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Vacation, à La Corse with “un Bon Espoir”

You can either travel from place to place adding to your list of cities or countries of which you have visited, working down your ‘bucket list,’ or you can return to the same little spot on the planet over and over again until it feels like home.

I like both kinds of traveling. Sure, there are so many amazing places to see in this world that the list of places to visit is really long, but unless you stay somewhere any real length of time or visit it often, then you’re not really doing much more than ‘seeing’ the place and you will miss the best part of the adventure.

Going often to Nice as I’ve come to do and then every year making an annual vacation trip to Corsica, even for just that one week a year, has a level of comfort attached to it. These little spots on the planet have become more like home with each sojourn.

If you follow some of our Parler Nice missives, then you will know about our friends that live there: “Henri le Cactus” — even taller than ever and his three ‘pups’ are even larger. He smiles when I arrive and he sees me smiling to see him so happy. “Henrietta la Cactus” is doing well, too. She is now happily ensconced on the mosaic table on the balcony at Le Matisse — the table we brought from Paris in a rental car that once resided in “Le Provençal.”

The drive down to Nice from Paris was more enjoyable than we anticipated, stopping at the “Auberge La Beursaudiere” in the tiny enclave of Nitry for a leisurely lunch along the way. That in itself was a pleasant surprise — to discover such a beautiful, elegant and delicious lunch “par hazard” along the Autoroute A6. It also helped to have rented a really nice car (Alfa Romeo), worth the extra bucks for a comfortable 1,000 kilometer drive.

After much deliberation, we headed straight into Nice without another stop, dropped off our luggage at Le Matisse and went immediately to have dinner at one of my favorite Niçois restaurants, Il Vicoletto.

Nice was seriously nice, even for just two days. One day we camped out on the pebbles in Nice (when are they going to spread sand?) to catch some rays and some waves, then another day we drove along the Riviera coast to Menton to put our toes in the sand and have a seriously respectable lunch at a seaside restaurant. There was time to visit with friends and go to some of our favorite haunts, then we hopped on a plane and within minutes landed in the city of Calvi on the French island of Corsica.

Normally we complain that there’s not enough room in the car for the rafts without deflating them, so this year we outsmarted the rafts and rented a much larger car. Almost like a small bus, the Peugeot “Partner” had plenty of space for the rafts, the “noodles,” our luggage and us, and “en plus,” provided a panoramic view out of its expansive windows. It was perfect.

Algajola looked just like Algajola always looks — charming. This small village has a beautiful beach, a dozen good restaurants and a few nice small hotels. Our rental apartment is a duplex that sits on the top of the hill overlooking the water with three bedrooms, two baths, a large living room/dining room/kitchen and a very large terrace with a Jacuzzi and a big electrically-operated awning for shade.

It’s absolute heaven, in spite of its few shortcomings — like lack of trash cans, lack of fans (one level is air-conditioned, but the bedroom level is not) and basic stock (sugar, salt, pepper, etc.) that would never be missing in one of our own rental apartments. The “patronne” is an adorable Corsican woman who makes it all very easy, but we always laugh about how perfect it would be if she thought like an American instead of a Corsican and equipped the apartment a bit better! This doesn’t stop us from enjoying it, nonetheless.

Every year we have the same lament about Corsica — that the kind of tourists that come there are a mix of Italians and French who are well-heeled, but not wealthy. They are well behaved and well dressed, but not flashy. There are almost no American tourists. They haven’t discovered the island…yet.

There are a few Americans who live in Corsica, some of whom we’ve come to know with our visits there, but the community isn’t very large. In fact, the only American voices we heard all week long were our own and our American resident friends’.

The few ‘altercations’ we have are usually with the Corsicans themselves, who are a breed of their own. Their general build and stature — short, stocky, dark, proud — immediately signal ‘native’ rather than ‘tourist.’ A few interesting such situations occurred during the week with native Corsicans. The owner of a restaurant on the beach in Ile Rousse, where we literally sat with our toes in the sand, wasn’t pleased that I told her the “moules marinière” were too salty. Without hesitation she stuck her hand in my caldron of mussels, dug one out, tasted it and told me I was wrong — they were absolutely delicious! We were stunned, but found it hilariously amusing.

Another time I turned left into a parking place as another driver tried to pass me on the left as I was turning, thereby cutting him off. As I stopped the car in the parking place, he stopped his car, too, in the middle of the oncoming traffic, got out, came over and actually opened my door and proceeded to yell at me for the maneuver!…to which I asked him, “What were you doing driving on the wrong side of the street, Monsieur?” and promptly shut my own door. Beware, Corsica is not for sissies.

The beaches are what vacation in Corsica is all about. The beaches are drop dead stunning, particularly in this part of the island between St. Florent and Galéria. They are not all so easy to get to as is Aregno Plage at Algajola or the white sands at Ile Rousse, but the natives and tourists manage to find a way down to the aqua-colored coves, by car or boat.

