Ok guys, don’t take this the wrong way, but living in a big country like Australia has made me realize how good I had it in France! But before you suggest I go back to where I came from, let me explain: everything in France was within reach, and I didn’t even make the most of it! In 2 hours of train you can experience a completely different scenery, even be in another country. That is why nowadays, whenever I’m in France, I try to visit a new place to make up for it.
For instance, I had never set foot in Corsica, even though it is a hugely popular holiday destination for French people. It’s not for nothing that it’s called “L’Île de Beauté”: the Isle of Beauty. Indeed, despite a developed tourism, you can still find many unspoilt landscapes, be it pristine beaches, mountains, forests or the bush (“maquis”)… It was high time to fill that gap in my life!
Therefore last April after our Singapore stint, we flew to Paris, repaired for a couple of days at my parents’ near Valence, and took another plane from Lyon to Corsica! For the occasion, my parents accompanied us to take a break from their busier-than-ever retiree lives.
We landed at Ajaccio airport, where we were greeted by a big sculpture of Napoleon Bonaparte bust. Ajaccio is indeed the birthplace of the Emperor, and there are plenty more sculptures and streets, squares, who knows what else, named after him in the city.
We hired a car at the airport, and after promising the lovely lady at the agency that we would “restitute” the car in perfect condition, we set off on the road to Sartene, a pretty little village perched on the steep Corsican hills, an hour’s drive South-East of Ajaccio.
Since it was the first time my Aussie partner drove a manual car on the right side of the very narrow, windy road – by night, it started to HAIL on us… Naturally! A bit stressful, and it took us double the time it would normally take for that trip. But we made it safely, boyfriend’s got good driving skills I must admit! And I still managed to take my eyes off the road for a few seconds to spot a few unusual tiny houses, often in rows on the side of the road, very cute. Turned out they were actually tombs! It was very common for people to bury their loved ones on the side of the road, a favourite location, because of the nice views and to show off the wealth of the families by the size of the tomb and its ornaments.
We were staying in a guest house a bit far to walk to the town centre, but where we had a great view on the hills. We could even spot a bit of Propriano on the North-West, a lovely little port, where incidentally we encountered the rudest, surliest waitress in our entire stay (b..ch!).
The tone was set straight away on the first morning, when we went in town to buy a baguette and croissants. We sat at a café terrasse on the main square and started to soak up the atmosphere.
We were watching people and cars passing by on the main one-way street, when one car stopped and its driver got out to run a quick errand nearby, immobilising the traffic and provoking a few honks. These were received with an offended “Oh!” and a dismissive hand gesture by the returning culprit… until he recognised the honking person and walked over to say Hi and have another chat!
We realized it actually happened all the time, people would just stop their car in the middle of the street to chat to friends through the window, and let the people behind them wait for what must have been very long minutes! It was quite surreal… People would get killed for that in Sydney!
The other unsettling thing was that everyone was wearing army slacks or camouflage clothes… that was not very reassuring! Until someone explained to us that this was just the regular working clothes for most of the Corsican population and hunting also happens to be a very popular hobby.
However it’s fair to say that Corsicans have a history that reflects a bit of a pugilistic nature. They were invaded so many times over the centuries, by Greeks, Romans, British, French, that they are very proud and protective of their identity: they consider themselves Corsicans, not French. Needless to say that a non-negligible share of the population wants an independent Corsica. Most of the road signs are both in French and Corsican (a dialect close to Italian), but it wasn’t rare to see the French names being crossed out with paint, or even sprayed with bullets!
Still nothing prepared us for what we saw at the Sartene Festival a few days later. As we were walking into the city, we saw in the distance a swarm of khakied people with balaclavas and rifles running towards us! Argh!! As we were getting closer we realized they were actually kids with plastic guns… what a better way to celebrate the town festival than putting fake guns in the hands of kids and let them run around with hoods on their heads! Look at all the little “indépendantistes”… so cute!
And it’s true, Corsica can’t quite shake its reputation of violence, terrorism, corruption, assassinations, tax fraud… something that recent Sopranos-style French TV show about Corsican Mafia won’t help dissipate, I imagine!
Anyway, back to our holiday: we spent a few days driving around the area, taking in all the beautiful views of escarped cliffs and crystal-clear waters (still too cold for a swim), cute little villages, or just soaking up the sun on our little terrasse with a glass of Pastis, a few olives and playing with the hosts’ puppy (squee!).
We also drove to Bonifacio, an historic town at the southern extremity of the island, a stone’s throw from Sardinia. Even in low season, it was packed with tourists and I could easily understand why: it was magnificent. But very, very windy, I thought we were gonna get blown away!
An spectacular sight was Bonifacio’s Marine Cemetery near the citadel, set up like a little town with more of the tiny house-tombs, in rows with little streets, beautiful!
I know what you might be thinking: where is the food? I know this is supposed to be a food blog, but you won’t see any pictures of food in this post exceptionally, my apologies… First I was too busy enjoying hanging out with my folks 🙂 Secondly, the food I have to say was not that impressive, probably because we didn’t know where to go so ended up choosing very touristy places and also because we had most of our dinners at the house. But if you like pizza, you’ll looooove Corsica! Pizzerias EVERYWHERE!
Well it is physically closer to Italy (Sardinia) than France, and many aspects from the Italian culture can be found in Corsica (food, language etc.)
The best known specialties from Corsica would probably be:
– Chestnuts: can be found in many products: chestnut flour, chestnut bread, chestnut beer etc.
– Brocciu: a goats or sheep milk cheese: very nice, eaten on its own or in all types of dishes, like cannelloni filled with spinach & brocciu with a tomato sauce.
– Figatellu: pork liver sausage, which I have only tasted on a pizza… not my favourite though.
– All Pig-derived products in general: Corsican cured ham, saucissons of all shapes are very reputed. Pigs are very well fed in Corsica, with the above mentioned chestnuts amongst other things!
I actually got to taste a really nice “saucisson” in a tiny village (16 inhabitants!) in the mountains near Zonza, where my friends’ relatives had a family house and a pig farm. That’s also where we got to eat one of the best pizzas in all our time in Corsica and France. And we’ve eaten many during our stay!
Our friends’ relatives took us to see the pigs lot in the woods: huge, dark, hairy beasts. We were watching them from a distance (Never stand between a pig and its food!), when we suddenly heard an out-of-this-world shriek!
We turned our heads just in time to witness the most extraordinary thing, it felt like a scene from a movie in slow motion: 3-4 meters above the ground, a piglet was flying through the air in a big arc with its little legs up! Then it fell back on the ground with a big thump. One of the sows had decided the food would be all for her and had just kicked the kid out of the way! Poor piglet, it seemed a bit stunned but ok… I think.
And thus our Corsican holiday drew to an end… a bit sad, but luckily there was more excitement to come, as we were headed to Marseille!