Tuesday, October 20, 2009


Corsica's Indian Summer of 2009

As I write this on 6th October, Corsica’s Indian summer is still in full swing. Today, we walked from Ostriconi Village, in the Balagne’s northern corner, across Ostriconi’s fabulous beach, and along the northern edge of the desert des Agreates in the direction of St Florent. Of course we didn’t get that far – it’s a two or three day hike and we were just out for a day’s stroll.

And apart from anything else it was too hot. We got as far as a windy bluff above a tiny cove with crystal clear water occupied by two canoeists in a canoe biplace. I’m not sure what the place was called. We were grateful for the little patches of shade that we encountered on the way back, thanks to a few clumps of trees, but by the time we got back to Ostriconi, we were hot and sweaty. We practically tore off our boots and clothes as we got to the beach and plunged into the autumn-cool Mediterranean. What a joy!

Before the big autumn winds come, the beaches in the Balagne look a bit like a dance floor after all but one or two of the dancers have left. Even sparsely-populated Ostriconi looks a little tired at the end of the season, with thousands of footprints, the remains of children’s sandcastles and constructions made of driftwood along its considerable length.

I like the autumn winds here. They strip this beach clean of all evidence of human passage, leaving it clean and dazzling – just a belt of perfect white sand between the blue breakers of the Northern Mediterranean and the darker waters of the lagoon behind with its precious ecosystem.


Archery in the Balagne

I have known for some time that archery is bigger news in Corsica than it is in Britain. Unfortunately, my sport gets virtually no coverage in the UK media except in items about the Olympic Games when “our boys and girls” suddenly become medal hopes.

Imagine my delight therefore, when a group of archers, competing in the Balagne, made it to the front page of Corse Matin last week. These archers were competing in a form of the sport in which I have yet to take part – namely field archery, in which groups of archers tramp through the countryside and then take pot-shots at targets across river beds, nestling amongst bushes and in other places where you would least expect them. Twenty archers from all over the island were taking part, and I was pleased to see that the hosts of the event were the local archery club here in Calvi.

At the end of the article were the details of their work-a-day evening meetings, and I decided to go along and take part. Somewhat presumptuously, I had taken my bow with me this visit, and so I was all prepared for the evening.

Much to my surprise, on arriving the Halle des Sports at Calvi, I found just three other adults and a dozen or so lads between the ages of nine and twelve, all eager to learn the sport. The hall was hot and humid – not the best conditions for our sport, and I was not at my best, but it’s always good to talk to other archers whatever their ages.

It was good to get my arms, shoulders and brain working again, and I was given a very warm welcome by the Club’s Président, Monsieur Derond. I have been assured that I will receive an equally warm welcome on future visits, and I greatly look forward to taking further part in the club’s activities.

Monday, October 19, 2009


Using agricultural roof-space in high-tech Corsica

I have just been reading about one of the best and greenest ideas I’ve ever come across, in today’s (5th October) Corse Matin.

The Chamber of Agriculture of Haute Corse is promoting this energy saving suggestion to local farmers and it works like this…

The farmers of northern Corsica have hectare upon hectare of land occupied by agricultural buildings, and the Government is proposing that some of the resulting roofing is populated with photovoltaic cells. Forget crude solar-powered water pumps - these cells have the capacity of turning the sun’s energy directly into electricity, and instead of being used inefficiently on site, it is fed back into France’s electricity grid. The farmer receives about 43 cents per kilowatt hour generated.

This is a pretty new idea and I haven’t done the sums on how much cash this is likely to bring in for a typical farmer, or indeed how much of Corsica’s energy will be able to be generated in this way.

Although I’ve nothing in principle against nuclear energy, I feel that at present too much of France’s energy needs are met by nuclear power stations (though much of Corsica’s electricity comes from hydro-electric power). All said and done, this photo-voltaic scheme seems like a fundamentally good idea.

Sunday, October 18, 2009


The Foreign Legion on parade

It’s the first Sunday after St Michael’s day and this is the day that the 2nd Parachute Regiment of France’s Foreign Legion opens the doors of its headquarters at Camp Raffalli to the people of the Balagne in northwest Corsica.

Lying on the beach at Arinella yesterday, we had seen stick after stick of parachutists dropping out of the bellies of large grey aeroplanes and landing in neat rows on the ground. But today it was about military bands, regimental songs and honouring the regiment’s current and past heroes.

We were a little late for the prise d’armes du camp and the main road outside Camp Raffalli was crowded with parked cars. Fortunately, our lateness meant we were able to take up a position outside the Salle d’Honneur within the camp and got a perfect view of the proceedings.

The ceremony didn’t disappoint. As usual with this regiment, there was not a gesture, a note, a garment or a leaf out of place. Even the gravel had been combed into neat lines for the occasion! The most moving part, for me, was right at the start when a group of former legionnaires, in plain clothes but wearing their berets, marched to their place of honour singing their regimental song. In the moment of silence after they had passed, nothing could be heard but the screech of a red kite in the skies overhead.

