From National Disgrace to International Hidden Treasure – Matera

From National Disgrace to International Hidden Treasure – Matera

Tucked into a deep ravine of the forgotten province of Basilicata, way down in the instep of Italy’s boot, the ancient city of Matera in not an easy place to get to.

Matera-Barisano night.

Sasso Barisano at night.

I leave the northern metropolis of Milan on an early morning high-speed train that propels me southward through Bologna, Florence, Rome and Naples before ending six hours and 800 kilometers (500 miles) later in Salerno, on shore of the Tyrrhenian Sea. From here, it’s a 200-kilometer (125-mile), three-hour bus ride back in time through the rugged rural landscape of the Basilicata province to one of the oldest living cities in the world, the Sassi (or stones) of Matera.

 

A Living Troglodyte City

Matera-Barisano Vertical City

By the Renaissance facades are added to the caves turning Sasso Barisano into a vertical city.

The bisque-colored honeycomb city is anchored to the face of two natural amphitheaters, Sasso Barisano and Sasso Caveoso, within a towering ravine carved from the limestone plateau by the once powerful Gravina River. These Sassi have been inhabited since Palaeolitic times, but what makes Matera’s Città Sotterranea (Underground City) different from other cave settlements around the Mediterranean Basin is that the descendants of these early settlers never left. Rather, they dug in. By the Bronze Age (second millennium BCE), newly equipped with rudimentary metal tools, they began digging the myriad natural caves. And here they remained, a rural community gradually burrowing deeper. The Sassi developed in layers, through waves from Greek, Roman and Byzantine to Medieval and Renaissance invaders.

Roman High Grounds

Matera-Cathedral.

Buit in Apulian Romanesque style in the 13th century, the cathedral dominates the Matera skyline.

The Romans, as was their wont, constructed defensive walls around the original nucleus of la Civita (city) on the highest ground between the two Sassi. Theirs became the core of the institutional, religious and commercial district that expanded along the Piano (plateau) that had until then been used for agriculture and water collection. This modern city would be barely noticeable today, if not for its 13th century Romanesque cathedral towering over the skyline.

Matera-Sassi vista.

The Sassi and the Murgia plateau seen from the Piano.

By the 8th century, Matera began to overshoot its fortified boundaries and the occupation of the caverns intensified. Digging began in earnest. Over time the inhabitants began using the excavated material to build structures that jutted outward from the subterranean rooms with facades that looked much like that of traditional houses. Thus began the stacked cityscape we know today. Winding narrow lanes, alleys and stairways can be the roof of the houses below as well as the entryway of the one above. Seen from the outside, the homes seem small, until you step in. Then the space can vary from a simple room to a warren of vast spaces on multiple levels linked together by passageways.

Rupestrian Churches

Matera-Santa Maria de Idris.

Carved into a pinnacle overhanging the ravine, Santa Maria de Idris dominates Sasso Caveoso.

Since the entire face of the ravine is pitted with caves, neighborhoods  clustered around their own rock-hewn church. Some of these still dominate the Sassi. In Sasso Barisano, the bi-level complex of the Chiesa di Madonna Delle Virtù and San Nicola dei Greci is noted for its lovely 11th and 12th century frescoes. And Santa Maria de Idris, carved into a rock pinnacle overhanging the ravine, dominates Sasso Caveoso. Its few remaining frescoes are quite damaged, but a narrow passage to the left of the altar leads down to the crypt of San Giovanni in Monterone and its better-preserved artwork.

Matera-Murga plateau.

The ravine beneath the Murga plateau is pitted with caves.

By the 8th century, the barren western wall of the Murgia Plateau across the ravine, became a refuge for Basilian (Orthodox Christian) monks fleeing persecutions in Asia Minor. They excavated a number of rupestrian churches, and decorated them with frescoes. The most famous is the majestic cavern known as the Crypt of Original Sin, considered one of the finest examples of ruspestrian art in Italy for its 9th century cycle of Byzantine frescoes depicting the story of Creation and the veneration of the Virgin.

Into the Abyss

Matera-City on the Piano.

The city of Matera sits above the Sassi.

Little changes for centuries in the Sassi where people live in primordial simplicity, working the fields, raising livestock and seeing to domestic chores. Until one of the many reshufflings of history makes Matera a provincial capital (1663-1806). Increased prestige and activity cause a rise in population. The wealthier Materani move up, literally, to the newer town on the Piano, leaving subsistence farmers and artisans behind. By the early 20th century, the population of the caves is estimated at well over 15,000.

Matera-Ancient Sasso Ceveoso.

Large swaths of Sasso Ceveoso have yet to be rehabilitated.

Overcrowding in the Sassi and the ongoing development of the Piano cause the collapse of the ancient rain and spring water collection system that until now has brought water to the homes and small hanging gardens. With less farmland available, the lifestyle of the Sassi increasingly lags behind that of the rest of the world. Large families are living in squalid conditions alongside their livestock in crowded caves with no running water, sewage or electricity. Dysentery and malaria are rife. Infant mortality tops 50 percent.

Matera-Sasso Ceveoso cave.

Orignal cave dwelling in Sasso Ceveoso.

Yet the situation continues unheeded, until the 1945 release of Carlo Levi’s memoir “Christ stopped at Eboli” brings it to international attention. Levi is a physician, artist and writer from a wealthy northern family, exiled in Basilicata in 1935-1936 for his anti-fascist views. Eboli is a small town of Campania, near the Tyrrhenian coast. The title of the book comes from a local expression implying that the people of this remote corner of Basilica were bypassed by Christianity and by history itself. In the face of public outrage, the government begins to take notice. By 1950 the Sassi are pronounced a “national disgrace “ and a chain of drastic actions are set in motion that will have a swift and dramatic impact on the city and the peoples’ lives. From 1953 to 1968, all the residents of the Sassi are forcibly relocated into modern housing in new suburbs on top of the cliff.

