Tour de Corsica
Get on your bike for the best views of the rugged coastlines and fragrant forests of Corsica, but you’ll have to be fairly fit
Breakfasting on pain au chocolat and adrenaline-firing espresso near the market of Ajaccio, we are seated alongside a colossal statue of the Emperor Napoleon in Roman garb. The so-called “petit Corse” was born in the capital in 1769. Springing from noble Tuscan origins, his actual name was Nabulione Buonaparte.
North of the bay of Ajaccio lies our real avenger – the jaw-droppingly jagged Corsican coastline. A few years ago, I gagged my way around the convoluted, crinkle-cut west coast on a stomach-heaving bus trip from Ajaccio to the famous World Heritage sites around the Gulf of Porto.
Now, incredibly, I am returning to attempt the same journey by bike. My stomach may be spared, my legs most certainly will not. For my eyes, it is sure to be a week-long feast.
Since Albert Camus wrote in the 1930s of “the insupportable beauty of the landscapes, so pure,” and “the gospels of stone of sky and of water”, nature-loving tourists have headed there with their snorkels and beach-towels, backpacks and hiking boots - and more recently bikes.
Forested ways, small rural thoroughfares linking village to village, precipitous coastal rides and many rough stretches ... “Corsica is a biking paradise but it is very tough physically”, warns the association Corsica Outdoor.
We get an immediate taste of this on a 69km thigh-thundering ride from Ajaccio to Piana. After a falsely reassuring and rather gentle cross-country slog for the first few kilometres, it soon becomes obvious that Corsica is perfect terrain for professional cyclists.
As we trace the third stage of the Tour de France along the west coast, we rise hundreds of meters in single hills, before tumbling back down the other side, and teeter on cliff-hanging drops over the Mediterranean, often with no barrier between us and the deep blue. After a final roller coaster ride of gruelling hills, the reward comes near sunset as we peddle our way past the ancient Greek coastal settlement of Cargese, and on through the Unesco-listed Calanques de Piana.
Sandwiching the narrow coastal road, the 300-meter high red granite cliffs are sculptured into a series of incredible shapes and forms: beautiful, bizarre, grotesque and gigantesque, human, animal and monster-like. Right now they are bathed in pinky orange light, and casting their tooth-edged shadows over the water.
Guy de Maupassant described them most masterfully while passing through in 1880: “A real forest of crimson granite . . . men, monks in robes, horned devils . . . a monstrosity of people, a menagerie of nightmares petrified by the will of some kind of extravagant god ...”
The next day we start our descent from Piana towards the Golf of Porto. The World Heritage site is somewhat blemished by the carelessly built hotels and car-parks around its marina and landmark Genovese watch tower – keeping one’s eyes on the paint box blue ocean views is the best bet.