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Guide to The Isle of Corsica, France
The island of Corsica is considered by some to be the most beautiful island in the Mediterranean. It is 160km from France and 80km from Italy with which it has strong historical ties. Corsica is quite different from mainland France in its geography, people, culture and customs. It has a start primitive beauty with superb beaches and picturesque hillside villages.
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For centuries, visitors to Corsica have returned home with their own deep impressions of this unique and beautiful island with its wonderful landscape, culture, traditions, villages and people.
French is the official language, and is spoken by everybody but you will also hear Corsican which is close to Italian spoken everywhere, particularly in the villages.
Geologically, Corsica is part of the continental alpine system and is broadly divided into two parts The dividing line between these two main parts runs roughly from St. Florent in the north, southwards to Corte, then southeast to Solenzara and the eastern coast.
The difference in physical scenery, natural flora and local architecture between these areas is dramatic. A ten minute drive can take you from one extreme to another. Variety is provided by the different kinds of rock within each broad area, their colours and weathered shape. A chain of peaks form the spine of the island, running from near Calvi in the north-west to Bavella in the southeast. The steep gradients have produced some dramatic gorges like the Spelunca between Evisa and Porto, the Santa Regina carrying the Golo river down from the Niolo and the Tavignano above Corte.
From these two large natural areas, the island divides further into natural regions, each distinctly different from its neighbour.
La Balagna: An area of hills and valleys, bounded by the sea to the north and the high mountains to the south, this fertile area was once called the garden of Corsica. The valleys are covered of olives, vines, fruit and citrus trees. Flocks of milking sheep graze the valleys and are milked twice a day for their precious rich milk used in the production of Roquefort and local cheeses. Cattle wander freely over the hillsides; the meat from these free-ranging animals who feed on wild grasses and herbs is quite delicious.
The mediaeval hilltop villages of the Balagne are very appealing and in many both traditional and new crafts are practised.
The main town of Calvi - a small port dominated by its ancient citadel, claims to be the birthplace of Christopher Columbus and it was during the siege of Calvi that Nelson lost an eye.
The Nebbi Gentle hills and valleys rising up from the Gulf of St. Florent, this is a delightful area of vineyards and olive groves. Luscious Muscat wine and very good white, rose and red wines are produced here. Patrimonio is the centre for wine tasting, and Oletta, a large sunny village overlooking the gulf is also a good centre for tasting and buying wine.
Saint Florent: This small sheltered fishing port with good beaches and a citadel is an excellent centre to explore this area as well as the west coast of the Cap. In high season it is possible to take a ferry from Saint Florent to the beaches of the Desert des Agriates.
Cap Corse: The drive around Cap Corse is often slow and tortuous, but the stunningly varied scenery is well worth the effort. Monte Stello is the highest point at about 3,000 feet. The best views can be seen driving in an anti clockwise direction down the west coast which gives wonderful views of the mountains of Haute Corse as you drive south with villages like Nonza perched high above the sea. Centuri Port, in the northwest, has a distinctly Cornish air, and serves very good fish and lobster in its restaurants. Macinaggio, on the northeast side, contrasts strongly with Centuri. It has a modern marina providing shelter for many large yachts.
The Castagniccia: With its soft chestnut-covered hills and deep valleys, this lush area was once the richest in Corsica, with its huge crop of chestnuts providing flour - erstwhile staple food which was turned into pollenta, a sort of porridge, cakes and puddings. Chestnuts were also used to feed pigs which were processed into sausages and hams. Because of its dense covering of vegetation, this area is always fresh and green, with no lack of water.
The contrast between this area and the rest of the island is marked and evidenced in the shape of the land and its architecture. Villages with slate-roofed houses are draped along the sides of the hills. The Castagniccia comes close to the sea at Moriani, and from here to Bastia the villages of the Casinca hang on the mountainside overlooking the oriental plain and the sea.
Corte: Dominated by its citadel, Corte was once the capital of the island, and is the seat of Corsica's University. The old town, with its four or five storey houses, is fascinating to explore. Corte is a good base for walkers. There is the Tavignano valley, accessible only by foot; the Gorge of the Restonica, Lac de Melo and Lac de Capitello; and further south Monte d'Oro, the Forest of Vizzavona and the Cascade des Anglais.
