Not true, but my well-traveled friend’s mistake is typical. Few North Americans know much about Corsica and most have strong misconceptions about this Mediterranean island that is much closer to Sardinia than to Marseille. Corsica, first of all, is a part of France as much as Nice is. It is not a colony. Here are some other common misconceptions that I too – at least partly – shared until I visited the place.
1. It’s mostly mountains, and the coastline is rocky.
Totally false. No Mediterranean island is as gorgeous, lush and varied. On the thousand kilometre coastline are secluded rocky coves and white sandy beaches with the most alluring colors of the Mediterranean – turquoise, cobalt and translucent emerald green.
It has dramatic vistas but nature here is austere.
Some of the best beaches are on the half hour drive from the Southern port of Bonifacio to the island’s ultra chic village of Porto Vecchio, a magnet for French movie stars. But people swim in the clear waters around ports like Ajaccio, the regional capital.
There are farms, orchards, citrus and olive groves, each producing essential parts of the robust local cuisine. There is a town named for chestnut trees, and their fruit is made into everything fromd chestnut creme brulee to food for free range pigs. The early Greeks and Romans planted vineyards, and today there are Appellations Controllees and wine tasting.
Magisterially towering above everything are the mountains – 100 km of them, with 117 peaks over 2,000 meters high. Just as astounding are the houses vertically implanted into the walls of mountains and hilltop villages that were once accessible only by donkey. The mountains come in striking varieties. Along the west coast are the Calenches, burnt orange coloured rocks that seem sculpted by a divine hand. You can see them close up because they impose themselves on each side of the narrow, winding roads. In the centre of the island, near Corte, the former capital, are pine forests, mountain lakes and rivers, along with waterfalls and natural gorges.
At the Hotel Colonna, facing the Restonica Gorge, rooms look out on the rushing river; at the restaurant next door, you eat local trout.
The island’s limestone and granite peaks have shaped the very soul of Corsicans. They lived in theses mountain fortresses for hundreds of years because it was too dangerous to live by the sea.
2. It’s a a violent place, of bandits and separatist terrorists.
Bandits, no. Not even the pickpockets who prey on tourists in so many parts of Europe. Crime is very low. Separatism, which started in the l970’s, is pretty much dead. What people want is a recognition of their culture and language. So why are bombs aimed at real estate offices that sell land to foreigners? The bomb throwers – no one knows who they are – send messages claiming their motive is to keep Corsica for the Corsicans, but most people say there’s more to it than that.. There is big money and mafia-style power grabs. Most of the time, the bombed property is empty of people.
“There are rackets and protection money, yet we live in a laid back environment,”, says Tamara Antonini, a tour guide and singer of traditional Corsican music. “The old idealistic revolutionaries retired decades ago; now they’re involved in culture, things like teaching traditional songs, or the crafts movement”, she explains. We are sitting outdoors in a cliffside café in the tiny hilltop village of Pigna. Restored 40 years ago, it has become a center for musicians from around the Mediterranean. They come for the music festivals and some use the recording studio. Pigna is a showcase for Corsican culture, including the traditional polyphonic music, said to be linked to Gregorian Chants and Eastern Orthodox cantorial music. In this minuscule mountaintop village, with its stone steps and blue shutters, stores sell crafts and artisanal food products like olive oil and preserves. The place is a cultural reserve, just as half of the island is a protected nature reserve.
3. The people are stubborn and suspicious.
Certainly, if you encounter only hotel clerks and waiters anywhere, you’re going to find some who are rude. But talk to the people, and you’ll find wit and a certain sophistication. Many have traveled, especially to “le continent”, as they call mainland France.
“We are basically Mediterranean”, says Tamara Antonini. “We are not Italians but we feel close to them. We are an island with a complicated history”. No kidding. After being attacked by one regional power after another – the Romans, the Carthaginians, the Goths, then pulled into the Byzantine Empire, Corsica was raided by the Moors for hundreds of years. A five hundred year rule by the Genoese started in 1284 and continued until the island was given to the French in 1769, the very year Napoleon was born. In towns like Bonifacio and Bastia, the local bilingual tourist office will most likely point you to the citadel – many were built as protection from invaders. And along the coast, are a series of Genoese watch towers.
During WWII, the Corsicans fought bravely, and their island was the first part of France to be liberated from the Nazis.. The maquis, the tough but fragrant underbrush of broom, lavender and myrtle that covers half the island became the name for the French resistance.
Today, I wonder if perhaps the 750 years of French and Italian influence accounts for some of the innate style and good taste that I see everywhere. There’s the food – fresh fish and vegetables, prosciutto and other cured ham products, goat and sheep cheese. It’s country cuisine that combines French and Italian techniques. And there’s the way women dress – not so different from St. Tropez or Capri. Advised to bring only sensible clothes, I felt the need to spice up my suitcase with a little shopping. In the major towns of Ajaccio, Bastia and Porto Vecchio, I found stylish Italian clothes and French boutiques, from Sonia Rykiel to Etam.
4. Most people speak Corsican, a form of Italian.
Not any more. The Corsican language was all but wiped out by the French government. In l991 the France did an about face, and now Corsican is taught in the schools. Everyone speaks good French but there’s not a lot of English on the island; not surprisingly, most of the tourists are from France and Italy.
5. Napoleon is the favorite son.
Yes and no. He’s the island’s superstar, its eternal claim to fame, and his home, which is now a museum, draws crowds of Bonaparte worshipers to the capital city, Ajaccio. But ask about the founding father of Corsica and you’re likely to hear the name Pasquale Paoli. Unlike Napoleon, who was happy to see Corsica become part of France, Paoli tried to liberate the island and give it a constitution. In l755, he made Corte the capital. Corsica fought successfully against Genoa until 1769, when it was defeated and handed over to the French. Paoli went into exile in London, where he received a pension from George III. In January of 1794, encouraged by Paoli, Britain, led by Lord Nelson attacked and occupied part of the island, but this lasted little more than a year.
There is one thing people say about Corsica that is very much the truth: driving means navigating a dizzying series of hairpin turns. It’s not that the roads are bad – it’s just that they curve and curve. Like elsewhere in Europe, you either pass or get passed. Still, it’s a small price to pay for an unspoiled Mediterranean island, underdiscovered by North Americans.