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Corsica- touring the scented isle

01 August 2008

by Patrick Morgan

The ancient Greeks named it after Callista (the most beautiful one), Phoenician sailors called it Kersica (covered by forests), but we call it Corsica. Nestled in the Mediterranean Sea between France and Italy, the island of Corsica is a rugged corner of old Europe. In the morning you can pedal up a mountain pass and encounter wild boar. You can lunch on ewes' cheese and salami in a village built from granite, then descend to a chic resort for cocktails by sundown. It is known as the scented isle for the aromatic bush, le maquis, that covers much of the island.

Over the centuries Corsica's strategic location has attracted successive waves of invaders, including the Greeks, Romans, Pisans and Genovese, but native Corsicans maintain they are "always conquered, never subdued". Although Corsica has been part of France since 1768, nationalism remains strong.

If you are seeking Europe's wildest seascapes, white sand beaches, empty backcountry and warm weather, Corsica is ideal. With just 250,000 residents on the 180-km-long island but no amusement parks or fast-food chains, it is easy to slow down and discover an intact Mediterranean culture.

But I had a special reason to visit Corsica. In the 1860s my great-great grandfather, Augustin Georgetti, left these rocky shores to find a better life in New Zealand. I wanted to see the ancestral village and try to understand what motivated him to cross the world. I decided that arriving by sea and travelling at the 'speed of bike' would give methe best chance of unravelling my roots.

Taking the overnight ferry from Marseille to the capital, Ajaccio, Icaught my first glimpse of Corsica's 2500-metre mountains as the sun rose into a cloudless blue sky.

To get a head start on the hills I took an ancient railcar into the heart of the island. Crossing a maze of forested valleys on bridges designed by Gustave Eiffel, the railcar rattles uphill for a couple of hours to Corte, disgorging English hikers along the way. They were headed for the Grande Randonnée 20, a 12-day trek that traces Corsica's mountainous spine.

I timed my trip for early September to escape the crowds and summer heat, but by noon it was roasting. They say only mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the midday sun, so I saddled up and pedalled a few sweaty kilometres to the Restonica Valley to cool off in a shady creek. Chestnuts, laricio pines and the scented maquis surrounded the clear pool. Simply glorious. But by late afternoon I was craving shade again as I climbed the arid Gorge de Santa Regina. The 37 degree heat sucked the energy out of me. Smashed wing mirrors along the road were evidence of some dodgy driving. Shortly before my brains boiled away I grovelled in to Albertacce, an ageless village strung along the road. I needed refreshment and rest.

The interior of Corsica has been depopulated as people left for better prospects in Marseilles, Paris (or New Zealand) and the street was empty, except for untethered pigs sniffing the garbage. A shack advertised ice-cream but the old man there shrugged at my enquiries.

I told him I was from Nouvelle-Zélande and he shrugged some more. I was forced to stoop to "Près de l'Australie?" but still no response. Was he a distant cousin, I wondered.

I was deep in the Niolo, a glacial basin accessed by just two roads, and the home of the Corsican nationalist movement. Goat breeding, cheese making and painting independence slogans seemed to be the main activities. Further up the street I found a bar. After a life-saving Corsican beer- made with chestnuts - I located the gîte d'étape, a no-frills hostel for weary hikers and roasted bikers.

The Niolo area is known for authentic Corsican cooking, so I treated myself to a slap-up meal at Albertacce's sole restaurant. Chez Jo Jo was more like a family dining room than a restaurant. I ploughed through ewes' cheese and chestnut-flour fritters, veal stew with fresh pasta, chestnut flan, half a litre of red wine and a baguette. And it would have been rude to refuse Jo Jo's complimentary digestif, a firewater flavoured with wild myrtle berries. Sleep was instant and prolonged.

I made earlier starts on the following days and crossed the highest pass on the island, the 1400-metre Col de Vergio. I pedalled past granite peaks with the profile of a 52-tooth chainring, through forests alive with boar and postcard-perfect villages. Most afternoons ended with me camping by the Mediterranean.

Highlights were watching the setting sun paint the cliffs red at Les Calanches, duelling a roadie on an empty highway (she dusted me), and crossing the Dèsert des Agriates - a desolate area once proposed as a test site for France's nuclear bombs. They chose the Pacific instead.

Corsica is sometimes called "Provence without the Brits". English is not widely spoken, soit helps if you paid attention in French class. A boy-faced gendarme stopped to check me out as I rested one lunchtime. He told me the All Blacks were training in Corsica in preparation for their World Cup campaign in Marseilles.

But the New Zealand connection I sought lay further up the road. After a week's riding I approached Cap Corse, my ancestor's departure point. In a sleepy village built high above the sea to escape raids by Berber pirates, I tracked down a distant cousin, Girard. My firstimpression was that he looked remarkablylike my brother.

A doctor from Marseilles, Girard had retired to Corsica to live with his wife Joëlle in the family's three-storey stone house. As we drank lemon-spiced tea around the kitchen table and talked about family connections, I wondered what my life would have been like if our ancestor hadn't migrated 150 years ago. Would I be driving the railcar, tending goats, harvesting chestnuts, or serving beer to tourists?

Whether you come to Corsica to see the scenery, smell the wilderness, taste the food or get in touch with family, the scented isle is a treat for the senses.

Nitty Gritty

  • When to go: May, June, September or October. Avoid the crowds of tourists and stifling heat in July and August. 
  • The easiest way to haul your bike around on French trains is to pack it in a Ground Effect Tardis. Bigger bike bags don't fit the luggage rack on most French trains. No bike bag is needed on the railcar in Corsica. 
  • Check European train timetables, in English, at DB Bahn
  • Ryan Air has cheap flights from the UK to Marseilles. 
  • Ferry timetables from Marseille to Bastia or Ajaccio are atwww.aferry.to