Tough Love From Corsica

The trouble, I suppose, started with a pizza. We’d bought our tickets for the Corsica ferry on a last minute whim, and had to be at the port in Toulon later that evening. We–myself and my partner Bella–were in Arles, typically an hour and a half drive from Toulon, unless you’re as strapped for cash as we were and avoiding the major toll roads. Then it’s about a four hour drive on winding country lanes. No time to stock up on supplies, no time to stop and eat. A small pizza stand on the outskirts of Toulon, glowing in the middle of an empty parking lot, beckoned us. We might, we decided, have just enough time to stop for a slice. We ordered, and the father and son duo manning the stand told us it’d be ready in a half hour. Okay, we thought, let’s run to a store and pick up some groceries while it’s cooking. We did, and never found that pizza stand again. We drove up and down every side street in Toulon in our vain search, as our time of departure came ever nearer. Despondent, stomachs empty, we gave up and raced to the port–and were the last car ushered onto the ferry.

There’s no doubt in my mind that would’ve been the all-time best pizza I‘d ever have. It’s still a sensitive topic for Bella and I. We avoid talking about that pizza as if it were a friend who died too young. I’m racked with guilt, picturing that father and son going bankrupt, losing their home because we were unable to pay for that pizza, their families forced out onto the street to beg for spare pepperoni from a rival pizza stand owner, who laughs maliciously to see his former competition fallen so far. On the other hand, that lost pizza is probably even more memorable for me than if I’d ever tasted it. In fact, the whole trip to Corsica was as memorable for what we didn’t have as it was for what we did. Long afternoons spent lounging on the beach, uninterrupted sunshine, gorgeous tans–we had none of these things on Corsica, not least of all because I’m a pasty-skinned redhead. We just didn’t know what to expect.

I couldn’t sleep on the overnight ferry ride from Toulon. Maybe it was the Pullman beds we’d paid extra for when we bought our tickets earlier that day, which turned out to be two uncomfortable, oversized recliner chairs in a dark room filled with other uncomfortable, oversized recliner chairs, all occupied by restless, disgruntled travelers. Maybe I was just nervous. Where, exactly, were we going? At dawn we stumbled, bleary-eyed, onto the deck and looked out over the Mediterranean at the sun rising above Corsica, jagged peaks silhouetted against the pink and orange sky. It was a stunning sight, but jeez–I didn’t realize the island was so mountainous. And no lights blinked from the shore. Corsica seemed at that moment like some remote, rocky, deserted island.

We were so exhausted by the time we pulled into port that we drove to an isolated beach along the west coast, slathered on some sunblock, collapsed in the sand, and immediately fell asleep. When we awoke a few hours later grey storm clouds were gathering over the sun. Thunder rumbled out over the glassy surface of the sea and splitting the sky were bolts of lightning so dramatic and unreal they seemed to spring forth from an airbrushed t-shirt of a bald eagle in flight, circa 1993. To our bewilderment, a local Corsican had set up a music stand under a nearby shelter while we’d napped and was practicing his tenor saxophone, blowing a deep, gentle jazz tune over the beach. It was absurdly atmospheric. Then it began to pour. We ran over to the shelter, opened a box of Coco Krispies we’d grabbed from the car, and began shoveling down our breakfast, which may have undercut the atmosphere a bit. To be fair, though, the incident of the previous night involving the round, cheese-and-tomato-sauce-based food whose name I shall not speak left us quite hungry. The saxophonist gathered up his things, got back in his car and drove off. Still exhausted, Bella and I spread out our sleeping bags on the floor of the shelter and fell asleep to the sound of the rain hammering upon the roof. We were about as homeless as I’d imagined that father and son duo to be in Toulon. We had very little money, no hotel room to go to, not much to eat beyond breakfast cereal, and no one knew where we were, least of all ourselves.

Our next stop was the Desert des Agriates on the northwest coast of Corsica, a land of rocky hills, prickly pear cacti and pristine, white sand beaches inaccessible by car. This was either exactly what you should expect the Mediterranean to look like, I thought as we lugged our heavy packs down the dusty trail in ninety-five degree heat, or the exact opposite; I couldn’t decide which. We left our bathing suits on while we hiked, which worked out well when we came to a river that flowed over the trail and emptied out into the sea, requiring us to take our packs off and hold them over our heads as we forged across. Finally we reached a small, deserted cove where we decided to set up camp for the night. We went for one last swim in the crystal clear water as storm clouds began to crowd the sky.

It wasn’t that it simply started to rain as we made our way back to our tent; it was more like a hinge suddenly came loose on those storm clouds, causing them to gape open and dump a deluge of cold, shocking, unrelenting water upon us. We dropped the clothes and flip-flops we were carrying in a frantic, haphazard trail behind us as we ran. We were Hansel and Gretel with no gingerbread house to go to, just a cheap tent we’d bought online that was so small we had to leave all our belongings outside in the mud if we both hoped to fit in it together. We dived through the tiny door. Wind whipped the flimsy tent around and pulled out most of the stakes. The rain, against all laws of physics, actually started falling harder, pooling on the outside of the tent and seeping in, soaking the feet of our sleeping bags. The thunder was so loud, so intense, it seemed to shake the ground. Less than an hour before we were sweating; now we were shivering uncontrollably from the cold. With the soggy roof of the tent sagging an inch or so above my face I thought about those oversized recliner chairs deep in the bowels of the Corsica ferry and how they seemed like some distant luxury we would never know again. All of which is to say, there was a moment or two where we weren’t quite sure if we would survive the night.

