Monday, May 29, 2006


The World Cup and Corsica

In a few days time the World Cup starts and I will be able to watch some of the games in Corsica on French television. We'll be staying there for part of the time the event is being staged.

I was in Corsica for the last World Cup. I was in a restaurant near Calvi to see the England-Argentina match and was a little dismayed but not surprised to find that my friends there tend to support other Latin nations in preference to England. We saw England lose - and David Beckham red-carded - while the Corsicans cheered and I groaned.

One might think that some Corsicans would support teams other than France in National Football competitions, but if there is any sporting disloyalty on the island I have never observed it. The bars and restaurants in the Balagne are packed with cheering drinkers and diners when France play, and I think those who prefer to de-emphasise the island's links with the mainland are able to forget their feelings for a few evenings.

Perhaps the extreme nationalists gather together in the privacy of their own homes when France play, and cheer on Germany, Norway and the USA when they play against them as they sup their Pietras and Colombas. Perhaps they even cheer England...

Sunday, May 28, 2006


Corsica discussion groups

If you are considering going to Corsica for a holiday or have some other query about the island it's a good idea to go on a discussion group and ask your question there. But which one?

There are three that I visit regularly. The busiest is probably Tripadvisor ( which is a busy site with some very knowledgeable people there who can answer questions on virtually any topic. Notable contributors include Aaardvark, Geoffchal and White Family. Much less busy, but worth visiting once in a while is Virtual Tourist ( There have been no discussions there since early April for some reason but if I had a question about transport on the island, walking, or accommodation I would go there instantly - and hope it is answered by Cerise22 who has an enormous fund of knowledge.

Finally, there is Corsica Lista, ( , run in association with the website Corsica Isula ( which is unique in that many of the members actually live here. Others live in the USA, Britain, and elsewhere. Whether your query is odd, quirky and tricky like "How is brocciu made?" or straightforward ("How do I get from Corte to Bastia?") someone on Corsica Lista will nearly always have the answer.

Friday, May 26, 2006


Democracy in Felicetu

Around this time last year, we paid a visit to one of my favourite Balagne villages - Felicetu. It was just before an important vote - France's turn to vote on the European Constitution, and France's rejection of it made headines in the national press of Britain, the USA and most of the rest of the world as well as France. Corsica's rejection of the Constitution was a little more adamant than most departements.

The reason for my visit was to find out a bit about Felicetu's best known wine - Renucci. Unlike the Balagne vineyards closer to the sea, this little vineyard is tucked away in a corner of the mountains and its wines have a different character from the ones further down the slopes. Unlike its neighbours Clos Landry and Clos Colombu nearer the coast, Renucci do not produce a fashionable Rosé Gris, preferring a redder, fuller rosé. And Renucci's tiny valley favours Corsica's unique Sciaccarellu grapes while most of Corsica's growers of red and rosé wines prefer to cultivate the more prevalent Nielucciu grapes.

We bought a few bottles of this excellent wine, then went for a stroll in the village. It was late morning and hot, and apart from the occasional sleeping dog, there weren't many folk about, so we stopped for a sit down on a little bridge. It was in the heart of the village and we gazed down to admire the view below us. There, on the ground, were several copies of the soon-to-be-voted-on European Constitution, dumped there on the banks of a little stream, looking neglected, wet and bedraggled.

I'm not sure how the village voted in the Referendum, but I understand the Balagne region as a whole voted in favour by a small margin. I don't imagine the turnout was especially high in Felicetu.

I was back again this month, and bought a few bottles of Renucci's white wine - a crisp, aromatic Vermentinu of wonderful clarity. In fact, we toasted the village's health with a bottle of Renucci's Vermentinu this very evening, which is why I was reminded to write a few words about the place tonight.

Thursday, May 25, 2006


Getting to Corsica from Nice

I've been out of circulation for a few days so the blog has not been updated for a while - apologies for this to my millions of readers (yes, you two!)

In the Spring and Autumn, one of the ways of getting to Corsica from the UK and elsewhere in Europe is to get to Nice on a cheap flight and then take the ferry from the port. It used to be the only way of getting there for the not-so-rich traveller, so you'd think that the City of Nice would have worked out by now that some folks like to go from the airport to the port by public transport.