If you are brave and have a good sturdy car as we did, Mar a Beach west of Calvi is one of those. The rocky road down will make you either white knuckled or tough. These are the treks for which I became the designated driver as none of my other compatriots had the nerve (or stupidity).

Our opinion is that Mar a Beach is not worth the insane drive down the steepest and rockiest road you’ve ever seen as there are no “transats” (lounge chairs) or parasols and the water is a bit cloudy from the onslaught of boats that insist on coming close into the shallow water.

Pain de Sucre beach is downright gorgeous and the clear aqua water is pure heaven, but the transats are reserved years in advance, the bathers there are as snooty as if they were in Saint-Tropez and the restaurant is expensive, even if not better than others on other beaches. Access to this beach isn’t as easy as Aregno Plage, but doesn’t hold a candle to the treachery of Mar a Beach, so it’s doable and worth at least one visit during the week.

The beaches in Ile Rousse and Calvi are simply too large and too public for our tastes and there are too many boats in the harbor to make beaching it all that interesting. But understand…I’d never say ‘no’ to one of those beaches, either.

Aregno Plage at Algajola is our #1 for a lot of reasons. It’s beautiful, clean, simple to get to and has all the amenities any civilized ‘lizard’ needs for a perfect beach day. These amenities include transats with parasols, not overly expensive and there are several really good restaurants. The sand is course and doesn’t stick, so it’s a bit cleaner than most; it’s not overcrowded and the people on this beach don’t have too much ‘attitude.’

After years of testing every side of the island, this northern coast is my favorite, but one of these days we’re going to rent a yacht to go from cove to cove and see the entire coastline of Corsica. That would be the best treat of all.

The same day we took our lives in our own hands by descending to and ascending from Mar a Beach, we decided to head in the other direction into the mountains to Sant’Antonino. We only got lost a few times along the hair-pin-turn roads overlooking the sea before landing in the hilltop village that is 500 miles above sea level with a population of only 100, each of which must own a restaurant!

Mid summer, getting a reservation in any of them is not so easy thanks to their Corsican cuisine, charming atmosphere and magnificent views. Be prepared to climb by car and then again by foot to reach the top and order up Corsican cuisine, such as “cinghiale stufato all’arancia (wild boar with tagliatelle) and “cannelloni brocciu e menta” (brocciu cheese and mint) at A Stalla, one of the best of the bunch (20220 Sant’Antonino, phone +33(0)495613374).

One rainy gray day we took a drive to Galéria, a tiny commune of a bit more than 300 inhabitants south of Calvi on route to the Réserve Naturelle de Scandola. It has a small port, small beach and small sweet restaurant named La Cabane du Pêcheur (Route de Bord de Mer, 20245 Galéria, phone: +33(0)495610032) where everything was fresh — fish caught by the owner himself — and prepared in an inventive way.

At the table next to us was a cyclist with whom we all fell in love. Jean-Charles Pentecouteau is traveling about 3,500 kilometers all over France and Corsica discovering the wines of the various regions and writing about it. Armed with more equipment than clothing (cameras, computers, etc.) brilliantly balanced on his bike, he was all alone and obviously having the time of his life.

The road along the coast to Calvi from Galéria is once again, not for the faint of heart. We started out on the trek and turned around before we got too far thinking we might have more adventure than we could handle, but discovered it the next day from the other end “par hazard” — when we missed the exit to Mar a Beach and went driving way too far. One of our crew experienced a serious bout of acrophobia and had to find refuge in the back seat of the Partner. (These kinds of drives stir the adrenaline and it’s here I’m seriously in my element!)

I had a similar experience two days earlier, but with agoraphobia when we visited the E.Leclerc monster of a store in Ile Rousse. We might as well have been in Old Delhi instead of a “supermarché” surrounded by hoards of tourists stocking up on their supplies for their week at the beach. I had to head for cover and vowed never to enter such a grotesque establishment the rest of my life. If you want the best of Corsica, you may want to avoid it, too. Stick with the little, less complicated, less visited markets.

One person in our group owns a car that she keeps at her Provençal home. She was told that Corsican license plates would keep her safe — “No one messes with the Corsicans!,” her Provençal friend had said. This was an amazingly easy task, unlike in the U.S. She made one stop to a “gravure,” spent 20€ and five minutes and out she came with her new license plates with the Corsican department tag of “2B.” We added to her new ‘look’ a decal to put in her window of the Corsican symbol — an unblindfolded Moor’s head.

Our last day on the French island, we opted out of the beach and onto a boat to visit the Nature Reserve of Scandola and the little cove town of Girolata, to which has no other access than by boat. Lots of different “promenades en mer” are available from all the major port towns to visit the reserve. The beauty of the rock formations and wild life will strike you with awe, as it does us every year when we return. At the top of Girolata, up many stairs, there is a restaurant named “Le Bon Espoir” which inevitably gets marked as our best meal the entire stay…but sadly, it’s not the easiest to get to!

Until next year…same time, same place.

A la prochaine,

Adrian Leeds
Editor of Parler Nice
The Adrian Leeds Group

(In Corsica, 2015)


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