Genoese Towers
Mountains and
About Corsica
As the regular evening service of Corsica Ferries pulls out of the harbour of Nice, stirring music blares over the loudspeaker system and the lights of the Promenade des Anglais gradually fade into the distance. It's a comfortable overnight trip to Bastia and if you're up early you can watch the Corsican coast approaching and possibly share the experience of returning exiles who are said to be able smell the maquis on the air 20km from land.
For many of us, our knowledge of Corsica began (and possibly ended) with the schoolroom teaching that Napoleon Bonaparte was born in Corsica, left for France at an early age and then became a military commander and Emperor. What is little known is that he never returned and did little for the island other than reinforce its administration as part of France. So it is perhaps not surprising that there is little recognition of him on the island other than rather grand statues in Bastia and Ajaccio.
An island of 8722 sq km, 12 km from Sardinia and 90 km from the mainland Italian coast, Corsica does not feel particularly French. The Corsican language is still spoken and, as you get further south the atmosphere will be more Italian than French. There are times also when you might even think you are driving through an Australian landscape observing the huge river red gums introduced in the 1860's to purify the air and assist in swamp draining.
The high mountains of the island drop dramatically into the ocean and driving on the narrow roads that cling to the cliff tops and mountainsides can be terrifying. It's a much better option to spend much of your time walking and to drive only from one place to the next.
There is excellent walking, some of it is difficult, even dangerous, and only for the very fit. The most challenging route is the GR20 which runs roughly from north to south through the central mountain range which many walkers are surprised to discover, rises up to 2706m. Accommodation, if not camping, is in refuges and, although it is possible to come down to villages where there may be comfortable beds and the opportunity to restock provisions, you will need to be pretty self sufficient for the 15 or more days that it will take.
There are also several other long distance walks, called the Mare a Mare and Mare et Monti which, as their names imply, cross the mountains generally from east to west and also climb up into the mountains from the sea. But all over the island there are many other tracks and trails which enable the daywalker to appreciate the best that the island offers.
In May 2000, we began a two week visit to Corsica at the narrow peninsula to the north called Cap Corse, staying in the idyllic small fishing village of Centuri Port. Here you can walk by day, climbing up through the maquis and along the coast on the route known as the Sentier des Douaniers and by night eat in the fish restaurants around the tiny, but very active, working harbour. By this time you will have discovered that the most characteristic feature of the Corsican landscape is the Genoese tower.
Genoese Towers
The Genoese towers are the most unique architectural feature in Corsica. About 15m high, fortified and usually round in shape, around 85 of them were constructed in the 16th century.
The towers were strategically located around the coastline, each one visible from the next so that a signalling system could quickly be transmitted round the coastline to warn of invasion or danger. Around 60 still exist and from high points in the landscape you can see 5 or 6 of them.
They were build by the Genoese who occupied Corsica for five centuries and maintained a strong rivalry with the Pisans for control. Attacks from the sea were common and there was a need to protect both the military, political and commercial interests of the island's occupiers.
The Landscape
Cap Corse has a delicate ecology which is fiercely protected. There are exposed beaches where dune stabilisation is underway and where protected sea grasses called posidonia are allowed to pile up waist high. Towering cliffs drop down into the turquoise sea where sheltered little beaches snuggle into the base of the cliffs. Standing on a rocky promontory is one of the star Genoese towers, the Tour Santa Maria, which you can climb into and look out from its parapet over the clear shimmering sea.
In May the maquis was in full flower with a sweet, herby smell permeating the air. Perhaps it's true that the keen nose can pick it up from far out to sea. The maquis is a low scrubby vegetation which is deceptively dull till you look into it and discover the wealth of plant life. While only small tough trees can survive in the harsh, rocky environment, pink and white cistus, lavender, thyme, rosemary grow together as in a carefully cultivated garden. Sometimes daisies, cyclamens and delicate little purple orchids add to the colour.
The maquis is a tough landscape that has harbored bandits and independence fighters. The resistance fighters of World War II took the name maquis as a symbol of toughness and resilience.
In the Mountains
In the central mountains is the historic and gracious university town of Corte. It sits at the point where the Restonica River joins the Tavignano, Corsica's largest river which flows down to the eastern coast of the island. There are good walks up both these valleys. The Restonica walk is very popular, almost in the category of a "classic" and it was not hard to see why it is so well frequented. After driving up its gorges to the point where you must leave your car, you follow a rocky path, through snowdrifts in May, till some ladders climb up through rocky outcrops to reach a group of mountain lakes.
Another walk follows one of the long distance GR's along the Tavignano which up here, close to its source, is a rushing stream edged by rocky cliffs and perhaps the best maquis gardens on the island.
Several suspension bridges, reminiscent of those found in New Zealand, allow access to the river and good places for picnics.
Beautiful Bonifacio
At the southern tip of the island is Bonifacio, where they speak Italian and serve excellent pasta. The buildings along the main street of the town are almost an extension of the chalky cliffs that plunge down to the ocean. You look out of windows into sheer space. Nearby to the town are an old citadel, a lighthouse and little sandy beaches.
The harbour is busy with spruikers from the multitude of boat companies that offer trips out to sea and around the calanques or rocky inlets which are a feature of the coastline. There are also some excellent footpaths which wind through the maquis and follow the cliff line to various points where you can scramble down to the sea. Yellow coastal daisies lined the path and on the return walk to Bonifacio you'll find it difficult to stop clicking the camera.
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A Corsica ferry at the Port of Bastia
The fishing village of Centuri Port
A Genoese Tower on Cap Corse
And yet another ...
The Restonica walk
A rustic cross in the mountains
Bonifacio perches above the chalk cliffs
And another Genoese Tower
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