But no. There is a fast bus into the City from the airport, but it doesn't go to the port. And you can't go to the port direct on any bus or train. Sometimes (if there's time) we like to have a leisurely meal on the Promenade des Anglaises before the boat journey, but we don't always have the time. So we usually end up trundling heavy cases vast distances over pavements.

Why doesn't the City lay on a direct connection for Corsophiles like me? They could even charge us a bit of a premium...

Monday, May 22, 2006


Three ways of ending a siege

Invaders have puzzled for ages over how to get inside the wals of well-defended cities.

One of the traditional ways was to hurl stones, burning pitch and other unwelcome projectiles over the walls in the hope of hurting a few occupants or bringing down buildings and morale. The Romans did it the hard way at Masada in what is now Israel when they built a gigantic ramp so they could march their armies up to the top of the walls. To the dismay of the Jewish zealots who were holding out pretty well, the Romans used Jewish slaves to do the construction work, and the defenders were thus discouraged from interfering with the building work. It took three years to build this ramp.

When King Alphonso V of Aragon was beseiging the City of Bonifacio in 1420 he is alleged to have built a staircase comprising 187 slippery steps in Bonifacio's geologically worrying cliffs at the very southernmost tip of the island of Corsica. He is supposed to have built it in a single night. The staircase is there OK, but some doubt that the steps were built either by him or on his instructions

Another theory is that it was the defenders who built the steps to give the occupants access to the sea in calm weather. And some say that the steps were hewn to allow the occupants to scramble down to reach fresh water springs that emerged half way down the cliff face.

I love the King of Aragon story, but the other theories sound rather more likely to me. More about these steps on The whole article is about Bonifacio, and it's beautifully written.

Sunday, May 21, 2006


Welcome back Corse Matin

It looks as though the strike at Corse Matin, Corsica's daily newspaper, is about to come to an end. It's a welcome development.

I'm not going to get into a political debate in these personal notes, but I would like to record how pleased I am that this strike - which has lasted several weeks - now looks as though it is about to end. Like many Brits, I like to read newspapers and I make a point of catching up on Corsica's news when I'm on the island. A quick skim through the Corse Matin gives me the opportunity to do just that - when it's being published.

The newspaper, which combines the role of a parish pump newsletter with the task of giving residents a summary of national and international news, reflects Corsica's geography. Between the first and final few pages, the paper is divided into different sections for Bastia, Ajaccio, Balagne, and all the other major regons, and each region gets its own page. It's like having a collection of mini-regional newspapers all bound into one.

Friday, May 19, 2006


Corsicans and Irish have a lot in common: discuss

I've always had the feeling that the Corsicans and the Irish have a lot in common, but I'm not at all sure why.

A friend of mine, having visited both Corsica and Ireland recently, agreed, suggesting that the reason might be because both nations feel a bit downtrodden. However, I think this is grossly unfair to both of them. I think the proximity of a large and relatively powerful neighbour is a common element, and the difficulty these neighbours have had in ruling them is another bit of history they share. But there's a kind of endearing bloody-mindedness that I find attractive in both of these ancient peoples, and I expect it's one of the reasons why this Irishman has decided to write a blog about Corsica.

The Irish and the Corsicans both have measureable diasporas. The Irish have taken the USA by storm; The Corsicans have emigrated in droves to Puerto Rico to the extent that there are now more people in Puerto Rico with Corsican Ancestry than there are Corsicans living in Corsica. Check out Corsica Lista (see left hand column for link) to check out the posts from all the Puerto Ricans looking here for their ancestors!

It would make an intriguing study for a social anthropologist. If you are one and you're reading this, do drop me a line with the outline of your thesis.

Thursday, May 18, 2006


Is Corsica safe for tourists?

It's one of the most often asked questions when the subject of Corsica crops up in conversations. "Will I be safe if I go to Corsica?"

The answer is a resounding YES. It's true that there are some extremist elements in the Corsican nationalist movements, but they confine their attentions to politicians and empty buildings - usually isolated villas left unattended by their non-Corsican owners.

