For years I’ve wanted to visit the French island of Corsica, intrigued by stories of its incredible natural beauty. I’ve been to 10 of the Greek islands and to Sicily and Sardinia in Italy, and have loved the scenery and amazing beaches to be found on all of them, but people assured me that Corsica trumps them all. Corsican culture is a mixture of Italian and French influences and so I assumed that I would feel right at home there, so I was eagerly anticipating my 5 day visit to this Mediterranean paradise.
I landed at Ajaccio on the central west coast and experienced a rather drawn-out and tedious process of picking up my rental car, which included a fine-tooth-comb inspection of every inch of the vehicle, inside and out and warnings that it must be returned in the same condition. No pressure there! I headed along the coastal route toward the northwestern tip of the island and my home for the next three nights, Algajola, a small village on the beach near the more famous town of Calvi.
Ajaccio itself looked beautiful and the views of the city from along the coast, with hundreds of sailboats and waving palm trees was very inviting, but the outskirts were rather gritty and not so attractive. Things got better as I drove out into the countryside and up into the mountains. When I crossed over the first range I started to see the impossibly blue bays and gleaming white sandy beaches lining the coast, each separated from the next by rugged, olive-green mountains.
I had heard people talk about the “terrible roads” and had expected narrow, pothole-laden tracks, but on the contrary, the roads were wide, well paved and easy to negotiate. The problem is they go on forever because of the ridiculously mountainous terrain. I would come around a bend and see a stretch of the road that was perhaps only 5 miles distant, but with the curves and switchbacks between where I was and that stretch of road, it was 30 or 40 minutes of torturous curves before I’d get there. Then I’d come over a hill and see another winding stretch of road leading toward yet another mountain range. The total distance from the airport to my hotel was only 100 miles, but it took 5 and a half hours to get there and although I have an iron gut and have never been car sick, even I was starting to feel queasy after awhile!
The highlight of the drive was the Calanques de Piana, a series of dramatic deeo valleys of red rock formations that is a UNESCO World Heritage site. The road was a bit tricky here because it was narrower and had many pull-outs that people squeezed their cars into to take advantage of photo opportunities. Another welcome respite during the drive was a stop in the town of Cargese, where I had a delicious lunch of moules et frites, or mussels and fries. I was looking forward to a few days of excellent seafood and this was a good start.
When I finally reached my hotel, the Beau Rivage, I was a little disappointed. Despite being on a beautiful beach, the building itself was nothing special or attractive, and the long dark hallway that led to my room looked like a corridor in a prison. When I opened the door to my room, however, I was surprised to find a light and airy room with a huge open window and the sea just a few feet away. The sound of the sea filled the room, and since there was no air conditioning, I knew that I would be sleeping with the window open and that wonderful sound all night long. When I walked back through the lobby to check out the beach, I approached the woman at the front desk and in a serious tone, I said, “I’m sorry but my room is not satisfactory. I was hoping to be a little closer to the sea.” It took her a minute to catch my joke and then she laughed and said that if I were any closer, I could leap out the window for a swim.
The village of Algajola was a mere 5 minute walk from the hotel and featured a castle and a few restaurants with outdoor seating. I had dinner at what was supposed to be the best one, but it was a mixed bag of excellent salad and really tough and gristly lamb. I expected better from a place where the culture is a mix of French and Italian.
I planned to explore the northern side of the island over the next two days, but honestly, after the grueling drive to get there, I was more in the mood to rest and enjoy the beaches and relax, and that is pretty much what I did. One day I drove up into the surrounding hills to a town called Sant’ Antonio, and walked around this village for awhile until the heat forced me to find shade at a little restaurant with a covered terrace and an amazing view. As I am finding in most places here, the waitress spoke virtually no English, but I managed to order an omelet and salad for lunch and enjoyed the shade and the views.
In the afternoon I drove a half an hour north to visit Bodri Beach, another stunning strand with some of the clearest water I have ever seen. I was swimming and floating near an Italian family, a couple and their 4 children, and really enjoyed watching the dad and the kids playing together in the water. I could understand most of their banter and was impressed with how well behaved the kids were, obviously a testament to the dad who was so engaged with them. After the beach I stopped at one of the many stands that line the roads selling produce and Corsican products, getting some amazing peaches and cherries, and some interesting Corsican biscuits and confections that were truly nothing special. The food here has been remarkably UNremarkable, and the prices are virtually double what they are on the French mainland or in Italy. Beaches, A+. Cuisine, C -. The professor has spoken.
Another day I drove south to the town of Calvi, a picturesque town with a castle perched on hills overlooking a beautiful bay. I visited a highly rated Italian restaurant there for dinner and had absolutely delicious gnocchi, but made the mistake of ordering a seafood dish as a main course. It was ridiculously expensive, the portions were miniscule, and the fish that was included in the dish was so dry it was almost inedible. In Italy and Greece one can order a seafood dish for half the price and it is piled high with the most succulent seafood you could want. Sigh. At least I enjoyed the music playing from the castle across the street; it was June 21st, which is the Fete de la Musique all across France and in virtually every town and city there are live music performacnes. There was a very good, mellow rock band playing in Calvi that night. I then enjoyed a $7 cone of gelato and headed back to my hotel in Algajola, which was also celebrating the night with a concert going on in the town square. It was so loud that even back in my room I could not hear the sound of the waves outside my window… only renditions of “Hotel California” and “Margaritaville”. I thought it would end at midnight. Then I hoped it would end at 1:00. By 2:00 AM I was still hoping, and I believe it finally stopped at 3AM when I fell asleep out of sheer exhaustion!