From National Shame to International Fame

Matera-Sasso Barisano3.

The recently restored Sasso Barisano is now a prized residential neighborhood.

Barisano-Arches.

There are signs of intense rehabilitation activites throughout the Sassi.

The Sassi become state property, and within a couple of decades an archeological no-man’s-land. Some politicians view them as evidence of a shameful past to be erased, going as far as proposing their destruction to prevent them from being reoccupied. Meanwhile, the deteriorating landscape resulting from the collapse of abandoned homes and churches sparks a local grassroots movement to pressure the government to allow the rehabilitation of the caves, focusing on sanitation, urbanization and incentives to repopulate the site. Thanks to this decisive public action, and the recognition in 1993 of the Sassi as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, over 50 percent are now inhabited by over 3,000 residents. Matera is subsequently selected as European Capital of Culture for 2019, making it the host city for a number of cultural events that will raise its profile internationally, and kick further restoration into high gear.

Throughout the City of Stones, and especially in Sasso Barisano, Sassi boutique hotels, bed and breakfasts, restaurants, artisan shops and galleries now welcome visitors. Big swaths of Sasso Ceveoso, the oldest part of the city, are still untouched, but they afford a compelling insight into the past.

Matera-Sasso Barisano cart.

The Sassi are often used as a location for biblical-time movies.

It’s not only UNESCO that considers Matera “the most outstanding intact example of a troglodyte settlement in the Mediterranean region.” The international movie industry has long found the Sassi an ideal stand-in for ancient Jerusalem in its biblical-time films. Christ has finally come to Matera, at least a half-dozen times by now, most famously in Pier Paolo Pasolini’s “The Gospel According to St. Matthew” (1964), Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ” (2004), and the recently released Garth Davis’ “Mary Magdalene” (2018).

Matera-Panorama

Good to Know

  • Getting there – Matera is not the easiest place to reach (but well worth a bit of extra effort). By Plane – the nearest major airport is Naples, 300 kilometers (185 miles) to the northeast. Bari, with its small regional airport is 60 kilometers (25 miles) to the west. From there, bus is the best option. By train – Bari and Salerno are the two stations closest to Matera. There are two major rail service companies operating within Italy. Bari is served by Trenitalia, and Salerno by Italo. Note – from Salerno, Italo provides its dedicated Italobus service to connect the Salerno train station to Matera’s main bus station, on a schedule synchronized with train arrivals. By Bus – Several major bus lines link Matera to most major cities in Italy (and smaller ones in-between), with departures throughout the day. Check with the Matera Tourism office or your hotel reception for the one that best fits your schedule and destination.
  • Getting around – The only way to get around Matera is on foot. Non-resident cars are prohibited from the historic center, and aside from a couple of narrow roads at the periphery of the Sassi where cab can pick up or drop off, come prepared to walk up and down, wherever you are going.
  • Staying – Since most of the places of interest in Matera are within the relatively compact historic center, the best way to experience the city is to stay in a cave. Over the past decade, with Matera now an established tourist destination, a number of boutique hotels and bed and breakfasts at all price-points have opened throughout the Sassi. I stayed at the Hotel Residence San Giorgio Via Fiorentini 259, 75100 Matera, in the easily accessible lower part of Sasso Barisano. My spacious vaulted “cave” with its private entrance and small terrace, consisted of a living and dining area with a well-appointed kitchenette and a modern bedroom loft over the bathroom. The suite was serviced daily and all the complimentary breakfast staples, including a fresh fruit basket, replenished. There was reliable WiFi service throughout the cave. The reception office was located two minutes away, opened from 9:00 am to 7:00 pm. The staff could not have been more helpful and gracious. Definitely a keeper! Contact: tel. +39 0835 33 45 83, email staff@sangiorgio.matera.it
  • Visiting – Wear comfortable shoes, open your eyes and keep walking. A tourist guidebook should be sufficient to help you get your bearings and point you in the general direction of the main attractions. Then it’s perfectly safe and easy to explore the city independently. Should you prefer a guided tour, there are various organizations and individuals on the Piano offering tours in English. On the western side of the ravine, the Crypt of the Original Sin is located in Contrada Perrapenta, 14 kilometers (8.5 miles) south of Matera. Visit is by advanced reservation only; guides and shuttle services are available from agencies on the Piano.

Location, location, location!

Matera

Giotto’s Padua Masterpiece – The Scrovegni Chapel

Giotto’s Padua Masterpiece – The Scrovegni Chapel

Venice offers such an embarrassment of riches that the thought of taking a daytrip away from the Serenissima had always struck me as absurd. And so, a mere 30-minute train ride westward in Padua (Padova in Italian), the Scrovegni Chapel remained high on my “someday” list. Until now.

The Chapel of Atonement

Padua-Scrovegni chapel.

The chapel was originally attached to the Scrovegni Palace.

The chapel, originally adjacent to a luxurious palace built by affluent Paduan banker Enrico Scrovegni, was to serve as the family’s private oratory and funeral monument. And, so historians assure us, it was intended to atone for the sins of his father (Reginaldo Scrovegni), a moneylender with practices so vile they had landed him a part in Dante’s Divine Comedy, as one of the souls consigned to the Seventh Circle of Hell.