There have been exceptions. A correspondent in Tripadvisor's Corsica Forum today ( tells of an incident when he was a travel rep for Falcon Holidays in the 80s. It seems the nationalists attempted to blow up a seemingly unattended hotel on the low season when there were no visitors around; unfortunately, a single Falcon representative was in the building when the bomb went off, and sustained minor injuries in the explosion. The perpetrators were distraught, and sent a letter of apology to the travel company when they found out what had happened.

We use two words in English that do Corsica a disservice. Corsair (a form of pirate said to frequent these parts) is one. Vendetta - a word with Corsican origins - is another. The proud and courteous people that live on the island today won't give the visitor many clues as to the origins of these words.

Wednesday, May 17, 2006


Standing room only on the Bastia-Ajaccio express

There has been quite a lot of discussion recently on various travel forums regarding the train services in Corsica. Yes, the journey between Ponte Leccia and Ajaccio is probably the train journey with the best scenery in Europe…. But there was one time when, for me, it turned into a bit of a nightmare.

We boarded the two small carriages that formed the Bastia-Ajaccio express in mid morning at Ponte Leccia. It was a little late, and some people failed to get a seat, but all went fairly smoothly until Vizzavona. This is where the train line intersects the GR20 trail and there were three or four heavily laden hikers who wanted to get on there. So heavily laden, in fact that our driver wouldn’t let them do so and they were made to wait for the next one. Disappointment was etched in their faces; angry words were uttered. So on we went without them.

After a pleasant day in Corsica’s capital, we headed for the last train back and waited with a large crowd of other folk for the train to arrive. I remember wondering how they were all going to get on – there seemed to be more waiting to go back up towards Bastia than there were on the train on the way down. Imagine my horror then, when the train that rolled into Ajaccio Station consisted of a single carriage.

Yes, we all got on. I’m sure there were over 100 of us. How the little engine got us all up the big inclines I have no idea. My friend, who stood all the way, actually sustained a stress fracture in his foot from standing awkwardly half on and half off a step. Some passengers got out and in again at every station just to be able to breathe in fully. By the time we got back to Ponte Leccia, we were three hours late, thanks to the slowness of the heavily laden train, the getting on and off, and the general muddle.

Some people were OK. One gentleman got to sit next to the driver, and ended up with a very pretty girl from Bastia more or less sitting on his lap – to save space of course. But the people I felt most sorry for were the man from Corte who took a large children’s wooden rocking horse on to the train… and the three or four people standing next to him with its wooden feet, ears and tail poking into various parts of their bodies.

Tuesday, May 16, 2006


In praise of Corsica's orchids

I make a pilgrimage each year at around this time to see some of Corsica's wild orchids. Corsica's wild flowers are stunning throughout the period from March to June, but in April and May it's the turn of the orchidaceae to surprise and delight us.

Without being too precise about the place, there is a bank of a small stream in the north west of the island where you can see a wonderful display of yellow and purple orchids growing near each other at this time. Surrounding each plant are dozens of tiny wild cyclamens and chives. It's in a heavily wooded area of the interior and the place is one of my favourite places on earth. The yellow ones have been named for me by Kew Gardens as Dactylorhiza insularis; I'm no botanist but I understand that yellow orchids are not that common, even in this part of the world.

In the south in April, tall pink and purple orchids grow wild at the sides of the minor roads, but they are past their best by mid-May. Later on, there are plenty of humble little glove orchids to be seen in lots of different locations here. More about these delightful flowers, and others of their genus on the French site

Monday, May 15, 2006


Is the spray-can mightier than the shotgun?

On my first few trips to Corsica two decades ago I was intrigued to note that the locals here enjoy taking pot-shots at road signs with their guns when no-one's looking.

I always asumed that this was the sign of pure nationalist fervour, that people objected to the approved spelling of villages' names, preferring the Corsican name instead. I think there is an element of nationalism, certainly, in these actions, and they will indeed remind the authorities that Corsica values its language. However, I also think that local boar hunters get a bit bored waiting for their prey to show themselves, and take their frustrations out on the signposts - prominent objects that offer great target practice. A friend who came to Corsica recently delighted in taking a collection of photographs of these mangled signs and he still enjoys showing them to his friends.

