There’s a video that went mildly viral in France a couple of months back. It’s a voting based music reality show. Four judges have their back turned to a dark stage. Notes from a medieval string instrument break the silence, followed by an eerie voice. It seems to hurt, haunted by an ancient melancholy. The language is unrecognisable, and the singer is hard to place. She opens her mouth, and impossibly high-pitched, pure flute-like sounds pierce the air.
“She sounds just like a bird”, a man backstage whispers in astonishment.
Within seconds, all four judges have turned around to gaze upon the ethereal and enigmatic Battista Acquaviva.
“Where do you come from?” they ask when she has finished.
“Corsica” she replies.
It figures. An island marked by centuries of conflict and bloody rule, a stone’s throw from Italy, ruled by the French and the birthplace of one of the greatest rulers of modern history, Corsica is under an hour’s flight from Nice, but it is like no other place on earth.
We arrive at night. Touching down at the small Ajaccio Napoleon Bonaparte Airport, the outlines of the high mountain ridges are visible in the moonlight. Forty minutes of slow, winding gravel roads brings us to Villanova, a tiny village in the Golfu di Lava region where we are staying for a week with friends.
Our place is close to the water, and we spend the entire first day moving between our villa and the water, snorkelling, pottering around on the floating pedallo, or simply lying on the pebble beach thinking nothingy, beachy thoughts.
A plan is revealed over breakfast. We’ve rented a speedboat, and that day, will go as far as Bonifacio, an ancient city at the southernmost tip of the island.
Motoring out of the bay, we head south and quickly approach the Iles Sanguinaires, the Bloody Islands. A small cluster of uninhabited islands, they are named because of their dramatic fiery colour at sunset.
As we motor along, the singularity of the coastline strikes me. It is a savage, untouched landscape. Our boat, tiny against the vast sea, is the only sign of the modern era.
The entire coastline seems to be dotted with ruins, lookout towers built between the 16th and 17th Centuries by the Genovese, who ruled Corsica for around five hundred years. As I watch silent tower after tower, Jacques, who spent all of his childhood summers here leans over.
“The legend is that if the island was being invaded, the whole island would know within an hour”. They used fire signals, he explains. The fortresses follow us all day, and it’s true that you can always see at least two at a time.
The history of Corsica is one of invasion and conquest. Situated along important ancient trade routes, it has changed hands numerous times over its long history. The Romans, Vandals, Pisans, Moorish, Genoese, Lombards and French all staked their claims over the land at one time or another and the local population rose, fell and adapted in accordance.
These days, the pristine coastline is under threat of another kind. Wealthy investors from mainland France and further afield dream of building luxury hotels and private villas among the spectacular scenery. Yet they have discovered that the Corsicans are fiercely defensive of their land and way of life, and are not above taking things into their own hands. Fire bomb attacks targeting foreign owned properties have been going on for decades and environmentalists make strange bedfellows with separatist groups to keep Corsica Corsican.
Thankfully, tourists are welcome. Just as long as they don’t try to buy property.
After a couple of hours of skirting the coastline and stopping for occasional swim breaks, I notice the geography change. Grey limestone cliffs front the rolling water, creating a dramatic contrast to the deep blue-black sea. The tall cliffs seem to bow over at the waist, and I see small boats venturing close to, and sometimes entering into the dark grottos that have formed. Slowing the engine down, we follow suit. The ocean swell rocks us closer and closer towards one particularly magnificent grotto. The high roof forms a mouth-like opening, casting shade on the sea and us.
After several meters, a large shaft of sunlight pierces the cave. Donning goggles and snorkels we fling ourselves off the boat, to explore this magical treasure cave. Everything is rich blues and greens, glinting with light. The ground is littered with boulders that might to have tumbled from the large jagged opening in the roof. Small fish and crabs alike dart away from us as we dive, then climb over the slippery rocks to stand at the shaft of sunlight at the bottom of an altar-like rock formation, slick and slithery worshippers to some pagan sea god.
Just then, a tourist boat comes through the opening. The captain barks a noisy and unintelligible commentary as the boat bobs in the water for a minute before motoring a 360 and leaving the cave in peace once more.
Back in the boat, we continue south. A white and red lighthouse appears in view, standing on the headland, marking the entrance to a wide channel, winding back into the island. It looks as if a giant cat has gouged his claw into the rock and roughly pulled it free, leaving a ragged cut in the coastline. This is Bonifacio.
High cliffs rise up on either side of us and the waters calm as we enter the relatively narrow channel. There is a distinct feeling of being watched. There are sheltered, sandy bays to our left, and weather-worn houses perched right up on the cliff edge on the right. I feel tinier and tinier as we putter our way into this clearly ancient settlement.