While the building itself, all that remains of the original estate, is an unremarkable rectangular gothic structure, the younger Scrovegni commissioned the great Tuscan master Giotto di Bondone to decorate the interior. It is there that Giotto at the height of his career, from 1303 to 1305, created a cycle of frescoes that became widely recognized as one of the most important milestones in the evolution of Western art.

The Birth of Western Art

Padua-Giotto cycle.

Giotto’s cycle is divided into three tiers of frescoes.

Under the vault of an intense blue sky sprinkled with golden stars and medallion portraits of the Evangelists, the story of the redemption of man unfolds through the lives of the Virgin Mary and Christ. The cycle is divided into 37 scenes, arranged in three tiers along the lateral walls.  The story of St. Joachim and St. Anne, the parents of the Virgin, is told on the upper right tier, Mary’s own early life is recorded on the upper left tier. The early life of Jesus and his miracles are depicted throughout the center tier, while the bottom one is dedicated to the Passions of Christ.

Padua-Giotto kiss

The kiss between St. Joachim and St. Anne is one the earliest represented in Western art

On the wall opposite the altar, the entire pictorial space is covered by the grandiose Universal Judgement. While these themes were pervasive in sacred art at the time, Giotto’s interpretation marks a radical departure from the stylized, elongated figures of the Byzantine tradition. Now the scene becomes three-dimensional, alive with the faces and gestures of living subjects. Gone are the formalized draperies; here the characters are clothed in garments that hang naturally and follow their movements. Some face inward, back turned to the viewer, creating a spatial illusion. For the first time, human emotions are shown in a realistic way, including one of the earliest representations of a kiss in Western art (The meeting of St Joachim and St. Anne at the Golden Gate).

Padua-Wedding Cana.

The Wedding at Cana is the first miracle attributed to Jesus.

This new style is so revolutionary that it is not fully understood until Masaccio’s paints the Brancacci Chapel in Florence a century later. And it is the Scrovegni Chapel that influences Michelangelo’s own Last Judgment at the Sistine Chapel (circa 1536). It is not known whether the chapel was able to make up for the sins of the father, but there can be no doubt that these dazzling frescoes paved the way for the great masters of the Renaissance.

 

 

The Monastery Next Door

Padua-Apulian Crater.

This spectacular Apulian crater is attributed the the great 4th century BCE “Truro Painter”.

The Scrovegni Chapel is now enclosed within the City Museums (Musei Civici) complex housed on the grounds of what was once a monastery for Ereminati (hermit) monks located nearby. Both are accessed through the serene gardens of the cloister, and admission to the museum is included with the chapel entrance fee.

 

Bellini’s portrait of a young senator.

Since I hadn’t given any thought to this side visit prior to the trip, the ground floor Archeological Museum is an unexpected treat. Its wealth of artifacts from local excavations and private collections provide an interesting illustration of the archeological and historical development the area, from the Paeloveneti who inhabited the area between the 10th to 4th century BCE to Roman times. There are also a number of bronze and ceramic funerary items from the Etruscan necropolis of Cerveteri, near Rome. But it is the collection donated to the museum in 1994 by Professor Calogero Casuccio that takes my breath away. Of the 170 items of Greek and Italot (Greek colony in ancient Italy, i.e. Apulia) in the Casuccio Collection, many are remarkable pieces both in terracotta and painted pottery. The most important are a group of Apulian “figured” vases, including a stunning phiale (drinking vessel) and a spectacular crater (wine urn), both attributed to eminent 4th century BCE painters.

Upstairs, the rambling Museum of Medieval and Modern Arts collection does include a few interesting works by the greats of Italian painters from the 1300s to 1800s, Bellini, Gorgione, Tiepolo, Tintoretto and Veronese among them. The highlight of the collection is the Crucifix by Giotto that was originally located on the altar of the Scrovegni Chapel.

Padua- Tanagra figurines.

Terracotta figurines from the Greek city of Tanagra (4th century BCE).

Good to Know

  • Getting There – The train ride from Venice Santa Lucia to Padua takes 30 to 45 minutes via regional train or 25 minutes with FrecciaRossa (High Speed Train). The difference between the two on the 40 kilometer (25 mile) route is not so much one of time than cost. One-way fare on the regional train is approximately €6 versus €16 with FrecciaRossa. Once in Padua, it’s a 10-minute walk straight down the Corso del Popolo, which about half-way becomes the Corso Giuseppe Garibaldi, to the Piazza Eremitani and the Scrovegni Chapel.
  • Visiting – The Scrovegni Chapel, Piazza Eremitani 6, Padua, is open all year from 9:00 am to 7:00 pm, except January 1, May 1 and December 25-26. The Musems of Archology and Medieval and Modern Art are also closed on Monday. Note – For reasons of preservation of the artwork, visit of the Scrovegni Chapel is strictly regulated and advanced booking is imperative. Booking is through the website. Visitors must collect their pre-booked tickets at the box office at least one hour before the visit. After checking their bags at the free cloakroom of the main museum building, they are expected to arrive for admission a few minutes before their allotted time. They then sit through a 15-minute audiovisual presentation in a climate-controlled air-locked chamber to allow their body humidity to be lowered and dust pollution filtered. This is to protect the frescoes from moisture and mold. Finally, the group (25 people maximum) is ushered into the chapel for 15 minutes to view the artwork.

Location, location, location!

