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Corsica, Where Mountains Touch the Sea

By JOHN C. FINE

© St. Petersburg Times


There was no wind, and the white puffs of cloud floated over deep blue water. Open to the Mediterranean Sea, the bay was protected by tall mountains that poked craggy fingers into the sea. The coastal road from Corsica's Ajaccio to Galeria offered magnificent vistas at every turn.

Though distances are short, the road winds so frequently that a trip takes five hours from Ajaccio to Calvi in the north and almost three hours from Ajaccio south to Bonifaccio. But travelers stop often to take photographs, to drive down rough dirt tracks to isolated beaches or to hike along mountain trails. Corsica's combination of mountains and sea make it beautiful.

"When I first came to Corsica to meet my future husband's family, Jacques drove me around the island in a red sports car," Christine Casanova recounted to a visitor. "He drove fast and the roads were so winding that I ducked down and covered my eyes," she said with a laugh. Then she added that she knew she had fallen in love with Jacques-Donat Casanova's birthplace.

She came to realize that Corsicans often take the beauty of their island for granted, though they feel for it deeply.

Life here is lived much the same as it was in bygone days. Visitors notice hunters with shotguns slung across their backs, women in little villages playing "Lotto" in the afternoons, wild boar sometimes roaming the roadways.

Corsica is a land of fine food and wine; the boar, or sanglier, is used to make spiced hard sausage. Vineyards are tucked away on mountain slopes overlooking the sea, but Corsican wines are produced in such small quantities that their export is largely unfeasible.

Typical of the vintners is Jean-Francois Mercury, who lives and works outside the city of Ajaccio, in the mountains of the Paviglia region. Visitors may have to wait to taste his wines while Mercury processes grapes or prepares his cuves. Paviglia wines are renowned in Corsica.

Corsica is steeped in history and tradition. Some contend that Christopher Columbus was born in the citadel city of Calvi. For certain, Napoleon Bonaparte was born on Corsica, which is part of France, lying about 110 miles east of Nice and just a few miles north of Italy's Sardinia.

French is spoken, along with Corse, a blended Italian and French dialect.

Corsicans take time to offer visitors hospitality and talk with them. Many islanders find the rushed lives of Parisians and other "Metropoles" -- French people from the mainland -- impolite because they race from place to place, snapping pictures without savoring Corsican life and tradition.

To fully understand and enjoy Corsica, one must pause to exchange friendship. On Corsica, family life, loyalty and respect for elders are paramount.

Because the waters around Corsica are considered pollution-free, the island has become a mecca for scuba divers and sailors. The mountain panoramas on land are continued underwater, with huge boulders and stark underwater valleys overgrown with bright red and purple gorgonian soft corals and deep red and orange sponges.

In some areas, Corsica has established parks, and the Mediterranean is rich with fish and red coral.

The Association Corse du Monde Sous-Marin, or ACOMOSOMA, founded by Jacques-Donat Casanova, has prepared a brochure describing the diving around Corsica and offers local diving contacts. Diving in the Gulf of Ajaccio offers exciting areas within sight of the walls of the city. Catamaran charters and special dive trips can be made to offshore rock islands.

Corsica abounds with legends about sunken Roman shipwrecks. Divers often come across pottery shards or even amphoras from the days of Genoa's occupation of the island.

Corsica is a large island with many wilderness areas. During World War II, resistance fighters hid from the Italian and German occupiers in the Maquis, the rough tangle of brush that dominates the tundra. The French words for resistance, maquis, or resistance fighters, Maquisards, come from the Corsican bushes.

The last ceremony in honor of the 50th anniversary of the end of World War II was held on Corsica, with a special memorial service dedicated to U.S. aviators who crash-landed their B-17 Flying Fortress in the sea.

The islands off Bonifaccio in the south offer special day trips and are easily accessible. On Lavezzi, the Parc Regional Naturel de la Corse, Corsica's regional park, has set aside special reserves where visitors can observe large Mediterranean groupers that have elsewhere been hunted to the verge of extinction.

In the north, Scandola's underwater sites are panoramas protected in one zone from scuba divers using tanks, although snorkeling is allowed.

Whether they dive or drive, visitors will find Corsica an experience more than a vacation. The island is living history, and its character and folklore take time to be discovered. With a little searching, visitors will find their own secret places to view majestic sunsets between mountains touching the sea. If you go

Getting there: Corsica is accessible by air or from the ports of Marseille and Nice via overnight ferries that carry as many as 800 cars and provide sleeping accommodations. Air France Group's AIR INTER serves Corsica from Paris. Rental cars are available on the island, and a well-organized tourist information office can provide visitors with maps and brochures.

A train runs from Ajaccio to Calvi and is well worth taking. The narrow-gauge railway runs through mountain passes, tunnels and valleys that would be inaccessible even on foot. Trainmen stop at way stations and exchange news with the station keeper or pick up packages. Sometimes the train has to stop for 20 or 30 minutes as herds of sheep amble onto the tracks. The older, picturesque cars are still in use on the northern part of the line at Calvi and run as far as Bastia.

For diving and lodging information: Jacques-Donat Casanova, ACOMOSOMA, Quai de la Citadelle, 20,000 Ajaccio, Corsica, France; telephone 95-25-12-58; fax 95-25-12-58 (the country code for France is 33).

For information: Contact the French Government Tourist Office, 444 Madison Ave., 16th floor, New York, NY 10022; call (212) 838-7800; fax (212) 838-7855; e-mail: pubinfo@fgtousa.org. John C. Fine is a freelance writer who lives in Scarsdale, N.Y.

Originally published July 20, 1997



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