Troy Hightower

The Wild Heart of Corsica

Like the bristled boars that roam the steep wooded hillsides of its valleys, the wild heart of Corsica beats at its center. The gorgeous perimeter of Corsica—white beaches, cleft harbors and dramatic rocky coastline attracts many holiday goers in season and is largely part of the modern world of travel and life—luxe hotels, water sports, shopping, nice restaurants, satellite TV and internet connections, and crowds.
But in Corsica’s deep interior valleys, with small, fairly isolated stone villages perched on steep hillsides, much of life is as it was in the past. A church, grey granite houses, a bar or café, possibly a restaurant and small simple hotel, a little combination store/fruit merchant, maybe a boulangerie or butcher. No gift shops, Internet cafes, art galleries or fancy anything.

Locals sitting in the bar or café sipping a glass of wine, or a coffee—shepherds, hunters, farmers or dairymen in blue overalls or hunter’s garb; people who live out their lives there, with an intense focus on family, pride and honor; simple local foods on the menus; small shops with local crafts and fare; mostly no phones or television in the hotel rooms.

What inland Corsica offers is calm, reality and stunning natural beauty. No doubt that its varied coastline—from the pale horizontally striated limestone cliffs of Bonifacio at the southern tip, to the Genoese tower-studded finger-headland of Cap Corse around to the pink-ochre porphyry fretwork of the Calanches de Piana in the west is uniformly gorgeous. But the island’s core presents the most astonishing collection of stunning natural beauty imaginable, aggregated together on a fairly small island. Take a good bit of Yosemite and the Grand Tetons, aspects of the Grand Canyon, a multiple of the Pinnacles in California or the Dentelles de Montelimar in Provence, a swath of Vermont in the fall, chunks of the sub-alpine slopes of the Scottish or Welsh highlands, blend in some Provencal maquis, a few 100+ year old olive orchards, and a smatter of Alpine Switzerland—and there you have Corsica’s heart.

It’s an itinerary for those not in a hurry, and not faint of heart—and also comfortable driving twisting, often impossibly narrow, sometimes cliff-perched roads. A few days is needed to wander and soak in the wonders at a leisurely and unhurried fashion. From the Airport at Ajaccio, the capital, the main road curves southwest into the foothills, through the perched granite town of Petreto-Bicchisano, with a charming 16th c. Franciscan convent, where a short side-road leads to the prehistoric site of Filitosa. Peopled since the 6th C BC, the site sits in a shallow natural bowl, and comprises a house-sized rocky outcrop with natural caves and rooms. Neolithic sculptors, circa 3000 BC, carved 6-10 foot stone menhirs—stella-like granite posts with depictions of faces, swords and armor—some think man’s first attempt to reproduce his own likeness.

Purportedly Picasso was inspired by these menhirs, and one or two do bear a similarity to some of his drawings. Filitosa is quiet, calm and does have a sort of mystical feeling. A grove of thousand-year old olives intersperses and shades the stones and rocky outcrops, and tiny pale pink wild cyclamen are scattered throughout.

The way south brings us to the Port of Propriano, a typical sea-pleasure town. While not much of an attraction as a town, a terrific lunch of grilled fresh fish—St Pierre, rouget, chapon, possibly sea-bream can be had at U Pescadoru on the esplanade. Thence to Sartene to commence the climb into the mountains and rock wonderland of the Alta Rocca region. Prosper Merimee, in his chronicles of Corsica called Sartene “the most Corsican Corsican town” by which he meant that if family, honor, revenge and blood feuds are Corsican mainstays, then Sartene outshone the rest of the island in those qualities.

