The drive from Bastia was hot and humid. A sticky, damp heat blanket hung over the coast road and the rather dreary outskirts of the city where small run-down workshops and garages seemed dustier and messier than usual. Every part of the Mediterranean has these areas of almost Third World shabbiness; developments rushed into and left unfinished, unpainted, with cement crumbling and adorned with torn posters and graffiti. The graffiti here in Corsica is bold and aggressive – A N C, Autonome Nazionale Corsica, CORSICA LIBRA, Free Corsica in a mixture of languages.
The long straight eastern coastline promised much. We had been assured of Caribbean- like beaches, Saint Tropez -like picturesque port towns, all idyllic and unspoiled. Wrong ! We made several sorties from the main road to the dusty coast, where a seemingly endless beach does stretch down the length of the island. The sand is clean and golden but the beach narrow and the commercial development is extensive. Beach cafes jostle for customers; there are rooms, studios, bungalows, apartments, all to let; souvenirs, sun umbrellas, bikinis and post cards in abundance. Nice enough if you want a quieter Costa, but not for us.
Later we learned of the history of this flatland of the Eastern coast. The many rivers from the mountainous spine of the island flow down to the sea here and it offered an invitingly fertile land to the first of the many invaders. First came the Ugurians and the Phoenicians. Etruscans from Italy followed and set up a democratic form of government, producing remarkable artistic and technical achievements. The land was rich in vines and olives, agriculture easy and the seas abundant with fish. The Romans arrived in the 3rd Century AD and after a devastating conquest ruled for five centuries, establishing their capital at Aleria about half way down the Eastern seaboard. The arrival of waves of vandals and pirates from the Barbary Coast sent the settlers scuttling inland and up into the mountains, to establish new, more secure, settlements. The Eastern plains were deserted and were soon made inhabitable by malaria. It was an effective buffer in keeping invaders at bay and from the reaching the inland mountain cities, but the island inhabitants avoided the area. So it remained virtually uninhabited until the French, desperate to accommodate the thousands of Algerians and the despised ‘pieds noirs1 at the end of the Algerian conflict in the 1960’s, thought it a suitable dumping place to house those who had supported them throughout the war and who now had to leave Algeria. It certainly would have appeared a preferable alternative to the shanty towns which were growing at an alarming rate on the outskirts of Marseille, Lyon and other mainland cities. Presumably, the mosquitoes were eradicated and the countryside became open to development.
We visited Aleria where the ruins of the Roman city remain and a museum in a large stone fort where various Roman relics have been incorporated into the stonework by subsequent landlords. The incidental treasure in the village of present day Aleria is a collection of old houses whose walls are made up of small Roman bricks, huge grey square field stones and rounded river stones studded with wedges of granite and other materials; a myriad of colours and shapes, textures and forms of an extraordinary beauty and a rich treasure trove left by past civilisations. We headed on to Porto Vecchio, a medieval ‘Ville Haute’ perched over a modern marina. The streets are narrow and twisting and there are some interesting old buildings, but also lots of ice cream parlours and busloads of eager Dutch pensioners visiting their umpteenth tourist attraction of the day. On southward to Bonifaccio: perched high above the port, the huge city-cittadella faces boldly out towards Sardinia, clearly visible across the sea. Bonifaccio was built by the Genoese whose arrival in the 16th Century restored some stability to the island. They also built hundreds of stone towers, most of which remain today, around the entire island, watch towers, to help protect Corsica from the proliferation of raiders and pirates. The cittadella towers over the sea and is reached by a twisting serpentine road or by footpaths consisting of hundreds of winding steps. It is a more ‘lived-in’ town than Porto Vecchio with Italianate narrow streets between the tall buildings and the ubiquitous washing lines connecting neighbours. There were lots of residents going about their business and at six o’clock lots of tourists, like us, looking for hotel rooms for the night. These were all showing their ‘complet’ signs, full-up for the night apart from a few 4 star hotels taking advantage of the shortage of rooms by charging extortionate rates. We decided to take a gamble and to look further afield.
