The Great Escape, of Corse
The flight to Calvi was more than two hours late leaving the Nice airport. When one is anxious for something to begin, as we were for the start of our vacation on the French island of Corsica, every minute of waiting seemed like an eternity. We were literally the last people to leave the Calvi airport — the airport lights had been shut down and no one else was visible, except the Europcar clerk at the counter who handed us the keys to the rental car and said “Passez de Bonnes Vacances.”
So, by the time we pulled into Algajola and met with the owner of the apartment we rented (as long ago as last February), we were ready for the vacation “games to begin.”
L’Ecrin” was beyond our expectations: a newly-built three-bedroom/two-bath duplex overlooking the sea with two large terraces and with a Jacuzzi for four on one of them. Considering our very rustic accommodations in years past, this was akin to staying in the Hôtel Ritz in Paris compared to an Ibis on the “périphérique.” We thought we had died and gone to heaven. Immediately spoiled by the ‘fab digs,’ we asked if we could reserve it again for next year without thinking twice.
Algajola is an unknown little enclave on the northern coast between Calvi and Ile Rousse. The tiny seaside village is old and quite picturesque. The beach is one of the best on the island, is very accessible, with shallow, calm aqua-blue warm waters, grainy sand, rental chairs and umbrellas and to top it off, several good restaurants. The beach was a five-minute walk downhill from the apartment and is not as public as some of the larger beaches, nor so secluded that it gets a mixed and family-style crowd.
The location is ideal, between the cities if Calvi and Ile Rousse with formidable beaches in between and beyond both cities. Calvi is where (according to legend), Christopher Columbus supposedly came from which at the time was part of the Genoese Empire. Ile Rousse was founded in 1758 by Pasquale Paoli to create a port that would not be in the hands of the Genoese like Calvi, who is also responsible for having written the constitution of the state. Year after year of vacationing in Corsica, testing every side of the island, we’ve come to the conclusion that this part of the island is best for best beaches, best enclaves and best scenery. Both cities, Ile Rousse and Calvi, are fun to visit — shop the shops, gawk at the yachts, lick an ice cream, have dinner and people watch.
Ile Rousse is more manageable than Calvi as it’s smaller, parking is simpler and the central square is lovely. The beach there is a fine white sand and several restaurants along the beach serve dinner directly on the beach so you can take off your shoes and dig your toes right in. Each year I’ve managed to pick the worst of the bunch, but no matter, the atmosphere at the water’s edge is worth a mediocre meal.
Calvi demands a more serious visit as the Citadelle, it’s symbol, was built at the time of the Genoese occupation between 1483 and 1545. There are beautiful monuments to see as well as the home of Christopher Columbus and the home of Laurent Giubegga where Napoleon lived in 1793.
One of the things I have always liked about vacationing in Corsica is the type of tourists it attracts. Upper middle class French, Italians and Germans love the island and the mix makes for a well-behaved, well-dressed, but not flashy visitor. There are virtually no Americans — they simply haven’t discovered the island yet. This year the number of holiday-makers is clearly less than usual. It wasn’t too difficult to get a lounge chair on the beach or a table at a restaurant. In the past, it’s been a lot busier. The state of the French economy — or perhaps it was the recent ferry strikes — contributed to the Coricans’ slower-than-usual business.
The island itself is a perfect blend of the French and Italian cultures. The architecture is more Italian in style, but it’s better tended and more manicured than the Italian countryside. The cuisine is uniquely Corsican, however again, while there is an abundance of pastas and Italian influence, there is a bit more time taken to make it as visually appealing as tasty. The Corsicans are friendly and happy to have the tourists and while many would rather be independent from France, realize they can’t survive on their own and with so little industry other than tourism to keep them running year-round.
We loved testing a new beach every day — even those we hadn’t been to in years past. Each beach is different and every year I pledge to rate them and write a guide to the best beaches in Corsica, and perhaps other beaches in other spots around the world…but this is all ‘fantasy land.’ Instead, it’s just fun to be adventurous and see how the beach day pans out.
Corican beaches range from the coursest of sand, almost rocks like on Nice’s beach and even some that are huge smooth rocks leading directly to the water, however most are sandy and can be from course to the finest of white sand. Algajola’s sand is course in the way that it doesn’t stick to your skin or towels like powdery sand making it very tolerable.
