It was back in late 1997 when my old boss announced that he was looking for someone to go out to Corsica (La Corse) to set up a new company base in the south of this little known Meditteranean island.
For some years the company “Holiday Options” had chartered aircraft to the northern airports of Bastia and Calvi while utilising scheduled British Airways services into Corsica’s west coast capital of Ajaccio but never had they tried an expensive flight program to the tiny airport of Figari at the bottom of this French but fiercely independent “Ile de Beaute”.
The timing was perfect – a relationship had ended, my mother who had been fighting breast cancer was getting stronger following surgery, the pangs of travelling and adventure were once again surfacing and the opportunity to discover a new destination and to challenge myself was too good to resist.
Was this the moment to take a new direction in my life – of “Corse” it was!
The following April of 1998 I packed, sorry I crammed full, a rather shoddy plum coloured Ford Escort and headed for Dover before a long journey down the route de soleil to Nice where I spent the night at the Hotel Negresco on the Promenade Des Anglais, the most famous hotel in Nice, courtesy of a favour from the owner who was a personal friend of our finance manager…. its who you know…. you know !!
After a night wallowing in a glittery pea green marble bath the size of a Renault 5, I took the 4.5 hour long ferry over to a wet and dreary Ile Rousse in northern Corsica. I then drove across the north coast past pretty St Florent and the Patrimonio vineyards to the industrial centre of Bastia, a city I never really embraced, before hanging a right turn and heading south about 150 kilometres, hugging the east coast of the island all the way.
With every kilometre that I drove the weather improved and as I got close to my new home it was as if someone was watching down on me as the sun was shining, the crickets were chirping and that unmistakable Mediterranean fragrance of pine trees and maquis filled the air – I had at last arrived.
The Start Of My New Life…
I pulled into the little hamlet of La Trinite de Porto Vecchio, just north of the main town of Porto Vecchio and checked in with the local electrician, Monsieur Marchetti, who was renting out his little apartment to me for the year. At least I knew who to call in the event of a power cut – as I said its who you know… you know !
It was at this moment in my life that I can honestly say my life changed as after I had emptied the aforementioned shoddy plum coloured escort of its contents, I shut the door behind me in this little apartment, I stared at the boxes and with everything I owned and my life there in front of me, I am not afraid to say it…. I cried!
Come on Rupert what the hell – I mean you haven’t cried since Paul Gascoigne got sent off in the World Cup semi final of 1990 so why now? I now look back on that moment (the Corsica one not the Paul Gascoigne one) and realise it was a defining moment in my life – I was tired and alone on an island in the med – I knew nobody, I could not speak the language, the emotions of leaving home, a poorly Mum and friends all left behind and this was it – the start of my new life. I will never forget that moment and often wonder if all those people who head off to the sun every year to work, possibly have that same emotion – perhaps they just don’t admit it till they are older !
Now Monsieur Marchetti the electrician did not speak a word of English, in fact even worse, he spoke Corsican, a mix of Latin and Italian but he owned a yacht and had a gorgeous daughter so I soon snapped out of my emotional state and promptly learned some Corsican chat up lines and had the time of my life discovering every square inch of this truly beautiful Mediterranean island.
Diminutive And Hot Thats Figari…
At some time during the next few days I headed 30 minutes inland to Figari Airport – this was to be my office for the year where I would greet our mainly affluent, middle to older aged guests and whisk them off to their accommodation for an island briefing and a glass of fizz. Now back then Figari Airport was the size of…two Renault 5’s. It had no air-conditioning and one coffee bar selling…. well ….coffee…. however if your luck was in then there was a charcuterie filled baguette….. this was to be my staple diet for the next six months!
Over the next 4 weeks I negotiated deals with car hire companies, boat excursions, sampled restaurants, met hoteliers, villa owners and travelled all around the island to truly understand it before the first guests arrived in early May. My French improved pretty quickly and I particularly remember learning the word “disponibiite” which means “availabiity” in French – useful when you need a last minute hotel room due to an overbooking.
The morning of the first arrivals and I got to meet the other reps who were to become my friends and drinking buddies… Alistair and Bea a couple representing Simply Travel whom I recall catching and barbequing a moray eel with one evening (it tastes like chicken – it always does right….. but avoid the head as its poisonous!). Then there was Florence a lovely mischievious partner in crime from Corsican Places, a ginger haired lady with freckles from Corsican Affair and then a guy who did not last long from Voyages Ilena – not sure why – maybe he evaporated due to the lack of air-con!
Historic Porto Vecchio…
Now most guests arriving into Figari will stay in and around the town of Porto Vecchio.
A historic old town with a pretty small harbour which is lined with restaurants, ice cream parlours and “plongee” schools – or to you and me… dive centres! From here you can take the lung bursting walk or catch the road train up to the citadel up high with a gorgeous square, a church and numerous bars and restaurants with al fresco dining and in some cases a sea view.