The road had reached the southernmost point of the island, so we started to drive west along a less-used route. However, there were virtually no towns or villages, and no sign of lodgings. We had almost given up hope when there appeared a roughly painted yellow sign announcing ‘Auberge- Chambres Haut Village 1st Right’. Off we went, but there was no sign of the village as we followed the narrowing road inland, and just as we were thinking of retracing our steps, a second, more battered, sign appeared with the added information that the Auberge is ‘Chez Antoine’. Reaching the top of a small hill a few houses came into sight. These became a village and we carried on looking for further instructions, rather like Alice down the rabbit hole. We seemed to reach a dead end and requested help from a couple of locals who indicated a neighbouring house and indeed we arrived ‘Chez Antoine’ – a large, rambling, rather shambolic house with, up a short flight of stairs, a huge verandah running the width of the stone building. We noticed again the beautiful stones which are used for building everywhere with not a drop of cement to be seen. There must be an extra strong force of gravity in Corsica! We parked in a messy forecourt already full with a collection of battered cars and vans, and made our way through vines and bushes, pots and plants, all overgrown and neglected. Waiting for us on the verandah was a large, portly man in shorts, with a bare top, long bushy hair and a rough beard. Obviously, he was our host and there was no way out now as he welcomed us warmly as old friends, giving me a hug and a couple of whiskery kisses. He reminded us of a local farmer near our home in France who is well known in the region as a ‘personalité’, and who also serves magnificent meals.’ I think we’ve found a Corsican Dany’, I whispered. A young man, Antoine’s son, Pascal, led us through a darkened ground floor kitchen to a largish room upstairs with four beds, a huge antique wardrobe and dressing table, with a still larger television set perched precariously on top of it. There was an en-suite shower room and a private lobby containing a number of large wooden chests; this all for twenty Euros, including breakfast. How could we refuse?
Half a dozen people had gathered on the verandah, having drinks and we were soon invited to join them. Antoine as well the younger men were all well built and half-naked, some of them sporting this year’s fashion of shaven heads, others with long bushy beards and shoulder-length hair. Among them were two young Germans of indeterminate sex, both with long flowing locks, shorts and T-shirts. The proliferation of so much hair and bare skin, the sweet aniseed smell of the pastis, which was flowing generously, mixed with the pungent smell of some huge round ewe’s- milk cheeses ripening on the dresser of the adjoining kitchen, where dozens of salty, herby, home made sausages hung from the low ceiling, was overpowering. It was still quite warm at seven o’clock and we opted for a walk through the village which seemed interesting enough. Every house sported a well-kept garden, bursting with geraniums, nasturtiums, bougainvillea, wisteria, monstrous flowering cacti, mimosa and eucalyptus. There were two groups of men playing boules in the main square – the ‘oldies’ taking their time between shots, with much play at aim and strategy while a group of younger men played the modem type of boules, hard and rough making the solid metal balls crash frighteningly on impact. Parts of the town appeared to be badly in need of repairs, some older buildings almost completely in ruins, these housing a number of mangy cats who scurried into the half dark. Many of the newly renovated houses appeared to be holiday homes with their shutters now firmly shut.
