It is important, when experiencing Corsica for the first time, to do so when the mainland French, or les continentaux, as the islanders call them, have gone home. When August draws to a close, you will find, apart from the obvious benefits of deserted beaches and empty roads, a distinct improvement in the general mood of the place. As the strain of the mutual antipathy that exists between these two radically opposing sensibilities gradually lifts, waiters will smile and take time to banter with you, and guesthouse owners will relax and tell you stories about the folklore of their beloved island. You will find homemade fig jam for breakfast and free digestifs served to wash down your meal.
The French do try to love Corsica but few succeed. They call it the Ile de Beauté (the Island of Beauty) to mask their unease about this place of perpetual insurgency, unrest and superstition. They nibble at the edges of this benighted département of their republic by visiting its spectacular western coastline in private or chartered yachts, or by renting or buying condominiums in domaines that are kept under armed guard and have been magnanimously ceded by corrupt mayors and nationalist terror groups paid to look the other way.
My first trip to Corsica was a birthday present from my Parisian husband. It was October 1995 and we flew to Ajaccio for the weekend, rented a car and drove 10 minutes along the coast to the Hotel Le Maquis in the bay of Porticcio. It had its own, very pretty beach and a swimming pool with a large mosaic of a gun in it. The waiters all looked like nightclub bouncers and the owner was a fiery old lady who seemed to rule them with a rod of iron.
It was a blissful weekend. For three days we swam in the sea and drove up into the densely wooded hills towards Sartène, the sleepy mountain village that has spawned most of the ruling families of the south. We walked in the chestnut woods of the hinterland and scrambled along boulder-strewn rivers. Like many of his friends, my husband felt that Corsica should be experienced in small doses, taking in just a little of its majestic beauty at a time and leaving quickly, before the inhabitants of this fairyland could spoil everything.
He knew people who had fallen for the place and been rash enough to buy property there. A Parisian business acquaintance, who believed he had filled all the right pockets, received a call from his contractor a few days after the completion of his luxury modernist villa with sea and mountain views. The whole place had been destroyed. They had even blown up the swimming pool. The same day the Parisian flew to the island and went to see the mayor, tears in his eyes.
“But why?” he asked.
The Corsican folded his hands and nodded his condolences.
“It’s all right,” he said. “It was a mistake. You can rebuild.”
Undeterred by such tales, I was so smitten by what I had seen on that first weekend that I soon began plotting my return. Corsica’s armed nationalist movement, the FLNC and its many splinter groups, were busy during the 1990s and I began to write regularly about them for the British press. In between reports about the political chaos so irksome to successive French governments, I would manage to steal moments of pure delectation, savouring the island’s beaches, its mountains, its food and (yes) even its people.
On my numerous trips, both to the nationalist heartland around Corte, or even to the coastal towns, I only ever encountered kindness and a heartwarmingly wry sense of humour. Not having to apologise for or be defiant about being French probably helped, as did not wanting to own a piece of real estate.
Corsica’s predominantly upmarket tourist industry has managed to flourish alongside what amounts to a kind of gang war between multiple rival factions. I use the term gang war on purpose because the island’s endemic mayhem tends to affect only those who are directly involved. Indeed, the FLNC and its regular bombing of tourist developments-in-progress are, as my Parisian friends well know, the main reason why the Ile de Beauté has remained so uniquely unspoilt.
The more I write about Corsica, the more convinced I am that its violence and its bewitching beauty are inextricably linked. What else is at stake in the endless struggles between the forces of progress and reaction but the preternatural beauty of the place? What else are the FLNC fighting for but a claim to an asset that only grows more precious with time, a piece of unadulterated natural beauty?
Dorothy Carrington, an English writer and émigrée to Corsica, in order to explain her sudden and lifelong love affair with the island, said: “I think that I found in Corsica the piece of the absolute for which I had been searching since childhood.” This sense of the absolute is, I suppose, what makes me want to talk about Corsica’s beauty and her violence in the same breath; it is why I still can’t help mentioning bombs and politics in between the dizzying views from the footpaths of the GR20 or the coastal splendours of the N197.
It is a pity to content oneself with the picturesque when one can have the grandiose. Even if you are only there for a weekend, you will have time to open yourself up to Corsican beauty with a capital B. To this end, taking Carrington’s book, Granite Island (1971), along with you will help. It is a sumptuous account of Corsican history and folklore interwoven with personal narrative. Her passion for the island and its stories infuses every page.
No need, as many people do, to shut yourself off from the reality of Corsica by travelling straight to Porto-Vecchio and the chi-chi Hotel Cala Rossa. You will find emptier, more staggering beaches on your own if you travel south towards the dramatic, cliff-edge town of Bonifacio. Go armed with good, detailed maps and take the dirt track through the maquis to the white sand beach of Roccapina, or the wild beaches of Vintilegna near Figari, or rent a boat from the port of Bonifacio and lie about in the turquoise waters of the Lavezzi islands.
The Corsicans have always lived with their backs to the sea, which, with its load of invaders, never brought them much good. That is why nearly all the cultural goodies are to be found inland. Walks in the mountains will uncover vertiginous Romanesque churches and haunting prehistoric sculptures. You could fly to Bastia and follow part of the hiking trail between Calenzana and Cargèse known as the Mare e Monti, or fly to Ajaccio and sample one of the Mare a Mare walks that dissect the island in the south. Even over a weekend, experiencing the island’s interior will offer a glimpse of the “absolute” that Carrington was talking about.
‘Lost’, Lucy Wadham’s novel inspired by her visits to Corsica, is published by Faber
Chic retreats: Late summer luxury in Corsica
At the time of going to press, all these villas had availability for September
Villa I Vaddi
Tucked away from sight in countryside near Bonifacio, this secluded farmhouse-style building has thick stone walls covered in creepers. The interior is simply but prettily decorated, with dark wooden tables and big white sofas. Glass doors from the living room open on to the terrace, with the garden and pool beyond. Sleeps up to eight, from £2,000 per week (including car hire). www.coastline.co.uk
La Maison d’Aregno
Built into the hillside in the La Balagne region, this three-storey house sits among the ancient stone buildings and citrus groves of Aregno, a quiet village known for producing the sweetest oranges on the island. Bursting with character, from wooden beams to vaulted ceilings, the house is surrounded by traditional terraced gardens and a swimming pool with sweeping views across the countryside towards the mountains. Sleeps up to 12, from €3,530. www.directcorsica.com
A modern, peach-coloured villa on the north-western coast, it has direct access to the quiet beach of Davia Ouest from the garden. The wood-decked sun terrace has a semi-circular infinity pool and uninterrupted views over the sea. There is a fitness room and home entertainment room, and the master bedroom has a plunge pool. Sleeps up to eight, from £3,100 (including car hire). www.corsica.co.uk
This former winery situated near Sartène has been carefully restored using traditional materials, such as terracotta tiles and wooden beams, and even has its own stone chapel within the extensive grounds. It’s a 15-minute drive from the beach but makes up for it with beautiful gardens, a pool and a great location for exploring the mountains. Sleeps up to seven, from £1,110. www.simpsontravel.com
La Domaine de Murtoli
This is a remarkable collection of 12 restored cottages in the Ortolo valley, in the island’s south-west. The villas range from the rustic Arba Barona, a cave-like building in a converted sheepfold with a swimming pool cut out of the rock, to the much larger Eddera, an old shepherd’s house with its own hammam and private beach, and the grand A Figa, a tall, thin building that towers over the landscape. There are two restaurants on the site, both using produce grown on the estate. The cottages sleep from two to 12, from £2,400-£15,600. www.murtoli.com