Nearly 40 years ago, I was working as a deckhand on a sailing ketch owned by an Italian ice-cream millionaire. We were cruising the Mediterranean, and the first stop after leaving Italy was a place that left an indelible memory in my impressionable teenage mind – the breathtaking Golfe de Porto-Vecchio on the south-east coast of Corsica. View original article
We swept in under full sail, past the lighthouse on the Pointe de la Chiappa and into the glorious bay, swathes of undulating forest running right down to the bleached white beaches like great green eiderdowns, and, behind, the first of a small army of mountains which dominate so much of the interior of this verdant, olivine island.
The sheltered, sandy coves, guarded by stubby ranks of palm trees; the multicoloured verandas of the little luxury hotels overlooking the marina; the ancient walls of the tiny Genovese town clinging to the cliffs high above the harbour; I fell in love with the place and vowed – one day – to return.
Now, for the first time since the early Seventies, I was back in Corsica, flying into Calvi airport in the north, and aiming to spend a week on a leisurely drive down the famed west coast, with the lovely Porto-Vecchio, along with those treasured memories, as our final destination.
My first surprise was how little the island has changed. Our journey up to our first stop at the little hilltop village of Feliceto was a delight: poppies and vivid violet borage line the road, alongside great orange and green nets spread beneath the olive trees, ready for an early Corsican harvest, and rows of miniature pillared villas that turn out to be old family mausoleums, a clue to the wealth this northern part of the island must have once enjoyed.
Our hotel was like stepping into a 19th-century town house; there’s a chapel on the ground floor, and a sitting-room on the first filled with the Ranucci family’s paintings and furnishings. The current Monsieur Ranucci can be found pottering around the garden in the early morning, watering the plants while his daughter Mireille works on the reception desk. They also make their own wine, from a vineyard we could see from our balcony, produced in the cave next door.
Forty-five minutes’ drive down to the coast led us to Ile Rousse, with its huge, perfectly dimensioned main square, dominated by the magnificent Marché Couvert, built in 1844 to resemble a vast open Greek temple, where a morning market is still held (there aren’t many daily markets in Corsica, and this is the best).
In the square is a bust in honour of “P de Paoli, Liberatoire… La Patricia Riconoscente” – the famous Pasquale Paoli, who created a free republic of Corsica before the French invaded in 1768. The name Paoli lives on – it appeared in one form or another virtually everywhere we went in Corsica.
At a little bar looking out across the square to the harbour beyond, we discovered a bottle of white “Enclos Des Anges”, which is not only delicious but is produced by an Englishman, Richard Spurr, at a small vineyard just outside Calvi. We found the man himself at the end of a dirt track, in a chaotic, musty old cave. He seemed happy to spend all day chatting to visitors, while observing closely as they sampled his wonderful wines, which he produces from a mere 15 acres. He has a growing reputation as a major contributor to the recent resurgence of interest in Corsican wines.“I’m the only foreign wine producer in Corsica,” he said with pride.
Heading south, we found ourselves on one of the most lovely and exciting roads I’ve ever driven, twisting and turning endlessly through the mountainous coast road towards Porto. Most Corsican roads have recently been lavished with EU grants and beautifully upgraded, although you need to allow at least twice the time you’d expect to get anywhere.
We stopped at the Col de la Croix overlooking the exquisite Golfe de Girolata. Way below, we could see the tiny, isolated village of Girolata itself, which is only really accessible by boat. The inhabitants make twice-weekly excursions by ferry to Porto for supplies. You can walk down a track named after Guy Le Facteur, who is said to make the journey each day on mule to deliver the post, but it takes two hours down, and considerably longer coming back up.
Farther south still, we stopped at a wonderful little hotel on the seafront of the sprawling capital, Ajaccio. The approaches to the town are lined with superstores but the centre was a delightful surprise, resembling a slightly faded, pre-war Côte d’Azur, and here we found our two best meals. At a cool little restaurant behind the port where the cruiseliners line up in serried ranks, we enjoyed delicious one-year-old veal (quite pink and robust), along with a light, locally caught fished called a mustelle.
Amazingly, the chef was another Englishman, Simon Andrews, who came here “for the diving” eight years ago and never went home. Then, just by Napoleon’s birthplace, on the Rue Saint-Charles, we found a fabulous pizza joint that had the feel of a private party.
After a bracing trip out to sea on the most southerly tip of the island to photograph the extraordinary village of Bonifacio, perched like an eagle’s nest atop the sheer limestone clifftops (they filmed some of The Guns of Navarone here), at last we reached Porto-Vecchio. It’s a deep natural harbour that lies beneath what once must have been an exquisite little 15th-century hilltop town. Now it’s in danger of being ruined by just too many souvenir shops and overpriced restaurants being squeezed into its tiny, cramped streets.
For most of its history, the place was well off the beaten track, only thriving after the allied military forces cleared local mosquito-ridden swamps of the curse of malaria at the end of the Second World War. Corsica was the first department of France to be liberated, and a street here is named after that famous date, September 9, 1943.
We escaped to one of those little luxury hotels down by the water that I’d ogled from the deck of my yacht all those years ago, and then spent an idyllic afternoon on the virtually empty beaches of Cala Rossa and Bennedettu I’d spotted around the bay – still empty, still lovely, still utterly unspoilt. This was no anticlimax; it was a real joy to be back.
Sitting on the sand, sipping the chilled local beer, only one disturbing thought clouded my endless blue horizon, the kind of thought that creeps up on you unexpectedly during what you had thought in every other way to be a great, relaxing holiday: just where did those 40 years go?
Corsican Places (www.corsica.co.uk; reservations 0845 330 2113) offers an extensive range of villas and apartments as well as hotels, with or without flights; it also provides the only weekly charter flight between the UK and Calvi (in the north-west of the island), from Stansted, in partnership with Titan Airways. Seven-night packages cost from £349 per person, including flights and transfers).