Friday, 22 March 2019

Corsica - Island of Mystery, Maquis and Tripe...

Dear Readers, an unusual place you may think, but did you know that it was the destination of the first ever package holiday? Vladimir Raitz, who recently died aged 88, has been indeed hailed as the man who shaped the UK travel industry. He organised charter flights and all-inclusive packages that, in 1950, had never even been heard of.

His inaugural “package holiday” was to the then wild island of Corsica.

He founded his company: “Horizon Holidays” (the name inspired by the view from an aircraft window) and set up his first “package”.

11 intrepid travellers gathered at King’s Cross in London, 68 years ago, to board a coach which took them to Gatwick, to board a war-surplus Dakota transport plane, which, after re-fuelling in Lyon, landed on an airstrip in Calvi built by the American military in 1943. It took them 6 hours. They stayed in military tents.

What lured them? “Meat-filled meals”, the Mediterranean sun and wine at 9p a bottle! And guess what, it cost them £32 10 Shillings all-inclusive of flights, accommodation and “meat-filled meals” which was a massive pull for them, after post-War British austerity. They could hardly believe their luck, as a return flight from Nice to Calvi at that time cost £70, which is equivalent today to £2,200. Indeed, many were reluctant to accept that a “package holiday” could be so cheap. And there it was, the birth of the “package holiday”.

But enough of the package holiday, and more about one of the most mysterious and fascinating islands in the World, with the most chequered history you could imagine.

Today we are talking about Corsica as a Travel Trend in its own right.

 Dorothy Carrington is an important person to mention when we speak about Corsica, and her prize-winning book “Granite Island” is definitely worth a read. She was an incredible woman, and only died in 2002, aged 91. She was a pioneer and was famously quoted as saying “my life really ended and started when I set foot in Corsica”. In today’s blog, we’re going to give you a little taste of how, perhaps, you may agree with that quote. She was an explorer, a journalist and a lecturer, and lectured all over the world latterly on Pascal Paoli and his 18th Century text which she brought to light as being the very first written democratic constitution. 


History


Corsican history is chequered and fascinating, and as a potted example, after being ruled by the Roman Empire, after its collapse, and briefly occupied by the Vandals and Ostrogoths, Corsica came under the Republic of Pisa, and subsequently Genoese rule. More fighting as Corsica was caught in the crossfire of Spain and France for the occupation of Italy, by the end of the 16th Century, Genoese rule was reinstated. In 1729 a revolution was started for the independence of Corsica from Genoa, and Pascale Paoli (who founded Corsica’s one and only university in Corte), took it over from his father Giachinto Paoli, was declared sovereign of the independent Corsican Republic in 1755. This continued until 1769 when Corsica was conquered by France.

In 1794 Pascal Paoli returned to Corsica from Britain where he’d been held in exile, and invited the British to take over the island from the French, which they did do (Admiral Nelson famously losing his eye in the battle for Calvi), so it was under British rule for 2 years, until the British decided to withdraw, rendering back to French rule. Nearing the end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1814, Corsica once more came under British rule, but was once again rendered back to the French.

Although Corsica was predominantly Italian, fondness started to grow for the French. Since its only industry was subsistence agriculture, as the French introduced more production, especially that of olive oil and wine and the export thereof, plus steamboats to make the journey from Corsica to France faster, plus the introduction of the French language in primary schools, the French were increasingly accepted. However after World War 1, unrest towards the French resurfaced and Corsican Nationalism began. Today, the Corsican language and culture is protected by them as a new born baby.




Corsica as a Destination


Despite being the destination of the first package holiday, Corsica is relatively undiscovered compared to the likes of Spain, the Balearics and Portugal. Probably the reason for this is cost. It’s not cheap to holiday there, especially if you are a family on a budget. But guess what, if you’re not, it’s heavenly! A flippant remark perhaps, and indeed for the cost of a modern “package holiday” to Corsica, including flights, car hire and villa, you can, in fact, go to Barbados for less, it’s what keeps it, for the time being at least, exclusive.




For various reasons, your intrepid Blogger has a wealth of experience of holidaying on Corsica. It’s a funny thing: once you’ve been a few times, you’ll decide for yourself: you’re either a “Northerner” or a “Southerner”. Corsica is split into Haute Corse, having Bastia as the capital and Corse du Sud, having Ajaccio as the capital. But, as Napoleon himself put it, nothing smells quite like Corsica. He claimed to smell it before he could see it through his telescope on his ship. It’s the smell of the “maquis”: wild Corsican herbs which grow all over the island. Once smelled, never forgotten.

The North


If you chose to go to the North, you’ll either fly into Bastia or Calvi.I love flying into Calvi, over the Citadel. If you go to Calvi, be sure to stay somewhere like Hotel La Villa or La Signoria. If you want the comfort of your own villa, then your Blogger would recommend Villa Cala Di Mare. Visiting the port is a must. It’s like St Tropez 30 years ago. So chic. So trendy. So beautiful. Admire the yachts moored there. If anyone has visited Puerto Banus in Marbella, there are better and bigger yachts in Calvi! You must prop yourself up in the luxurious cushions of Bar Du Golf, sip a Muscat, and watch the beautiful people. Not forgetting to pop into a little chic boutique or two, then head for dinner at Le Magnolia.


The Citadel is magical. Go and have a potter round it, then when night falls, either get tickets to watch I Muvrini perform in the moonlight (enchanting, you’ll never be the same again… although your Intoxicated Blogger may have fallen asleep at one point…) or head with the trendy crowd to the infamous bar and nightclub, Chez Tao (you’ll never be the same again, but for different reasons this time!).