The Niol: The mountainous heart of the island is divided up into many distinctive areas, but the Niolo is perhaps the most dramatic. It is a fertile basin at about 2,700 feet above sea level and ringed by the high mountains of Corsica including Monte Cinto (8,800 feet) and Paglia d'Orba. Until well into the 20th century, the Niolo was isolated from the other parts of Corsica, the only access being by mulepath up the bleak gorge of Santa Regina to the east, or the incredibly beautiful pink granite gorge of the Spelunca to the west. There is a famous traditional fair at Casamacciolo every year in September.
The West Coast: The scenery along the coast from Girolata to Cargese is stunning, with red granite cliffs dropping dramatically into the sea and few accessible beaches. Porto is probably the most photographed beach on the island, and is beautiful.. Inland from Porto, the gorge of the Spelunca, a very deeply cut gorge with pink and green sheer granite slides, is one of the most spectacular sights on the island.
The Gulf Of Ajacci: The elegant town of Ajaccoi, the birthplace of Napoleon, and capital of the island is reminiscent of the resorts of the Cote d'Azur. The Gulf of Ajaccio is beautiful, culminating on the northern side with the Iles Sanguinaires. To the south there are lovely sandy beaches and a well developed tourist industry with Porticcio being one of the main holiday resorts of the area.
The Gulf of Valinc: The Gulf of Valinco is beautiful and there are a wealth of sandy beaches from Porto Pollo on its northern tip to the little resort and fishing port of Campo Moro a pretty little village which time has left behind.
Southern Corsica: Bonifacio is a beautifully restored old town, magnificently situated on its limestone promontory looking out towards the Island of Sardinia. Boat excursions around the limestone cliffs and caves, or to Sardinia, are possible. A short drive from Bonifacio are some magnificent beaches and a spectacular golf course.
Porto-Vecchio is situated at the heart of a vast gulf with many beautiful beaches. The town of Porto-Vecchio was built in 1539 to complete the defence system of the island and its fortress origins are evident. Inland there are cork-oak forests. The Ospedale mountains and the dramatic Col de Bavella are within easy reach of Porto-Vecchio.
The Corsican people are traditionally mountain dwelling rather than sea dwelling people and their food therefore tends to be meat rather than fish.
Corsica is renowned for its charcuterie, try the smoked sausage and the ham made from wild boar. Other traditional foods include Corsican soup with beans, meat and vegetables, small brown trout from the mountain rivers, game - including wild boar; lamb, goat, veal; beans and lentils and pulenta - a chestnut flour porridge.
Cheeses are made from sheep's milk and include Brocciu, a soft white cheese as well as more mature cheeses. Deserts and pastries are memorable and include the famous 'fiadona' made with the Brocciu cheese.
Wine is produced throughout the island, the better known being those from Patrimonio, Cap Corse, and the Sartenais in the southwest. The reds are often very good, and the rose is excellent - particularly the rose gris - a delicately pale pink. There are also some excellent white wines produced. Most famous of all perhaps is Corsican Muscat - drunk everywhere as an aperitif.
The seas are ideal for swimming, snorkelling, sailing and windsurfing. If you like walking then the island has everything from easy strolls to challenging mountain treks. There is an intricate network of ancient footpaths and mule paths, criss-crossing the whole island linking valley with valley, region with region, and making Corsica a walker's paradise. The scenery of course is magnificent and there are plenty of lovely beaches and secret coves to explore. Horse riding is popular on the old mule trails as are canoeing and fishing on the rivers and streams.
The wild flowers first appear in February and snow can be seen on the highest mountain tops until late spring. From sea level to about 1500 feet, the climate and vegetation is typically Mediterranean, with hot dry summers and mild winters. Between 1,500 and 4,500 feet, the climate is similar but a little cooler the higher one goes. Above 4,500 feet, an alpine climate prevails, the sun is hot in summer, but the nights are cool, and in winter there is snow from September to May with skiing possible in many places. The island has an average of greater than 2700 hours of sunshine per year and the average sea temperature in the summer is 24 °C.
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Getting to Corsica
Corsica has good air connections to France and most other European countries. There are direct flights from London Gatwick to Corsica with British Airways.
The fast ferry to Corsica runs from Nice and has a crossing time of about 3 hours. There are also regular ferries from Marseille and Toulon but these take between 7 and 12 hours. The journey to Nice is approximately 1300km from Calais and will take around 11 hours.