Scrovegni Chapel

The Magic of Venice in Winter

The Magic of Venice in Winter

Venice is unique, dazzlingly so. It’s a fabled destination that belongs on everyone’s European bucket list. A distinction that during the tourist season, from Easter thorough October, turns the city of the Doges into a chaotic citywide museum, overrun by millions de visitors. At the height of the summer rush, cruise ships alone can unleash a daily stampede of up to 30,000 day-trippers onto the tiny island city. In the narrow lanes and lovely little squares along the de-rigueur circuit from the Piazza San Marco to the Rialto Bridge, foot traffic slows to a shuffle, and lines for anything from entering the Basilica to buying a gelato can reach epic proportions. But come winter, the crowds fade away and the magic of centuries past returns. The Serenissima becomes once again serene.

The Romance of Winter

Italy-Venice mist.

A gauzy mist spreads over the lagoon.

Venice is a winter place, romantic and mysterious, especially when fog drifts in across the lagoon, swathing the whole city in a gauzy mist. Come evening it becomes an eerie place where footsteps echo along empty alleyway. It can be damp too, downright wet actually when acqua alta (high tide) blurs the line between lagoon and pavement. Boardwalks are quickly set up as water rises, and pedestrians walk on unconcerned. And it can get bitingly cold when the wind whips down from the Dolomites, adding a bitter edge to the damp air as it clears the sky to a crystalline blue. Time to wrap up warmly and enjoy the exquisite golden light that brushes the lacey façade of the ancient Byzantine palazzos.

Italy-Venice canal at night

The canals become eerily quiet on winter nights.

Winter is the time when Venetians bring out their fur coats and their perfectly groomed little dogs bundled in stylish quilted jackets. Of course there are still tourists, there always are, but they are few and mainly focused on their own artistic pursuits. Local people go about their business and stop to chat in the small neighborhood squares. And this is hot chocolate season, time to dive into a cozy café for an afternoon cup of decadently rich cioccolata calda and perhaps a frittella, the plump little doughnut oozing with sweetened ricotta or zabaglione that is a pre-Lenten staple. Everywhere the mood is one of conviviality unknown once the tourists take over.

It is this wintery Venice that cast its spell on me decades ago, on the November weekend of my first visit, and draws me back every few years. Over time, I have set for myself a few necessities for an ideal Venice sojourn.

Arrive by Train

Italy-Venice train.

The train reaches the lagoon with the morning light.

Not just any train mind you, but the overnight train from Paris, one of a handful of sleeper trains still operating in Western Europe. This is not your Agatha Christie sort of train, but a comfortable, moderately priced no-frill one (complimentary welcome glass of Prosecco served with dinner in the cafeteria-style dining car notwithstanding). The private cabin I am sharing with my girlfriend is made up into two bunk beds while we dine. Traveling at pre-high-speed pace over the Alps and down the Po Valley, we ease into Venice rested, just in time to watch the sun rise over the lagoon.

Italy-Venice San Simone

Voyagers step off the train right onto the Grand Canal.

It doesn’t get any better than a morning arrival at the Santa Lucia train station, where you step out straight onto a Canaletto painting of the Grand Canal, with the regrettable but necessary contemporary addition of a major vaporetto (water bus) hub. The sudden transition into the timeless universe of Venice feels a bit surreal.

Take the Vaporetto

Italy-Venice Zattere.

The Canal of the Giudecca. offers a unique view of the Zattere Promenade.

Venice may be a puzzle of 118 islands stitched together by 400 foot bridges, but constrained within its watery boundaries, the overall city is actually quite small (about 4.5 kilometers, or 2.75 miles east to west, and 2.5 kilometers, or 1.75 miles north to south), making it possible to walk just about everywhere. Although we could walk from Santa Lucia to our Dorsoduro District hotel in about the time it takes reach it by vaporetto, only a boat approach will do. As soon as it has extricated itself from the traffic in front of the station and circled the western tip of the island, the vaporetto enters the broad outer Canal of the Giudecca. The familiar stretch of the Dorsoduro’s Zattere Promenade comes into focus, punctuated by the soaring classical façade of the Church of Santa Maria del Rosatio glowing in the morning sun. From here, Venice unfurls itself in all its splendor.

Stay in the Dorsoduro

Italy-Venice San Trovaso.

The Squero di San Trovaso is oldest gondola yard in Venice.

Located on the south side of the Grand Canal, right across from the San Marco district, the Dorsoduro is my favorite place to stay, for its authentic lived-in neighborhood atmosphere and relaxed pace. Here, housewives roll their small shopping carts to the market in the morning, and children play in the squares after school. On the San Troveso Canal that links the Giuadeca to the Grand Canal, the city’s oldest working gondola yard, the 17th century Squero di San Trovaso, one of the last two surviving in Venice, is still bustling with activity.

Italy-Venice Ca Foscari

The Ca’ Foscari University overlooks the Grand Canal.

Home to several of Venice’s leading museums, including the Gallerie dell’Accademia (Venetian paintings) and the Peggy Guggenheim Collection (modern art), the Dorsoduro is also the main university area of the city. Both the Ca’ Foscari University and the Accademia di Belle Arti (Academy of Fine Arts) are located here. Between classes, students fill the small, convivial cafés that serve inexpensive ciccheti (small snacks) at all hours. These are fun places where to pop in for a quick lunch.

But for now, lunch is still some ways off and our room won’t be ready “until afternoon.” We entrust our luggage to the desk clerk and head out to enjoy a favorite Venice pastime: wander along back alleys, cross narrow stepped bridges and peer through open doorways into hidden garden. Just get lost for a while and let the city reveal itself.

Italy-Venice Dorsoduro

Vaporetto approach of the Dorsoduro.

