Following the Scent of the Maquis
Stepping out of my tent clad in Lycra, I met the curious stares of my
campground neighbors. It was a hot sunny day on Corsica, the turquoise
waves of the Mediterranean beckoning melodiously nearby and a cool breeze
refreshing the sizzling air. While the Europeans in camp finished their
breakfast under shaded awnings and packed their beach bags for a full
day of relaxing by the
ocean, I had decided to tackle the hilly terrain of this island on a bicycle.
A small Mediterranean island only 113 miles long and 51 miles wide, Corsica
boasts long stretches of white sand beaches on its gentle east coast and
a ragged shoreline of imposing cliffs and idyllic bays on the mountainous
In the rugged interior, more than 20 peaks soar over 6,540
feet. Tiny ancient villages scattered among the massif cling precariously
to the hillsides. A wild thumb of land - Cap Corse
- juts out north of the island, buffeted by the Mistral and other infamous
Roads resembling cooked spaghetti ribbon 620 miles of the Corsican coastline.
An island that experiences strong sunshine in the summer, with little
precipitation and a consistent breeze, Corsica is the ideal place to cycle.
Distances between towns are short and the scent of the maquis -- Corsica's
ubiquitous wild flowering shrubs - add to the pleasure of an open air
I started my journey with a day tour of the Balagne, a fertile, sparsely
inhabited region in the northwest known as the "garden of Corsica." Climbing
steadily inland on a narrow twisting road away from the port town of Ile-Rousse,
I was rewarded with panoramic vistas over the curving haphazard Meditteranean
Stopping at Sant Antonino, a picturesque cluster of stone houses on a
rocky hilltop, I enjoyed fresh squeezed organic lemonade and a lunch of
Corsican charcuterie and cheese on a terrace overlooking ripe vineyards.
The road then follows the natural curves of the hilly valley, undulating
up and down, winding in and out of the curving hillsides.
I passed several sleepy hamlets, among them Spelunkato, named for a natural
rock tunnel that becomes mysteriously illuminated by sunlight - after
sunset - two days a year. Belgodere is one of the largest towns in the
region with a population of 330, and a good place to stop for ice cream.
On the mostly downhill cruise back to the campsite, the sun was sinking
in the west, casting its golden rays on the bay's brilliant waters. A
steady, gratifyingly cool breeze increased in force and became a frustrating
cross wind as I pedaled along the shore towards home.
After a rest day - playing in the waves and lounging on the beach - I
tackled the mostly straight, no nonsense highway south to Calvi. With
some uphill but mostly down, I attained high speeds and completed the
12.5 mile stretch in a little over an hour. While cycling parallel to
Calvi's famous 3.7 mile long beach, I often had to slow down or stop for
groups of towel-toting tourists crossing
the road to reach the sandy playground.
Calvi and Columbus
Calvi - situated in a protected bay surrounded by craggy peaks - was the
principal city on Corsica during five hundred years of Genoese rule, and
the last city to hold out against the French in the late 18th century
battles over the island. The citadel, crowning a rocky promontory in the
bay, preserves its medieval charm with twisting cobblestone streets, crooked
stairways, and imposing lookout towers. Calvi is rumored to be the birthplace
of Christopher Columbus (along with several other Mediterranean cities),
a claim emphatically supported by residents and commemorated with a small
plaque on a modest house in the citadel.
The road south from Calvi to Porto is well known to be the most scenic
on Corsica. Here the narrow two lanes twist and snake along cliffsides,
making their haphazard way around headlands overgrown with maquis or naked
with deformed volcanic rock. Population is scarce in this region; the
only habitation I passed in several miles was a lone crumbling Napoleonic
Detouring slightly from the coastal road, I rode inland a couple miles
along the Fango River. Originating from snowmelt high up the steep valley,
this pure clear alpine stream tumbles a few miles to the sea over smooth
boulders in a series of waterfalls and deep pools. Cleansed of the sweat
and grime of cycling, I could prepare for the next stage - a nine mile,
1,300 foot climb towards the Col de Palmarella.
