Corsica: Beauty at a Price

Special to The Washington Post

When we arrived back at our hotel in Calvi, Corsica, on Good Friday evening, there was an "urgent" message waiting.

This was shocking news on several counts. First, after spending a week in Corsica -- from its pristine coasts to its rugged mountain interior to the hills that roll down to one of the most magnificent bays in the Mediterranean -- we were on Corsica time. Second, in Corsica no one is hardly ever urgent about anything. And third, no one knew where we were staying -- we hadn't made reservations.

The woman at the desk handed me the note asking that I call Monsieur Acquaviva as soon as possible.

Pierre Acquaviva is an affable man with an advanced degree in medieval literature who, for the past 10 years, has run his family's Domaine D'Alzipratu wine property. That morning, my wife, 8-year-old son and I had visited the domain, which covers 60 acres of granite hills with views of Monte Grosso in one direction and Balagne and the sea in the other.

Our conversation had been mostly about wine: Corsican grapes, the bad weather (too wet at the end of 2002, too dry in spring 2003) and the pride Acquaviva takes in his chemical-free terroir.

"There's a return to tradition here," Pierre had explained in the melodic French spoken in Corsica. "We don't want to make international wines that are the same as the wines in Chile or South Africa. We make Corsican wines."

Of course, we had tasted. Pierre had offered us an opened bottle to take to lunch, and off we went to a place he'd recommended. At Chez Michel in the village of Calenzana, the barrel-chested proprietor greeted locals with cheek-brushing kisses, and the menu included wild boar and spaghetti and sea bass caught that morning and cooked in a wood oven.

In short, it had been a perfect day. I had no idea why Pierre would be calling.

I phoned the number and learned that it was not Pierre but his father, Maurice, who said we needed to talk -- just name the time and place.

Okay, I agreed, even more bewildered, the hotel at 6 p.m.

At 72, Maurice Acquaviva is the older version of his son, compact and lean, with a crop of light curly hair and lively green eyes. His French carries a thick Corsican accent and, one quickly notices, in place of his right arm is a green plastic prosthetic (the injury was the result of his playing with a stray grenade after the World War II occupation).

He arrived early and suggested we walk across the small stone street to his cousin's apartment. There, in a vaulted drawing room with high, lace-curtained windows, we sat in red silk chairs as Maurice explained that I should know some history that I might share with my fellow Americans.

He started with the conquest of independent Corsica by France more than 200 years ago, and for the next hour railed against the abuses of the French, from their 18th-century wars to their 20th-century tax policies to the current service by the state-run ferry that connects the island to the mainland.

"[French President] Chirac has nothing to say to the United States," he blurted. "Chirac has done in Corsica things 10 times worse than Bush has done in Iraq."

Maurice, it turned out, is a Corsican separatist. Or, as he put it, a résistant.

I had known of the death of his eldest son, Jean Baptiste, who had preceded Pierre at the winery. But I knew nothing of the circumstances.

"Jean Baptiste was one of the clandestins," Maurice explained. "He was a bomber."

So when he was not overseeing the vines, Maurice's eldest son would blow up the houses of the French government "colonists," or those "speculators" who would profit from "cementing" Corsica's coast and then make off with the loot.

One morning in 1987, when Jean Baptiste was 27, he went out on a mission -- "to take out a house."

"But someone was waiting for him. He was killed by a bullet," Maurice said. "We don't know who did it. It was the police or the colonist who lived there. We asked the court to investigate how he was killed. But they never did anything."

As Maurice went on, I was struck by his description of his son's errand to blow up a house -- delivered in the same casual tone as one might say, "He went out for a loaf of bread."

Where the French Go

We had been drawn to Corsica, because since we moved from the United States to the South of France in the heady early days of the 21st century, everyone -- from the doctor up the street to the woman who cuts our hair -- had recounted its beauty. With its Caribbean-blue waters, undeveloped coastline and perpetually slow pace of life, Corsica, we were told, resembled the Cote d'Azur of more than a century ago.

Every summer, French and Italians flock to Corsica by the hundreds of thousands. But it remains little explored by Americans.

We figured that could change, given the France-boycotting mood in some circles in the States. Corsica, the birthplace of Napoleon, may be wholly part of France, but it was a nexus of anti-French sentiment long before most Americans even heard of Evian.

Since the 1960s, separatist groups have assassinated public officials, bombed government targets, exploded the work sites of chain hotels and vacation villages, and incinerated the occasional tourist coach. But for a bunch that has been branded as terrorists by the French government, they have been meticulous about not physically harming civilians and tourists.

In fact, polls show that a vast majority of Corsican residents don't really want independence. Most are content to lionize the heroes of Corsica's 14 years of independence in the 18th century (following 500 years under Genoa, Italy), fly the Corsican flag or keep alive the Corsican language, which is closer to Italian than French.