Good to Know

  • Getting thereThello is a subsidiary of Trenitalia (Italian Railways) formed to operate trains between the Paris Gare de Lyon and Venezia Santa Lucia railway stations with stops in Dijon, Milano Brescia, Verona, Vicenza and Padova. The refurbished Wagons-Lits Company sleeping-cars were originally built from 1964 to 1974. Each has 12 compartments with their own washbasins, usable as single, double or triple berths. Basic couchette cars with four and six berths are also available.
  • Getting aroundVaporetto The Venice public transports company, ACTV, runs efficient and punctual vaporetto lines all around the city and the outlaying islands of the lagoon. Single fare tickets are €7.5 (approximately $10 at current exchange rate). If you plan to use vaporetti frequently, travel cards are available for unlimited travel during a set period of time (24, 48 and 72 hours, or one week) at greatly reduced rates. Tickets and cards may be purchased at vaporetto stops. Time begins when you first validate your card at the yellow machine located at each vaporetto stop. Traghetto – If this ultimate Venitian tourist cliché otherwise known as a gondola ride is on your bucket list but you are put off by the extortionate rates, consider a taking a traghetto, the gondola service used by locals to cross the Grand Canal between its four widely spaced bridges. Traghetti usually run from 9:00 am to 6:00 pm at six crossing points. Rates are € 2 per crossing for non-residents.
  • Staying – There is an over-abundance of short-term lodging options throughout Venice, ranging from efficiency apartments to internationally famous luxury hotels. Prices soar during the tourist season, but return down to earth in winter. For years, my personal favorite place to stay has been La Calcina, Dorsoduro 780, Fondamenta della Zattere, 30123 Venice. While this property, family-run for generations, had long since been fully modernized, it had retained the unpretentious feel of a genteel pensione reminiscent of the days when the famous 19th century British author and art critic John Ruskin  was a long time resident there. However, on this last stay, the property had recently changed ownership. While sweeping view of the Giuadecca Canal, attentive service and realistic prices remained, the public areas had experienced a complete “update” to the stage-set style that is the norm in many Venice hotels. Our room was still unchanged but there was considerable work in progress on the upper floors of the hotel. and it’s anybody’s guess what may become of La Calcina in the near future. Contact: tel + 39 (0) 41 52 06 466, email: info@lacalcina.com.

Location, location, location!

Venice

A Corsican Road Trip – Corte to Bastia

A Corsican Road Trip – Corte to Bastia

After three days of white-knuckle driving through some of the most dramatic seascapes of the Mediterranean, the eastern coastal road that connects Corsica’s glitzy southern resort of Porto Vecchio to the major northern seaport of Bastia feels a bit humdrum. Granted, every break in the narrow band of foliage that outlines the coast reveals deserted sandy beaches and the occasional hamlet. The Tyrrhenian Sea shimmers under the pale autumn sun, and to our left, the jagged foothills are quick to morph into a serrated skyline of mountains. But that’s small stuff after the epic vistas of the Calanches of Piana.

The Spiritual Capital of Corsica

Corsica-Road to Corte.

The road to Corte snakes by ancient bridges and farmhouses

Fortunately, within little more than one hour, we zip past the unremarkable modern small town of Aliera and turn inland toward Corte. At once, the scenery becomes more spectacular, the history more obvious. The road snakes upwards through an ever-changing scenery of silvery streams, thick forests and occasional mountain peaks. We cross ancient bridges spanning deep gorges and catch glances of traditional granite farmhouses rising from the dense scrubland (or le maquis, as it is called here).

Corsica-Corte

Corte was shortly the capital of independent Corsica.

Eventually, we reach Corte, the brooding citadel city on its precipitous rocky spur dominating the confluence of the Tavignano and Restinica rivers. Its daunting 15th century fortress presides over a warren of cobbled alleys, with newer streets spreading down the face of the ravine below. This is the spiritual heart of Corsica, where its great hero Pascal Paoli established a democratic parliament during the island’s brief period of independence from 1755 to 1768. Today, it remains a mainstay of Corsican nationalism, as well as an administrative center and the seat of the University of Corsica.

Corsica-Corte Gaffory.

The façade of General Gaffory’s ancestral home still bears the mark of Genoese bullets.

We settle for a lunch of hearty local lamb stew at one of the sunny terraces on the Place Gaffory, at the edge of the medieval town. The square is named after General Jean Pierre Gaffory, one of the towering figures of the Corsican revolution, and Corte’s most revered native son. His statue dominates the space, resolutely standing in front of his ancestral home, where the stone façade still bears the scars inflicted in 1745 by dozens of Genoese bullets, lest anyone would doubt of the independent spirit and long memory of the people of Corte.

The Forests of Castasgniccia

Corsica-Ponte Leccia.

The village of Ponte Leccia sitls among the chestnut forests.

From there, we meander northeast toward Bastia, Corsica’s main commercial port, at the base of the Cap Corse Peninsula, through some of the largest chestnut forests in Europe, the Castagniccia region. The trees that gave the region its name were planted in the Middle Ages to ensure a reliable source of food. In addition to bread made with chestnut flour, the nuts find their way in many traditional dishes including the local version of polenta and even a type of Corsican beer.

Back in Bastia

Corsica-Bastia St Nic.

Ferries slide by the quay along the Place Saint Nicholas.

For our last night on the island we stay at the recently opened waterfront Hotel Port Toga, conveniently located just across the waterfront from the commercial port and the Toga marina. Its central location places it within an easy stroll of the Place Saint Nicholas, the broad 300-meter (1,000-foot) long, palm tree-lined waterfront avenue in the center of Bastia. Another 15-minute seaside walk takes us to the Vieux Port (Old Harbor).