Several villages, charming in their simplicity and naturalness dot the Alta Rocca region—Levie, Aullene, Quenza and Zonza among them. In this mountainous region the hills are forested in oaks and chestnuts, with maritime and laricio pines above about 800 feet. Much of this area is Parc Naturel Regional, and the spectacular highlight of all the beautiful vistas is the Aiguilles (needles) de Bavella, stradding the Bavella pass, which grants a vista of both oceans. Called the “Corsican Dolomites” the Aiguilles are an enormous swath of twisted, spiky grey-gold porphyry fingers and spires, marching up to the top and over the pass to spill downward toward the eastern coast. We had been entrusted with a duty by a close friend—her father, deceased a year ago, had flown P-51 Mustangs out of Corsica in World War II, and she had asked if we would scatter a portion of his ashes on the island. These magnificent gnarled rock outcrops high over the island seemed an appropriate place—he must have buzzed them at least once—and the powdery remains were duly sent into the breeze rising from the rocky chasm.

The town of Zonza is the center for visitation and hiking in the region, and we arrive late in the afternoon, in time to do a bit of a reconnoiter. There is an imposing grey granite church, two or three inns, a couple of restaurants, and a rather ancient provision shop which seems to be the social center of town. A gnarled and stooped elderly lady keeps the shop, serving up slices and pieces of prizuttu, a parma-like ham, lonza, smoked pork loin, figatelli sausages, Brocciu and Venacu sheep and goat cheeses, and preserves of local figs, sour cherries and chestnuts.

Hotel l’Aiglon (the eagle) has been in the same family for more than a century, and provides a miniscule, simple guest room but a delicious dinner set in dark oak-paneled dining room/bar, strewn with old photos and family mementos. Three generations are present—grand mere overseeing and orchestrating, granddaughter hustling to serve the nearly full house, and mama in the kitchen single-handedly whipping up the rich, black prune-laced civet de sanglier and meltingly tender osso bucco with tomatoes, raisins and dried apricots. Corsican wines are made in several island regions—one of the best being Patrimonio, a reserve red of which we drink happily with the hearty country fare.

The next morning’s sky is dark and ominous, with shreds of mist hanging in the peaks. One of the small back roads leads from Zonza to Quenza, which is set in a dramatic view of the Aiguilles, then through Aulene, where it narrows, grows windier and begins to climb the flank of Monte Incudine, through the Bosco del Coscione. The view to the right of the car is straight up the mountain—bunch grasses and round granite boulders tumbled against the trunks of the tall, straight pines. To the west, serried ranks of forested hills recede into the distance to the sea. Soon the road narrows further, the guardrail disappears, and the way becomes on of those stomach-fluttering crawls perched on the edge of a cliff. Fortunately, it’s off-season, and there is absolutely no oncoming traffic. The view ahead changes quickly to sub-alpine scrub, with the shallow-angled tree line clearly visible—the steep mountainsides above look like the Welsh moors in Snowdonia.

As we arrived at the airport in Ajaccio several days earlier, we had noted huge signs trumpeting the Tour de Corse, as part of the Rally de France road race, and the presence of these speed-mad drivers of Lotuses, Citroens and Renaults was felt from time to time—something bright yellow or red or blue would roar up behind us on the tiniest road, stick like glue until a minute space for passing presented itself, and then blur past us with a tremendous scream of downshifted engine. In several villages the streets were jammed with parked cars, and lined with spectators eagerly awaiting the earsplitting passing of the pack.

We top out at the Col de la Vaccia with sweeping views far to both the north and south of the island. Northward, a deep valley opens before us; the craggy peaks of Monte Rotondo and Monte Cinto stretch their granite knuckles to the heavens in the far distance. We descend into the Bosco da Coscine with the landscape changing yet again, onto a five km section of the route shown on the map in dotted red, which the key describes as “difficult or dangerous”. Slow and nerve-racking progress brings us to the end of that section, after which we pass through Zicavo, which is laced with old tales of witchcraft and vampires

