* There are not many places I would refuse a return visit to – but Corsica is one. Here’s one story about a happier moment in a trip from hell.
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Mrs. V and I had quite a thing going.
She welcomed me into her home, accompanied me on moonlit strolls around the citadel and, in the morning, brought me fresh coffee and oven-hot croissants.
But there was, you understand, no monkey business. You see Mrs. V – or Madame Vignon as she is known to her Corsican neighbours – is a sprightly, octogenarian grandmother, who just happens to run the best little chambre d’hote in Bastia.
Over the years, Corsica has acquired something of a reputation for poor value and lacking in tourist infrastructure. Worse still, in high season, the beaches are rammed, prices hiked and service in restaurants can be somewhere between surly and downright rude.
But, thanks to a new scheduled service operating from May to late October, the island of Napoleon’s birth is now opening up to a new generation of more independent travellers, those more likely to hop over to Toulouse on easyJet or Montpellier with Ryanair than book an all-inclusive package with accompanying charter connections.
It is Bastia, transport hub of Corsica’s north, that has been the main beneficiary of this new trend and is now blossoming as a destination in its own right.
The capital of Haute Corse has always been the economic powerhouse of Corsica’s stop-start economy and today it retains a workaday feel: lively, businesslike and, maybe, a little rough around the edges. But give it a chance. Get to know Bastia and you will start to understand Corsica.
The hub of the action is the 19th-century Place St-Nicolas. Start by picking a spot along its western flank and spend an hour or two soaking up the café culture in the shadow of the imposing statue of Napoleon. The pint-sized emperor appears frozen in time from his plinth vantage point, gazing out to the island of his exile, Elba.
From here it’s a short saunter via the Vieux Port, one of the city’s prime drags for al fresco eating overlooking the harbour, to the citadel district.
Built by Corsica’s Genoese governors in 1452, the complex of tiny alleyways and fortified ramparts was formerly the seat of Corsica’s political powerbase, based around the Governors’ Palace, and a symbol of Bastia’s legislative role – until, that is, the city lost its capital city status to southern upstart Ajaccio in 1811.
Traditionally, holidaymakers arriving off the ferries from Nice and Marseilles have opted to push on by car rather than run the gauntlet of the city’s hit-and-miss accommodation options.
Thankfully, however, Bastia’s local tourist office is also one of the most forward thinking on the island and, that too, is changing.
Over the last few seasons, local tourism authorities have introduced an initiative to not only promote the city’s historical legacy with a series of worthwhile waking tours, but also recruit a number of venerable madames d’un certain age to open their family homes on a B&B basis.
Step forward my new best friend, Mrs. V. Corsican chambre d’hotes are little treasures, offering a unique way to get to know local people, sample some traditional Corsican hospitality and gain a fresh perspective on the Corsican world view.
Chez Madame Vignon is typical of the experience. The accommodation is fairly simple, with two homely bedrooms and a shared bathroom, but the house is located close to the city centre, and the easy-going, family atmosphere make it feel like a true home from home.
As we sat on her terrace, a spectacular view across the bay before us, Mrs. V and I got to know each other better, discussing everything from her grand-daughter’s exam results to Corsica’s long-running struggle for independence.
In fact, we got on so well, we ended up going for a stroll around the citadel, stopping for a cheeky glass of rosé at a nearby café.
The Corsican diet differentiates itself from French brasserie fare with its reliance on ingredients as chestnuts, brocciu (fresh sheep or goat cheese) and regional charcuterie, such as figatellu, a thin liver sausage. Bastia is a great place to acquire a taste for such Corsican village specialities, with many of the restaurants around town offering a good-value set menu Corse.
The pick of the bunch for your first, proper Corsican supper is Osteria U Tianu, a family-run spot, nestled amongst the backstreets of the Vieux Port.
With a simple but tasty five-course set menu, you’ll find it a challenge to eat better anywhere else on the island. And, afterwards, it’s just a short saunter over to rue Fontaine Nueve, where the pavement café-bars attract a mix of locals and students until 2am.
Mooching around the compact centre the next day, I also found that Basita is a good place to stock up some of the island’s traditional produce.
Cap Corse Mattei, a shop unchanged in over 100 years of commerce, is a local institution and home to the ubiquitous local aperitif, Cap Corse. It also does a fine line in honeys, liquors and chestnut-flavoured beers, as does U Muntagnolu, a charcuterie specialist across town.
For many visitors to Corsica, however, a trip to the island is about getting out into the countryside, dipping into traditional Corsican village life and filling your nostrils with the scent of the maquis, the scrubland vegetation that Napoleon, while exiled on Elba, famously said reminded him of his childhood home.
Bastia provides an ideal base for touring with several options for easy one to three-day excursions by hire car into the surrounding region.
These include wine-tasting your way through the 30-odd vineyards of Patrimonio, followed by a stint on the beach at St-Florent; or following the Balagne villages craft trail from Ile Rousse to the upscale resort town of Calvi, via the idyllic village of Algajola.
The gloriously rugged coastline of Cap Corse was, for me, however, the obvious choice.
The D80 road out of Bastia hugs the eastern coastal roads of le Cap, protruding 40km into the Ligurian Sea as if extending a giant, Gallic finger towards mainland France.
The scenery is spectacular and the roads, at times, utterly terrifying, with narrow coastal roads and dramatic crashing waves beckoning from below white-knuckle sheer drops.
The owners of Le Relais du Cap, another family-run chambre d’hote located just south of Nonza at Olmeta du Cap, fell for the rugged charm of the western cape, gave up a business in France and relocated to Corsica to open a guesthouse, which today hugs a gloriously isolated headland in a rustic hideaway.
That night I joined them and a handful of other guests – two strapping Danish hikers and a leather-clad motorbiking couple from Italy – to drink wine, swap tales from the road and watch the sunset from the terrace overhanging the ocean.
I could have stayed a week but Mrs. V. was waiting and I’m not the kind of boy to going breaking my promises to diminutive grandmothers with a rakish glint in their eyes.
Back in Bastia, Mrs. V greeted me with cold lemonade and tales of the tortoises making escape bids from her garden. That night we took one last moonlit constitutional around the citadel and, the next morning, there was an extra warm croissant tellingly left on my breakfast tray.
As I made to say my goodbyes, Mrs V. gave me a big, wet, grandma kiss on the cheek and announced with a wink that another young man was due to arrive that night.
Maybe she had just been just toying with me all along.
This story was first published in A Place in the Sun magazine in 2004. Liked this? Try also Talking contemporary art in Burgundy.
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