Tan, Relaxed and Ready…of “Corse”
I must have been a lizard in another life…although there weren’t any lizards on the beaches of Corsica. What there was, however, was an awful lot of young (and older) handsome men (the Italians) in Speedos, many in Dayglo colors so you couldn’t miss a thing. The women, in general, couldn’t hold a candle to the dashing dark guys, apparent that they have succumbed to downing too much pasta or croissants for their itty bitty teeny weeny bikinis.
We spent six consecutive days on the beaches north and south of Porto Vecchio on the southeastern side of Corsica discovering which beaches are best, working on tans (we can’t show off because it’s already too cold and rainy in Paris), contemplating our navels and watching humanity at play. Humanity in Corsica consists of the French and Italians, sprinkled with a few Germans and virtually no North Americans. (We heard English spoken only twice or thrice.)
You can tell the origins of the tourists immediately. The Italian women are the only who still leave their bikini tops in their beach bags. One woman about my age with particularly large perky breasts stood for ages in one spot with her hands on her hips in hopes everyone would admire her. Their male counterparts were the ones in tiny bottoms strutting their stuff, with beautiful thick wavy hair (black or peppered). There were hoards of young children on the beaches we baked on, who were well behaved in typically European fashion.
Christa Kollig, a German woman I met on the beach of the Greek island of Mykonos in 1979 has joined me almost every year since for a beach vacation, out of tradition and our mutual admiration of the seashore. She’s every bit as much a lizard as I am, except that her fair skin doesn’t tan quite as deeply as my olive variety. No matter, she and I can lay on the beach endlessly doing absolutely nothing except talking about how one of these days we should write a book titled “Best Beaches in… (wherever).” We were joined by my long-time friend, Anne Morton, who isn’t as much of a sun-worshipper, but can be every bit as lazy!
Corsica is still our favorite destination (although there is discussion about going back to Mykonos next year for a reunion of sorts). We have explored almost every corner of the island over the years, having started in the north between Ile Rousse and Calvi, then working our way round the island. This vacation was spent between Porto Vecchio and Bonifacio — the first time in this region.
I once heard a Corsican pronounce “Bonifacio” with the “c” like an “s” as it would be in French, but Hillman Wonders Web site says that one must pronounce the name of the town the Italian way, “boh-neh-fah’-cho” — “a vestige of the days when the area was ruled by the Tuscans and Genovese.” We had the same discussion over the pronunciation of Porto Vecchio as in Corsican it’s written “Portivechju” which might indicate that the “ecch” is pronounced like “ch” instead of “k.” In Corsican, either is correct, although they tend to drop the last letter and therefore it becomes “Porto Vetch” or “Porto Vek.”
Either way, both cities and the sights in between are well worth a special visit. Both Porto Vecchio and Bonifacio are perched high within ancient walls, with the exception of their ports along which are plenty of gorgeous yachts, restaurants, gelati stands and boutiques. Parking at either city is a major endeavor, but all the beach bums by day head to the hill towns for their evening meals, ice cream cones, shopping and social activities.
One of the reasons Corsica is so unique is its mixed heritage of French and Italian. Once under the ownership of the Republic of Genoa, the French island lays claim to Emperor Napoléon Bonaparte who was born in 1769 in the capital of Ajaccio and the explorer Christopher Columbus who is thought to have been born in Calvi.
The constitution was written in Italian, but the native language is Corsican. Speak French, Italian, Corsican or English and even German, and you won’t have any problems…the natives are friendly to tourists as the coastline is a major economic force for tourism. The mix in flavor is a perfect blend of French perfection with the Italian robust spirit for life. In the course of the week, no one was rude or argumentative as were the Parisians immediately upon re-entry! (Did you see Liz Alderman’s article “A Quest to Make Gruff Service in France More Gracious” in the New York Times?)
Surprisingly, the island is still largely underdeveloped and unspoiled as most tourism is concentrated around Porto Vecchio, Bonifacio and Calvi. Other economic industries include chestnut, olive, fig and mulberry tree products (bread made from chestnut flour keeps fresh for as long as three weeks), wine (the rosés are divine), “charcuterie” (sausages and cured ham products), cheeses (sheep and goat) and honey (of which there are six official varieties and is certified as to its origin by the French National Institute of Origin and Quality.
