Sartene is Corsica in a nutshell

So, the last day before a return to the UK and time to share one last place with you. Sartene could be Corsica in a nutshell, set in the ancient hills of this mountainous island.

The town’s pride in its culture and history is reflected in the evenings performance of local, traditional choral pieces in the church. Sartene is well known for its wine along with having a long history of piracy, banditry and gangsters.

The evening sun gives the tall buildings, built in the same rock as the steep hill on which they stand, a sunny glaze, allowing them to be absorbed by the surrounding landscape of rock and wooded mountain peaks and ridges.

Having had a break in one of the cafes of the Place Porta, it’s time ťo track back in time into the fascinating old town of Santa Anna which spreads down the hill within ancient walls.

Its narrow streets are crammed with a incredible medley of tall ancient houses, linked by arches, arcades and alleys, and sometimes blocked by unexpected rocks and stairwells.

Life in medieval times had not changed one bit. You can feel the cramped, squalid living conditions and imagine wonderfully gnarled and evil characters and celebrate that one lives in the 21st century and not the 15th.

I’ve enjoyed Corsica. Never easy to get anywhere on its appendix of roads but always worth it when you do.

The journey is always as good as the destination. It’s scenery of tall peaks and grand forests, of soft-sanded bays and craggy coastlines, of ragged rocks and granite outcrops, the wild Corsica is never far away. This is balanced out with ancient, historic harbours, a proud history symbolised by the Corsican flag of a headscarfed pirate, classy hotels and chic residences for the rich and famous, traditional dishes from the land and the sea and local wines and customs that celebrate an independent and unique culture.

The charm of Port Vecchio

A few days have been spent enjoying the sun, admiring the views, counting the layers as the sun sets behind the rows of hills that lead to the sea, cosying into warm, soft sand on local beaches and only coming up for light refreshment and a cooling off in the gentle waters of the Med. The nearest beach is 20 minutes away.

ou can see the line of the surf from the terrace. Driving the roads here is like driving through the wiggles of a long appendix. Monotonous maybe but it’s easy. Nothing can overtake, everything goes at 40 mph. At this time of year parking has been easy and eateries and beach bars serve easily and quickly.

Still the holiday marches on and full advantage must be taken. The delights of Porto Vecchio, on the south-east coast are an hour or so away. So an early start means we set off and arrive for coffee. The old town walls overlook the approach to the harbour.

The old town is delightful. It’s not huge – a little square with tidy houses around the edge and a quaint, little roundabout for small kiddies.

Cafes abound with everyone trying to find some shade under umbrellas or up narrow streets.

From the church at the highest point cobbled streets leaf down to gateways through which the harbour seen and the salt flats on the far side.

Shops are classy and expensive, restaurants are of good quality. It is a cosmopolitan place with its own charm and warmth.

Worth a visit.

Taking the rough with the smooth in south-west Corsica

Having spent at enjoyable day in Bodifacio full of dusty history with flavours of the rich and famous, I assumed that I was getting to get more of the same when I visited the beaches and ports and harbours of the south west. Wrong!

First is Propriano. It looks great from a distance.

There is a suggestion of an old harbour with a few oldish buildings lining the quayside behind the cabins offering boat trips and fishing excursions. An evening night market of tat and restaurants offers pizzas and moules to the flotilla of sails that have assembled on the pontoons. Nothing jumps out saying ‘eat me, eat me’. All is very tame and unexciting.

Porto Pollo is the nearest beach to the house.

It takes about 25 minutes in the car and the bay has the softest sand. It is easy to park on the road at this time of year and cut through the small passages, past purple and pink flowering tall shrubs, to a sparsely crowded bay of empty towels and uninhabited umbrellas. And supervised by a team of lifeguards. All very civilised.

At the far end, a harbour of small, gleaming boats preens itself in the setting sun.

And then the capital, Ajaccio.

Oh dear. Two cruise liners were in town. One was so large – at least 10 decks. It was a monstrosity. The passenger contents had unloaded and blue- stickered groups were led through the tat streets by paddle numbers held high in the air, searching for souvenirs and anything of interest. There was very little of this. No old town, no old streets, no old harbour. I missed the citadel and the cathedral was closed. So no great shakes there. And everywhere was teaming and steaming, stocked with hot, squeezing people, shoving and elbowing to the few bits of shade offered by buildings. I took a few images but really could not get excited.

Napoleon was born in Ajaccio. The Napolean Museum is up a narrow street. We didn’t go in but had a drink outside, listened to the bawdy, recorded singing and watched the progress of the tourist parties as they promenaded behind their guide in their limited time ashore.

It was so good to escape to the winding roads back home.

The rich and famous, and lots of ordinary folk, in Bonifacio

As the sun took a day off today it was time to go exploring in the car. Roads follow the coast and wind through the contours that mark the mountains and ravines. It takes forever to travel any distances and the sat nav shows why. The routes are shown as a long, tight snakes lassooing its way through scrubby green terrain. Following the coast road south, these images are typical of the glorious open space that is Corse.

Our destination is Bonifacio, right at the south of the island. Strategically the town was at the crossroads of the early trading routes between Italy and Spain and north Africa. Pisa was the first country to govern here until the end of the 12th century. It’s position bought wealth and revenues to the town through fishing and trade. Initially the port was simply a beach where fishing boats were drawn. After 1900 the marina was build up and the quayside cafes and eateries established, making it a docking place for the yachts and boats of the rich and famous, many dwarfing the dusty, faded buildings.

