramatic drops, desert and beaches, all barely touched by tourism.

The island's most popular beach, Palombaggia, located between the resort towns of Bonifacio and Porto-Vecchio, is a pristine bay of white sand fringed by pine trees. You'll have to struggle to find a spot of sand in July or August -- more than one-and-half million people visit each year -- but by summer's end, the bikini-clad sun-worshippers and all their various strings vanish, and there's not a high-rise hotel in sight. For two long mornings in October, we had the whole beach to ourselves; the water was clear, blue and still warm -- perfect for swimming.

We had come to Corsica with no definite plan, except to see as much of it as we could drive in two weeks. The better part of this vacation would be in a rented Renault, sharing the road with speeding Corsicans who treat a trip to the grocery store as a tryout for the Tour de Corse car rally. To them, other cars, especially those sporting rental license plates, are obstacles. While some of the island is paved with wide national highways, whose numbers are prefixed with N, most are not-so-wide twisting mountain routes called départementales, beginning with D, which to the polite Canadian driver could stand for death.

Sharing the Road
I never quite knew what was more arresting: the drive or the scenery. We didn't feel like we were in France and we didn't feel we were on an island; we could have been visiting a miniature continent. In the north, we'd pass lone Genoese watchtowers and Romanesque churches overlooking a turquoise sea; in the south, we saw spectacular granite cliffs and when we moved inland, we'd follow tight hairpin roads snaking through cool dense forests of centuries-old colossal pines or rolling valleys of aromatic maquis shrub. Often we'd turn a blind corner to be halted by a family of goats munching on chestnuts. We did eventually become accustomed to everyday Corsican road hazards, pulling over to let impatient locals pass and only occasionally panicking when we saw a speeding car coming right at us.

Our journey began where our plane landed, on the west coast in the city of Ajaccio. While it has its attractions -- the birth home of Napoleon, ancient streets lined with restaurants and a beach right downtown -- Ajaccio looks like many coastal French cities. It has hotels, shops and traffic. We only stayed long enough to prepare for the trip ahead.

But we didn't leave without first taking a day trip north to the Golfe de Porto which, like Palombaggia, is a major tourist stop in summer and was pleasantly deserted by fall. This part of the coast is Corsica at its most classic, with the sea on one side and tall mountain peaks on the other. Along the route, we saw signs indicating marked hiking trails; we chose an hour-and-a-half route that brought us to a mountaintop of corroded red granite.

As we got closer to the top, we saw the cobalt blue waters of the Scandola Nature Reserve, 700 square kilometres of protected wildlife surrounded by grey, red and purple volcanic gnarls, grottoes and caves. The rocks' colours and shapes were as remarkable as the sea and wildlife. The clear waters are home to dolphins, seals, grouper (usually only seen in the Caribbean) and hundreds of species of subaquatic plants and sea daffodils. Nesting in the cliffs were falcons, giant gulls, cormorants and osprey. To preserve the habitat, the reserve and its wildlife park are not open to hikers and can only be reached by tour boat, which you can find in Porto's harbour. Had we known how much there was to explore, we would have booked a night here.

Family Feuds
After two nights in Ajaccio, we headed south to Bonifacio, passing through the windswept area of Sartenais, where rosemary, myrtle and broom maquis shrubs grow wild. The region's principal town is Sartène, made famous when French novelist Prosper Mérimée dubbed it the "most Corsican of all Corsican towns," referring to its long history of vendettas.

During the 19th century, most villages were involved in some sort of bloody feud. Corsican life operated according to the rules of a classical drama; when your family's honour was insulted, you and yours retaliated. Women, cockerels or chestnuts trees tended to be the leading cause of vendettas; one of Sartène's longest and most notorious was over a stray donkey. It lasted centuries and killed hundreds. For the practical traveller, though, centuries of ferocious settling of scores, together with occasionally violent separatism against France, has had a positive side. It has been enough to keep the McDonald's and condo groups of mainland France from developing the coastline.

Less than an afternoon's drive from Sartène, the resort town of Bonifacio is a fascinating jumble of cobbled streets sitting on top of chalky white cliffs. Fields of maquis have isolated this ancient town from the rest of the island; as such, it has retained much of the Italian feel and language first supplanted by the long-occupying Genoese.

 

Perched at the southernmost tip of the island, everything in Bonifacio's old town looks over a steep dropoff. Down below is a natural harbour where, legend has it, the mythical Odysseus dropped anchor; today, you're more likely to spot the gods and goddesses of Europe's yachting set sipping an apéro in one of the harbour's cafés. The town itself is a warren of narrow passageways flanked by tall Renaissance buildings. Not surprising, Bonifacio is Corsica's most visited spot; in fact, it was the only place we noticed a surplus of tourists. As a result, the hotels are more upscale than elsewhere on the island and the restaurants tend to be overpriced for what you get.

