One reason the French island of Corsica can feel so bracing to a visitor is that – and I mean this in the best way possible – Corsicans don’t much care about you.
Of course, they want to make sure that you’re comfortable and taken care of. But they’re not going to fuss over the details of your itinerary, recommending this sight over that one.
They are secure in the knowledge that their island is wildly beautiful – imagine alpine mountains rising from Mediterranean shores – so they assume that whichever pink granite inlet, mountaintop lake or boulder-strewn valley you do see, even if it’s not the best known, will be among the most wondrous sights of what, you’ve now realized, is your flat and boxed-in life. And they would be correct.
Mostly Corsicans go about their business and leave you to discover their island, which, with about 322,000 inhabitants, is about 105 miles off France’s southern coast. This can be exhilarating, but it also makes getting to know Corsicans themselves somewhat difficult – even for someone like me who was visiting with the Corsican side of my husband’s family.
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I had never been to Corsica, and it had been 17 years since my husband, Fabrice, set foot on the island. Growing up on “the continent,” which is what Corsicans still call the French mainland, he’d spent weeks each childhood summer with his grandmother in her birthplace, Corrano, a small inland village.
To him, Corsica was not the Vallée de la Restonica, a trail of gorges and glacial lakes reaching 3,840 feet that is popular with hikers; nor was it the glittering coastal cities of Calvi or Porto-Vecchio, with yachts docked in turquoise waters. The Corsica he knew was not the kind that you sought out, but that happened to you: a wild boar crossing your path in the woods; the butcher truck pulling up to sell the day’s cuts; a fountain’s water breaking the night’s silence. The quotidian sights and sounds of a village that required only time.
We, though, had five days. I feared our short stay wouldn’t give me any real sense of Corsican culture. Fabrice worried we wouldn’t manage to have daily servings of the smoked pork liver sausage figatellu.
Electric street lamps had come to Corrano – that was the first change Fabrice noticed as we rounded a road’s bend, with our 1 1/2 -year-old-daughter in the back, to enter the village, clinging, at 1,820 feet, to a mountainside.
It was 6 in the evening, the time of day photographers love for its warm, soft light. But here, high and deep in Corsica’s forested interior, the golden hour is blue. The distant mountains, blanketed with pines and chestnuts, appeared a dark purplish gray.
The second change: The cafe where villagers would play cards each evening was shuttered. The center had no hotels, no restaurants, no markets among its centuries-old granite houses. As we drove on, Fabrice pointed out the field where he and his cousins would play soccer. But where were all the children now?
As with many of Corsica’s inland villages, the story of Corrano, whose population was 87 as of the last census in 2006, has been one of attrition. And it begins with its complicated, fraught relationship with the French state.
Ever since France bought Corsica from the Genoese and invaded it in 1768, quashing the island’s nearly 30-year struggle for independence that followed a line of foreign occupiers stretching back to the Greeks, an outsize number of Corsicans have found employment in the ranks of France’s vast military and imperial bureaucracy.
The most successful, of course, was Napoleon Bonaparte, who was born in the island’s capital, Ajaccio. Though egomania might have compelled him into service, by the 20th century most Corsicans did so as a way to escape poverty.
During World War I, historians estimate that 10,000 to 12,000 Corsicans, a disproportionately high number considering the island’s small population, died on European battlefields. In Corrano, as in nearly every village we visited, there was a small stone monument to the sons it lost in the war.
In the 1930s, when the island accounted for less than 1 percent of the French population, Corsicans made up 22 percent of its colonial administration, filling jobs from tribunal presidents to rubber planters throughout North Africa, Southeast Asia and the West Indies.
Fabrice’s great-grandfather was among them. A cobbler in Corrano, he moved his family of seven to Morocco in 1931 to be a government official in charge of prisons there. Fabrice’s grandmother, Marie-Antoinette Malgoyre, who was 3 at the time, said her father had been determined to send his children to secondary school, but in Corsica the closest was 30 miles away in Ajaccio, where rents were beyond his wages. He looked abroad for opportunity.
“It was the time when there were no welfare supplements for children, no reimbursements for health care costs,” Fabrice’s grandmother later told me. “He left for us children.”
