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
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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 email@example.com.