The food in Corsica is amazing. With the Italian influence you have incredible pasta and pizza options aplenty and then with the French influence you get the gorgeous salads, the steaks, the charcuterie boards, the various cheeses and straight out of the med the fish of which daurade and rouget or red mullet is popular. One speciallity I always recall, but not in a positive way, was “Oursins”, which they sell at little kiosks on the road side – a squeeze of lemon and a cocktail stick will enable you to pick out the contents of a spiky, gristly, uncooked sea urchin…. I think I would rather step on one and that’s saying something!
Head off down any of the narrow little cobbled side streets and you will find boutique shops, ice cream parlours full of excited kids, souvenirs selling T shirts with the Corsican symbol of a Moorish head wearing a white bandana and hidden music bars where I was often found in the summer of 98 drinking the local chestnut beer, Pietra, whilst listening to a variety of local singers that ranged from god damn awlful to future stars in the making although to be fair, that may have been the chestnut beer messing with my hearing!
Live Music at La Taverne Du Roi…
The oldest and most famous bar in town is La Taverne du Roi – the Tavern of the King and this was to be my showpiece venue when welcoming educational groups of travel agents to the island. After a dinner in town we headed for this magical dark and dingy old tavern up in the citadel where, after I had insisted everyone have a shot of the local rocket fuel, Myrthe, a Myrtel Berry Liquer, we then sat on a little stool or when busy (and considerably easier for some), the floor.
Local Corsican musicians would then sing hypnotic Corsican music (such as songs from the band “I Muvrini”) followed by some more lively recognisable tracks by which point the Myrthe had normally kicked in and the group of previously sedate travel agents had morphed into a gaggle of unashamedly crazy drunken lunatics.
The song I always remember and the one that ended the night was Ben E Kings “Stand by Me” – ironic as this was something by this stage most of the agents couldn’t. The band started singing it in Corsican and finished it in English – by the end of the summer they knew this was my favourite so it was a given that it would be played ! Very special memories.
Summer Nights Drinking Chestnut Beer…
Porto Vecchio is a typical Corsican town that you need to immerse yourself in to truly understand. You need to learn the history, discover the little back streets that are tucked away, sample the different restaurants and of course find your own favourite bar. I settled for the Bar Les Beaux Arts as my local where most nights I could be found drinking that chestnut beer and talking in French about football, women and beer to the owner Grufty, a name I gave him, as he had a very deep voice as if he had smoked 100 Gitanes a day all his life which to be fair, he probably had!
It was the summer of 1998 and it was the football World Cup in France so every night a game was on. I even popped over by plane to the iconic Stade Velodrome in Marseille to watch England play Tunisia on that infamous weekend of hooliganism. Now Corsicans are fiercely independent – there is an undercurrent of mafia on the island symbolised by the bullet ridden town signs where the French version is peppered with holes while the Corsican version remains untouched.
When football was discussed it was Man Utd, Juventus or Bastia – the top team in Corsica – rarely ever was Paris St Germain or Marseille mentioned. However this summer was the year that France hosted the World Cup and I remember partying the night away at the Bar Les Beaux Arts as Brazil and Ronaldo were defeated by the French “Les Bleus” after which the town was alive with the waving of Tricolore and the sounds of “Allez Les Bleus” and “Championes” aswell as car horns blaring through the night.
Such good times but the outpouring of love for the mainland was so out of character for those Corsicans I had come to know!
Late nights in those days then involved going clubbing and with a choice of two discotheques it was Via Notte or Amnesia. Now Via Notte is still going strong and was my favourite and without question the best nightclub I have ever been to …. Incredible music, dj’s, drinks served by beautiful people, podium dancers (myself on one occasion) and to really make it special they often had circus acts like fire breathers, jugglers and acrobats – its not many clubs you can go to and come back with singed ears – health and safety would have a field day – a night at Via Notte was a night like no other.
From memory…. Amnesia however was a different experience – owned by the father in law of French Singer, Johnny Halliday it was built like an amphi-theatre and was the largest nightclub in all of France hosting 4,000 people and attracting DJ’s like Carl Cox. It was fully exposed to the open air and also generated an amazing atmosphere but there were clearly tensions and at the end of my season in Corsica the place was bombed and left in ruins to this day. You can now even walk around and explore and for those of us who were there, reminisce.
The moral of the story – don’t mess with the Corsicans!
Swimming With Corsican Cows…
After a night on the tiles, if it is not your hotel pool to relax by, it will be on one of the many superb sandy beaches stretching along the south east coast.
My favourite was always Santa Giulia Bay – a horseshoe shaped beach, packed with watersports opportunities and with a cool music beach bar and grill for an amazing fresh alfresco seafood lunch and the finest sand you will find anywhere in the med. However there are days when the seaweed or jellyfish come in but they are rare but worth mentioning so as not to disappoint!
I have a memory of learning to windsurf in this bay and having in the early days not mastered turning into the wind, I think I was half way to Malta before being rescued.
