I didn’t expect to see snow in the Mediterranean on a summer day, but that’s Corsica for you. It was a mellow 25C on the beach on my first morning, but there were big patches of white on the peaks that dominated the horizon. Those peaks are less than 10 miles from the beach, as the crow flies, but in that distance they soar to almost 8,800 feet above sea level.
It’s that variety that makes Corsica the perfect place for a family holiday. It’s the fourth largest island in the Med — just over 100 miles from north to south and no more than 50 miles from east to west — and with dozens of sandy beaches, vivid turquoise seas, tidy olive groves and vineyards and wild mountain forests there’s plenty to explore. We based ourselves at Calvi, in the north west corner of the island, where a steepwalled citadel looms over a harbour packed with gleaming yachts, an esplanade lined with restaurants and a wide blue bay.
The 17th Century fortress is still garrisoned by paratroopers of the legendary Foreign Legion, who can be seen at weekends strolling around town in uniforms with creases so sharp you could shave with them and their trademark, spotless white kepi caps.
For history buffs, the island is a treasure trove. At Filitosa, in the south, weird sculpted standing stones, erected between 4,000 and 8,000 years ago are mementoes of one of Europe’s oldest cultures. In the last two millennia, Corsica has been ruled by Romans, Vandals, Visigoths, Saracens,and Italians. It had a halcyon spell as an independent republic before falling to France in 1769, and plenty of Corsicans would like to see independence return. Even those who would rather keep the French connection are Corsican first — and French a long way second. The island has its own dialect (heavily Italian influenced). It has its own traditional music, too — and with literally dozens of song and dance festivals throughout the summer, there are plenty of opportunities to hear the paghjella laments that are at the heart of the Corsican musical tradition. We made a day trip to Ajaccio, where a statue of the island’s most famous son, Napoleon Bonaparte, stands among palm trees. There’s a fireworks display every August 15 to mark his birthday, and the spectacular explosions and whiff of gunpowder surely gladden his artilleryman’s heart.
Corte, the one-time island capital, is high in the mountainous hinterland, among steep granite slopes and wildflower meadows that in early summer are awash with scarlet, yellow and purple wildflowers and later in the season are redolent with the smell of pine trees, lavender, thyme and marjoram.
With a car, exploring is easy, but if you don’t fancy driving (and local drivers are mad!) the trinighellu (“little train”) is a great alternative, and offers an even better way to soak up the scenery.
The two-car trains rattle across the island, linking Bastia in the north with Ajaccio in the south and to Calvi and Corte. Back at sea level, the best way to eplore Corsica’s rugged coastline and sandy beaches is by boat — in fact, it’s the only way to reach some of the fabulous strands either side of Calvi, where the sand is so white and the sea so blue that it’s hard to believe this isn’t the Caribbean.You can hire a small motorboat (no permit required) at Calvi’s yacht harbour, but for those who are unsure of their maritime skills the mini-cruisers of the Colombo Line (colombo-line.com) sail on full-day and half-day voyages from Calvi to the rocky, fjord-like Calanches (granite formations) of the Scandola nature reserve, the little Sanguinaires Islands, and the coves and bays of the uninhabited Desert des Agriates. Aquavision screens give you a glimpse of undersea life, from huge shoals of whitebait to massive groupers and multi-coloured rainbow wrasse, which may whet your appetite for a snorkelling or scuba expedition.
Corsica is rich in wildlife on land, too. Big swallowtail butterflies visited the roses on our balcony, a pair of blackbirds fluttered in and out of their nest a few feet away, and a croaking chorus of frogs started up at sunset every evening in counterpoint to the shrieking swifts overhead. Further afield, I spotted ospreys, a peregrine falcon, kites and eagles. The Cupulatta tortoise park (acupulatta.com), with its unique collection of 3,000 tortoises and terrapins from all over the world, is a guaranteed child-pleaser. Other great expeditions for families include the Vizzavona adventure park (corsicanatura. fr), with its rope swings and treetop walkways, and kayaking through the backwaters of the Delta du Fangu, on the west coast, feels like a real adventure.
In Calvi (and all over the island) you’re spoilt for choice when it comes to places to eat and drink. We stayed in a self-catering studio, so we took full advantage of the open-air produce market for fruit and veg and the supermarket nearby for everything else, finding prices quite a bit cheaper than at home, with some very decent local wines for as little as £2.15.
There are also plenty of child-pleasing pizzerias, where a gigantic, family-size wheel with all the trimmings costs around £10-£15. Freshly made and baked in a wood oven, they’re an eye-opener for anyone whose family are more accustomed to the offerings from their local Pizza Shed.
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I travelled with Corsican Places (corsica.co.uk, tel: 0845 3302345) and stayed at Le Home in Calvi. Prices for a week’s holiday staying in a studio apartment (sleeping two) are priced from £659 per person and include return Manchester to Calvi flight with Flybe, airport taxes and transfers. First TransPennine Express operates intercity rail services across Scotland and the North of England. Fares between Edinburgh and Manchester Airport start from £16 and can be purchased with no booking fee at tpexpress.co.uk.
For overnight stays at the airport, the Manchester Airport Radisson Blu offers doubles from £78 and is just a few minutes’ walk from the station and terminals.