A public referendum set for July 6 would give Corsica unprecedented local decision-making powers and autonomy from Paris.

"Trouble?" said Maurice, taking exception to my use of the word. "There is no trouble. We receive everybody well here -- the French people, the Italians, the Germans, Americans. We receive well tout le monde. We have a reputation for hospitality."

Beauty at a Price

Our conversion to the charms of Corsica took less than an hour.

After arriving by ferry from Nice with our car, we drove north of Bastia to Cap Corse, the finger of land that juts up out of the northeastern corner of the island.

As we wound our way up the rocky coast, we passed tiny ancient port towns, centuries-old villas and the Genoese lookout towers that dot the coastline. We'd felt as though we'd entered a Mediterranean far different from "the continent," as Corsicans call mainland France. It was miraculously free of high-rise developments, marine attractions and golden arches.

We knew that threats against developers had something to do with protecting Corsica's coast. As Pierre would later explain while we sipped rosé in his vineyard, "Yes, the coast is beautiful, but it is beautiful because of the bombs. It has come at a price."

We crossed the Cap, climbing through dense forests of cork oaks, wild olive trees and majestic umbrella pines. Here, in the interior, we noticed that the bilingual Corsican-French locator signs had been edited, so to speak -- the French village names were either crossed out with spray paint or shot up with rifle blasts.

Then, as we came out on the west coast and headed back south, our jaws grew slack. The cliffs were dramatically taller than those on the east coast, and the road was rougher and narrower (barely wide enough for two cars to park side by side). And as we came around one hairpin turn, the snow-peaked mountains of the island's center came into view.

The smell of wild fennel, lavender and rosemary mingled with the sea air, and along that drive, through one of the most dramatic pieces of real estate we had ever seen, I had to stop four times for goats and cows blocking the road.

For the next week, we were struck by the island's beauty. We drove south and spent a couple of days on the southeastern coast near Porto Vecchio, where some of Corsica's most beautiful white sand beaches are accessed by bumpy country roads through Mediterranean jungles. We took a boat tour of the white limestone ocean cliffs and grottoes of Bonifacio, at the island's southern tip.

And we drove into the mountain interior of Corte and the Gorges of the Restonica, which, like a full third of Corsica, is protected parkland. We stayed the night in a room over a white-water river and visited the top of the Restonica, where the road dead-ends in a high shepherding valley still covered in snow.

At the top of the Restonica, more ambitious eco-tourists had big plans. There were hikers loading gear into heavy packs, rock climbers scaling a vertical rock face, mountain bikers, even a lone snowboarder. Corsica is known as a dreamscape for water sports and hiking, with legendary walks and a pair of sea-to-sea trails.

We, however, weren't out to set any personal athletic records on this trip. As the third-grader in the family philosophized: "That's what vacation is about -- no exercise."

Village Eccentricities

Because we scheduled our trip in early spring, we had no trouble traveling without reservations and showing up at country inns to ask for a room. That was how we happened on Speloncato, a sleepy village on a bend in the road in the Balagne. In the early evening, mothers gather for a smoke and to watch their children play in the central square, which consists of a plane tree, a public fountain, two bars and an old church that now serves as city hall.

We stayed the night a few steps away at the one hotel in town, A Spelunca, a 19th-century cardinal's palace that was restored in the 1950s. It has magnificent views, richly decorated chandeliered drawing rooms, sagging mattresses and country plumbing.

That evening we dined at L'Auberge de Domalto, a few miles away. The calling card of the old inn promises cuisine à l'ancienne. It doesn't mention that it also serves up an almost surreal, memorable experience.

From the moment you walk in, the eccentricity of the place is on parade. The small vaulted dining room with five tables is lit by candelabra; the walls and ceiling are painted dark brown and black. "Strangers in the Night" was oozing out of a small stereo.

The owner, a woman with a great mane of blond hair, a cloverleaf arm tattoo and ruby red lips, is also the hostess, cook, server and apparently the only employee.

The auberge is the kind of small country restaurant where there is no menu to choose from; course after course simply arrives after you sit down. This posed something of a problem, because while our son eats most things, he doesn't eat everything. When we explained this to Madame, she threw a small tantrum. But then she took a few sips from a champagne glass and soon brought our son an omelet that, she reported, she had whipped up from the eggs of her own chickens.

Despite the rough start, this was one of the best tables we had found in a while. We were served a terrine of wild boar, followed by trout stuffed with mint. Next out was an aromatic beef stew served with tagliatelle in chestnut sauce. Then came a platter of cheeses, including Corsica's signature sheep cheese, brocciu, served with dried figs from the garden. Dessert was a frozen macaroon, followed by a selection of chilled homemade digestifs, including Madame's own violet liqueur.