The family’s comfortable apartment in Casablanca was a stark contrast to their home in Corrano, which was without electricity and indoor plumbing until the years after World War II.
The academic Robert Aldrich wrote that in the 1930s Corsican dissidents criticized Paris for failing to develop the island’s infrastructure and educational system, giving it “less favorable treatment than many a colony.” (The people of Algeria, Morocco or Cambodia might have disagreed.)
It was no matter to a young Marie-Antoinette, who, during her summer visits to Corsica, saw bathing in the nearby river as an adventure and the lack of electricity as a chance to admire the nighttime sky.
“I had the impression that the stars were going to fall into my hands,” she said.
The morning after our arrival, Fabrice and I set out in search of the Taravo River, where his grandmother used to bathe. Swearing it was this way, he led me down a mountainside, past a granite house and tombs in ruins, to a crumbling stone wall. We followed the path alongside it.
As we emerged from the thick woods onto a meadow of pale grass and cork oaks, I didn’t quite know where to look. My Long Island upbringing had trained my eyes to view nature by cropping out parking lots and people (gaze in the direction of the majestic Atlantic – not at the sunburned bodies on the beach). But this was beauty everywhere at once. My eyes nearly twitched.
After another hour of walking, Fabrice declared the river lost. But on our way back, a boar found us.
Corsica’s lack of development, which had one effect of preserving its nature, and the resettlement of some 15,000 to 17,000 people of French descent from Algeria, after the country gained its independence in 1962, helped stir a resentment that rekindled a nationalist movement on the island.
Since the late 1960s, the National Liberation Front, or FLNC, Corsica’s most active separatist group, and other nationalists have regularly bombed and attacked government buildings and have been implicated in the assassinations of police officers, mayors and, most infamously in 1998, the French prefect, France’s highest-ranking official in Corsica.
In recent years, these violent attacks have become harder to distinguish from those of organized criminals, who have become less interested in drug trafficking than in property development on the island, where the likes of Nicolas Sarkozy reportedly rented a beachfront villa for 34,200 euros a week. Many believe that separatist and criminal networks now intersect.
In Santa-Maria-Siché, a few villages from Corrano, we sat drinking our espressos with a local resident on the terrace of U Cafe di Paleddu, whose sign displayed the enigmatic Moor’s head on Corsica’s flag.
When the conversation turned to tourism, he proposed a solution to keep Corsica from becoming like the built-up, overrun Côte d’Azur: Allow construction only in granite to match traditional architecture.
As for the new stucco houses? “Blow them all up,” he deadpanned, with a wave of his hand. I laughed because it was a joke, but did so a little uncomfortably because, well, it wasn’t a hyperbolic one.
On Dec. 7, 2012, for example, 31 villas owned by non-Corsicans along the coastline were bombed; the FLNC later claimed responsibility and denied any collusion with organized crime. No one died because all the homeowners were away on the mainland. Since the FLNC declared an end to its armed resistance against the French state in 2014, an uneasy peace has persisted.
These days, the rhetoric of violent resistance has sometimes been redirected toward the island’s French-Arab minority. On Christmas Day, after the terrorist attacks in Paris in November, a few hundred people marched through a largely North African quarter in Ajaccio, chanting in the Corsican language “Arabi fora” (Arabs out), reminiscent of the nationalist slogan “Francesi fora” (French out).
A democratic pursuit of nationalism is also taking shape in Corsica. In December’s local elections, nationalist leaders gained power in the Corsican Assembly, with its new president, Jean-Guy Talamoni, making a victory speech in Corsican. French translations were handed out to mainland journalists.
Corsica’s political and criminal troubles, though, have done little to dampen its tourism boom. Three million tourists visited the island in 2015, compared with 1.5 million in 1992, according Corsica’s tourism agency.
Perhaps this is because, aside from bilingual road signs whose French place names have been sprayed with bullets, clashes remain at the periphery. Fighting is targeted; I found no reports of harm to tourists.
Still, all of this history might make your imagination run wild.