We rejoined the party on the verandah and were glad of a glass of cool pastis after the long, hot day behind us. This came in tumbler, half-full of the local ‘Casanis’ which we warily topped up with water and ice. Alex (my husband) joined the Germans, who were, after all, a couple, and were staying at a local camping site, while I found myself surrounded by the half-naked Corsicans who were all chatting animatedly with their strange, thick, staccato accents. After another gulp of pastis I decided this was too good a chance to miss at mixing with the locals. I tried plying them with questions:” Do you live here all year round?” “What do you do?” “Can the younger men earn a living in the village?” And so on. It didn’t take long for me to realise that we had stumbled upon a hotbed of real Corsican nationalists. Antoine père, explained that he lives with his two sons, slim,shaven-haired, Antoine fils, and his other son, Pascal, named after the local hero, Pascal Pauli, whose statue dominates every Corsican village and who won Corsica its independence for fourteen short years in the 18th Century.” We have everything we need to live,- my pigs, my garden, the sea – we can live independently from France and we’re going to get rid of them”, Alex declaimed. “What about the younger men”, I queried, “maybe they want more from the modern world?” “Well, those who want more, should go away”, was his answer. And of course, that’s what the Corsicans have been doing for generations. “’And then they come back”, he complained. Eighty per cent of the island’s population are pensioners returned from a lifetime of working in France, and comfortable with their generous French pensions. They renovate the family house, cultivate pretty suburban gardens, and of course, are quite happy to remain French citizens with all the advantages. But Antoine has a point and the French government has done next to nothing to bring work to the island, the only commercial developments are foreign-run and aimed at the tourist, while offering the island little but menial service jobs. France does, however, pay ever increasing subsidies in the hope of keeping the peace with the islanders.
All this heated discussion was punctuated with exclamations of “ca va sauter!” (It’ II be blown up) And, of course, quite a lot of things do get blown up in Corsica. Just before our visit a beach restaurant in Ajjacio was the victim – however, not as thought, by rival nationalist bands, but by order of the Préfet himself, as the necessary license was missing. The Préfet, rather like the governor general in a colony, is sent from France to oversee the island and stands in hierarchy above the local politicians. However, this Préfet overstepped himself and ended up in prison, not only for the unconventional, if traditionally Corsican manner of coping with a problem, but also due to the disappearance of government funds, another typically Corsican problem. When the third pastis was poured, I tipped half of it into Alex’s glass while he and the Germans compared the beaches they had discovered and less exciting matters. I was feeling bold enough to carry on with the locals.”’I’m not sure I believe in nationalism”, I ventured. This is met by total disbelief – “What do you feel yourself ?”’ ‘What nation do you feel you belong to ?” I’m obviously the wrong person to ask, having left my homeland forty years earlier and having lived happily in half- a -dozen different countries. “Too many dreadful things have happened in the name of nationalism.”..I attempt. Unexpectedly, I’m supported by an elderly man, a neighbor, who has called in for his regular evening aperitif. He gets more and more excited trying to shout down Alex-fils, jumping up and down from his chair, gesticulating with his arms. The son is obviously quite fanatical in his nationalism and I imagine him spray-painting road signs or peppering them with gunshot pellets; a common hazard for the motoring tourist. He insists that he will not leave Corsica;.his father, his grandfather, his great grandfather all had to leave the island to look for work. He plans to stay; stay with his father in the village and grow vegetables and rear pigs. But he wants Corsica to himself and is determined to get rid of the French –“ ca va sauter!”
It was now well after 9 o’clock and we were getting pretty hungry and with no sign of dinner. Apparently, we were waiting for more guests, an Italian couple who finally came back from the beach and with typical Italian nonchalance, went off to take a shower and then to settle down – for a pastis, or two. However, things eventually started to move with Alex-père and Pascal setting up on a rough wooden table at the end of the verandah. (There was not a woman in sight ).They set out carafes of pale Corsican rosé wine, huge baskets of pain de campagne, glistening green olives, platters of home-cured ham and sausages. We took our seats on long wooden benches and the heated discussion was soon forgotten as everyone attacked the feast. Dishes of sautéd veal in wine followed, and steaming bowls of pasta. We finished off with a slab of the local cheese and fruit from the garden. And then came the music.
