As I opened the shutters on the first morning of our trip to Porto-Vecchio, in southern Corsica, the scene that greeted me could have been unchanged for generations. Graceful white egrets delicately tiptoed their way through the shallows of a mountain-fringed lake that sat as still as a mirror, while swallows swooped and scooped insects from the water’s surface.
We were staying in the La Cuve apartments, a beautifully converted former wine warehouse, and while the back window presented a scene of tranquility, the view from the front of the apartment was very different.
A huge white ferry was prepared for its return journey to Marseille, while the stylish marina slowly came to life as an impressive array of yachts and speedboats were made ready for the day ahead.
Above the marina, the town’s Genoese citadel sat loftily, its steep and winding streets host to an array of chic boutiques, bars and restaurants.
Porto-Vecchio is the ideal base for exploring southern Corsica, an area blessed with some of the most breathtaking beaches in Europe and spectacular mountain scenery, all in close proximity.
Over the next few days our trusty hire car took us to some of the area’s gems – the beaches at Palombaggia and Santa Giulia, where the water is as clear and as startlingly azure as anywhere in the Caribbean, and where a string of effortlessly cool beach bars offers a break from the sun.
Venturing further afield, we drove to Bonifacio, a stunning cliff-top town perched on sheer chalk cliffs, with far-reaching views of Sardinia some seven miles distant.
Bonifacio has one of the best natural harbours in the Mediterranean, nestled at the end of a long fjord, and it was from here that we took a boat trip to the stunning Iles Lavezzi, an archipelago between Corsica and Sardinia.
We disembarked at Lavezzi itself, and spent the day lounging on a gorgeous beach, swimming and eating a picnic of local fruit, bread and cheese.
The return journey took us via the island of Cavallo, where Italian industrialists and film stars have their vast holiday homes, and to the incredible sea caves in the cliffs below Bonifacio. The biggest of these is similar in shape to local boy Napolean’s hat – he was born in Ajaccio, on the island’s west coast.
If you are looking for a change of scene from the beach, an hour’s drive can take you 1,000 metres and more up into the mountains. We spent a morning hiking through a leafy, sun-dappled valley, following a mountain stream to the spectacular Piscia di Gallu waterfall.
We returned later in the week to go trekking on sturdy Corsican horses with a local legend – 81-year-old guide, horse breeder, wild boar hunter and master charcutier, Monsieur Pierrot.
This high up in the mountains, it feels like a different country from the coast just 20 miles away. The Mediterranean oleanders, palms and prickly pears give way to roses, honeysuckle, apple trees and bracken.
The Corsicans are fiercely proud of their beautiful island and, although it is officially part of France, it has a distinctive identity. Road signs are in French and the Corsican language, and there is a strong Italian influence too, due to both geographic proximity and nearly 500 years of rule by the Genoese Republic.
For a taste of the real Corsica, try to find a concert of the traditional local polyphonic singing – these are held weekly in churches in Porto-Vecchio and Bonifacio. Almost extinct by the 1970s, this mesmeric style of singing was described by travel writer Dorothy Carrington as “a voice from the entrails of the earth, a song from the beginning of the world”.
The Corsican flag – a Moorish head on a white background – is present everywhere, flying from beach bars and speedboats, and printed on the packaging of local produce. On the subject of which, gourmet travellers will find plenty to enjoy in Corsica.
We tucked in to some of the best pizzas we’d ever eaten, as well as Corsican specialities such as wild boar charcuterie, wonderful cheeses, abundant sea food and some seriously good wines.
The rosés in particular are delicious, so tasty they rarely get exported because the locals want to keep the good stuff to themselves. Also worth a try is the local Pietra beer, which is made with chestnut flour – it sounds strange, but it’s delicious.
Corsica has definitely woven its magic on us. For such a beautiful Mediterranean destination, it is surprisingly undeveloped and feels like a real escape from everyday life. We have vowed to return to those incredible blue waters and majestic mountains.