During the ceremony, one of our neighbours living here in Lumio was given a special honour: Lucien Thomas, a former legionnaire who spent many years in Africa and elsewhere, was elevated to the position of Officer of the Légion d’Honneur. Hearty congratulations, Monsieur Thomas.

Saturday, October 17, 2009


Sagone and Vico

These two villages in Corsica’s rugged west have little in common these days but are bound together both in their proximity and in their history.

Sagone is a sprawling, somehow tired-looking ribbon of habitation and tourist development that spreads along the road linking Cargese to the island’s capital of Ajaccio. It boasts several wonderful beaches, a number of good restaurants and the ruins of a medieval cathedral (not much of it left - see photo above, right. When we went there in early October, half the hotels and restaurants were shut, but we enjoyed great views from our hotel balcony, the weather was great and the sea was warm. We loved it there.

Vico, tucked away in the mountainous interior a few kilometres inland and several hundreds of metres higher up, is a different proposition altogether. Reputedly one of the most nationalist villages on the island, Vico was the recipient of vicious brutality by the Genoese some centuries ago, when 23 men were killed as a punishment to the village for daring to rebel. We had a friendly reception there nevertheless – Vico’s village square and narrow streets boast a number of sunny cafes where, as Corsica’s tourist season came to a close, we were able to purchase lunch (provided it was croquet monsieur and salad – seems all the other items on the menu were off). There are astonishing views of the surrounding mountains from nearly everywhere in the village – especially from the steps of Vico’s thriving church.

Sagone’s medieval bishops decided to abandon their cathedral in Sagone when Saracen invaders (and, I suspect, that other invader, the mosquito) made life too difficult, and they decamped to Vico where they looked after the spiritual needs of the people in the surrounding area for some 200 years.


Corsica’s Cathars

Not so long ago I made a reference to a medieval Christian group called the Cathars, in an item about the theft of various of our belongings from our car whilst staying in Carcassonne in southern France. Today I came across a grisly but somehow believable story about a group of Corsican Christians who dared to challenge the Roman Catholic Church and who also paid with their lives – the Giovannali.

In Corsica’s mountainous interior, not far from the village of Vivario, there is a mountain 1260m in height which is intriguingly called the Christe Eleison, a liturgical phrase familiar to all who have attended Mass in a Roman Catholic church.

In the last years of the 14th Century, many years after the last Cathars had gone to their doom on the mainland, it seems there was a breakaway group of Christians in Corsica who, like the Cathars before them, favoured a rough and community-based lifestyle (I’m afraid I know nothing of their theology). Like the Cathars, they were excommunicated and sentenced to be burnt at the stake, and tradition in the region has it that as they were being led to their fate they released two doves, chanting the words “Kyrie Eleison, Christe Eleison…”.

Unlike many of the other fabulous tales in this blog, I didn’t think this story up myself. Indeed, I am indebted to Charles Pujos, the author, and Libris, the publishers of Haute-Corse – 100 Balades et Randonnées who offer a five-hour saunter on the slopes of the Christe Eleison as one of the walks they recommend. Sounds a bit tough to me.

Thursday, October 15, 2009


Of nepotism, hats and Bonapartism

We have just been to the exhibition Napoléon et Corsica held at the Musée de la Corse in Corte (20th June to 30th December 2009). Not knowing what to expect, and being born in an era when the man was a historical figure rather than a hero or a focus of hate, I reckon I went there with a pretty open mind.

Two things struck me going round the exhibition – one of them of a serious nature, the other undoubtedly trivial…

Let’s get the serious one out of the way first. One hears that Napoléon, having left Corsica for the mainland in pursuit of a bigger picture than he could view from his birthplace in Ajaccio, more or less abandoned the island of his birth and swept Corsica from his mind once his more lofty ambitions began to be realised.

I learnt from the exhibition, however, that he brought a little of Corsica with him on his campaigns: not only did he favour his Corsican friends with generalships and positions of authority in his regime, but he also bestowed kingdoms on his immediate family. His empire included several kingdoms: brother Joseph became the King of Naples (and later, for a while, the king of Spain); sister Elisa became Grand-Duchess of Tuscany and Napoléon’s problem brother Louis was briefly placed on the throne of Holland. Jerome, also under his elder brother’s orders, was made king of Westphalia and an Uncle was promoted to the positions of Archbishop and Cardinal of Lyon. One of eight siblings, it seems that Emperor Napoléon had almost as much trouble managing the demands of his family as dealing with an increasingly restless Europe.

On a more trivial note I was intrigued to find out more about his famous hat. Whereas generals of the time wore similar hats, theirs were more ornate… Napoléon’s was stark in its simplicity. It seems he wore it all the time. But I use the pronoun loosely, for no fewer than 170 were made for him, all exactly the same.

All this seems excessive to me. Mind you, I forgot my own hat when I came to Corsica this autumn, and I was forced to buy another. That one was too small and didn’t fit too well so I bought another yesterday. Perhaps I’ve contracted a form of Bonapartism, which, according to the exhibition, was present in Ajaccio at least as late as 2001. Maybe it’s still alive and well here in Lumio.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009


Corsica’s insect life

Many people visiting Corsica only experience the local insect population via the fangs of the local mosquitoes, though these interactions are mercifully less than in days gone by thanks to intensive treatment of the island with DDT during World War II.

