Beauty and the beast
They call it ‘l’île de beauté’. But beauty is only half of the story. Here’s why Corsica is the preferred vacation spot of the French…and why it took me twenty years to get there.
When the rest of the world descends upon the south of France, the French flee to their most cherished summer vacation spot: la Corse. Situated just above Sardinia, the rugged Mediterranean island is actually closer to Italy than France, and the Corsican language resonates like Italian.
For years friends have been urging me to visit Corsica. “C’est magnifique…You won’t regret it….Small, private beaches….Perfect weather….Wild and uninhabited…Food that combines the best of French and Italian.” Hmm…sounds like my kind of vacation place. In fact, with so much going for it, I’m not sure what was holding us back.
Actually, I do. My husband. He had a very negative preconception about les Corses. Macho types who refuse to speak French and want their independence. And I’d heard so much in the news about mafia-style murders and bombs going off in Corsica, I wasn’t keen to go anywhere near the place.
But then someone explained that Corsica lives almost entirely off tourism and none of the violence actually targets holiday-makers. The acts of terrorism that make the headlines are règlements de compte (settling of scores) between the locals and outsiders who try to encroach upon their territory. So this summer we decided to find out for ourselves.
Here’s what we discovered about l’île de beauté:
- Island of beauty: Corsica really does live up to the claim. The mountains and coastline are breathtakingly beautiful, and everywhere you go offers postcard views. It’s rare in France to see so much flora and fauna with so few people. And the weather was indeed perfect: hot and sunny with the right amount of sea breeze to keep cool.
- Steeped in history: The birthplace of Napoleon Bonaparte is Ajaccio, the regional capital of Corsica; there’s a museum in his ancestral home, Casa Buonaparte, and places all over the island named after him. Over the centuries the island has changed ownership several times and even enjoyed a brief period of independence…so it has a lot of stories to tell.
- Geography is destiny? Corsica is shaped a bit like a fist sticking its finger in the air. This may have something to do with the strong sense of identity and revolutionary bent of its inhabitants.
- One region divided in two: Corsica is a full-fledged region of France with two administrative departments: Haute-Corse, the more mountainous and uninhabited north, and Corse-du-Sud, the southern half that draws the most tourists to its beaches.
- Two official symbols: a moor’s head, which is shown on the official Corsican flag (along with license plates, beer labels, etc), and the wild boar (le sanglier) which is also one of its denizens — also frequently on the menu. We saw this little guy by the roadside near the route des îles Sanguinaires.
- Charcuterie and cheese: Two of the island’s gourmet specialities, along with superb seafood and some very nice wines.
- Polyphonic choral music: No, these guys don’t have an earache, they’re just blocking each other’s voices out in order to focus on their own. The result is hauntingly beautiful, if you like that sort of music. I am a fan, at least for the first five minutes.
- Famous people: Many well-known French personalities have summer homes in Corsica. Other than Napoleon, and, some claim, Christopher Columbus, famous Corsicans include Laetitia Casta, an iconic French model and actress.
- An amazing hiking trail. The GR (Grande Randonnée) 20 is a challenging trek across the island from north to south. I dream of returning one day and doing at least a segment of it. Assuming I can put aside some of these local attractions long enough…
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