Other amazing southern beaches, which in some cases remind me now of those in the Seychelles with their giant granite boulders and soft white sands, include the most famous Palombagggia beach as well as Pinarello and Cala Rossa which is home to the magnificent Grand Hotel de Cala Rossa.
Then there is Rondinara which looks incredible but it has a rather unusual drawback in that wild cows roam here during certain months of the year both on the beach and in the sea to cool off. Be sure not to place your towel next to or worse still, on a cowpat.
Bonafacio – A Must See In Southern Corsica
Twenty minutes south of Porto Vecchio and on the southern most tip of the island is Bonafacio – a jaw droppingly beautiful old town perched literally on the edge of limestone cliffs and looking out across to Sardinia. The make up is the same as Porto Vecchio in the sense there is a harbour, and a spectacular one at that, lined with restaurants bars and full of salesman offering hour long boat trips to see a cave which is shaped like local hero Napoleons hat. Then up high there is the citadel with arty shops and a tiny square where you can step out to the edge for scary views straight down to the sea crashing on the rocks below. Bonafacio is a must if visiting southern Corsica.
From Bonafacio you can also take a day trip to Sardinia – its about one hour to the port of Santa Teresa di Gallura and from there an hour by road to the Costa Smeralda, however do check the weather as the Straits of Bonafacio can whip up a storm when the strong mistral winds come out to play and you could get stranded in Sardinia which on the face of it is not really a hardship unless you have a flight to catch!
About 10 minutes east from Bonafacio is the Golfe de Sperone – the only decent high quality golf course on the island with immaculate greens, stunning views and facilities you would expect at any top golf course in the world. I have great memories of Sperone when my Mum and Dad came out for a holiday that year and my Mum, in poor health, drove the buggy around the golf course in her pink hat – we had such a special day – she loved golf and they both loved their time in Corsica.
The Mountains, Rivers and Valleys Of The South…
Head inland from Porto Vecchio and you will pass numerous campsites frequented by German motorbikers who are prepared to kill in order to secure their bulk buy of frankfurters and various species of sausage found in the local Geant Supermarche.
Having negotiated your way past these Bratwurst burglars, you will start to climb into the mountains of southern Corsica and after just an hour and about 40 hairpin bends you will reach the Aiguilles De Bavella – the highest point in the south with breathtaking views of the region. If you look closely you may see rock climbers scaling the peak or paragliders overhead. Up here there are barren grasslands where you can grab a coffee or buy the local “Miel” honey or a bottle of home made “Myrthe” which is even stronger than the strain that affects those mild mannered travel agents.
En route to Bavella you pass through L’Ospedale – a beautiful, pine fringed man made dam up high in the mountains, then the village of Zonza an incredibly pretty little place with views across the valleys and featuring one of my favourite restaurants in the world “L’Auberge de Sanglier” – meaning Inn of the Wild Boar which when made into a thick rich stew is a Corsican speciality ! It’s a remarkably simple open sided restaurant with sensational views and food that is out of this world. I remember once hosting a group of journalists here and one of them carried out reiki on me after lunch…. I never believed that claptrap… until then!
The road trip (see below) from Porto Vecchio to L’Ospedale to Zonza, up to Bavella all the time dodging cattle in the road before descending alongside the crystal clear rivers passing numerous waterfalls where you can stop for a dip and then all the way down through the valley to the somewhat ugly seaside town of Solenzara and then a short drive back along the coast to Porto Vecchio, is a dream. If you are a confident driver, enjoy fresh air, peace, mountains and nature at its best then there are few better day trips than this on the island.
An Island of Magic, Mystery, Tradition and Charm….
So there you have it – a snapshot of my year and some of the highlights of Southern Corsica – I have not even touched on the West coast, the central island ancient capital of Corte or the North that hosts equally unforgettable treasures ….. that’s for another blog but for now I hope I have showcased an island that for one year was my home – perhaps you had not considered Corsica for a holiday or an adventure – but you should.
Whether its in the hot summer months of July and August which is perfect for families or the warm May, June and September days for more active pastimes, Corsica is an incredibly gorgeous edgy island that the wonderful local people passionately and rightly protect to maintain its magic, mystery, nature, traditions and charm.
This island is one that will forever be etched in my heart as a place where amongst those cardboard boxes in that little apartment I moved from one phase of my life to another….where better to do that than in Corsica – the Island of beauty !
There are a small number of excellent UK tour operators who today feature Corsica and who are bookable through your local travel agent.
I have always loved Simpson Travel who were previously Simply Travel and whom my friends Alistair and Bea worked for. Simpson Travel understand travel and they get the art of tour operating, their product selection is impeccable, they offer an amazing customer service, they go the extra mile and the video I have used in this piece demonstrates their understanding of the destination in far more ways than I can ever explain.
Serenity Holidays now own Corsican Places and are also a truly excellent choice with decades of experience to the island.
Of course there is also the Corsican “Corse” Tourist Office where you can also read up on so much more.
Corsica is amazing – Go, have a shot of Myrthe and say hello from me!