Eeeeee-Hawwww!

At some point, we decided that a trip on horseback was essential to our journey. Corsica travel brochures always seem to feature romantic photos of beautiful people riding on a beach at sunset, and we seemed to have passed plenty of ranches.

When we asked our hotel's proprietor about the possibility, she responded that there were no horses in greater Speloncato. The next town over, however, had a supply of donkeys. So off we went in the morning to the next village over the mountain to collect our donkeys.

Or donkey, rather. For to our surprise, we learned that in France, adults generally don't ride donkeys. They are used for carrying children, hiking gear and, in our case, lunch. Putting adults on the backs of donkeys is considered near animal abuse.

The couple who runs the donkey-trekking enterprise loaded up our donkey, Filetta, and gave us a series of handling instructions, such as show her who is in charge, whack her backside with a stick if necessary and, above all, don't let her eat every five minutes.

We planned a five-hour excursion: two hours each way, and an hour's picnic along the mountain pools at the edge of the Tartagine Forest.

We put our son on Filetta's back and started off, maps in hand, walking alongside. We got about 100 yards through the local cemetery and came to a dead end. After about three minutes of trekking, we were lost.

I pulled Filetta around to get back on the trail, and she stopped in her tracks. She then started braying at the top of her lungs, apparently to alert the village that some clueless tourists were in town. It was hard to keep up a pace, as Filetta wanted to eat everything in sight -- thorns and all.

For a while, I tried to stick to a spare-the-rod-and-spoil-the-donkey discipline as we traveled through beautiful mountain terrain across old Genoese stone bridges. But my wife and son had formed a donkey-solidarity union.

"Awww, let her eat!" they cried. "She's hungry."

Our snail's pace added another hour to our hike, but we were in no rush. I finally lost the stick and coaxed Filetta with calls of "sweetheart."

Saints and Sinners

We awoke Good Friday morning in Calvi to news of joy and explosives.

In the morning paper, the top story announced the death of a teenager and the injury of another while handling explosives near Bastia. The other big story was the continuation of Holy Week celebrations. Corsica's fervor for Catholic rituals is one more way it differentiates itself from the more cynical mainland.

Throughout Corsica, dozens of processions that evening would remember Christ's march up Calvary with barefoot and anonymous penitents wearing hoods and bearing large wooden crosses.

After sunset, we followed hundreds who were chanting "Miserere Domine" through the stone streets, which were lined with candles set on doorsteps and window ledges. Two anonymous penitents shouldered a wooden cross, followed by a group of men carrying a plaster cast of Christ on a bed of flowers, and trailed by a plaster statue of the Virgin Mary in black mourning clothes.

In Calvi tradition, the procession entered public squares and then coiled in on itself in a movement known as an escargot. The circle grew as tight as humanly possible and then slowly uncoiled, without a break in the chanting.

For hours, the group crossed the city, which sits on two levels connected by steep stone streets: the port facing the Bay of Calvi and Corsica's interior, and the walled citadel built six centuries ago on a promontory between the bay and the sea.

As we watched the group methodically coil and uncoil, I asked a local woman how the penitents were chosen. They were local men who nominated themselves and were selected by the local priest to purge their sins. From what I understood, there was no shortage of volunteers.

Robert V. Camuto last wrote for Travel about the Basque Country.

Details: Corsica

GETTING THERE: CCM France, part of Air France, flies to Corsica from various French cities, such as Paris (Orly), Marseille and Nice, with round-trip fares ranging from $150 to $317, with restrictions. For schedules and fares: www.ccm-airlines.com. From D.C., summer flights on Air France cost about $1,000 round trip, with connections.

The France-Corsica national maritime service, the SNCM, runs several ferries daily between Corsica and France (Nice, Marseille and Toulon). The newest and fastest ships, known as NGVs, cross in about three hours. Round-trip fares are about $65 to $90 per person from Nice, with packages available. Details: 011-33- 8-91-701-801, www.sncm.fr.

GETTING AROUND: Although Corsica has limited train service, exploring the interior requires a car, a horse or the dedication to some serious hiking or cycling. If you arrive by air, check into the airline's fly-and-drive packages.

Like much of the Mediterranean, Corsica has its share of banditry. Be careful with money and valuables, and never leave them in your car. Keep the Rolex and diamonds at home.

WHEN TO GO: More than 2 million people a year visit Corsica -- eight times more people than the island's population. Most arrive in July and August, when prices skyrocket and service and resources are strained. September, when warm ocean temperatures persist and the summer crowds have fled, is an ideal time to visit. Spring is good for hiking.