It is a busy day at the port, and two enormous luxury yatchs dominate the scene. Bonifacio is the kind of place that attracts the luxury set, but there is something very strange about seeing these ultra modern vessels moored alongside centuries-old fisherman’s houses.
We dock our speedboat among sailing boats and cruisers of different pedigrees and after a quick bite at a restaurant facing the port (a mistake- it is, in fact, possible to be served frozen seafood meters from the sea itself) make our way up to the top of the old city in the pounding heat. We wander around the narrow cobblestone streets, seeking the shelter of awnings. The citizens of Bonifacio were once trapped in here for five months in 1420, during an unsuccessful siege led by the King of Aragon. He was not the first nor the last to wage war upon the Bonifacians, with varying degrees of success, and the town has left its mark on the memory of man. It is believed that Homer’s fearsome, cannibalistic people, the Laestrygonians were based upon early Bonifacians, and his description in The Odyssey of a harbour closed in on all sides by a ring of sheer cliffs, with a narrow channel in between perfectly fits the scene I see before me.
On the southern cliff side, we come to the top of the King Aragon’s Steps, a set of stairs carved right into the cliff. Houses are built to the edge, appearing as if they are about to topple into the waves below. Far below us, boats leave white foamy trails as they motor around the large chunks of stone that once fell from the mainland. The day is quite clear, and we can see the northern coastline of Sardinia in the distance, some twelve kilometers away.
Beyond the edge of the town, the land rolls away into the distance. The interior of Corsica is mountainous and untamed and covered by miles and miles of ‘maquis’ a dense vegetation consisting of a mix of wild herbs and plants such as eucalyptus, rosemary, myrtle, sage, mint, thyme and lavender. Musky, pungent and unmistakable once it’s known, it gave the island its alternative nickname ‘the scented isle’.
For generations, the maquis also served as a hiding place for the infamous Corsican bandits. After exacting revenge according to the vendetta code, they would hide inland, sometimes for decades. Vendetta is still alive in Corsica, perhaps the result of a society that was forever shunted between opposing, foreign ruling bodies, none able to enact a reliable system of justice.
The not altogether unpleasant thought of walking into the dense foilage and away from human civilization forever pops into my mind.
The following day, we take the boat north, around the curve of the bay and into the Scandola Nature Reserve, a swathe of protected land and sea, home to dolphins, salamanders, cormorants and puffins. Cliffs of red rhyolite shoot straight up from dark blue water, formed aeons ago by an underwater volcano, creating coves and grottos mostly inaccessible but from the sea. The water is an incredible shade of blue, deep and inviting. We nose the boat into tiny bays, diving off its squishy sides and out of the glaring sun to explore the mysterious underwater landscape. I climb out of the water and into dark grottoes, to the clock and slosh sound of smooth rounded stones rocked against each other by the water. Yet we aren’t the only ones here. A ram-shackle colony of vessels come and go all day with explorers from all over the world.
We don’t see any dolphins, and spot seabirds only from afar, but driving on a rough gravel road back home from town one evening, a small black and white creature darts across the road. It’s a spotted wild boar, a mother. Her frightened piglets scatter around the road and we drive slowly so not to frighten them, but they keep running ahead of us, their little tails bouncing up and down. Two piglets nip up on an embankment, while their mother is trapped on the other side. Suddenly she stops and turns to face us, clearly thinking about charging. From her muscular legs to her defiant posture, there is no mistaking this small animal for a commercial porker. After a beat, she races in front of our lights to her children and they disappear into the black maquis.
In time, our party begins to break up, and as we drag our suitcases to the airport doors on our very last day, I catch a scent in my nostrils. It is something musty, herby, and strange.
“Is that the maquis?” I ask my boyfriend, hoping.
I sniff deeply, holding the scent in my lungs.
He has been coming here on and off since childhood, and knows the smell of the island immediately. I hope that next time I come it will be familiar to me too.
The traditional and most popular way of getting to Corsica is by ferry. Sailing from France and Italy, ferries take about 4-6 hours and leave most frequently, during the high season (April to October).
Several airlines offer flights from France, Belgium, Germany or the UK, again, mostly from April to October. The most frequented airport is Napoleon Bonaparte airport, 5km from the Ajaccio city centre.
The distinctive French/Italian local cuisine. Think fresh herbs, goats cheese, honey, chestnuts sausages and lots of charcuterie.
Bonifacia and The Citadel, for dramatic views and a beautifully preserved ancient settlement.
La Maison Bonaparte in Ajaccio. See the childhood home and retrace the story of the ill-fated Emperor.
The Grande Randonnee (GR) 20 route. Pull your hiking boots on for a crack at the one of Europe’s greatest and most difficult hiking trails. Covering 160 kilometers and reaching altitudes of over 6,000 feet, it’s not for the faint hearted.