Off Season Gem: Corsica

It’s not too late to see what the south of France was like before it  became the South of France. Go to Corsica. Not in the months of July or August,  when Italian and French holidaymakers overrun this small granite mountain marooned in the Ligurian sea, but in spring or autumn. Then the sombre peaks, the translucent sea, the vibrant light of the Mediterranean sun will seem to be your own happy discovery and the locals will be pleased and slightly surprised to find you in their midst..

My first visit was in May, the maquis was in bloom… the  nearly impenetrable ‘maquis’  which first sheltered Corsican outlaws and then the resistance fighters of WW2.  A soft sweet fragrance  rose from the tangle of vegetation on the lower slopes of  forested, brush-covered mountains….rock roses, lavender, thyme, sage, tree heather  cistus, asphodel.  It drifted through the open windows of the early morning train from Ajaccio to Bastia where I was going just for the ride, just because the route was called the most picturesque in Europe when the narrow-gauge tracks were  laid in 1888.

We travelled north along a spine of  mountain ridges on tracks which seemed no wider than a tea tray, often hugging the mountainside so closely one could have picked wild flowers from the rocks in passing. The views on the other side, over bottomless ravines and dark green valleys, were like 19th century engravings with seldom a house or a glimpse of a road. In the distance lay jagged, black peaks some traced with snow, pine, beech and chestnut  forests,  glacial lakes, white-foaming streams.  We passed over iron bridges so narrow they  disappeared underneath the railway car and for a few moments it was  as if the train had taken to the air.

The long steady climb up to Vizzavona, a town at the half-way point of the legendary cross-country trail, the  GR 20, caused  the train to wheeze like an asthmatic and justified its nickname: the Trembler. At 906 km, the air was cold, passengers searched out open windows and closed them before we set off again, downhill to Bastia, the island’s largest town and commercial centre.. We arrived right on time,  four hours, 155 km, 12 bridges, 34 viaducts and 38 tunnels after leaving Ajaccio .

Yachts in Bastia’s Old Port were overlooked by weathered 19th century houses and a baroque cathedral. Restaurants with starchy tablecloths and rows of wine glasses were readying for the evening. But before they opened, the train returned to Ajaccio, with me, a clatter of teenagers from the university in Corte, and an elegant  blonde carrying a florist’s red rose wrapped in cellophane. She was on her way to Ponte Nuovo to lay the rose at the bridge where French troops ultimately defeated the Corsicans and Corsican independence ended. Between 600 years of Italian rule and annexation by France, their autonomy had lasted only 14 years. The cause of freedom echoes around the hills of Corsica still, punctuated from time to time by the bombs of the FNLC.

Bonifacio, the much photographed cliff top village at the southern tip of the island, is Corsica’s main attraction. To get there, I took the bus from Ajaccio, which  plunged along the twisty mountain roads and through the tiny hamlets like an armour-plated elephant. We stopped to pick up passengers in the hilltop village of Sartene of which it has been said ‘it breathes war and vengeance’. It has also been called the most Corsican of Corsican towns. On its shadowy, steep streets famous vendettas have been plotted calling for a death inflicted on one family to be revenged by a death in the other . This could  carry down through generations with the cause  of the conflict becoming obscure even to the participants. Today the vendetta is said to be just a memory, but it is the brand name inscribed on the blades of a range of stiletto knives.

The journey to Bonifacio ended in a huge parking lot overlooking  a narrow yacht harbour edged with open-air eating places and small shops. Sheltering thefjord-like inlet are white limestone cliffs 60 metres high, their base  deeply eroded by an incessant wind and a turquoise sea..’The King of Aragon’s Stairway’, 187 steps carved into the cliff face, leads obliquely from the shore to the citadel and the mediaeval city. From above you gaze down on  Sardinia, 12 km away to the south. From below you  gaze up at houses perched so close to the cliff edge they look as if they might topple into the sea. In 1966, one did.