In 20 kilometers or so we top out again at the Col De Verde, and look down on the Foret de Marmano and several popular climbing peaks—Kyrie Eleison and Christe Eleison—a most Swiss-Alp view. As we descend into the beech forest, robed in changing fall colors, the feeling has a distinct touch of New England to it. We round a sharp curve and stomp the brakes as a cow and calf, bells clanking their dull metal thud, amble across the road. Livestock roams free in these hills, and we often encounter sheep and goats in the road as well, and pigs rooting the earth for chestnuts and acorns at roadside. At Ghisoni, a tranquil shepherd’s village nestled under the towering rock spires of the Eleisons, we find the Hotel Kyrie--the only thing still open at season’s end, and lunch happily on Charcuterie de Corse: air cured mountain ham and boar sausage; torte aux herbs with wild mint and the local fresh goat cheese called brocciu. We hear the locals speaking rapid-fire Corsican dialect everywhere we go—it sounds like old French well-laced with Italian, stemming from the many years of occupation by Italians. Some say that Corso is practically a medieval Pisan dialect mixed with many Sardinian words. As well as words, the Italians left cannelloni, tagliatelli, pizza and proscuito-style ham to blend with the Corsican country fare.

From Ghisoni the road descends another ultra narrow heart-stopping guardrail-less cliff hanging track to Venaco, a small village where a regarded aged sheep cheese—Venaccu—hails, and which is the site each May of Corsica’s most important cheese fair. In the heart of the valley stands Corte, a strategic crossroad and the only historic inland military stronghold on Corsica. These days also a University town of 3000 plus students during the term, the old village of narrow streets and rudimentary buildings curls up around a thumb of granite like a creeping vine on a tree, with the Place Gaffori halfway up the gathering place for locals to gossip, and the ancient citadelle perched on top, peering out over the confluence of three rivers. Several times Corte beat off the Genoese invaders, and became the center of the war of independence commencing in 1729. National independence, with a democratic constitution was proclaimed in 1735, and from 1755 to 1769 Corte was the capital of Corsica. At No 1 Place du Poilu, a wall plaque states “'In this house were born Joseph Napoleon Bonaparte, King of Naples and Spain, on 7 January 1768’.

A couple of km before Corte, the Gorge de Restonica, another deep chasm of twisted granite, veers northeast, and a short way up the gorge, the Auberge de la Restonica sits under the soaring rocks and next to the gently tumbling Restonica river. With a smoke-blackened ceiling and mountain lodge air, the Auberge provides simple but clean rooms, and a lively dining room. Heavy beamed ceiling, roaring fire in a great stone fireplace, checkered tablecloths set the scene for a boisterous full house of travelers. A hunter’s salad includes mountain ham and local goat cheese, topped inexplicably with scrambled eggs. Soupe de Corse, a country vegetable mélange much like minestrone is fresh, hot and reviving. Civet de Sanglier (boar is everywhere in fall) roast pigeon and gigot d’ Agneau are on offer for more substantial fare.

The next morning our track turns generally westward for the sea. The D 84 switchbacks up the Scala di Santa Regina in the lee of Monte Cinto, in yet another gorge of phantasmagoric rock clumps, spires and outcrops. From the top of the Col de Vergio—the dividing line between the haute and bas Corse, the Mediterranean is again visible past the onward march of the gargoyled stone.

We’ve heard shots in the forest most mornings and have seen purposeful looking fellows striding about in boots and camo gear. At Evisa we stop at the Bar/Cafe Moderne for one of the delicious local Torra beers and a bite of smoked ham and goat cheese. A white flat-bed truck skids to a halt in front, and four dark rough-looking types tumble out in full camo. Leashed to the truck cab and sitting in the bed are four brown and white hounds, looking nonchalantly out over the carcass of a black, wiry-haired, heavy-tusked boar—the prize of the morning’s hunt and the makings of some cured ham, smoked lonza and figatelle sausage, as well as a civet de sanglier or two. They nod, welcome us warmly with a hearty bonjour and sit to relax after the hunt as they, and their forebears, have done for decades.

Bristly-jawed hunters, bowed over strong thimbles of café and well-thumbed cards, smoke curling from cigarette stubs hanging from the corner of their lips, with the winter’s charcuterie “on the hoof” outside in the flatbed under the towering brow of granite peaks—here then is the wild heart of Corsica, and maybe the soul too.