Corsica – off Corse!

I wouldn’t say it was kidnaping, but it wasn’t entirely voluntarily either. It was more like a mild, loving parenting pressure under which, our now grown up kids, was asked to join our overlanding journey this year. Well, we actually told them to join us, but we promised it would be the last year we expected them to come. They accepted if we also promised they wouldn’t have to bring long woolen underwear and hats to keep them varm this time. We promised.

…but they will be asked again next year.

Corsica, the short version

So under these mutual conditions, we started to plan where to go. First thought was Croatia and maybe all the way to Albania. But as we wrote earlier in “Planning sucks!” we ended a little “off Corse” since we bought ferry tickets to Corsica. An island we have had on our bucket list for a long time, a place where we could be pretty sure to keep some of our promises to our kids, and a place known as being authentic, beautiful and NOT too heavily crowded.

Corsica has a deheaded Moor as a emblem in their flag and usually we would give it an extra thought before seeking a people who proudly show how they cut off the head of those visitors they don’t like. But in Corsica’s case there would be no need to worry- at least that is what we hoped for…

By the way, the story about the Moor’s head dates way back to the 13th century, when the Aragonese were given rights over Corsica by the Pope after their victory over the Saracens. They portrayed their acquisition by the Moor’s Head. It was however, forgotten in Corsica until the 18th century when a German adventurer – who for some reason was king of Corsica for 6 months in 1736 – chose the forgotten Moor’s Head as the National flag. Twenty years later it was re-established as the official Corsican flag by the great Corsican patriot, Pascal Paoli who insisted that the bandana was moved from its original position covering the eyes in order to symbolise the liberation of Corsica. And they must have had worse visitors than us in the meantime.

Corsica’s history is one long story about foreign invaders occupying the island. After a fight where British lord Nelson lost his eye, Napoléon moved in his troops to Corsica in 1796 and Corsica has been a French department since. Not that everyone accepts it though. The Moor headed flag is seen  all over the island, and usually it sits above le tricolore, mainland France is often referred to as “le continent” and while most roadsigns are written in both French and Corsican the French part is often seen with shot holes or painted over.

It all leaves an impression of a very independent and proud Corsican people, even though the are a minority amongst the approximately 250.000 inhabitants on the island. But for sure they do have a reason to be proud.

Getting there and around

The fastest, easiest and probably also the less expensive way to visit Corsica is flying in, find a small hotel and hire a car – so we didn’t pick that choice.

Instead we chose to drive 1700 km through Europe – 90 km/h in the Land Rover towing the expedition trailer.

It wouldn’t be all true if we said the kids agreed in that decision. Especially when they found out the alternative with airplane and a cozy hotel would have been cheaper.

But we – at least some of us – actually it probably comes down to just me – prefers the concept of traveling on our own and being self reliant as true overlanders. Forcing that idea through gave the rest of the crew a reasonable right to grumble if anything (seriously everything!) went wrong. They never exploited it, but it was a nice card to hold on hand when negotiating who was to pay the ice cream or do the dishes.

When it comes to the fact that we can go almost anywhere and especially to the most remote and stunning beautiful beaches exactly because of the Land Rover, everybody seemed  happy enough. As always we made a tour out of it on our way to Savona (I) where we boarded the Corsica ferries night ferry to Bastia  – ready for our small scale invasion of the island.

Most of our driving was on the spectacular D81 along the west coast, with minor detours on the even more spectacular desert tracks in desert del Agriates and of course the beautiful D268 through the Solenzara valley. The T10 back along the east coast was just to be considered as transit, since it’s just a straight and efficient stretch.

Desert del Agriates and Plage del Saleccia

Corsica has its own desert – Désert del Agriates. They claim that it is the only official desert in Europe, and considering their treatment of unwanted visitors, it’s not a fact we want to question in public. Without any check on the source we accept that we have driven through an official European desert on our way to the beach at Saleccia.

It takes a robust car with a reasonable free hight. 4wd is not necessary but absolutely a good thing – especially if you are towing a trailer. Of course we met a couple of crazy Frenchmen driving in a regular 2wd Renault van, but you shouldn’t compare to these people – they invented the Dakar rally!

The tracks through the Agriates desert haven’t been graded for some years, and there is a blooming tourist industry offering 4×4 tours in the area. Guess it’s a very well considered choice to just leave the tracks as they are – stunning beautiful and very rough – and  the opportunity to make a load of money on getting people through.

Contrary those who sell “the-real-deal-4×4-experiences“ to tourists, we travel way more slowly. We demand a lot of our equipment, we know what it’s capable at, so we don’t have to prove it and since we depend on its functionality  we also care about it and try not to stress it unnecessary. Over the years that strategy has shown its worth for us, we haven’t had major breakdowns and the fridge content for our gourmet dinners in the camp stays intact – usually anyway..!

Right next to the unbelievably beautiful Saleccia Beach lay the Uparadisu campsite. A nice and cozy little place with a very relaxed, almost backpacker like, atmosphere. It houses a little social restaurant, where you eat together with your neighbors if you remember to place your order earlier in the day, plus a little Pizza Hut (not the chain brand, it’s just a hut) for those who forgot to place their orders.

I wouldn’t say that the place is characterized by a exaggerated level of clean and tidiness, but its a nice place and very well situated only a 5 minutes walk from one of the best beaches in Europe.

