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