Twisting furiously, the road crosses the interior of the uninhabited Scandola
peninsula, part of the 4,800-acre Reserve Naturelle de Scandola. La Scandola
is a strictly maintained nature reserve
and scientific study area for the islands flora and fauna, extending over
land and sea.
The grueling breezeless climb was made worthwhile by the view at the pass.
Before me lay the Golfe de Girolata, bathed in late afternoon sunshine,
its resplendently serene waters a sparkling gold. The land surrounding
the gulf is almost completely wild except for the tiny isolated hamlet
of Girolata, accessible only by boat or foot, and the equally minuscule
fishing port of Osani, where I chose to spend the night. Under a trellis
of passion fruit vines, I devoured my steak frites and gulped local Corsican
wine, utterly exhausted but completely satisfied.
The final 19 miles from Osani to Porto was mostly gentle going, a steady
up and down. Here the cliffs fell more steeply and dramatically into the
sea, and the traffic jams became more frequent on the tight road. Stone
walls built from the cliff rock acted as barriers to prevent nasty swan
dives into the boulder-strewn sea.
The most spectacular sunsets on Corsica can be seen from Porto, although
more adrenaline pumping activities - such as scuba diving and hiking -
are plentiful for the less sedate. Silhouetted
against a late afternoon blood red sky, Porto's Genoese watchtower stands
defiantly on a rocky outcropping. The tower's traditional role as part
of an island-wide warning system and refuge for inhabitants during invasions
is clearly unnecessary now, but it still stands as a reminder of Corsica's
tumultuous past and unique history.
Corte, deep in the mountainous heart of the island, was the next stop
on my itinerary. Turning inland from Porto, the road climbs almost 5,000
feet in 21 miles. Constantly curving left and
right on a stretch of road literally blasted out of the granite, I could
look back down at the bay--shimmering in the heat and surrounded by miles
of craggy coast. Emerging from the cool evergreen forests of the Spelunca
Gorge, the dizzying heights of the central massif soon came into view.
Dominating the landscape, Monte
Cinto at 8,849 feet is Corsica's tallest peak. From these heights icy
snowmelt is channeled through glacier-carved valleys, creating short but
Like many Corsican towns, Corte is perched on a rocky hilltop. Geographically
at the center of the island, Corte is also at the center of the independence
movement and holds Corsica's only
university. The dilapidated crumbling buildings have an authentic charming
air about them, and the city is as well known for the wealth of hiking
trails in the surrounding valleys as for its rich cultural offerings.
The narrow romantic Restonica Valley winds southwest from Corte along
a crystal clear river of the same name.
From Corte I descended swiftly towards Ponte Leccia on a blessedly straight
highway, then bore northwest towards Bastia through flattening lowlands.
Castagniccia is Corsica's prime chestnut growing region. Chestnuts are
a staple here, ground into flour and consequently at the base of most
bread and cakes. Wild groves of chestnut trees - also called bread trees
- shade the landscape sloping towards the coast.
Coming into Bastia I was dazzled by the grandeur of the new port - no
less than half a dozen large ferry boats and cruise ships towered over
the docks. Bastia boasts a population of 38,000, but
this bustling city carries the energy and pride of a much larger European
capital. In contrast to the new port, the old port sports rows of peeling
old fishing boats, still taken out daily to earn
a living for many residents. Authentic restaurants serving Corsican specialties
of the land and sea surround the old harbor - a must is cannelloni a brocciu,
pasta stuffed with soft sheep's milk
cheese, spinach, and spiced with maquis herbs.
Rugged Cap Corse geographically apes the main bulk of Corsica. The peninsula's
eastern coast is gentle and smoothly rolling, the west wild and fierce
and dominated by rocky wind-ravaged spits of land. Roughly 35 miles long
and never more than 11 miles wide, it is spliced by a mountain chain that
makes crossing its width only possible in two places.
Flowering maquis shrubs line both sides of the road as I left Bastia,
heading up the east side of the peninsula. The scent led me through several
quaint port towns spaced only a few miles apart, and over a pleasantly
rolling landscape. Many ports on Cap Corse are actually half the town,
dominated by a watchtower but sparsely inhabited. The other half can be
found further inland - safely tucked away near a river source, and difficult
to access by potential invaders.