From Algajola I drove the “fast route” down the middle of the island, which was a lot more direct and had far fewer twists and turns than the coastal route, but there were still painfully tedious stretches of switchbacks that seemed to go on forever, and even the beautiful mountain scenery – some mountains still had snow on them this late in June – could not make up for the tedium.
I stopped in the mountains just outside of Ajaccio at a restaurant my friend LeeAnn had enjoyed when she was on Corsica last summer. It was a restaurant and guest house tucked away in a remote village and featured an outdoor terrace with a beautiful view. I had phoned ahead to check on their serving times, and had great difficulty communicating with the woman on the phone, as she spoke no English and I was not really understanding her French or Corsican… I am not sure which is was. I thought we had reached an understanding that I would be arriving at 2:00 and that she’d said they were serving till 2:30, but when I got there she did NOT seem happy to see me! There was only one table of diners and I got the feeling that the kitchen was closed or closing. I offered to leave, as I did not want to inconvenience anyone, but the woman seemed to insist that I have a seat. I was reminded of how difficult even the simplest of things can be when you cannot communicate with someone in their own language, and even though I know some French, it was not working here at all. I tried Italian occasionally because much of the population here speaks it, but that was not the case here.
My waitress was a little more friendly than the hostess and showed me a fixed, three course menu that was really rather confusing in terms of the English translation. In very halting English the waitress steered me toward the Corsican soup and then cannelloni with local cheese (even though the local roasted pig sounded better to me). I understood enough of what the waitress said to determine that she highly recommends these dishes and that people are always glad they took her advice. Well, this customer was not so glad. The soup was lukewarm and bland, with what seemed like a bean base, some rings of pasta, and a mystery meat floating around in it. The cannelloni was truthfully the quality of a frozen dinner and I think I heard the sound of a microwave back in that kitchen. The only redeeming course was a custard-like pie made from chestnuts. The food grade I assigned to Corsica dropped to a D+.
My hotel near Ajaccio, the Cala del Sole was a bright, shiny building set atop a bluff overlooking the sea, with a beautiful salt water pool and a gorgeous stretch of private beach. It was a much prettier property than the prior hotel, but the room looked out on a grassy lawn that was fenced off, and I could only see a sliver of blue sea in the distance, beyond the grass. No matter… I planned to be out at the pool and the beach most of the time anyway. The beach was beautiful, though there was a stiff breeze and some rough waves to contend with, but the pool was absolutely fantastic, warm and calm and I could look out at the beach from there.
For dinner I did not want to stray far and I found a highly rated place nearby called Casa Pasta. I anticipated some homey Italian food. Well, the menu was limited and the ONLY pasta on the menu was spaghetti and meatballs, which is about as Italian as Chicago style deep-dish pizza. The couple who ran the place were delightful and friendly and he pushed his burgers because, “I use good French bread instead of those awful buns you have in America!”. I had a warm goat cheese salad and a burger, and chocolate mousse for dessert and it was plentiful, OK, but nothing to take pictures of or write home about.
On my last full day in Corsica I went down the coast to Porticcio to have lunch at another restaurant that LeeAnn had recommended and which gets high praise on Facebook, Chez Alain. Here, finally I had the only truly outstanding meal of my 5 days on the island. They offer mussels cooked in any of 24 different preparations and I went for the orange, wine and cream sauce. I got a huge bowl of steaming mussels in this flavorful broth, perfect, crunchy French bread, and interestingly carved French fries that were sculpted into a shape like a stalk of celery, making the whole fry perfectly and uniformly crispy. It was absolutely the best, and dessert was a beautiful vanilla custard tart with fresh strawberries and ice cream. This meal alone helped bump Corsica’s overall food grade back up to a C+, but this meal on its own was an A+.
I then continued further south, ending up at a remote beach called Cupabia. I could see it from miles away as I descended from the mountains and found a gorgeous, sandy strand maybe 2 miles wide. The water was beyond crystal clear and I happily played in the waves for a couple of hours. It was one of those perfect beach experiences that make it hard for me to ever want to get out of the water, and it was a really nice way to finish my time on Corsica.
In the morning I not only had to gas up my rental car, but I had to clean it as well. The rental car company made a big song and dance about the fact that cars must be returned clean inside and out or I would incur a 65 Euro penalty/cleaning fee. So off I went to a carwash at 8AM, having to wait in line almost a half an hour – I guess other renters had been given the same warning about clean cars! When it was my turn, I found that I needed tokens instead of coins, and as I went to the gas station to inquire, a man approached me who apparently worked there, and exchanged my coins into tokens. He then went over and put the tokens in for me and explained how I needed to first spray the car with a heavy duty soap and let it set for a minute or so before washing. But before I could take matters into my own hands, he was doing it for me! He had been walking with someone as he was crossing the parking lot, and his friend just laughed and shook his head and smiled at me as if to say, “he’s always like this!” And for the next 3 or 4 minutes this guy thoroughly washed my car without my having to lift a finger! When he was done, he came back over, patted me on the shoulder and said, “Next time you come to Corsica, remember my car wash and visit me again!” and off he went with his friend, leaving me to thoroughly vacuum the rugs myself!
When I got to the airport, the rental car agent virtually did a white glove inspection of my car, and thanks to my friend at the car wash, I avoided any additional cleaning fees. And so ended my visit to Corsica. I’m happy to have seen the place, and anyone who likes beaches and/or hiking in some rugged mountain terrain would find plenty to keep them busy. I would rate the beaches right up there with the best that Greece or Hawaii have to offer, but overall the culture, the cuisine and the high prices did not leave me dreaming of when I might return. Perhaps if I boned up on my French, did nothing but go to the beach and ate nowhere but at Chez Alain, I’d happily come back again… Au revoir, Corsica!