I can’t say Corsica is what I expected. When I thought of a week on a Mediterranean French island, I pictured myself lounging in a simple little beach town, reading a novel and eating lots of French bread. Instead I learned that Corsica is a complex island with very interesting local politics, history and culture. I did, though, end up eating many loaves of French bread with local specialties like jam made from the fruits of a strawberry tree, chestnut spread, and Corsican pork sausage. Apparently the French trick to creating those crunchy-crusted, fluffy-doughed baguettes is the baking process, when steam is injected into a very hot oven. It is prohibited under French law to add preservatives to baguettes, so fresh, cheap loaves are ubiquitous every morning.
Though it is actually situated physically closer to Italy, Corsica is now politically a region of France. The island has had a long history of occupation, first by the Carthaginians, Romans then finally the Genoese before declaring themselves independent in 1755. Corsica remained independent for only 14 years before it was conquered by the French, but the first Corsican constitution was apparently very progressive. Among other provisions, it granted women the right to vote, provided they were the head of the household.
The spirit of independence is still present on the island. Most Corsicans also speak Corsican, though it seems as though French dominates the professional sphere. Especially in Corte, the town in the center of the island and home to Corsica’s university, there are manifestations of a nationalist movement spray-painted on walls and street signs. Local politics are a popular subject: we uncomfortably sat by in one café where a group of local men were engaged in what sounded like a pretty aggressive debate.
We flew into Ajaccio, Corsica’s largest city on the southwest coast and Napoleon Bonaparte’s hometown. Just a quick travel tip: if traveling around Corsica during the off-season, renting a car is probably the best option for transportation, though it is still possible to get around via local buses as we did.
We set off from Ajaccio by 15-passenger van to the small village of Porto on the central-west coast. There we did a lot of eating (wild boar-hunting season meant delicious stew) and some hiking through Les Gorges de la Spelunca between the villages of Ota and Evisa.
Ota was particularly charming, where we met a French woman solo-traveling around the island on her motorcycle, and stayed at a cozy little hostel owned by a very friendly father and daughter pair that also owned one of the two restaurants open in town.
From there it was down just a few kilometers to beautiful Piana, situated between the ocean, copper-colored cliffs and a snow-capped mountain.
This is when having a car would have come in handy: though Corsica is overrun with tourists during the summer months, tourist infrastructure nearly shuts down during the off-season, and we were left without a place to stay in Piana. We huddled under a tarp for the night and in the morning, congratulating ourselves on our toughness, made our way back to Ajaccio to catch a bus to the center of the island to Corte.
Corte, though also beautifully situated in the mountains, does not seem to be a popular tourist destination. The town is more rugged than charming, though enchanting all the same. We went on a few hikes in the area, attended a Catholic church service in the town’s cathedral, met a friendly Frenchman named Pierre and welcomed the new year quietly over dinner and dessert.
I thought Morocco had squished all desire to learn French out of me, but I would learn the language just to be able to return to Corsica some day.