Wednesday, July 06, 2011


Mission impossible

For my sins, I get lots of people writing to me asking about various things Corsican. One of the most frequent requests comes from artists seeking somewhere geographically different to ply their trade.

The idea is to set up shop in a quaint Corsican village, throw energy into painting, pottery, photography, sculpture, literature or whatever, maybe sinking life savings into building a perfect studio. Surrounded by such a wonderful environment, their creations will be amazing and the locals will of course flock to buy them... or will they?

And I usually send the same reply. Corsica has about 300,000 permanent residents, with the population rising to over a million in the summer when tourists arrive. The island has more than its fair share of artists - and most villages have at least one painter, sculptor, photographer, musician or writer to embellish the place’s cultural credentials. Most of these rely on the tourist trade.

Now imagine that you are (heaven forbid!) a wealthy tourist, and you are in Corsica on holiday, seeking to commemorate your visit by buying a piece of art. Would you, in all honesty, buy this from an American, a Brit or a German? No, of course you wouldn’t! You’d buy it from a Corsican.

From what I can determine, the Corsican people, the majority of whom until surprisingly recently operated on a subsistence economy, are not great buyers of art from sources other than their own homeland. So how big a market is there in Corsica for foreign art? I suspect it is rather limited. And every Corsican would have to buy around six foreign artworks per month to sustain the artists who would like to come here. It’s not going to happen.

There’s no local market for foreign art here and there’s not much hope of selling it to tourists. So I tell them it’s probably best to stay where they are. By all means come for a short stay and be inspired by the island’s stunning beauty (and please spend a few euros here – the island could do with them) but unless you are supremely talented, the idea just isn’t sustainable.

Mind you, if my correspondent has plumbing skills, has a qualification as an electrician, or cares to set up as a handyman, my response will be different. It’s hard getting jobs done here. But then they’d have to negotiate France’s strangely complex rules for setting up a business and learn how to pay their taxes...

The relevance of the picture? I dunno, I just felt like including a pretty picture of Scandola that I took last month. Click and enjoy!

Sunday, July 03, 2011


The dreaded high-Vs...

Being in the northwest corner of Corsica as we are, we have a choice of routes when we decide to go to the south of the island. We can go by the beautiful but extremely twisty west coast road, the straight, fast and flat east coast road, or we can go through the middle.

Going through the middle means going via Venaco, Vivario and Vizzavona – the dreaded high Vs!

That’s what we decided to do on our recent trip to Propriano. From Calvi, we went northwest to L’Ile Rousse and Ponte Leccia, turning right at Ponte Leccia towards Corte. If your engine survives so far – so good.

From Corte onwards the fun really starts. The road rises steeply to Venaco and after many twists and turns, you reach Vivario. You wouldn’t think there’d be a higher pass on the island, but you reach one shortly afterwards! Sandwiched between the Monte d’Oro (2,389m high) and Punta di l’Oriente (2,112m high) is the Col de Vizzavona. We stopped briefly for lunch at the top there to see huge tree trunks being carted south to serve the needs of Corsica’s forestry industry (see picture) and myriads of tiny blue butterflies (see close-up) on the high grassland there.

From there the road drops down to Bocognano and Corsica’s equivalent of a capital City, Ajaccio. Utterly spectacular scenery all round as you pass through.

Having successfully negotiated the three Vs and a busy Ajaccio by-pass, I think we got lulled into a false sense of security. On the way out of Ajaccio we got as far as the Col de St Georges when our engine’s cooling system announced that it had had enough for the time being. An enforced 15-minute wait for it to cool down outside the local Gendarmerie, and turning off our air-con was enough to see us safely to our destination.

Coming back, we chickened out of high-V territory in deference to our Peugeot’s overworked radiator and reacquainted ourselves with the east coast. Nice place, Ghisonnaccia – shame about the poor service in the Salon de Thé there.

Saturday, July 02, 2011


Holiday reading

We are on our way home at last.

We’ve been in Corsica for a month, and apart from reading Corse Matin most days, we took a few English books with us to read while we were here.

Our reading ranged from Judith Herrin’s Byzantium and Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall to the biographies of Michael Foot and Keith Richards. Amongst this eclectic mixture you’ll also find Phillippa Gregory’s The Red Queen, Bernard Cornwell’s The Fort and Ian Rankin’s valedictory Rebus novel Exit Music.

There aren’t any references to Corsica in any of these books, but it’s interesting to consider what was happening in Corsica when the action in each of these volumes took place.

Justinian’s Byzantine army probably visited Corsica in the mid sixth century, led by Constantinople’s most successful general, Belisarius. In the year that Constantinople fell to the Ottoman Empire, 1453, Corsica was placed (by the island’s Genoese overlords) in the hands of a financial institution, the bank of St George – a body responsible for building many of the so-called “Genoese Towers” that are still such a feature of the island’s skyline today. Coincidentally, The Red Queen, the story of Margaret Beaufort, heiress to the House of Lancaster, also starts in 1453.

By 1500, when Hilary Mantell’s Booker-winning tome Wolf Hall opens, Corsica is back firmly in Genoese hands. Over two centuries later(1779), when the forces of England’s George III were successfully defending a corner of Massachusetts against an incompetent American attack (Bernard Cornwell’s brilliant The Fort), Corsica’s hero Pascal Paoli was kicking his heels in London, hoping to get back to his native land, which he did in 1795.

Going forward another 150 years, Corsica was liberated by the Allies from the Axis powers in 1943, the year in which Keith Richards was born, and former Labour Party Leader Michael Foot was working as a journalist for London’s Evening Standard. And by 2002, when we decided to buy our little flat in Corsica, Michael Foot was (perhaps thankfully) no longer Party Leader – a time when I suspect Ian Rankin’s hero John Rebus was already beginning to think, with dread, about retirement.

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