Thursday, June 30, 2011


A confrontation

We were just east of Montemaggiore, nearing the end of our walk, when I heard a very loud rustle in the grass next to the wall just ahead. As I drew alongside, the rustle intensified and out of the undergrowth slithered a long and elegant snake perhaps a metre in length or slightly less.

The snakes I know from home in the UK tend to beat a hasty retreat when they see humans. This one was different. With me slightly in front of it and Chris behind, we were blocking its route across the path, and it reared up, hissing at us. Mainly black on top and a vivid yellow underneath, we reckon it was a whip snake, more accurately described by its French name colèreuse (“hot tempered”). We got the impression that it was less than pleased to find us in its way, and we backed off so that it could cross the path and disappear into a hole in the wall on the other side.

I am sorry that it moved too quickly for me to take its photo...

If we had been relying on the Lonely Planet’s guide to Corsica (2001 edition) we would have been very confused – and possibly scared. The Lonely Planet assures its readers: “Walkers will be happy to learn that there are no snakes in Corsica” – p 28. In fact, there are two – the grass snake and the whip snake, neither of which are poisonous. Why walkers should be pleased to learn of the absence of these fascinating reptiles, venomous or not, is beyond me, and this so-called “fact” about Corsica is just plain wrong.

The circular walk we were about to complete when we met the snake started at Montemaggiore, took in the beautifully simple but isolated Pisan church (pictured) near the hamlet of Lunhignanu, and touched the corner of the village of Casanu, where we were able to replenish our water supply on a very hot day.

This was perhaps the easiest of a new series of walks published by the Balagne Office of Tourism – just 4.5km according to the leaflet (though we thought it was more) and a vertical range of 220 metres. It took us over three hours including stops (the leaflet suggested a length of just 1hr 40 mins!); we found it pretty tough, but may tackle one or possibly two of the others on our next visit.

Saturday, June 25, 2011


Argentella – the concert

It was a pleasure to go to a concert in our beautiful local church at Lumio in the Balagne region (northwest Corsica) earlier this week. The concert – a selection of choral pieces – was given by a choral group calling itself Argentella.

This name is also the name of a tiny village between here and Galeria that used to house a mining community. I’m not sure why the group calls itself after a former silver mine (there certainly aren’t enough people living there to provide the 12 female and seven male vocalists of this group). If anyone knows, please let me know!

I was pleasantly surprised by the quality of the performance. The programme was a mish-mash of sacred, popular and traditional Corsican songs that seemed a bit of a roller coaster from where we were sitting, but quality will out, and it did. The audience was challenged to choose items from a sheet listing the group’s repertoire, and the enthusiastic audience (mostly, I suspect, friends and family of the group) kept the singers busy for an hour and a half with their requests.

There is a certain no-nonsense hardness about the tone of some female Corsican vocalists, and Chris and I both spotted its presence here. We love this sound. It is also present in Isulatine, Corsica’s increasingly popular all-woman vocal ensemble, and in others we have heard. I think that if we had heard a recording of Argentella (even if they had been singing Swing Low, Sweet Charioooooh as they did that night) we would have identified them as Corsicans...

We loved Argentella’s slightly dotty conductor and lead singer, and their even dottier percussionist (castanets, half-coconuts/horses’ hooves and drums) with her 10cm high heels.

Well done and good Luck for your future programme, Argentella!

Friday, June 24, 2011


Ospreys in Corsica!

Take a look at the very substantial nest in my picture. It is one of many such nests in Corsica’s famous Réserve Naturelle de Scandola on the island’s West Coast. It belongs to an osprey family – and is evidence that the local population of ospreys is thriving and well-established.

The osprey – also known as the sea-eagle or (in French) a balbuzard, lives near large bodies of water such as coasts and lakes, and it likes nesting on vertiginous, high pinnacles of rock making the nest almost completely inaccessible to possible predators. I would say that the osprey, with its 5ft wingspan is pretty near the top of the food chain here in Corsica and does not have much to fear from anyone.

Here in Scandola the bird is doubly protected. As well as having plenty of rocky pinnacles, the Parc protects this magnificent bird from us humans. You can’t climb here, you can’t snorkel here except in certain well-defined spots, and you can only walk here on carefully delineated paths.

And the osprey population is thriving. From a low of eight pairs a few years ago, the numbers have risen and risen. On our visit to Scandola recently we saw a number of individuals and at least four nests. We saw quite a few of the birds themselves – and I note, from careful enlargement of a photo I took of some cliffs, that I have managed to take an extra picture of a distant osprey I didn’t even realise was there when I took the photo.

I read in Corse Matin last week that from its stronghold in Corsica, the osprey has begun to re-colonise northern Italy – a territory from which it has been absent for some decades. All it has needed has been a bit of support, and Scandola seems to have given the species exactly that.


Death of a leviathan

Last week we witnessed one of the saddest sights I have ever seen in Corsica – a dead whale being winched out of the harbour in Propriano.

The huge finback whale (the second largest whale species after the blue whale) was clearly a youngster, being a mere 12m in length and weighing just 16 tonnes. It was first spotted by an aeroplane near Bonifacio, and it later ran aground on the rocks of Murtoli, a snooty private beach in the south west.

No one yet knows how or why it died.

While we were having our dinner at the Restaurant Romano in the Port of Propriano, we became aware of people and cars flocking into the port. Then a very large mobile crane arrived and we saw a tug towing a large load across the bay towards the port. At first I thought it was an upturned boat.

But of course it was nothing of the kind. In between courses we popped across the road to see what was going on. The first attempt managed to get the carcass half out of the water, but the folk in charge of the operation decided to drop it back into the water and I guess that’s where it stayed overnight. The sight (and frankly, the smell) didn’t do much for the digestive process as we finished our meals.

I gather that the body has now been sent elsewhere for dissection to try and establish how and why this enormous creature died.

Friday, June 17, 2011


The Gulf of Valinco

I had forgotten just what a beautiful place the Gulf of Valinco was. We are here for just two days on this occasion.

The first time we came here was 25 years ago, when we stayed here with our three boys, then in their teens and preteens. Propriano (or if you prefer it in Corsican, Prupria or Prupia) seems to look a little scruffy, as it did then, but things have changed – not all for the worse.

The Hotel Valinco, once the best place in town, has gone. Its skeleton still commands the shoreline at the entrance to the town to the northwest, but the windows have gone and the bedrooms we stayed in a few years ago are empty shells. I’m guessing that the site will be cleared for redevelopment within months. The Post Office has been blown up by Corsican separatists a few times – not sure why, exactly – maybe they’ll do the town a favour and complete the job by demolishing the Valinco.

The beaches are still lovely – especially the Plage de Valinco (pictured) which you can access via the noisy cafe at its centre. And the town gets more than its fair share of boat traffic. While we were here we saw the enormous cruise ship Island Escape and a car ferry leaving its tiny harbour.

There are some excellent (and by Corsican standards far from exorbitant) restaurants in town. We stayed at the Hotel Ibiscus which offers comfortable rooms at good prices with wonderful views across the bay. The picture here really is the view from our balcony.

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