These days you're more likely to have your local road sign defaced by spray-can, and the gesture is far more eloquent. First, paint sprays are more visible than bullet holes, and are also more precise, allowing the author to eliminate just the French writing. And if there is no Corsican version of the words on the sign, you can, with care, write it on in paint.

We know the pen is mightier than the sword. Now you know that the spray-can is mightier than the shotgun.

Tuesday, May 09, 2006


Out of bounds for a few days

I'm going to be out of touch for a few days - because I'm off to Corsica at the crack of dawn tomorrow, and when I get there I will have no access to a computer. No doubt I'll have plenty to say when I get back.

Next post wil be around 15th/16th May. Bye for now...

Monday, May 08, 2006


How wild d'you like your boar, Sir?

I've just booked a table at one of my favourite restaurants, Chez Léon, in the little village of Catteri in the Balagne area of north west Corsica. And unless I have a complete personality change between now and the weekend I will be ordering the wild boar.

It sounds quite a daunting dish, but in reality sanglier has a delicate flavour, an interesting texture - and it tastes nothing like pork. I expect it's the diet they eat scrubbing round in the maquis (perhaps the chestnuts) that makes it so different. The way I like it is cooked very slowly, as a casserole, with lots of herbs.

There are loads of these animals running about in Corsica's mountains, and I have never been aware of a shortage of them. Go round any country roads here and you see the heads and skins draped over farmers' fences, probably marking the site of a recent hunt. Pictures of hunts adorn the walls of many homes, bars and cafes, portraying the marksman smiling proudly next to the slaughtered beast. And I have seen them occasionally running wild in the scrub.

So how on earth did we Brits manage to drive them into extinction in our country in the Middle Ages? I would have thought that with the weapons used for the purpose now, Corsica would be in severe danger of running out of them too, but no, the supply seems to be replenished constantly by their amazing reproductive capacity.

Sunday, May 07, 2006


The scent of the maquis

I'm off to Corsica for a few days on Wednesday, and I can't wait to get back. And one of the things I am most looking forward to is the scent of the Corsican maquis when get out of the aeroplane for the first time.

It's odd how your nose gets used to it. It hits you with its unique fragrance when you first arrive, but after you have been on the island for a few hours your body grows accustomed to the subtle aroma and you barely notice it. The other strange thing is its homogeneity across the island and across the seasons. Despite the fact that it is made up of the scents of numerous different plants, it has its own character which seems to stay pretty much the same from March to October. Maybe a person with a more sensitive nose than mine can detect the ebb and flow of the individual elements of myrtle, wild lavender, thyme, fennel, and the others that make up the melange. I certainly can't.

The main thing for me is its welcome. When I draw that first breath of intoxicating yet delicate scent, I know I'm back. That's enough for me - however, if you want to learn more about the plants that create it, check out

Saturday, May 06, 2006


Changing patterns of Corsica's tourism

The people who run tell me that the habits of Britain's Corsica visitors appear to be changing. But whether this is a seasonal change or an internet-induced shift in behaviour of much larger proportions, I wouldn't hazard an opinion yet.

Up until the end of March, the bulk of people booking their annual holidays through the site chose to book a complete holiday through a tour operator such as Simply Corsica or Thomson. Since the sun came out here (our first watery sunshine of the year came through the cloud layer in Britain on 1st April) most of the visitors we know about booked flights and accommodation separately.

Web sites like this one can help people who fancy the DIY approach to do their own holidays, and it will save quite lot of money, but of course there are drawbacks. Cheap airfares are sometimes non-refundable, and there is no general safety net for individuals such as that provided by ABTA for tour operators and travel agents.

My guess is that the change in behaviour between the early months of the year and later in the spring is part general and part seasonal. And of course more people are now taking more than one holiday each year, and I reckon the holidays of the DIY variety tend to be booked at the last minute.

Thursday, May 04, 2006


Holiday shopping

Every now and again, you know, we do go to other places for our holidays. In 2002, we went to Jamaica. It was supposed to be the holiday of a lifetime, but half way through our time there we looked at each other over a rum punch and admitted that we'd rather be in Corsica.

