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.
The views sweep through the rocky masses and scrublands of the Scandola peninsula to the north, and mast-splashed Gulf of Girolata. Silhouettes of bays and hillsides we will circumnavigate over the coming week are on the horizon.
Along with the cliffs and sea grottos of Bonifacio in southern Corsica, where the Guns of Navarone was filmed, the Piana-Porto area is the biggest draw-card for tourists – 70 per cent come in July and August. Outside of these months, we learn, it is quite easy to have bits of the island to yourself.
We press on past the quadrangular stone watchtower – built in the 16th century to keep a look out for pirates, and head inland. After another five kilometres of extreme exertion (for us mere cycling mortals at least), we arrive in the village of Ota, whose large stone walled houses and crumbling church tower are perched among the mountains of central Corsica.
The only sign of life is coming from the bar of Chez Fèlix, where a small, lively crowd of mostly men is drinking, and eating couscous and paella. At the neighbouring walker’s lodge or gîte d’etape, we are blissfully alone.
Later, at Chez Marie, we tuck into some typical Corsican cuisine – a culinary and linguistic fusion of native and Italian flavours. Lasagne here is made with wild pig, and roasted game and meats are served with pulenta as opposed to polenta. L’aziminu is the regional take on bouillabaisse, while cannelloni au brocciu is a dish made with the king of Corsican cheese – a fresh, creamy fromage blanc made from goat’s or sheep’s milk.
The rustic Corsican cheeses, breads and biscuits make good road companions over the coming week. I develop a particular penchant for the canistrelli flavoured with aniseed, walnuts and coconut.
The next day, we cycle back to the coast with the still snow-capped peaks, and deep river gorges of Corsica’s mountainous interior in view. In all, we sweat out some 350km in our 10-day biking adventure – an independently organised, coast and country circuit from Ajaccio to Ajaccio, most of it spent in a natural paradise, but physical hell. Spring temperatures make for perfect riding conditions – we endure no rain, plenty of sunshine, yet no unbearable heat.
On the infamously masochistic 55-kilometre ride between Porto and Galéria, I am lulled along by the smell of home – one of the most proliferate introduced maritime species in Corsica is the eucalyptus, which exudes its perfume into the sea breeze and sunshine.
The gradients and ascents we tackle in the first three days earn Corsica a mean reputation, whether you are biking or hiking it. All that beauty comes at a price. The meandering, often coast-hugging road on to Calvi offers copious scenic rewards with views over the sparkling azure Riviera Ligure di Ponente towards the French Riviera coast.
After Calvi, we dip inland and slowly slug our way back south, through the vast Parc Regional of Corsica, which swallows up nearly a third of the 8,681 sq km island. The route traces the old train line, past citadels and rustic villages, valleys and mountain saddles.
Despite many ups-and-downs, the going is ironically less tough on our mountain-fringed journey south from Corte to Ajaccio – we have a 1,160-meter ascent on our handlebars, compared to a cumulative, but nonetheless punishing, 2,600m climb from Ajaccio to Calvi.
Again, we find ourselves inadvertently prepping for the second stage of the Tour de France. On June 30th, the squads will swoop the 154km from Bastia to Ajaccio – most likely in a couple of hours’ breeze, compared to our three-day battle. (No doubt they will be spared the risk of cows wandering onto the road in the midst of adrenaline pumping descents).
All the way along, our senses are enlivened by the colours and smells of the natural reserve’s 2,835 species of flowers and plants – chestnut, pine and myrtle trees, and the ubiquitous maquis – in their spring glory.
The maquis is to Corsica what the gum tree is to Australia, or the tumbleweed to America. The thick carpeting of various shrubs and bushes camouflages 40 per cent of Corsica in its bottle green hues. In the past, many Corsican bandits took cover in its dense, impenetrable folds.
Even if the unrest caused by militant nationalist groups in Corsica has waned in recent years, the passionately independent streak of its citizens is still on show.
“Who was the most famous man in the world, and where did he come from?” bellows a local woman at a bus stop after our return to Ajaccio. “Vive Napoleon!” Her flash of fanatical autonomy softens suddenly to a smile. “Bienvenue en Corse!” Welcome to Corsica.
You have to look much further than the budding separatist movement of the 1970s, to find the roots of the island’s antagonism to French or any other outside powers. After several centuries of rule by the Republic of Genova, Corsica won independence in 1735. Within a few decades, the French helped steer it back to Genovese control, before annexing it themselves in 1790.
These days the island seems largely trouble free. Its innate, dare I say Italian-style farniente, expresses itself throughout our stay, as strong as the coffee in my cup.