A long terrace of classy table layouts and extortionate menus pull well-heeled owners from their gin palaces to pose for the rest of us as we shuffle along at our visitors’ pace like groups of penguins in awe of another species.

Overlooking the harbour scene from its position on the tall limestone cliffs is the old town, guarded by the massive, medieval citadel, built in the 9th century. It is in its narrow streets that the full force of the tourist can be felt. Trails of cars move into town to squeeze every space from the car parks, releasing families and groups to zig-zag their way up cobbled steps and inclines to the massive gates and shops, built to keep seafaring enemies away and not cash-touting visitors.

The cobbled streets, particularly around the Church of St Marie Majeure, the oldest building here, are squashed between tall buildings linked by lines of flying buttresses. These are evident throughout the old town and are not required to support the buildings but are gutters which distribute rainwater around the settlement and into water tanks. Substitute pirates and merchants and fishermen and capes and gowns for the skimpy shorts and the strappy tops and the buggies and the carriers and the streets ooze history and times past. Romeo art thou there?

Base camp in Sollacaro

The base for this trip is the small village of Sallacaro on the edge of the mountains on the south west corner of Corsica. The house has amazing views from its terrace. To the left a dart of caramel-coloured houses stands out of the fluffy, scrubby trees that cover the hillside.

The arrow-head points to the coast in the distance straight ahead. A broken mirror of water shines as the sun sets over it in the west. To the right, tree-covered peaks and slopes run down in diagonal lines, heading directly towards the small bays of sand and flat agricultural land that lines each one for a short distance inland.

Sallacaro is a small, friendly village. About 50 houses line the road as it meanders down the hillside. There are two stores, epiceries, two restaurants, two bars, one that serves pizzas, a church and an elementary school with a post office sharing the same building.

The centre is the sharp curve of a band at the far end, marked by the tallest house, all four storeys of it. This is the social centre of the village with all four eating & drinking places next door out opposite each other. There’s no need to go any where out of the village!

From the terrace of the house the weather presents itself. If it’s feeling mischievous then the sun sets, dropping its core gently behind the bumps and lumps of the distant layers, creating a devil’s palette of oranges and reds. Sometimes the weather sends over mackerel clouds to remind us that nothing should be taken for granted. As the day passes and the heat grows these build in intensity and the atmosphere gets heavier. Gradually dark slabs of uniform darkness spreads over from the mountains. Watching clouds build and feeling the atmosphere intensifying sets up the rain dance at different tempos – gentle, short, swathes, deluge, storm, cracking. Wagner comes to mind. One thing is perpetual – it always ends, it moves off, it leaves an empty sky and then builds for another performance a few days/weeks later, also to be witnessed from the same terrace.

Courting Corte, the old capital of Corsica

An evening out in Bastia gives a real flavour of what is to come on Corsica. The island is a fusion of Italian roots, French history, a hard mountainous spine and the coastal romance of the sea. Music, menus, culture, sport, place names reflect both Italy and France.

The town’s petanque competition brings locals out in their droves. Held over several days on the wide open square by the modern port, all ages and genders, from 7 to 70 perform in their teams and leagues to win the top prizes.

From Bastia it is a long drive through forested peaks across the spine of the island to the south west. From the 11th to 13th centuries Corsica was ruled by the Italian city-state of Pisa, superseded in 1284 by Genoa. To prevent seaborne raids, mainly from North Africa, a massive defence system was constructed that included citadels, coastal watchtowers and inland forts.

An hour out is the old capital of Corsica – Corte. In 1755, after 25 years of sporadic warfare against the Genoese, Corsicans declared their independence, led by Pasquale Paoli (1725–1807), under whose rule they established a National Assembly and adopted the most democratic constitution in Europe. They made the inland mountain town of Corte their capital, outlawed blood vendettas, founded schools and established a university. But the island’s independence was short-lived. In 1768 the Genoese ceded Corsica to the French king Louis XV, whose troops crushed Paoli’s army in 1769 and the island has since been part of France except for a period (1794–96) when it was under English domination, and during the German and Italian occupation of 1940–4.

The steep, narrow, frequently cobbled streets and tight squares still remember those days of local patriots and pride in Corsican values.The many statues of Paoli always points the way for each following generation.

Where next – of course it’s Corsica

Hi everyone. Well, you may have wondered where I’ve been. Since last blogging to you I have been on a trip to Barcelona. It was a real adventure. I joined Chloe, Alexa & Toby on the first leg of their railway adventures around Spain. On the first evening I had a run-in with a bag-snatcher. He was not content to simply pick my pocket. No, I stupidly placed temptation right in front of him, or her, and he/she swiped the whole bag, camera and all, from the back of my chair in a restaurant and no-one saw a thing. Hence no photos and no blog.

Three weeks further on I have replaced my kit and I am back on my adventures. You find me in Corsica, that small island off the coast of France which was the birthplace of Napoleon. We fly into Bastia, in the north of the island, and the next day is spent exploring this historic port, through which most of Corsica’s trade and goods arrive on and leave the island. Established by the Genoese in 1487 the narrow, dusty streets ooze history.

There are three main areas to this historic town. The old town around the cathedral & square of St Jean-Baptiste.

The old port.

The citadel.