For example, if you witness, from your car, the police arresting a man who looks frighteningly like the actor who played the Corsican mobster in the 2009 film “A Prophet,” you might find yourself ducking because your husband is yelling that, at any second, an ambush could happen. And you might discover, the next morning, while reading the Corse Matin newspaper that the man was arrested, in fact, for ignoring the police’s signal to stop at a village festival the night before.
That might happen.
To continue our exploration of villages, I had made plans for us to stay at a bed-and-breakfast not far from Corsica’s western coast. Then the owner wrote to me, saying she needed our room for her pregnant daughter who was on bed rest. Slightly disappointed, I reserved the first hotel I found on Booking.com.
But while sipping port over ice at dusk on the terrace of Hôtel Abbartello, built out over Olmeto’s rocky shore, I had to admit that Abbartello’s modern amenities – not to mention its small, stunning private beach on the Propriano Gulf – were a welcome change from hot-plate cooking in Corrano. And I counted the bocce tournament, held the next morning in the hotel’s cleared-out parking lot with locals in matching T-shirts, as a village experience.
Our goal was to see Bonifacio’s cliffs by sunset, so we set off from Olmeto on N196, which would take us inland and then to Corsica’s southern coast. This would leave us ample time to stop for swimming and, of course, consuming pork products.
The mountaintop town Sartène met that last objective. The touristy but irresistible Cave Sartenaise sold Corsican specialties like chestnut jams, fig cakes and figatellu. We bought some dried sausages, had them vacuum-sealed to take back to New York and promptly ate them on the road, along with a couple of tarts made with brocciu, a sheep’s- or goat’s-milk cheese.
Heading south along N196, we saw forests that gave way to roadside cemeteries and vineyards, which gave way to maquis, a tangled underbrush of rosemary, shrubs and succulents. Their scent rushed into our car as we climbed the southern coast, and the Mediterranean came into view.
Headlands reached into the sea like gnarled fingers. Pink granite boulders tapered off into delicate, wind-eroded formations. Other parts of Corsica had felt ancient to me, but this coastline was prehistoric.
A hundred feet below we passed Roccapina Beach, an inlet of turquoise water, and continued east until the windswept Tonnara Beach, where we went for a brisk swim. A crumbling stone tower sat next to a little shack serving drinks.
Before sunset we reached Bonifacio. From its windy citadel, we craned our necks to see the undulating white cliffs over the blue straits separating the island from Sardinia, to its south. Below were dark grottoes and yachts sailing into the port.
After a stop at a supermarket for more figatellu and, I insisted, some non-smoked-meat items like grapes, we climbed back into the car and, before dusk, started our three-hour drive back to Corrano.
For nearly 150 miles, I’d driven through Corsicans’ villages, eaten their food and marveled at their landscapes. Although travelogues told me about outdated traditions like vendetta killings, and Fabrice went on about Corsicans being “the last element of proletariat virility” – whatever that meant – I still hadn’t gotten much of a sense of Corsicans today.
My flash of understanding came on our trip’s last day while I was frantically picking fleas off my daughter.
We’d been eating an excellent lunch of charcuterie, zucchini beignets and wild boar at the beautifully rustic restaurant U Taravu in Zévaco, a village next to Corrano. My daughter had been fussy, so I’d taken her outside to pet the dog next door. This dog, it turned out, had been put in his cage, away from customers, because it had fleas.
Our waitress, a hearty woman with a booming voice, spotted me swatting away fleas and told us to come inside so she could help wash my child.
Mortified, I apologized and kept searching through my daughter’s curls. “Come,” the waitress ordered with a wave of the hand.
Now I hadn’t heard that tone of authority since I was a child visiting my grandmother, who, from her stoop in Brooklyn, would scold her grandchildren and other people’s alike. If she didn’t know you, she figured she knew someone who did and eventually she’d learn your face, so she may as well take responsibility for you now. Her command was a form of care.
The same principles appeared to be at work in this Corsican village. As the waitress carried my daughter inside, stripped off her clothes and splashed water over her little body in the restroom sink, I felt that same quick assumption of familiarity, that same no-nonsense warmth, that same expectation that you’d be back.