We used Bonifacio as a base for our beach days at Palombaggia. Two long mornings of swimming and picnicking on a deserted beach were a civilized way to top off our first week. We were now ready for the interior. Bypassing the more touristy Porto-Vecchio, we headed for what could be the Corsican equivalent of cottage country: Ospédale, the land of tall, cool pine and beech forests. For years, wealthy Porto-Vecchians have been attracted to the therapeutic effects of Ospédale's venerable shaded forests, some of which are centuries old. Not surprisingly, Ospédale, in Corsican, means hospital.

Cannon Fodder
We found a great two-hour hike to the Piscia di Gallo (piss of the cockerel), a trail that meanders along granite boulders, through pines and maquis and crosses two streams before veering toward a high waterfall -- the cockerel's piss. We began to see that every trail we took in Corsica came with a reward.

The village of Zonza was our base in Ospédale: it was close to some of the island's best hiking and not far from the D268, the Route de Bavella, a dramatic mountain drive that took us through dense pine and chestnut forests to a statue of Notre Dame des Neiges. One of the most memorable hikes we took was the two-hour Trou de la Bomba (cannon hole) trail that left from the Auberge du Col in the Bavella region. The first half took us through shaded forest until we began to see clearings of large granite rocks. We went over and around them until we saw a massive circular opening sitting between two mountain peaks. The reward on this hike came about a half hour later after scaling the wall to the hole: a 500-metre view straight down a sheer cliff.

Up to this point, two days had been our limit in any one region. From Zonza we drove toward the chestnut forests of Castagniccia, whose trees were first planted in the 1500s. The only hotel for miles was Le Refuge (tel: 011-33-4-9535-8265; fax: 011-33-4-9535-8442) in the town of Piedicroce (population: 200). It was here that we also started to develop a taste for Corsican fare. By day, we'd hike and explore and by night feast in Le Refuge's family-run dining room like a couple of characters out of an Asterix comic. We ate thick, cured charcuterie, wild boar seasoned with maquis herbs, Corsican polenta, sheep cheeses and chestnut-flour desserts.

In places like Ajaccio and Bonifacio, the prevailing style is to eat outside in small backstreet restaurants; some with decent meals at decent prices. In mountain towns like Piedicroce, you eat where you sleep -- the hotel is usually the only restaurant in town. Nights of Corsican wine and food were followed by long sleeps in the freshest of mountain air.

We were sad to leave the civilized pace of Piedicroce, but it was nearing mid-October and Le Refuge was shutting down for the season. Besides, we wanted to see Cap Corse, the island's northernmost point. This is the Corsica of sailors and fishermen. Many people see it as a day trip from the city of Bastia; the cape is, after all, only 40 kilometres long and 15 across.

We made our base in Porticciolo, a town along the eastern waterfront that's so small we drove right past it at first. We thought it was a cluster of crumbling row houses, not a town. We chose Porticciolo because our hotel, the U Patrïarcu (tel: 011-33-4-9535-0001; fax: 011-33-4-9535-0278), was one of a couple in the cape still open for the season. Run by a charming old couple, it was clean, simple and centuries old, with every wrought-iron railing and doorknob still intact. Our room looked out onto the sea, and most nights we'd walk across the street, sit on the low stone wall that divided the road from the water and try to remember our constellations.

A Touch Tuscan
Until the 19th century when a proper road was constructed, Cap Corse was cut off from the rest of the island -- and it shows. Cap Corsicans speak a distinctively Tuscan dialect and are proudly traditional. Cows and goats wander through towns, wildflowers grow freely and natural footpaths lead you to rocky clifftops and Genoese watchtowers.

Each day, we'd crisscross the cape a number of times, taking any road we'd come upon. The western shoreline of Cap Corse was much more dramatic; Nonza, located halfway down the coast, is set high on a rocky pinnacle that plunges into the sea. The interior of the cape is made up of sloping vineyards which produce a local wine that is slowly becoming a Cap Corse export.

From the medieval hamlet of Pozzo, we found a five-hour trail to the top of Monte Stello; at 1307 metres, it's the second highest mountain in the cape. From the top, we saw Italy's Tuscan coast, the Golfe de St-Florent and nearby mountain peaks.

North of Pino, we endured 30 minutes of steep climbing through forest to reach the Tour de Sénèque, a foreboding tower on a pinnacle of black rock where the Roman philosopher Seneca spent eight years in exile. It was worth the view at the top: we could see both coasts and Monte Stello, which we had climbed the day before.

We spent three nights in Cap Corse and our time in Corsica was running out. Our last two nights were booked on the west coast in the resort town of Calvi. We wanted to see the Festiventu, an autumn festival during which the beach fills up with hundred of multi-coloured kites and wind-powered contraptions. We had almost explored the entire island, and as the remote regions were collectively shutting down for winter, it seemed right to end our trip alongside other visitors and locals brought together for a celebration that bids adieu to the year's mild autumn breezes.

 

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