WHERE TO STAY: In the tiny old port town of Erbalunga, about 15 minutes north of Bastia, is the family-run Castel' Brando (011-33-495-30-10-30, www.castelbrando.com), a restored 19th-century residence with lots of charm; doubles $80-$150. In Porto Vecchio, the tony 20-room Hotel Belvedere (Route de Palombaggia, 011-33-495-70-54-13, www.hbcorsica.com) is decorated in rustic-chic with organic wood furniture, wrought iron, terra cotta and stone; doubles about $120-$410. At the hotel's Michelin-starred restaurant, daily price-fixed menus are about $55.

Despite the kitschy name, the Moby Dick (011-33-495-70-70-00) and its sister hotel/residence, the Castell'Verde (011-33-495-70-71-00), offer comfort and access to all activities on the Bay of Santa Giulia. In spring and early fall, doubles are about $90-120. In summer, half-board is mandatory: about $135-$155 at the Castell'Verde, $160-$230 at the Moby Dick. The hotels share a Web site, www.sud-corse.com.

On a terrace above the whitewater rapids and natural pools of the Restonica is the Dominique Colonna (011-33-495-45-25-65, www.dominique-colonna.com; $100-$120), which has immaculate modern rooms in a parklike setting in the center of the island. At A Spelunca in Speloncato (011-33-495-61-50-38), a double with a view of the valley and the ocean costs nearly $70 a night in high season. In Pigna, the small, arty hotel-restaurant Casa Musicale (011-33-495-61-77-31, www.casa-musicale.org) hosts music workshops and concerts, and promises you can "eat, sleep and sing." Doubles are about $70-$90.

In Calvi, splurge at La Signoria (Route de la Foret de Bonifato, 011-33-495-65-93-00, www.hotel-la-signoria.com; doubles $170-$260), a restored 18th-century country home in a park of pines, eucalyptus and palm trees, or stay right on the port at the Balanea (6 Rue Clemenceau, 011-33-495-65-94-94, www.hotel-balanea.com), with modern rooms and bay views for about $80-$200.

WHERE TO EAT: In Cap Corse, Erbalunga's gastronomic restaurant is Le Pirate, serving fresh fish on the tiny port. Dinner runs about $25 per person. In Porto Vecchio, Furana (47 Rue Borgo) features home-style Corsican cooking; dinner about $21. In Bonifacio, elbow into a community table with the Euro-tourists at Cantina Doria (27 Rue Doria) and tuck into soup with big chunks of smoked ham and pork sausage or some brocciu lasagna. Dinner, including wine, about $12. About halfway up the Restonica, Chez Cesar offers natural views and hearty fare from a wood and stone chalet. Dinner is $12-$18, including wine.

The Balagne area is tops for eating, offering fresh produce and fish and an olive-oil-based cuisine. A favorite stop was the restaurant/pizzeria L'Alambic (Belgodere), with a panoramic terrace and dining room. Dinner runs $12-$22. Our best meal was at L'Auberge De Domalto (Speloncato), an eccentric one-woman gastronomic show where a five-course meal costs about $33 per person, plus wine. Our best lunch was at Le Calenzana/Chez Michel (Calenzana), where the locals go; dinners $17. In Calvi, try Callelu for good-quality fish; $25-$35, plus wine.

WHAT TO DO: Corsica's attractions are about getting out and enjoying nature . Scuba diving, horseback trekking, guided hikes, boating and other water sports can be arranged throughout the island. Couleur Corse (011-33-495- 10-52-83, www.couleur-corse.com) and Montagne Corse en Liberte (011-33-495- 205-314, www.montagne-corse.com), for example, offer organized mountain expeditions. Both Web sites are in French.

Balagn'ane (20259 Olmi Cappella, 011-33-495-61-80-88, www.rando-ane-corse.com) organizes donkey treks for about $45 a day. Boat excursions, as well as day trips to small offshore islands, can be arranged at major ports. Bonifacio has inexpensive ferry links to nearby Sardinia. Details: Corsica Ferries, 011-33-825- 095-095, www.corsicaferries.com.

Corte is home to the large and modern Musee de la Corse (La Citadelle; admission about $7), dedicated to the island's anthropology. In Ajaccio, the Musee Fesch (50-52 Rue Cardinal Fesch; about $6.25) has an impressive collection of Italian painters, including Bellini, Botticelli and Titian. City Hall features the small Napoleonic Museum (Place Foch; about $1) dedicated to Corsica's most famous son.

INFORMATION: Corsican Tourist Board, 011-33-495-510-000, www.visit-corsica.com. Corsica Isula (www.corsica-isula.com) has fanatically detailed listings of everything from extreme sports to flora and fauna.