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Corsica: Beauty at a Price
Special to The
When we arrived back at our hotel in Calvi,
This was shocking news on several counts. First, after spending a week in
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,"
Of course, we had tasted.
In short, it had been a perfect day. I had no idea why
I phoned the number and learned that it was not
Okay, I agreed, even more bewildered, the hotel at
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
"[French President] Chirac has nothing to say to the
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
"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"
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
Every summer, French and Italians flock to
We figured that could change, given the France-boycotting mood in some circles in the States.
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
A public referendum set for July 6 would give
"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
After arriving by ferry from Nice with our car, we drove north of
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
We knew that threats against developers had something to do with protecting
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
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.
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."
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
At some point, we decided that a trip on horseback was essential to our journey.
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
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
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
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
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.
See the Video Trailer for PALMENTO on You Tube....
Robert reads from and discusses Palmento at McNally Jackson books in NY Sept. 2010.
Robert on radio