Corsica is a stunning island with many fabulous areas of natural beauty. It also has a unique cultural heritage much of which came dangerously close to disappearing.
Corsica is an island of immense beauty with sweeping bays of golden sand, secluded secret coves and dramatic cliffs, around its coastline. Moving inland the hillsides are carpeted in the heavily scented maquis together with oak, olive and chestnut forests. As the hillsides reach up into the mountains, beach and pine forests grow and in the higher altitudes small alpine plants abound.
Corsica's Nature Reserves
In order to conserve Corsica’s wild beauty and unique wildlife, a large part of the island was designated as the Parc Naturel Régional de Corse (PNRC) in1972. Unlike French national parks, which only protect uninhabited areas, the PNRC encompasses the local population and aims to, not only protect the environment, but also the cultural heritage of the region.
Réserve Naturelle de Scandola is part of the PNRC and is a Unesco World Heritage Site. It is of exceptional ecological importance and a stunning place to visit. Spectacular red rocks, formed by volcanic eruptions and subsequent erosion, tower above the visiting boats from Calvi, Porto and Ajaccio. Some boat trips also stop off for lunch at the village of Girolata, which is only accessible by boat or by a mule track down the hillside through the maquis.
above: Visiting Scandola by boat
In addition to the PNRC, much of the remaining island is protected by smaller reserves.
At the northernmost tip of Cap Corse, three tiny islands in Réserve Naturelle des îles Finocchiarola are off limits to humans between March and October, allowing rare birds to breed undisturbed.
South of Bastia lies the Réserve Naturelle de Biguglia, Corsica’s largest and most important wetland, protecting over 100 bird species and an essential stopover for birds migrating between Africa and Europe.
A group of islets in the south-east near Porto Vecchio are encompassed in the Réserve Naturelle des îles Cerbicale protecting some unique flora as well as the marine birds found here.
Off the southern shores of mainland Corsica, the Réserve Naturelle des Bouches de Bonifacio protects the rich marine life around much of the Lavezzi archipelago and is off limits to scuba divers.
Réserve de Biosphere de la Vallée du Fango lies immediately north of the Scandola Nature Reserve and is dedicated to scientific research.
Enjoying and protecting the environment
There is nothing I would recommend more to Corsica’s visitors than to leave the beach behind, at least for a while, and head inland to explore the pretty hilltop villages and to enjoy the mountain scenery. From L’Ile Rousse and Ajaccio this can be done by train, heading up into the mountains along some stunning routes.
above: La Restonica
To see the most spectacular scenery of the PNRC, however, you will need to travel on foot. 2,000 km of marked footpaths have been created to suit walkers of all levels, from gentle coastal walks to day-long treks exploring the forested gorges with hidden rock pools and waterfalls. There are also the more testing mountain trails.
The best known walking route in Corsica is said to be the toughest long distance route in Europe, the GR 20, requiring sure footedness and a head for heights. It crosses Corsica diagonally, starting in the north at Calenzana in la Balagne and ending in Conca, just north of Porto Vecchio in the south. The route is 168 km long, taking 12 to 15 days to complete and should not be attempted without thorough research and preparation. The reward is seeing some of Corsica’s most spectacular mountain and valley scenery, including Lac de Nino. This is just one of the island’s 40 or so high-altitude lakes that were created by the glaciers that once covered the mountains. Sadly, some of these are now endangered by the digging of wild boar in the area but also by the walkers, a few of whom leave a trail of rubbish in their wake. For this reason the area immediately around Lac de Nino has now been excluded from the GR 20 by diverting the route.
Fire is without doubt the biggest threat to the environment in Corsica
There is a summer time ban on camp fires and barbecues or any kind of outdoor fire throughout much of the island. Thousands of fires each year are caused by a few irresponsible visitors on picnics, camping or walking, as well as by arsonists; hunters sometimes use fire to drive out wild boar; farmers may use it to produce potash and shepherds, to produce grazing lands.
Uncovering Corsica’s Culture Heritage
Numerous museums around Corsica are dedicated to its cultural heritage and there are many sites that can be visited to discover the island’s past, from the megalithic menhirs at Filitosa to medieval and baroque chapels, Genoese watchtowers and citadels.
Many customs and traditions, including the Corsican language, had nearly vanished; but in the 1970s the cultural movement the ‘U Riacquistu’ began, saving much of this rich heritage from being lost forever.
A fine example of a custom being saved from oblivion is the art of polyphonic singing. This hauntingly beautiful song form is now found throughout the island and has its own festival each September in Calvi.
Pigna, part of la Balagne craft trail, is the perfect place to visit if you wish to learn more about traditional Corsican crafts. The narrow cobbled streets are now home to a number of workshops, with adjacent shops, where you can buy a variety of crafts including handmade musical boxes, flutes and pottery. Following the trail as a whole makes a wonderful day out and the tourist office in Calvi should have the leaflet Strada di l’Artigani which will guide you.
above: Pigna pottery
Throughout the year numerous festivals, fêtes and celebrations occur in recognition of everything from a village’s patron saint to local wine or cheese or traditional music. You’ll find more information on our Festivals and Events page. Be sure to check it out to see if one coincides with your visit and don’t forget your camera.