Text by Peter Crawley / Photography: Anton Renborg
What started as a crush has matured into a life-long love affair. Through my teenage years of the late 1960s and early ’70s, I spent one month each summer camping in the south of Corsica near Porto-Vecchio, a rural community steeped in tradition and bathed in mysticism.
I teamed up with a German and a French lad of similar age and most evenings we would walk the couple of miles to a local disco and return to the camp at dawn to go octopus fishing out near a rock in the bay. We would give our catch to the camp chef, who, in return, would cook us dinner for free. Octopus, though an acquired taste for some in those days, was not considered as adventurous as other local delicacies like mèrula – blackbird – or ghialaticciu – stuffed pig’s stomach.
The campsite was owned and run by an old hero of the Resistance who fell out with one of his comrades when the man eloped with his daughter. Even though the man had committed a cardinal sin, he could not resist sailing into the bay every now and then to cock a snook at his former friend by tooting the hooter of his boat.
One night – a night I remember because the heat in the tent became so unbearable I stole down to the beach and dug myself a shallow grave in which to sleep – the man was lured ashore at the northern end of the beach. The campsite owner, with his henchmen, occupied the southern end and a firefight erupted between the two. For what seemed like an eternity, I lay stock still in my dugout and watched the bullets whizz above my head.
In the morning, when the gendarmes arrived and scratched their heads in dismay, the ageing roué who had eloped with our host’s daughter was found dead among the pines behind the beach. In keeping with the Corsican bandits of old, the campsite owner fled to the mountains and was only much later persuaded back by his family. Many thought the judge was unduly lenient in his sentencing of our host to nothing longer than a few months in prison.
It was at the end of my last summer there that an old lady presented me with a book of proverbs and local histoy. It was how I first learned of the mazzeri, the Corsican fortune tellers, or foretellers of death, mostly women who would hunt animals at night and see in their dead eyes the face of the next person in the village to die. These figures of folklore formed the basis of my novel set on Corsica.
And since those teenage years, I’ve been drawn back to the island many times – she is still as beautiful as the Corsica of my youth, and the beaches thankfully quieter. The beach at Campomoro, near Propriano in the south-west, stretches away over a kilometre and the beach at Ile-Rousse, in the north-west, boasts fine, golden sand and plays host to a range of water sports. The most famous, though, is at Palombaggia in the south-east; the combination of white sand, red rocks, turquoise waters and the shade from the pines that back the beach is unbeatable.
For somewhere to stay, the 17th-century boutique hotel U Palazzu Serenu (upalazzuserenu.com) is half an hour from the busy port town of Bastia, overlooking the Gulf of St-Florent. Anish Kapoor etchings hang on the walls here, and the swordfish and charcuterie are to die for.
Near Ajaccio, the colonial facade of the Hotel Les Mouettes backs both a sandy beachfront and an elegant, terraced pool. There is no restaurant, but the hotel is less than a 15-minute stroll from the thriving city, where, at A Nepita (+33 4 9526 7568) on the rue San Lazaro, you will find modern and creative takes on foie gras poêlé aux lentilles and filets de rougets.
In Bonifacio, on the southern tip of the island, you can stroll up to the citadel and glory in the view across the strait to Sardinia. For me, there are few more welcoming hotels than the Hotel Colomba, tucked away in the steep cobbled alley that is the rue Simon Varsi in the Haute Ville. Dinner at L’auberge Corse (+33 4 9510 8655), just round the corner, is a feast of Corsican delights. Be sure to try the Piattu Spuntinu of Bonifacio aubergines, beignets aux courgettes et poireaux, and particularly, the cannellonis au brocciu – tubes of pasta filled with local ewe’s milk cheese. But ask your host to recommend the wine: he knows his stuff.
These days Corsican wines compete with the best of young Bordeaux and Burgundy. Patrimonio, predominantly pressed from the Nielluccio grape and grown in the Nebbio on the south-western base of Cap Corse, is a sophisticated, elegant, dry and herby wine. And the Oriu, from Torracia in the south-east and pressed in greater percentage from the Vermentiu, is a wonderful, full-bodied white with hints of citrus, cherry and prune. But there are other, delicious wines, too, from the Ajaccio, Calvi, Sartène and eastern coastal regions. And, if sweet wines are your preference, look no further than a glass of Muscat du Cap Corse from the island’s northern peninsula; it is perfect with the soft, white brocciu cheese.
Trekking and cycling are popular here, too. The GR20, a long-distance trail that runs from Calenzana, in the north-west, across the mountains to Conca, in the south-east, is a test for even the keenest hiker, and the air in the mountains around Levie and Zonza is restorative and heavily perfumed with the arbutus, juniper, myrtle and rosemary of the maquis shrubland.
Touring the island is a favourite pastime, though renting a car can be expensive. But it’s worth it if it means you get to discover pretty mountain villages and sip from a rose-shaped glass of Cap Corse or a cool bottle of Pietra, the chestnut-flavoured beer.
Some divide the island into two distinct halves, as separated by the mountains: Di la dai Monti as it is known in Corsu, or Au-delà-des-Monts in French, to the south and south-west, and Di qua dai Monti, or En-deçà-des-Monts, to the north and north-east. While I spent my teenage days in the more pastoral south, the north is the busier, due to its proximity to the more industrial northern half of Italy and its closer links to the French mainland. There is much agriculture and fertile land in the region, and the groves of the Balagne, the garden of Corsica, are renowned for their olives.
For me, though, the chance to sit beneath the plane trees in the Haute Ville of Bonifacio during the veillée (evening) is all any reasonable man can wish for.
Mazzeri, Love and Death in Light and Shadow – A Novel of Corsica, by Peter Crawley, is published in paperback and ebook by Matador
Norwegian flies to Corsica, Athens and Sicily. Book flights, a hotel and a rental car at norwegian.com