Mosquitoes drove the Genoese out of their fortress at Porto Vecchio, and had been responsible for the forcible relocation of two bishoprics on the east coast some centuries earlier. Fortunately, it’s possible to take a more detached view of Corsica’s insects these days.

As we left to go on our walk in the Desert des Agriates the other day (where incidentally we saw masses of butterflies), I noticed a large, green praying mantis on the wall of our apartment building. He wasn’t bothering anyone, just stuck there on the wall, all three inches of him, waving his forelegs around.

We see a lot of local wildlife on that wall. Last June, we had a bit of a gathering of crickets in Lumio and again, they seemed to take a liking to our warm wall in the evening and early morning. One of them was so large (see above - at least as long as our friend the praying mantis) that we rushed to wikipedia to see if it was a locust. Unlikely, it would appear, as there weren’t enough of him.

I have yet to see either of Corsica’s rather more scary insect residents – the Corsican Black Widow spider and the local variety of scorpion. If I do, you’ll be the first to hear about the encounter. In the meantime, why doesn’t someone write a book about Corsica’s insects? They are varied, interesting and (in some cases) surprisingly large. I’d buy such a book even if it were only in French.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009


Tourists flock to Corsica in 2009

Economic crisis? What economic crisis? Without wishing to sound un peu smug, I feel obliged to point out that a prediction I made last year (Oct 8th 2008) has come true. It seems that Corsica has enjoyed a record season for tourism despite the world’s unfavourable economic circumstances.

By the time the 2009 season ends, some 2,690,000 people will have taken their holidays on my favourite island – representing an amazing 28 million “people-nights”. According to projections made recently by the Agence de Tourisme de la Corse, 2009 will enjoy a 5% increase on the excellent tourist figures recorded in 2008 (source: Corse Matin – 22nd September 2009).

Although I enjoy Corsica’s empty beaches like the rest of you, I rejoice in the economic success that these figures represent, for all kinds of reasons. The forecasters reckon that by the time that Corsica’s October sighs exhaustedly to a close, some 1.3 billion euros will have been spent. Contrast that with the 1 billion euros spent here in the same period last year, and that’s a real shot in the arm for the local economy. Many of these euros will eventually roll down into the pockets of local people – and that’s got to be good news for everyone who loves Corsica.

And for my next prediction? It’s that Corsican wine will become a good deal more popular internationally than it is now. With competition from California, Australia and others, the French wine industry will need to look for local heroes, and where better to look than the artisan wine producers of Ajaccio, Calvi and Patrimonio with their unfamiliar cépages and unique, hot microclimates?

And that, by the way, would make Corsica slightly less dependent on tourism for its economic welfare. Watch this space.


A wet walk in the desert

Today we decided to revisit a walk we have done once before, along the edge of the Desert des Agriates where the rocks of this “desert” tumble down into the Gulf of St Florent. The last time we did the walk we started out too late in the day – the Tour de Mortella had proved just too far and we had been forced to turn back with the tower visually close but tantalisingly out of reach.

After a worryingly bumpy ride along an unmade road – the recent heavy rains have gouged huge ruts in its surface – we finally parked our car in the car park at the head of the Anse de Fornali. Refreshed by coffee from our flask and armed with swimming gear, our lunch and plenty of water, we were off.

The walk, part of the Sentier de Douaniers, dives into dense woodland, then immediately breaks out into a flat and accessible mud and rock path that winds along the coast north east, away from St Florent in the direction of Ostriconi. For once, the Mediterranean sun was hiding behind a veil of thin cloud and we were grateful for it. To say the walk zig-zags would be an understatement. One minute you are close to a jutting promontory where cormorants stand rock-still waiting for their prey; a hundred metres later you are tramping along a weed-strewn shingle beach, heading for the next scrambling ascent.

Two rivers crossed our path and needed to be crossed by us. The first, the Fiume de Boghiu, has a sandy bar across its mouth and we were able to cross it with few problems. The second, larger river, the Fiume Santu, is another proposition altogether. Here the sand bar is set back from the coast and you have to wade thigh deep in the sea to get to it. And at the northern end of the bar we found another problem – the river, swollen with recent rain, had cut a deeper than usual gouge in the bar and made wading impossible.

It was time for our swimming gear. With all our belongings in our ruck-sacks, we braved the sea, walking in an arc round the mouth of the river. At the furthest point we were forced to put our bags on our heads as the water rose to our chests. We were grateful to feel the level dropping again as we approached the other side.

Another hour’s walking brought us to the imposing Tour de Mortella. Just half of it, the north-facing half, remains. Originally part of Genoa’s coastal defence system, the tower is now incredibly remote, with only the seagulls, foolhardy walkers and the Mortella lighthouse for company.

Then of course, we had to walk back.

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