Calvi, Corte and the Scandola coast

We hadn’t decided where to stay after leaving The Saleccia Beach. We had a little crush on Calvi, because of its history, but L’lle Rousse and Algajola was absolutely also on the list. We followed our hearts though, and went through L’lle Rousse and Algajola heading for Calvi with its old citadel and very charming little town center.

We set camp on a the Castor campsite only a 10 minutes walk from the old town center and just 5 minutes from the beach.

The Corsican claims that Christopher Columbus was born in Calvi. They can’t really prove it, but neither can the opponents since Calvi was Italian at that time – so we totally bought it. Actually we believe it’s pretty cool having walked the same streets little Christopher has tossed around and played in.

One of the great advantages by having the expedition trailer is the ability to leave it behind, so we kind of made a base camp in Calvi. A base camp from where we went by train to Corte, by boat to Girolatta and by car to L’lle Rousse and Saint Antonio.

Many Corsicans still thinks of Corte as the real “capital” of Corsica. For generations the native Corsican has lived in the mountains away from the coasts. The mountains was very difficult to invade and control for the invaders and from here the Corsicans fought their guerilla war against whoever had claimed the island. When Napoléon ruled  France, he chose to move the capital to Ajaccio, from where he was born. But since that decision wasn’t taken among the Corsicans and Napoléon wasn’t popular at all, many simply ignored that decision – and still do.

By the way Corte is a nice town, but it has not a lot to offer it’s visitors. Unless you want to hike in the surrounding mountains, then it’s a perfect place to set out from.

Our boat trip to Girolatta was a true smash hit. We went for a day tour along the beautiful and completely isolated national park, Scandola on the way to Girolatta. Girolatta itself is only accessible by boat or by a 2 hour walk from the D81 road. You can’t go there by car. Girolatta has 15 inhabitants in the winter months, but a lot of visitors during the summer months. It’s a surreal gorgeous place, placed in its own little bay, surrounded by clear turquoise water and red cliffs.

After a very short while on the island, one get the impression of a strong hearted and very strong-willed people living there. They don’t just grab new possibilities, just because they are new. Maybe that’s why we didn’t meet any Burger Kings, McDonald’s, chain hotels or huge camping resorts. The Corsicans manage to stay loyal to their roots and keep the island authentic – and that’s one of many things that makes Corsica a great destination.

Saint Antonio was honored by our visit in a late afternoon. We took the Land Rover on a drive along the coast to L’lle Rousse and then up in the mountains to Saint Antonio. Saint Antonio is a tiny village laying on a hilltop like an eagles nest. It’s officially listed as one of the most beautiful villages in France and it offers you a little adventure walking through the very narrow cobblestone streets were you can’t drive, and were you never really know were you end when going through the small tunnels under the buildings.

From there we enjoyed the sunset over the bay of Algajola while eating at one of the small restaurants.

Ajaccio

Besides being Napoléons place of birth it wasn’t a city we couldn’t have lived without visiting. But on the other side we didn’t suffer any harm getting a solid dose of history. Actually parts of the crew believed they did, but since we couldn’t diagnose anything serious symptoms, we gave Ajaccio and Napoléon a couple of days.

And to be honest; Ajaccio is a fine city. There is plenty of nice boutiques, cafes and restaurants in the inner city. The harbor is bustling with giant cruise ships and ferries, so there is plenty to do. The beach on the other hand is nothing to mention. You have to go either 15 km south to meet a very good beach or 5 km north if less is acceptable. We went north to get our daily dip, and stayed at Barbicaja camping. A fine campsite were we still have our clothesline and a t-shirt from Yellowstone National Park hanging between a couple of trees. Quite a shame since it was clean and a little troublesome to replace.

Especially for one reason we wouldn’t have missed Ajaccio, and that’s the way to get there!

Our list of most spectacular roads we have driven is very long, and the D81 from Calvi to Ajaccio claims a top 10 position. Don’t even try to count the hairpins, since there are hundreds. Most them reveals a view over a little isolated bay, or village or rock formations not even a child could have drawn as unrealistic. The Land Rover is a perfect vehicle to drive there – a convertible sports car would have been too…

Zonza 

Leaving the incredible beautiful west coast wasn’t an easy decision at all. We fully enjoyed the laidback life and the steep and winding roads and tracks. But we also wanted to go up in the mountains and cross the island. We set up camp in cozy little Zonza. A true mountain village from where a lot of hiking trails go out. In the nearby river you can find cool fresh water pools to swim in which was a nice alternative to the warm saltwater at the coast.

Driving the road from Zonza to Salenzara on the east coast was great – great views and a lot of places you can park and take a swim in the river. Getting to the bottom in Salezara is an anticlimax though, from there is flat as a pancake all the way up to Bastia.

St. Florent 

Since we obviously wasn’t done with the west coast, we drove from Salenzara to Bastia as fast as possible- which really isn’t fast at all – and crossed the mountains to St.Florent. A little town we already went through on our way to Saleccia Beach when we first arrived to Corsica.

In St. Florent the wine yards are scattered around in the surrounding mountains, and the harbor is both full of luxury yachts and life.

Here we tried to get used to the fact that Corsica wasn’t forever, and that also this journey had to come to an end.

I think it’s unnecessary to say that Corsica is a place in which you can easily fall in love – and loose your head…