I am determined to get to Istanbul one day soon. And last year, in late October, we had a few days in Florence before hopping on a boat and heading off towards our favourite island. While we were in Florence, I wanted to buy a smart outfit for my better half, but although we spent about a day and a half trudging the streets in the rain, we couldn't find anything (affordable!) that we both liked. Reluctantly, we gave up and concentrated our attentions on the fabulous churches and art galleries.

While we were in Corsica the following week, I suppose we had relaxed a little. Anyway, she did take a look at what Calvi's clothiers had to offer in ladies fashions one afternoon and, lo and behold, she found just the kind of outfit she was after.

My guess is that she felt better looking for clothes without me in tow (I was in a bar while this was going on, I think) but it does remind one that the Balagne has much more to offer than beaches, sunshine and culture. And churlish though it may be of me to say this, but the lower prices were welcome too!

Wednesday, May 03, 2006


Most beautiful airport in Europe?

Airports aren't usually thought of as things of great beauty, but St Catherine's Airport, Calvi is an exception. It is absolutely stunning.

The airport is just 5 km from the town centre, and is squeezed into a little valley with the sea at one end, and snow-clad mountains at the other. The main runway runs parallel to the Calenzana road to to the north and the route to Galeria and Porto in the south.

How the airport pays its way is anyone's guess - I'm just glad I'm not paying the bills. Sometimes there are just three or four flights a day and even in the summer there are often just a handful of people manning it. I often wonder what the people in the coffee bar, the paper shop and the carhire kiosks do all day between the flights.

Apart from the excitement of a parachute drop involving the Foreign Legion (See April 30th) and the occasional private plane, there really isn't much going on. However, the terminal building is spacious and modern, the service is quick and efficient and arriving here is a pleasure. Long may it continue.

Tuesday, May 02, 2006


Two memorable railways

I'm not a railway buff - which is probably the main reason why I never went on a Corsican train until I'd been coming to the island for more than a decade.

I use two of Corsica's railways on a regular basis these days, and I love them both for very different reasons. The first is the little beach railway that runs between Calvi and Ile Rousse in the Balagne (north west Corsica). In an island where there is no great emphasis on public transport, this little train opens up the whole of this 30 km stretch of coastline to the tourist and the local community alike, stopping for a minute at little sandy jewels like Arinella, Ste Restitude and Giorgio and also visiting the rather busier water sports mecca of Sant' Ambroggio before chugging slowly into Ile Rousse. This little railway offers the car-less visitor the real possibility of staying for a week as a pedestrian, yet being able to visit the whole coastline for very little outlay.

The second is the magnificent stretch of railway that runs between Bastia and Ajaccio, picking its way delicately between some of Corsica's highest peaks, and offering the visitor a succession of breathtaking views. I use this route when we have visitors - to show off the island's finest features to friends who come and see us. It has to be one of the most amazing railway journeys in Europe, up there with the Orient Express.

Don't expect speed or luxury! I've been delayed by three hours on the Ajaccio-Bastia route and I've been held up by breakdowns and horses on the line.

Monday, May 01, 2006


More about chestnuts

My wife has been doing some research into the history of chestnuts in Corsica for a project. In doing so, she has answered a question that has always intrigued me... The French have two words for a chestnut - "marron" and "chataigne": what is the difference?

It seems that a marron is a nut with no division - ie there is only one nut within the outer case. In the case of a chataigne, the nut is divided. Simple, eh? Er, no. Chestnut trees usually bear both divided nuts and undivided nuts on the same tree. So are these "marroniers" or "chataigniers"? It seems that if a tree has less than 12 per cent of its nuts of the divided variety, it's a marronier. If the proportion of divided nuts exceeds 12 per cent, then it's a chataignier!

The history of Corsica is inextricably bound up with the chestnut. Back in mediaeval times when the Genoese and Pisans were in charge of things, the island's inhabitants were encouraged to grow chestnut trees by threats of punishment if they didn't. Things were reversed in the early days of French rule, however, when the cultivation of chestnuts was forbidden by Royal decree: folk were told to try growing wheat and maize instead. It clearly wasn't a great success as a piece of legislation - the island is still full of chataigniers and marroniers.

How many of each, I'm afraid I haven't a clue.

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