Thursday, July 27, 2006


More blatant conjecture - this time about fish

Someone once wrote that because Corsicans are a mountain people, they tend to eat a mountain diet and leave fish for the tourists. I'm beginning to wonder if there isn't a grain or two of truth in this, on the evidence of thousands of snorkellers and divers.

I was a very keen SCUBA diver when I was younger and have continued snorkelling even now I'm getting a bit decrepit. But one of my earliest memories of snorkelling in the Mediterranean in places such as Spain and Sicily was one of disappointment at how few fish there were to be seen through my face mask. If anything, there are even fewer now. However, whenever I get my mask and snorkel out in Corsica, I always seem to find myself surrounded by wonderful fish within seconds of getting in the water. Compared to the underwater barren wastelands of some over-fished Greek islands, snorkelling here is a delight.

For reasons I don't fully understand, Corsica has quite a short tourist season. So if my original premise is true, I guess most of the fresh fish gets consumed in July and August - and most of the ones that escape the nets stick around in their beautiful habitat for the rest of the year to breed - to surprise and delight snorkellers like me.

Monday, July 24, 2006


Corsica's fire-fighters - 21st century heroes

The French newspaper Liberation today recorded a fire in the maquis near Calenzana in the Balagne region of north west Corsica over the weekend. While the fire service was tackling the blaze, it appears that there was a sudden change of wind direction and several firemen were trapped.

As a result, six of the fire-fighters sustained severe burns and remain in hospital - one with 65 per cent burns.

Fires in the Corsican summer's tinder-dry maquis are by no means uncommon in this island and the authorities have developed a number of ways of dealing with them. Beach visitors will have seen big sea-planes dipping into the sea, then taking off without stopping and dropping thousands of gallons of sea-water onto the source of the flames. Last winter, the fire service in Haute Corse invested in a number of hi-tech helicopters which will give them another weapon in dealing with the threats they pose. More subtle weapons include a public education programme, advising people against carelessness, and a zero-tolerance attitude towards arsonists.

But the main weapon they use is a force of dedicated, highly trained fire-fighters, rightly regarded as heroes in Corsica. It's dangerous work, and on Saturday some of these heroes were severely hurt in the course of doing their duty. We all owe them a debt of gratitude for the work they do.

Friday, July 21, 2006


Cap Corse will never make financial sense

There's something I love about peninsulas. And you don't get much more peninsularic than Cap Corse - the slender strip of land that extends Corsica's contemptuous finger towards mainland Europe.

The first time we went to the Cap, we went round clockwise - the way you're supposed to go to avoid the big drops to the sea on your left. We saw Nonza on the West coast with its grey beach, and Canari, still fighting the ravages of decades of asbestos mining in the law courts. We dashed through pretty villages and stayed in some nice chambres d'hote, markedly cheaper than some of the places further south.

Last month we went again. This time we went for a celebration - a small, select gathering in Sisco - a few miles north of Bastia - to welcome a delegation of Puerto Ricans returning to their country of origin - and discovered why they wanted so much to return. This time we went the other way round, seeing the place from a different perspective. This time we walked a few miles of the coastal path, the sentier des douaniers. The rugged, weed strewn beaches are magical tangles of blue holly and driftwood and - returning a slightly different way - we pushed our way past ancient chapels, through bushes of wild myrtle and arbousiers, enjoying some of the most spectacular scenery on the island.

One of the people we met in the evening is descended from an ancient Corsican family, and runs a guest house in a fabulous, hundred year old mansion, built with Puerto Rican money, surrounded by lawns and olive groves. I fear he'll never become as rich as his ancestors: this part of Corsica is a little isolated. It's for walkers, dreamers and lovers of wild places. But if there's a bit of one of these in you, do push on north past Bastia and Saint Florent... it will be well worth it.

Tuesday, July 18, 2006


Nightmare drive on the West Coast Road

Perversely, I have always quite liked the winding, cliff-hugging road along Corsica's west coast between Calvi and Porto. But in recent weeks this challenging driving experience, with its breathtaking views, has turned into a nightmare.

