Corsica III – Napoleonic & Neolithic

9th-14th September 2017 

We set off for the island’s capital, Ajaccio, with the vague idea that we would lunch there, do some Napoleon sights, pick up a Kindle and stay at a nearby site overnight. As usual things didn’t turn out as anticipated.

The road from Calvi took us down the mountainous spine of the island, passing through Corte the main town of the centre and home to the only university on the island. The heart of Corsica, it has a thriving independence movement and from here onwards roadsigns had the French name crossed out in spray paint and either the Italian name left or amended into Corsican. We were now into vendetta territory – it is the only Corsican word to have been widely adopted in the western world (we had thought it was Italian!) The blood feuds here still go on although we hope they no longer involve the eradication of entire families. We drove through small, idyllic-looking villages knowing that vendettas and the Corsican mafia were simmering beneath the surface, a bit surreal. Can’t wait for Corleone!

IMG_3158

Around the Col de Vizzavona area is the half-way mark of the 170km GR20 trail, a really challenging walking trail which only a third of the 20,000 who start it each year complete. There were a fair number of walkers around as we passed through, the only ‘busy’ spot we passed through.

We were too hungry to wait till Ajaccio for lunch so we pulled in at a Poulet Roti shack at the side of the road for rotisserie chicken and chips – a bargain, the delicious chicken seasoned with local herbs. At the next table 6 local men were drinking the local rose and looked very….rural? weathered? We certainly got some odd looks from them.

IMG_3166

At Ajaccio we got Kate’s watch fixed, found out that you can’t get Kindle’s in France except via Amazon, and bought a sun-dress – for Kate of course. In our pursuit of things Neston and Napoleon we admired the Hotel de Ville (Town Hall) where we had anticipated going round the Salon Napoleon to see various mementoes like his death mask (gruesome) but it was closed for a holiday. There was however a wedding going on with a decorated 2CV as the wedding carriage.

On to the Maison Napoleon, the family house where Napoleon was born and lived until age 9 when he went to military academy before joining the French army at 16. Precocious then. He is apparently not much admired in independent-leaning Corsica, being seen as ‘French’ – his family were chased out of Corsica by Independence sympathisers and it was only when he took power that the family home was regained and his mother restored it.  There were family portraits, letters written by Napoleon, his officers’ sword and other weapons of the time, and the audio guide was quite informative.

Napoleon ‘done’ we walked back past the old citadelle which now houses some of the 2er REP (French Foreign Legion Parachute Regiment) and set off towards the campsite, a few km from town.

The site was on a main a road so we decided to carry on to our next destination, Olmeta-plage, about an hour and a half away according to the satnav. Following her instructions. we turned off the coast road heading (we thought) back to the main road down the middle of the island. Oh no, she was “off on one” as we now say. The road quickly narrowed and deteriorated as we climbed but she indicated a turn in 2 miles so we kept on. The “turn” was actually a hairpin on the side of the mountain with no barrier, a steep drop and and a disintegrating road-surface. The nightmare went on for miles, just enough space for the van and half a car,  in many places with a steep gutter at the side, very unpleasant. We met a small number of vehicles who gave us the “ oh dear, they’re using sat-nav” look as they tried to edge past us on the narrow road. The only good thing was that the drop was on the other side of the “carriageway”. Eventually after squeezing through a tiny village the road miraculously and for no apparent reason changed to 2-lanes and a new and even surface. We have never been so grateful for European funding. Danny is convinced that was the worst stretch we have done to date – he was certainly very quiet during the excitement.

Back down on the west coast on the Golfe de Valinco it was just a couple of miles to our campsite, Ras L’Bol, the other side of the carriageway to the beach. Although set in pinewoods and next to a road, it couldn’t have been more different to our previous site. Smaller, more open, better kept, nice pool and bar, new sanitary blocks and quiet. And over the road a nice empty beach. Time to relax for a few days.

We were due at least a couple of days of mixed weather, including thunderstorms, so decided to get the bikes out.  With the help of a very nice receptionist we also ordered Danny’s Kindle on Amazon France – delivery 3-5 days, or so we hoped, with a ferry booked for Monday!

One expedition was to the important prehistoric site of Filitosa a mere 5 miles away, uphill of course. We cycled up the Taravo valley to the entrance of this privately-owned  site with evidence of habitation from around 6000BC. Largely undeveloped it sits beautifully in the natural landscape, atmospheric and somehow easy to imagine how it used to be, at least in the upper parts which are still wooded. There are a number of prehistoric structures particularly on the small hill with the large boulders and rock formations that provided natural shelter.

Most impressive though were the menhirs (standing stones) put up by Neolithic people around 3,000BC, some carved with faces, swords and daggers. At the bottom of the hill a thousand-year-old olive tree has 5 menhirs in front of it, and behind was the quarry the menhirs were cut from. Very little is known about their meaning but it was fascinating to walk round.

Back at the entrance a small museum displayed artefacts from the site including ancient pottery, obsidian arrowheads and tools, stone axes, pendants and parts of broken menhirs. Unfortunately all described in french but Google translate is a wonderful thing (mostly). The ride home was all downhill – our kind of cycling.

A bigger expedition was Propriano by bike, an 8 mile ride that we didn’t research – there was a long uphill section that had us panting despite the battery-assist. The sun was out and the strong, cooling wind insisted in blowing in our face there and back. We were overtaken a couple of times by ‘real’ cyclists and reflected that neither of us would suit the Lycra.

Propriano is on a natural harbour and was in popular use from the time of Ancient Greece until it was destroyed by pirates in the 1500’s. Redeveloped in the 20th century  ferries now sail to Toulon, Marseille and Sardinia, and the road into town was busy with queuing ferry traffic. We wandered down the busy main street lined with shops and the seafront lined with restaurants. We felt we deserved a reward for burning off a few calories on the bikes and opted for a reasonably priced Menu du Jour that we both liked. Kate’s prawn cocktail was what she now thinks all prawn cocktails should be – large freshly cooked prawns still in their shells and some prawn cocktail sauce to dip them in.  Danny’s sesame coated salmon was excellent as was his dessert of Corsican sweet chestnut cake made with sweet chestnut cream & sweet chestnut flour which Kate kindly helped him with.

Stuffed, we were not looking forward to the steep uphill cycle so took the easy option and pushed the bikes uphill for 2 miles which allowed us enough battery power for 6 pleasant miles back to the camp. Sorry Brian.

The sun came out for a couple of days and although it was too windy for the beach it did allow us some pool time which cheered up Kate after she woke one morning to find her big toe-nail had fallen off, nearly 3 months after she damaged it when she broke her toe. We only had to share the pool with about 6 other people most of the day although an entertaining pair of small people came in with their minders towards the end of each afternoon to distract us from our Kindles – one still learning to stay afloat and his brother trying to sabotage him to get mum’s attention. Dad was helpful – he sat reading his book in the kiddies pool whilst mum coped with the boys in the main pool.

The wonders of Amazon Tracking told us that Danny’s Kindle would arrive Friday so we started thinking about our next move.