Corsica-Bastia old port.

The old port of Bastia has become a trendy marina.

Founded by the Genoese in the late 14th century and protected by a mighty bastion, Bastia was capital of Corsica until 1811 when Napoleon demoted it in favor of his birthplace, Ajaccio. Tucked into a narrow cove, its old harbor has become a popular marina much thought after by pleasure and fishing boats, and the old docks are lined with cafés and trendy eateries. But the original fishing village, the Terra Vecchia (Old Land), remains a maze of narrow lanes and tightly packed tenement houses leading to the citadel (circa 1378).

Corsica-Bastia Terra Vecchia.

The Terra Vecchia fishing village remains a maze of colorful tenement houses.

After this last leisurely day of taking in the rich history of Corsica, we wander back to the commercial port for one final bit of daredevil driving: negotiating the process of wedging our car into one of the cavernous garage decks of the overnight ferry that will take us to mainland France. Then, our bags hastily dropped off in our cabin, we hurry to the upper deck lounge for one last look at the enigmatic mountain island fading to black in the Mediterranean night.

Corsica-Bastia Panorama.

The Old Port and Terra Vecchia of Bastia.

 

Good to Know

  • Getting there – Corsica is a French island located some 200 kilometers (120 miles) off the French Riviera. By air: It is served by regular flights year-round from several French mainland airports to Ajaccio, Bastia, Calvi and Figari. From May to September seasonal low-cost airlines also offer frequent flights to and from other European destinations. By sea: there are three major ferry lines serving the island’s six ferry ports (Ajaccio, Bastia, Calvi, Île Rousse, Porto- Vecchio and Propriano) that can be reached from Marseille, Toulon and Nice. There are daily overnight and daytime crossings year round and more during the summer season. We sailed with Corsica Ferries between Toulon to Bastia.
  • Getting Around – There are limited train and bus connections between the main destinations around Corsica. However the majority of visitors travel by car to make the most of the stunning scenery.
  • Staying –For our stay in Bastia, we chose the newly opened Hotel Port Toga, Rond Point de Toga, 201200 Bastia, for its convenient central location across from the ferry terminal, its walking proximity to the historic Old Port, and its comfortable, well appointed rooms with sea view balconies. But what made our stay memorable was the attentive welcome of the staff, especially the desk manager Pauline Meignen, whose thoughtfulness made her a charming ambassadress for the property and the city in general. Contact: phone +33(0) 4 95 34 91 00, emailcontact@hotel-port-toga.com.

A Few Souvenirs

Location, location, location!

Corte

Bastia

A Corsican Road Trip – Piana to Bonifacio

A Corsican Road Trip – Piana to Bonifacio

This is Day Two of our Corsican road trip, and mid-morning by the time we leave the tiny seaside resort of Porto with its monumental Genoese watchtower. At its back, the jagged peaks of the Monte Cinco Mountains are just starting to emerge from the autumn mist.

The Calanches of Piana

Corsica-Calanches Piana.

The porphyry pinnacles of the Calanches of Piana.

The road immediately begins to snake up through a dazzling landscape of wind-carved porphyry cliffs dropping vertically into the dark aquamarine sea. Across a ravine, we catch a glimpse at the sleepy village of Piana, its faded pastel houses clinging halfway up the mountainside to better dominate the gulf in the distance. We are heading south on the coastal road through the UNESCO World Heritage Site of the Calanches of Piana. The cliffs, eroded into precipitous pinnacles, tower some 300 meters (one thousand feet) above the sea. With each turn, the light changes and the rock formations go from honey to russet to red. This cliff-edge road is not for the faint of heart and I am once again grateful I am not driving! This barely 12 kilometer (7.5 miles) long stretch takes us a solid hour.

South to Sartène

Corsica-Sartène.

The mountaintop village of Sartène is a medieval labyrinth of granite alleyways.

We continue south between the mountain and the sea. The road becomes a bit tamer. The signs that have been warning of possible rock falls are replaced by reminders to beware of sheep crossings as we approach small farming villages. We give a passing look at the enigmatic village of Sartène with its tall houses of gray granite blending chameleon-like into the mountain scenery upon which they are anchored. Its labyrinth of ever-narrower passageways and stairs lend credibility to its long history rife with banditry and vendetta. After a roadside picnic lunch overlooking in the distance the 19th century port of Propriano, we loop toward the southeastern shore of the island and the glitzy resort town of Porto Vecchio.

Porto Vecchio

Corsica-Porto Vecchio Belvedere.

Our waterfront hotel, Le Belvédère, faces the old city of Porto Vecchio and the mountains across the gulf.

Like all self-respecting Corsican seashore cities, Porto Vecchio boasts a quaint old town of narrow cobbled streets, strategically perched on a knoll and encircled by imposing Genoese fortifications. For centuries, the city was surrounded by salt marches infested with malaria-bearing mosquitoes that prevented the development of the shore until well into the 20th century. In recent decades, with the marshes finally drained, Porto Vecchio has developed into a stylish seaside resort with a deep natural marina, trendy boutique hotels and lively harbor restaurants. To the south, the area is also blessed with some of the most famous white sand beaches on the island, most notably Palombaggia, lined with ancient umbrella pines, and the mile-long Santa Guilia. Both are big draws with summer tourists

For us, however, what makes Porto Vecchio an especially attractive  two-night stopover is its easy access to the legendary cliff-top city of Bonifacio.