Further north the countryside inland becomes wilder and the vegetation
scrappier. Frequently ravaged by damaging fires fueled by constant strong
winds during the dry summer months, much of the landscape lies scoured
and barren. Whole crops are ruined, and the economy can be seriously impacted.
The coastal road turns inland at Macinaggio, a couple miles from the island's
ragged northern edge. Climbing steadily above the low scrub I passed sleepy
Rogliano, once a dominant town during
Genoese rule, but now marked only by crumbling castles and overgrown terraced
Battered by fierce winds and flying sand, the tiny fishing hamlet
of Barcaggio is the northernmost settlement on Corsica. Out of curiosity,
I descended the nine miles of rough curving road to the tip, but didn't
stay for long, imagining on my laborious climb back up how inhospitable
this place must be in the winter.
From the Col de Serra - the pass which separates the east and west sides
of Cap Corse - I began to descend. Far below, the angry ocean pounded
the bottoms of glistening black cliffs and rolled over Volkswagen size
boulders in the surf. Seriously concerned that I'd get blown off the road
by the hurricane strength wind, I gritted my teeth, tightly gripped the
handlebars, and set off down the perilous coastal road towards a campground
- hopefully sheltered from the wind - near the fishing village of Centuri-Port.
That night I took a walk along the ocean. The half moon illuminated the
angry sea, turning the breaking waves an eerie shade of slate blue topped
by sparkling white caps.
The next morning, heading towards Nonza, the sky was cloudy and thunder
rumbled for the first time during my tour. When the rain finally fell,
it lasted less than a half-hour and the sun was out in full force by mid
morning. I rode through sleepy villages, rows of maquis extending their
flowering branches far out into my path.
The road cut across sheer cliffs,
great slabs of gray blue rock that mingled far below with bubbling black
boulders. While eating lunch I watched a fire burn its way across the
high scrubby hillside.
Nonza looks like it was carved from the cliff on which it is perched.
Several buildings jut dangerously over the eroded stone outcropping. A
square Genoese tower dominates the town's profile. From the tower one
can gaze out towards the Gulf of St. Florent at the base of Cap Corse,
where deeper cobalt waters mingle with turquoise shallows.
The final six miles of my journey - a leisurely downhill glide - afforded
expansive views of the gulf and its principal town, St. Florent. For the
final three and a half miles the road turns inland and meanders through
Patrimonio, one of Corsica's principal wine-growing regions.
On my last night I attended a concert of the "Nuits de la Guitare" festival
in the town of Patrimonio. While the flamenco guitar thrust out bold spirited
chords and the accompanying singer passionately delivered his musical
message to the crowd, I thought how appropriate it was that I was attending
a flamenco concert my last night in Corsica. The borrowed music mirrored
the spirit of the island itself, and highlighted the yin and yang - the
pleasing harmony of opposites - that I had found throughout my journey
Length of ride: 250 miles
Difficulty: Moderate. The route is almost never flat, but the terrain
guarantees as much downhill
as up, and the climbs are usually not too long.
Where the area is: In the Mediterranean Sea, 110 miles south of
France and 50 miles west of Italy.
I cycled the northern half of the island in a roughly counter-clockwise
Best time to go: Summers are very hot, but the dry climate
and constant sea breeze make for pleasant cycling conditions. Late
spring and early fall are good times to avoid most of the tourists,
although that wasn't a big concern on my bicycle route, and infrastructure
(campgrounds, hotels, restaurants) greatly improves in the summer
months. Winds throughout the seasons can cause fluctuations in climate,
and the higher elevations are chilly with a chance of snow even
How to get there: By airplane from most European cities to
Ajaccio, Calvi or Bastia. By ferry from many harbors in Italy, Sardinia
Other: Cost of living is comparable to much of southern Europe.
Campgrounds are plentiful and have
many amenities, hotels in some areas are rare. Corsica is very safe
for travelers, even women
alone, although common sense applies, like anywhere.
Catherine Lutz writes from Woody Creek, Colorado. She writes for a local newspaper and gets
out whenever possible on bike, by foot or other transport that fits the