It is also surprising that the fishing industry is almost nil, particularly compared to Greece. According to the “Fisheries Centre Research Report of 2011,” “Despite its potential attractiveness for fishers, the waters around Corsica have never experienced heavy industrial fishing pressure, and the history of Corsican resource extraction was shaped more by land-based than maritime activities. Therefore, there is almost no export of seafood out of Corsica, and a substantial fraction of the seafood consumed locally by Corsicans is imported from the French mainland or other Mediterranean countries.”
Still, I ate seafood on almost every occasion, except for having a taste of Corsican wild boar and lamb. On the beaches, there is normally at least one café serving fresh-made local fare. Some are like make-shift shacks with folding tables and chairs directly in the sand and others are quite sophisticated for more of a ‘dining experience,’ but the look of the restaurant doesn’t have a thing to do with the quality of the food or the level of service.
This is another reason Corsica makes for a great vacation destination. On one hand, the beaches can be unspoiled and a bit ‘rustic,’ while on the other hand, the amenities can be quite civilized. There are almost always “chaise longues” to rent (at least at the more popular beaches) ranging from 10 to 25 each for the day, with a parasol.
Nevertheless, the first task on our list after arrival is the purchase of rafts on which we can endlessly float on the warm, calm, clear, aqua waters. They double as comfortable chaise longues on the sand when a rentable one isn’t available. Last year I fell asleep for two hours floating on a raft, waking up to sun poisoning of my lower lip. This year I wore a wide-brimmed hat, but didn’t give up the floating for a minute.
Our beach excursions included Palombaggia, Pinarellu, Santa Giulia and Rondinara. We would have tested more, but once we experienced Palombaggia, we didn’t want to leave. It’s a long, but well-paved access road (about a 15 to 20-minute drive from the main road #198) to free parking in the shade under the pine trees that was literally steps from the beach. Palombaggia was voted one of Europe’s top 20 beaches in a poll in the Sunday Times. No surprise, it is “an exquisite blend of fine white sand guarded by huge red granite rocks and fronted with gorgeous blue seas, and lined with beautiful pine trees.” (corsica.co.uk)
The water here is clear, shallow and calm with very few boats moored. (Some beaches can start to resemble a parking lot when too many boats enter the cove to anchor for the day.) The chaise longues were thick pads right on the sand at 10 for the day and the restaurant was not only our favorite for food, but for friendly waitstaff as well. The owner, a tan older gentleman in T-shirt and shorts, wearing no shoes in the sand floor, visited to tables to make sure every diner was happy — an indication of good management.
There are lots of ways to get to Corsica. You can fly into any one of the five airports (Ajaccio Napoléon Bonaparte Airport, Bastia Poretta Airport, Calvi Sainte-Catherine Airport, Figari Sud-Corse Airport and Ghisonaccia Alzitone Airport) or ferry between French and Italian port towns to all the major Corsican ports. This trip we flew to Bastia from Paris and Cologne, rented a car and drove down the coast on route 198 (which is bumper-to-bumper in high season, so one must have lots of patience and a strong left foot for riding the clutch — unless you pay more for an automatic).
Accommodations vary from hotels to “chambres d’hôtes” (bed and breakfasts) to apartments to villas. We rented a two-room apartment in Motel da Mama with kitchen and washer that was simple, clean and in a great location just off Route 198 for about $200 a day that couldn’t have suited us better. While we joked that “it certainly wasn’t a Parler Paris Apartment,” for a week at the beach, it was perfect.
Now that I’ve done absolutely nothing for one solid week, and in spite of the cold, rainy Paris climate, I’m tan, relaxed and ready to meet “La Rentré” with open arms.
A la prochaine…
Director of The Adrian Leeds Group, LLC
(dining in Corsica)
P.S. Don’t miss a new House Hunters International episode on August 28 at 10:30 p.m. and 1:30 a.m. E/P. See “Planning a Future in Paris, France” – Episode HHINT-5612H: “Dr. Jayne Lee fell so in love with Paris that she geared her career in medicine towards moving there. Soon enough she found a job practicing telemedicine and fell in love with Edouard. But for these newlyweds, buying an apartment in one of the most coveted and expensive cities in the world isn’t as easy as falling in love.” Watch Adrian help them find their dream home. Full details for each episode are available at Adrian Leeds on House Hunters International.