A Medieval Marvel

Corsica-Bonifacio Madonetta

The Madonetta (little Madonna) lighthouse guards the entrance of the fjord-like Bonifacio harbor.

It’s a mere 27 kilometers (17 mile) from Porto Vecchio to Bonifacio, on the straightest, flattest road we have encountered so far anywhere since driving off the ferry in the northeastern port of Bastia. Within forty-five minutes, our car easily parked in the harborside lot, half-empty on this brilliant autumn morning, we board a departing boat for a tour of the coastline.

Corsica-Bonifacio.

The cliff-top city of Bonifacio is best viewed from the sea.

The oldest fortress city in Corsica, Bonifacio was founded in 828 A.D. by, and subsequently named after, Count Bonifacio II of Tuscany. Upon his return from a naval expedition against the Saracens in North Africa, he resolved to build an unassailable outpost at the farthest marine reaches of his domains. The resulting medieval city is a stretch of tightly packed, narrow houses teetering at the edge of a 70-meter (230 foot) high limestone cliffs riddled with sea caves. Rising straight from the turquoise sea, it offers one of the most dramatic seascape I’ve seen anywhere in the Mediterranean.

The cliffs are riddled with sea caves.

Back on firm ground, we take the arduous steps of the Montée Rastello (Rastello Climb) to the Genoa Gate. Until 1854, it was the only access into the citadel and its warren of narrow Romanesque alleys where little has changed in a millennium. Our random wanderings eventually end up on the ramparts. From there, the view of the cliffs extends all the way to Cap Pertusato, five kilometers (three miles)  to the southeast and the southernmost point of metropolitan France. A bit further south, across the 12 kilometer (7.5-mile) shimmering expanse of the Bonifacio Straight, the outline of the Italian Island of Sardinia undulates on the horizon.

Corsica-Cap Pertusato.

From the ramparts, the view extends to Cap Pertusato, the southernmost point of metropolitan France

Good to Know

  • Getting there – Corsica is an island located some 200 kilometers(120 miles) off the French Riviera. By air: It is served by regular flights year-round from several French mainland airports to Ajaccio, Bastia, Calvi and Figari (north of Bonifacio). From May to September, seasonal low-cost airlines also offer frequent flights to and from other European destinations. By sea: there are three major ferry lines serving the island’s six ferry ports (Ajaccio, Bastia, Calvi, Île Rousse, Porto-Vecchio and Propriano, that can be reached from Marseille, Toulon and Nice. There are daily overnight and daytime crossings year round and more during the summer season. We sailed with Corsica Ferries between Toulon to Bastia. However, if Bonifacio is your main destination, its easiest access is via the Italian island of Sardinia. Frequent ferries by Moby Lines and Blu Navy link the town with Santa Teresa Gallura, right across the Straight of Bonifacio.
  • Getting Around – There are limited train and bus connections between the main destinations around Corsica. However the majority of visitors travel by car to make the most of the stupendous scenery.
  • Staying – To explore the southern part of the island, we made our base in the Porto Vecchio, where a broad range of accommodation options can satisfy all preferences and budgets. We chose the four-star boutique Hotel Le Belvédère , Route de Palombaggia, 20137 Porto Vecchio, for its idyllic waterfront setting immediately across the gulf from the old town. Scattered within a well groomed park, under a canopy of mature umbrella pines and eucalyptus trees, the property consists of 19 bungalow-style rooms and suites with private terraces and garden views. The public areas included a gourmet restaurant, grill and bar. All open onto sprawling seaside terraces. Contact: e-mail info@hbcorsica.com, tel. +33 (0)4 95 70 54 13.
  • Visiting Bonifacio – There are several companies running boat excursions out of the harbor. All have ticket booths lined along the quay at the head of the harbor, and offer more or less the same routes at comparable prices. We took the “one hour trip” (actual sailing time about 45 minutes) with the  Société des Promenades de Bonifacio (SDPB).Their comprehensive itinerary took us along the cliffs below the old town, the sea caves and inside the one of the bigger ones, to a couple of secluded inlets.

Location, location, location!

Bonifacio

Piana, Corsica

A Corsican Road Trip – Bastia to the Gulf of Porto

A Corsican Road Trip – Bastia to the Gulf of Porto

The overnight ferry from Toulon, the main naval and commercial port of the French Riviera, pulls into Bastia harbor in the bleak November dawn. Corsica rises from the Mediterranean like the lost continent of an old fairytale. Dull yellow lights haloed with fog outline an imposing fortification wall. Above it, a sleepy medieval town blend into the dark shadow of a mountain.

First Glimpse at Corsica – Bastia to Saint Florent

Corsica-Bastia dawn.

The port city of Bastia emerges from the Mediterranean dawn.

By the time my long time friend Kathleen, an expert and enthusiastic driver, has extracted our rented car from the jaws of the ferry, the pale morning sun has brought the waterfront to life. We leave the now bustling port city and head west into the mountains, snaking up the southern edge of Cap Corse, the narrow peninsula at the northern tip of the island. The scenery emerges from the morning mist, revealing ever-changing vistas with every hairpin turn.

Corsica-Patrimonio.

The village of Patrimonio is famous for its vineyards.

It’s a mere 17 kilometers (10 miles) from Bastia to the ancient mountainside village of Patrimonio, but due to the combined effects of the narrow squiggly mountain road and my constant requests for photo stops, it takes us almost one hour to cover the distance.The village finally comes into view, a cluster of sturdy stone houses overlooking a vast expanses of vineyards famed since Antiquity for their red, white and Muscat wines. Considered by many as the finest wine region on the island, Patrimonio was the first to gain the coveted AOC (Appelation d’Origine Controlée or protected designation of origin) status in 1968.