If you want a beach club and want to hang out with the likes of Kate Moss, then head to L’Octopussy on the beach.

If you want quiet beaches, even in peak season, then hire a car (which is a must anyway) and pop to Marine de Davia. Your Blogger’s FAVOURITE beach. So clear is the water, and so clean and quiet, that in the mid-afternoon heat, the haze is the most stunning pink colour.


Ile Rousse is lovely, and the drive there from Calvi is beautiful. Head to the square and sit under the orange trees to watch the locals play petanque.

Carry on you’ll get to one of my favourite hilltop villages, Lama. Right up in the mountains, the views are unrivalled. Head to St Antonino as well, it’s just so beautiful. St Florent, over the Desert des Agriates, is another beautiful port, and if you’re a bit of a racing driver (who, moi?), the road there is wicked! Once there, visit Saleccia beach, one of the best on the island.


Another wicked road, but definitely not for the faint hearted, is the road up to Asco and Haute Asco…the former ski resort, from which you can get a wonderful view of Monte Cinto, Corsica’s highest peak at 2,706m. It’s a real experience driving up there, and even in the height of the Summer, you’ll feel the cold.

Bastia is the county town of the North, and also well worth a visit. Perhaps not in mid-Summer as it gets pretty busy, with all the ferries coming in, but out of season it’s just lovely.

Going inland a bit, Corte, the ancient capitol, is definitely worth a visit. The situation of the University of Corsica, it is the most beautiful hilltop town. The museum is fascinating and brings all the history we have spoken about above, to life.

Another route worth a mention is West from Calvi, and down towards Galeria and so to Les Calanches de Piana, the stunning series of red cliffs which will take your breath away.

For a free, and very, very amusing activity, do this (a Travel Trend in its own lunchtime): as you potter round Calvi or Ile Rousse, for example, read the English translations of the menus on the restaurant menu boards. More than once, I have been virtually hospitalised with laughter. Although the best has to be a translation of a coach trip to Spelunca Gorges…remind me to send it to you…

South


There’s no easy way to drive from North to South, and it’ll take a while, I kid you not. But it is an undeniably beautiful drive.

Places of note in the South are obviously Ajaccio, the modern capitol of Corsica and also the birthplace of Napoleon. Being another port on the sea, it has a similar feel to Bastia. Although you’ll find the whole flavour of the South much more Italian, than French. Perhaps you’ll also notice the increased prevalence of the “mafia”…but let’s not get too “Godfather” about the whole thing. Something people asked me, certainly from the UK, when I first started my Corsican Affair: was I not worried about the terrorism?! What terrorism? They have never once hurt a single hair on a tourist’s head. Unless you are a French Prefet that has annoyed them, you are perfectly safe. Corsicans understand that tourism is their greatest industry nowadays, and no, you are not going to get taken out by a Corsican sniper or wake up with a horse’s head in your bed…

Propriano is one of my favourites, and a lovely place to make your home whilst you’re there is Hotel Marinca in Olmeto Plage. Plenty of access to beautiful beaches, and a lovely atmosphere. If you do stay there, go, for the evening, to “Chez Mimi” at the Santa Maria hotel in Olmeto. Like visiting Chez Tao in Calvi, your Esteemed Blogger promises you, that after a visit to Chez Mimi, you will never be the same again…It is a peculiar experience, especially for the Brits amongst us…Undeniably picturesque, you’ll arrive at Chez Mimi not believing your luck…You have found the holy grail, the sort of restaurant that Peter Mayle talks about in A Year In Provence: undiscovered, strung with fairy lights, cheap, and, well, quirky. As another aside, if you loved A Year In Provence, please also read A Year In The Merde and more importantly, Merde Actually by Stephen Clarke. You will be crying with laughter. But I digress. Mimi (although I think she must have been replaced by now as she was certainly very old the last time we were there) and her team tell you what you are having to eat. No arguing. There are vats of strong local red wine, cooled (this is a normal thing to do in Corsica. No, I’d never come across it either, but in a hot climate, it sort of make sense) which are copious. You are then served what could be classed as a “tasting menu” but the difference being that the board of charcuterie or the casserole of tripe (yes, tripe, your Horrified Blogger has never quite recovered) is plonked between you for you to help yourselves…it’s such a fun, and pretty odd experience.

Whilst you’re there (having recovered from your red-wine hangover which you blame on dodgy tripe), head down to Bonifacio. You’ll be able to see Sardinia from there. It’s a really dramatic town, and something well worth doing is a boat trip round the bottom tip of the island. Again, very Italian feeling.


Arguably the most beautiful beach in the South is Palombaggia.  This is North East of Bonifacio and just before you get to Porto-Veccio.  You’ll find that with the South, the beaches to tend to be quieter in the high season, than in the North.  Santa Giulia is an absolute must, and the scene, with its jetty, of many a famous publication.

I could go on all day, but I won’t.  So there you have it:  Corsica.  Chic, mysterious, undiscovered, and probably one of my most favourite places on earth.  Once bitten, once you smell the maquis and taste the Pietra (local lager brewed using chestnuts), you’ll never not return…

And one of the best things, too?  It’s only an hour and a half flight from the UK…


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2 comments:

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    1. Oh wow we're so glad you liked it, Jason, thank you! It's quite a personal blog, so it means a lot...let us know if you'd like more on Corsica, or indeed, anywhere else?

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