I had already noticed a row of guitars propped up against an ancient fireplace in the gloom of the kitchen, but we were not prepared for a full scale concert. Alex-père and Pascal were seated next to us with their instruments and started to accompany themselves with a string of gentle, plaintive songs. Young Pascal’s beautifully formed muscular body cradled the guitar, rocking and almost dancing in slow motion with the emotion of the music. Alex-père’s face softened and glowed in the light of a little string of fairy-lights garlanding the verandah. The songs continued, some sad and lyrical, some stronger and more emotional. We could not understand the Corsican dialect of these words but it was obviously an outpouring of love and pain and all about Corsica. It must have continued for a good hour or so and we were dumb struck with the realisation that we had stumbled so unwittingly upon a quite special occasion. It was one of those moments which make travel so exciting and when one feels privileged to have had an insight into another country’s culture and to have understood them a little better. It was well past midnight when we took off to bed. We ignored the dust, the ancient creaking bed, the un-lockable doors and slept soundly. One thought filtered into my mind before succumbing to the tiredness and the effects of all the wine and pastis : hadn’t I heard of Corsican bandits who kidnapped foreign tourists and snipped off bits of their fingers, or ears, to help with their ransom demands ? Or maybe it was in Sardinia ? Oh well.
The next morning was another perfect sunny Corsican day and the house seemed still quiet at 8 am. However, a surprise awaited us (again) on the verandah; a cheerfully decked breakfast table, fresh baguettes, farm-made butter, home- made jams and jugs of steaming coffee. Antoine-père, bespectacled, was peering intensely over a pile of architect’s blueprints. It was a ‘projet’ – a barn 60 metres long, big enough to raise 600, or was it 6,000 ‘coqs’ (roosters). The Arabs (what Arabs ?) wanted to buy live roosters as ‘they didn’t like dead ones’. He would make a fortune (so much for the simple life described so poetically yesterday) but he had to get the funding. He’d already paid six hundred euros for the plans. These appeared to consist of a large, oblong box, drawn professionally, side-on, front-on and even with an aerial view. “You’re taking these to the maine (local town hall) for approval and funding ?” I query, between gulps of coffee. “Oh, no. Not the mairie. I’m taking these to the Préfet, the new Préfet in Ajjacio and if he doesn’t approve the funding, if he refuses the Corsicans the help they’re entitled to – “ca va sauter”. I thought of the newly arrived Préfet rushed to the island as the result of the recent dramas,- explosions, assassinations, prosecutions, imprisonment, etc. and wondered, if he wouldn’t have a few more things on his mind than Antoine’s roosters. He was mad all right – but how he could cook and make music. What a character!
Obviously, the rest of the holiday couldn’t live up to this experience, but we did find just what we were looking for. Another fifty kilometres and then up the west coast of the island we found long, sandy beaches which we shared with half a dozen others, friendly little restaurants ‘pieds dans I’eau’ serving fresh fish nightly and a reasonably priced bungalow set among olive trees on a hill overlooking the perfectly blue, sparkling sea. The days were warm and balmy, the water crystal clear and we stayed put for two weeks, venturing no further afield than a few sorties around the coast roads and a few kilometres inland. The west coast could not be more different than the eastern flatlands. Here the mountains plunge down to the sea, leaving small bays and coves, many not accessible by road. Where towns and cities have sprung up as in Ajjacio, Calvi or Porto, tourism dominates and one must look with more care in the search for the ‘real’ Corsica.
After two weeks, we headed back, first to Ajjacio, the capital city full of monuments to its favourite son, Bonaparte, and then right across the island through the rugged mountains and dense forests. The road climbs up to a thousand metres, cutting through spectacular scenery where the only dangers are caused by very tame boars, which roam around the highway, tempted no doubt, by offerings from passing motorists. We spent a night in Bastia waiting for the ferry back to Nice on the mainland and only then realised how hot it was. We had been saved from the real Corsican summer heat by the sea breezes and were now sleeping in a hotel room with a less than spectacular view onto a dingy courtyard. Dozens of cramped apartments were spilling into the courtyard with their rundown balconies stuffed with belongings, make-shift bathrooms glued onto the original buildings, crying babies, blaring radios, giving us a very different picture of Corsica. However, we did enjoy a walk through the medieval town, the fishing port, the cittadelle, the market place, and settled for aperitifs on the huge central square, fringed with palm trees to watch the locals meeting at the end of the day, chatting and walking, their children running and playing ball. It was hard to believe that Corsica could be dangerous and violent, but we had seen enough to understand the country a little better and felt strangely privileged by the experience.
Christina Gallea Roy 2000