So exhausted were we that we did, eventually, fall into a fitful slumber. At dawn we awoke to the sound of snorting and stamping outside our tent, and unzipped the flap to peek out at what appeared to be a giant, red-eyed bull circling our camp. Once more we huddled in fear in our tent–all that protected us from total carnage was a thin layer of polyester/polyurethane. The bull nosed our belongings scattered on the ground and finally wandered away. The sun was coming out and we dragged our tent and sleeping bags over to the beach and laid them out on a rock to dry. As we packed up later that morning we saw what we’d thought was the angry bull nuzzling its calf. It was, in reality, only a cow.

It says something about the quality of a place, I realized, that you can feel as wet and miserable as we did that night and still walk away feeling like you’ve had a great experience. If we’d had a nice, peaceful night on the beach we probably would’ve forgotten about it as soon as we got home. Had I gotten that pizza pie, I wouldn’t be writing about it now. Sure, we all have to get away from our jobs sometimes, relax a little, leave whatever stress or discomfort we may have at home. But it’s precisely when we feel stress or discomfort in a new place that we’re most connected with it. When a foreign sky dumps freezing cold rain on you, it’s dumping it on the locals, too. The discomfort is democratic. Why should the weather go easy on you just because you’re not from around here? The rugged, unpredictable places treat you like an equal. When they send out a wild animal after you, it’s a weird kind of welcome; you’re no longer vacationing, you’re living here. When they deny you something, well, they’re just trying to build character. It’s a tough love, but it is love. The pizza, however, might’ve been going too far.

Stephen Langlois writes at

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jim humberd
25 October 2010

In 1980 we decided to visit Sicily and looked for an alternative to driving the complete length of Italy twice. A review of the map indicated that a ferryboat to Corsica, then Sardinia, then to Sicily and back to mainland Italy, would make an interesting and educational trip, and it really did.

Our ferryboat left Livorno, Italy at breakfast time and arrived in Bastia, Corsica by lunch. The morning rainstorm had increased in intensity, so after driving around Bastia, we drove on to Corte, near the center of the island. After locating the rather primitive municipal campsite, we walked around town and saw the old castle on top of a large rock in the middle of town. In this part of Corsica we could see little or no agriculture or fruit trees, and no sign of mining or other reasons for the existence of a town, and saw no indication as to how the people made a living.

In early June the countryside was ablaze with wild flowers — red poppies and purple blooms as well as bushes with big yellow blossoms — a spectacular array of color. Snow-capped mountains in Corsica in early June surprised us, but the melting snow contributed to the rushing streams and rivers. The view was exceptional, but that alone could not explain the little towns hanging on the sides of the very steep hills.

Every village was sure to have its little sidewalk cafe, right at the edge of the road. Sometimes there was only one or two tables, sometime they extended onto the roadway, rocking in the breeze as traffic flew past — there’s just no room with these narrow streets. All this, of course, right at the level of the exhaust pipes of the speeding vehicles.

Ajaccio, the capital of Corsica and the birthplace of Napoléon, appeared to be the most modern and “developed” city on the island. A young lady demonstrating sewing machines in a fabric store had lived in New York City for a year. She was a native of Switzerland and spoke French, Swedish and of course English. We do feel sorry for Europeans who say, “Yes, I have been to America, I visited New York City.” Somehow, it just doesn’t seem to us that they have really been to the United States, just as a stop in Paris hardly qualifies as a visit to France.

Corsica is virtually a wilderness. Every few miles we saw stands of large pine trees, but mostly the countryside was covered with brush and heavy boulders. Tiny villages were scattered high in the mountains with the twisty roads below, terraced hillsides with rock fences, and mountainsides of goats. Many of the roads are dirt, most are rough, and often under repair.

We stopped for a few minutes in Sartène, but didn’t see much to explore. One old store with sagging wooden floors had a big sign for Villeroy and Boch products from Germany. It didn’t look to us like many people in this area could afford such expensive table settings.

The resort town of Propriano was well supplied with bars, restaurants, hotels, etc. It was interesting to see cactus, ice plant, and palm trees growing in Southern Corsica. We saw many cork trees with the bark stripped off, and many cork products were for sale in the stores. We wanted genuine Corsican products, but we noticed that many of the cork covered tourist items were stamped, “Made in Italy.”

Bonifacio, on the southern tip of Corsica, is an exquisite ancient jewel. All of the island was interesting, but Bonifacio makes the trip to Corsica completely worthwhile. It sits high on a long, narrow promontory on the edge of a 200 feet high cliff, with town walls, a fortress, interesting shopping streets, and multicolored apartment buildings along the harbor below. Renovation of many structures was underway in Bonifacio, but the little streets and shops were ready for the tourist trade.

Often a small arch extended across the walkway, from building to building. It was difficult to tell if they were holding the buildings together, or keeping them apart. One reference said those arches are really rain water gutters directing water to one of the town’s many cisterns. Under the Ste-Marie-Majeure church, there is a cistern with the capacity of 140,000 gallons of rain water.

We spent the night in a beautiful campsite on the shores of the Mediterranean, one of the few we have stayed in that did not have electricity. At the ferry dock the next morning, we were told that space needed for our large vehicle was sold out for the rest of the month. We said we would wait. When it happened that space was available, the ticket clerk (a Frenchman) was so disappointed to be proven wrong, he almost didn’t sell us a ticket. (An Italian ticket-taker would have smiled and almost cheered our good luck.)

It was a picturesque thirty minutes to Sardinia. The view of Corsica, the pastel colors of the buildings along Bonifacio’s port; the castle above the 200 foot high yellow stone cliff; small rock islands scattered in the deep-blue sea; the ride was exceptional. In 1980 the ferryboat ride to Sardinia cost $28 for the RV and the two passengers, and we have yet to blunder into a more wonderful way to spend $28.

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