Corsica-Saint Florent.

The mountains of Cap Corse dominate the Gulf of Saint Florent.

From here, it’s 8 kilometers (5 miles) of downhill zigzags to Saint Florent, a small fishing port turned popular tourist destination. At the height of the season its renowned marina is filled with posh international yachts. However, on this sunny November morning the main attraction is the tiny medieval village huddled around its circular 15th Century Genoese watchtower, and overlooking the turquoise waters of its perfect half-moon bay.

From Île Rousse to Calvi

Corsica-Ile Rousse.

The city of Île Rousse takes its name from its offshore outcrops of red porphyry.

We are on the coastal road now, heading south toward Calvi with a halfway coffee break in Île Rousse, another picturesque resort town notable mainly in that, unlike almost every other important city in Corsica, it doesn’t trace back to the Genoese. Rather, it was founded in18th century by Corsican patriot leader Pascal Paoli, in an attempt to steer trade away from Calvi, which had failed to support the nationalist rebellion that briefly brought independence to the island. Even so, just offshore on the Île de la Pietra, the big promontory of copper porphyry that gave the town its name, a typical circular fortified watchtower reminds today’s visitors that starting in the 13th century, the Republic of Genoa ruled over Corsica for half a millennium. And had to defend the island from frequent raids by Ottoman pirates.

Corsica-Sant Antonino.

From its dominant position in the Balagne Mountains, Sant’Antonino overlooks the sea.

By then, the original inhabitants of the island had long tired of the waves of uninvited visitors with pillage on their mind and taken refuge into their rugged mountains to settle atop the highest vantage points available, distant water view preferred. On a whim we decide on a detour by the eagle’s nest village of Sant’Antonino (circa 9th century). This walled village with its picturesque houses, quaint alleyways and covered passages winding around a granitic outcrop some 500 meters (1600 feet) above sea level, is deservedly considered one of the most beautiful villages in France. And that’s not even taking into account the sensational views of the surrounding Balagne Mountains, their flanks covered with ancient olive groves and chestnut forests, all the way to the sea.

From Calvi to Porto

Corsica-Calvi fortress.

The fortress of Calvi stands out against the Balagne Mountains.

It’s past lunchtime by the time we reach Calvi, the largest port city on the northwestern side of the island. Its sheltered bay backing up to the mountains, large marina and five kilometers (three miles) of white sand beaches make it a favorite of cosmopolitan tourists. For the best perspective of the city, we decide on a picnic on the ramparts of the citadel that towers above the port. Built over several centuries, the fortifications enclose an entire small town with vantage points that offer dazzling views across the harbor and along the rocky coast.

Corsica-Scandola Reserve

The Scandola Peninsula is hewn from red porphyry cliffs tumbling into the sea.

Although unsubstantiated, Calvi (along with several other cities including Genoa) steadfastly hangs on to its claim to be the birthplace of Christopher Columbus, and even points visitors to his purported birth home right inside the citadel. We pass on the opportunity and continue south toward the Gulf of Porto.

Corsica-Gulf of Porto.

A Genoese tower guards the Gulf of Porto.

By now, just as we think we’ve gotten used the narrow, constantly winding roller-coaster of Corsican roads, the ride from Calvi to Porto reaches new, stomach-churning heights. Hewn high into the red porphyry cliffs of the Scandola Peninsula, this stretch consists of 80 kilometers (50 miles) of endless switchbacks clinging to the rock face between pinnacles and ravines. This road skirts the edge of the spectacular Scandola Nature Reserve, a UNESCO-listed World Heritage Site covering 900 hectares (2200 acres) of gnarled claw-like inlets, hidden coves and offshore islands rising from 1000 hectares (2500) of crystalline turquoise waters.

Overnight in Porto

Corsica-Porto sunset.

Sunset over the Genoese tower of Gulf of Porto.

This first day of our Corsican adventure ends in the quiet seashore village of Porto, deep in a remote creek of the Gulf. Thanks to its ideal location in the heart of the most scenic landscapes on the western side of the island, it had developed over the past few decades into a laidback tourist destination. From our seaside balcony at one of the small hotels that now line the waterfront, we enjoy watching the sun set over (what else?) the commanding Genoese tower perched on a rocky crag at the mouth of the Porto river.

Gulf of Porto panorama.

Good to Know

  • Getting there – Corsica is a French island located some 200 kilometers(120 miles) off the French Riviera coast. By air: It is served year round by regular flights from several French mainland airports to Ajaccio, Bastia, Calvi and Figari (north of Bonifacio). From May to September seasonal lowcost airlines also offer frequent flights to and from other European destinations. By sea: Three major ferry lines serve the island’s six ferry ports (Ajaccio, Bastia, Calvi, Île Rousse, Porto- Vecchio and Propriano, that can be reached from Marseille, Toulon and Nice. There are daily overnight and daytime crossings year round, with additional ones during the summer season. On this recent trip, we sailed with Corisca Ferries between Toulon to Bastia.
  • Getting around – There are limited train and bus connections between the main destinations around the island. However the majority of visitors travel by car to make the most of the stupendous scenery.
  • Where to stay – For this first of our four-night trip, we stayed at the pleasant, full-service, 24-room, three-star seaside hotel Le Subrini, La Marine de Porto, 20150 Porto-Ota, France. Contact: tel. +33(0)4 95 26 14 94, e-mail subrini@hotels-porto.com.

A Few Souvenirs

Location, location, location!

Bastia

Golf of Porto, Corsica

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