The water at most of the beaches seems to be very shallow for a long time rendering the color a pale aqua and usually the water is calm and warm, perfect for floating on rafts for-almost-ever. Rafts and parasols are the first things we run out to purchase. One year in Algajola, I fell asleep on a raft for two hours rendering my lips grossly overinflated with sun poison! Now, I wear a hat!
Not all beaches offer the rental of “matelas” (mats or beach chairs) and parasols, but if you have a raft you can inflate and an parasol you can open, then it’s not all that necessary (even if more pleasant to have the luxury). Almost all beaches have a café or restaurant, so it’s unlikely you’ll be for wont of anything.
We forewent one beach day to take a boat cruise to the Scandola Reserve and the small hamlet of Girolata. The Scandola Nature Reserve is a World Heritage Site on the central western coast with two sectors (the Elpa Nera inlet and the peninsula of Scandola), jagged and sheer cliffs that contain many grottos, flanked by numerous stacks and almost inaccessible islets and coves. The coastline of red cliffs, some 900 meters high, is one of the most beautiful sights of the island.
Girolata is accessible only by sea and a path from the Col de la Croix on the D81 road or through the south via the trail “Mare e Monti.” The boat made a two-hour stop there where we had a glorious lunch overlooking the harbor at Le Bon Espoir.
Don’t just devote all your time to the water, though — the mountains and the tiny villages are spectacular. Sant’Antonino is one of those worth a special visit, a drink or a dinner. Sitting 500 meters above sea level on a granite outcrop just south of Algajola, you climb high by car, and then by foot on the stairs and steep pathways where there are only 75 houses welded together forming “an embryo maze to better resist any invader.” (Wikipedia.fr) Enjoy the views and the beautiful sunsets from a restaurant or bar perched up high like we did.
Every night we would choose to dine somewhere different — at a restaurant in each of the major towns, one evening (at least) in the mountains and sometimes in our ‘home town’ of Algajola where “Le Chariot” is the center of activity and serves good food at reasonable prices. Just a bit outside of center, but walking distance from the Citadelle in Calvi, is where we had our finest meal of the week — “U Fanale” (Route de Porto, Quartier Mozello, 20260 Calvi, +33 (0)4 95 65 18 82) — thanks to readers of Parler Paris/Parler Nice, Kirsten and Jim Delara, who have a second home in Calvi.
Ferme Auberge Chez Edgard in the mountain town of Lavatoggio is one of those ‘musts’ that once you’ve done it, you’ve done it. It’s a large restaurant on a beautiful outdoor terrace serving authentic Corsican farm-raised products and regional specialties including meats roasted on an open spit. A five-course meal is 36 and one meal enough for two, so be prepared. Truth is, we had many superior meals and while Chez Edgard was copious and delicious, there were other meals we enjoyed more or as much.
No meal went unaccompanied by rosé wine. Corsican rosés are among the absolute best, originating from Italian grape varieties. Patrimonio was the first AOC (Appellation d’origine contrôlée), but there are now nine AOC regions. We might have tried to taste every one, but Clos Culombu, a wine from the Calvi region, became one of our favorites. Pale in color and crisp and light, it simply went down too easy.
One thing we noticed after dining seriously well wherever we went was the overall improvement in the quality of the restaurants — getting more sophisticated all the time — and the prices having gone up. It’s their one time of year to ‘make hay while the sun shines’ — so it’s tough to blame them for taking advantage of the vacation season…and it DID SHINE…only a few bits of clouds, but otherwise gorgeous warm, sunny weather — not too hot.
Now that I’ve been back in Nice for less than two days to ‘regroup’ and head back to Paris later today by train, I can look back at yet another stupendously wonderful vacation on the French island that Americans have managed to overlook — for what reason it escapes me…as Corsica IS the “Great Escape.”
A la prochaine…
(in Algajola, Corsica)
P.S. Read what Lennox Morrison of the BBC wrote about “How to buy a dream flat in an even dreamier city” after interviewing me and other property professionals.
And don’t miss the in-depth article by Parler Paris/Parler Nice reader and friend, Liz Alderman, in a New York Times article titled “An Epicurean Village Is Too Rich for Some Paris Appetites” — about what’s happening in the upper west side of Le Marais thanks to a French entrepreneur. Two Parler Paris Apartments will benefit — Le Luxe d’Argent and Le Bien Illuminé!
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