As a Brit I am used to moaning about roadworks, but the road widening taking place along this stretch is unlike anything I have ever experienced. To say these road works are extensive is an understatement - they are about 15km long! To say your car gets dusty is even more of an understatement: I emerged in Porto after this drive last month with a car that looked as though it had just been driven through the Sahara. The surface of the road in this stretch is completely unmade-up, and huge earth-moving vehicles are moving around the site in places, their drivers completely oblivious of other road users, who are forced to dodge them. It's frankly rather scary, and if you are a timid driver you'd better avoid it.

I am marginally in favour of the road widening, but I have my doubts. What happens when the road works reach the Calanques de Piana further south? It would be necessary to remove a sizeable section of cliff face to drive a wider road through here - not such good news. And as a writer to Corsica Lista ( says today, it would encourage much more traffic to use this unspoilt stretch of coastline.

Monday, July 17, 2006


Isulatine at the Oratoire in Calvi

It was 6 o’clock in the evening’s late sunshine on 16th June and we were sitting in the ancient Oratoire de Ste Antoine in Calvi awaiting the performers.

Someone had opened the windows behind the table that was previously an altar in this deconsecrated medieval chapel, and through them we could see the last few patches of snow on the mountains of the interior, and an empty sandy beach in the foreground below it. It was worth going to the concert just to sit there and look.

Isulatine are unusual. Most traditional Corsican polyphony groups are male, and Isulatine is composed of three (or, as on this occasion, four) women, but that’s not what makes them out of the ordinary. Their voices have a particularly haunting quality and they are as likely to sing a Georgian folk song or a song about cotton picking in the southern USA as they are to sing traditional Corsican music.

I’m guessing they got onto the programme of the Calvi Jazz Festival on a whim of the organisers or the casting vote of the chairman – but this member of the audience was truly grateful for this wonderful free concert. Their CD, Sogne di Aprile, is now on sale.

Tuesday, July 04, 2006


Pietra celebrates its 10th anniversary

22nd June was a rather special day for Dominique and Armelle Sialelli – it was the 10th anniversary of the birth of their (and Corsica’s) most famous beer, Pietra.

In 1996, launching a brown beer must have seemed like suicide. At that time, everyone in Europe (even most Brits) were drinking lager. And Pietra isn’t just brown – it’s got attitude as well. It contains Corsican chestnut flour alongside the hops, and its ABV is an eye-watering 6 per cent, a solid one per cent stronger than most European premium beers.

It tastes absolutely delicious… but I got to know it the long way round. When I first discovered Corsican beers I was seduced by Pietra’s sister beer Colomba – named, I now gather, after the heroine in the Merimée novel of the same name. Slightly less strong that Pietra, Colomba is cloudy and has the appearance of a German wheat beer, but there the similarity ends. Its taste is as close as you can get to the scent of the maquis, and for me it was love at first sip. And there’s another, more conventional looking, every-day beer, from the same stable, called Serena.

These days, I’ve learnt to know and respect Pietra and my only advice is this – it’s no “session beer” as the brewing industry used to call their best selling lagers. I have learnt to look at it from the point of view of a beer drinker rather than a Corsophile. It deserves attention and respect, for its wonderful flavour and strength as well as its origin and pedigree.

Now, I understand that you can buy Pietra and Colomba in the UK through I think I might order some. However, one mystery remains. In the 10th anniversary picture in 22nd June’s Corse Matin, a picture shows the happy proprietors toasting each other with a Serena glass containing what looks like Pietra, and a Pietra glass containing a draught of what looks suspiciously like Serena. Come on Dan Brown, what does this signify?

Sunday, July 02, 2006


OK, let's face it I'm sexist

Two years ago we went to Lumio for a holiday during the Calvi Polyphony Festival and planned to take in at least two or three of the concerts.

Not being entirely familiar with all the groups taking part in those days, we found ourselves discussing whether to go to a performance by a group called Barbara Furtuna, or another called Isulatine. You’ll all be horrified to hear that we decided not to go to the Barbara Furtuna concert because it sounded like an all-woman group and we wanted the genuine article which was of course an all-male group of three or four men with scowls and gravelly voices.

Imagine our surprise when we went to the Isulatine concert only to find that the group was composed of three women – one with a voice every bit as gravelly as any male’s. As readers of this blog will know, the group became one of our favourites; we have yet to hear Barbara Furtuna – but I understand it is comprised of men.

I guess we should go to see them some time!

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