Our Corsican Travel Journal with The Thinking Traveller takes us to the wild and wondrous south coast of Corsica. Afloat in the Tyrrhenian Sea this French but not French Island (French for only the last 250 years of its 4,000-year-existence) sits between France and Italy, just a pinch above Sardinia. It is hard to describe exactly what to expect from this diverse land, whose history and cultural identity is shaped by centuries of invasions and take-overs, so best I let the research do the talking. A collection of images, random travel notes and experiences that hopefully share the magic of this island and her people.
South Coast of Corsica
“CORSICA is France, but it is not French. It is a mountain range moored like a great ship with a cargo of crags a hundred miles off the Riviera. In its three climates it combines the high alps, the ruggedness of North Africa, and the choicest landscapes of Italy, but most dramatic are the peaks which are never out of view and show in the upheaval of rock a culture that is violent and heroic. “
This quote from American novelist Paul Edward Theroux describes the south coast of Corsica that lives in my heart. Corsica is still a mystery to me, an understanding that is elusive to outsiders and the reason why I love her so. Corsica has magically escaped the hordes of tourists that flock to the Mediterranean and its neighbouring coastline during Europe’s Summer. Perhaps it is the location or perhaps it’s the inhabitants who are fiercely protective of their unique island home (and rightly so) but Corsica has miraculously slipped under the radar. Don’t get me wrong, this is a popular holiday destination but it hasn’t been ruined by tourists to put it quite frankly. I share our time here with you, not to spoil her riches but to respect them and hopefully pass on an understanding that will help you continue this in person if you are lucky enough to visit.
Luxurious, yes. Precious, no. Cala d’Istria was our Thinking Traveller home in the South and a hop, skip and a jump (that’s code for twenty five minutes) from Figari’s Sud Airport. Not that you even need to think about this. All is written and explained in your TTT villa bible which is delivered upon your booking but no fear if you are instruction-phobe. Before you land, you will hear from the knowledgeable and sophisticated Jean Charles, the local Thinking Traveller “expert everything” who might even be the unofficial mayor of Corsica. Jean Charles guided us from the moment we landed (literally, he escorted us to the villa after we landed late at night). I strongly advise to make a time with Jean Charles once you have settled to discuss making the most of your stay. Even if you decide that you are going nowhere except to lounge on your spacious deck, swim in your infinity pool or stroll down your private beach track to kayak and swim at the sandy little beach which is literally your backyard, talking with Jean Charles is a lovely way to learn about the Corsican way of life and the country itself.
Cala d'Istria is about 20km northwest of Bonifacio and is tucked away on a secluded part of the coast made up of tiny bays and beaches. This is the perfect location. Surrounded on either side by dense shrub and nature reserves then sea views as far as the eye can see, you feel as if you are the only ones here. The privacy factor for such an expanse is exceptional and very handy for the many nude family outdoor baths and pool sessions (special note must be made about the glass infinity edge suspended over the gardens, looks directly out to sea and the sunset - even when you're underwater!)
The villa makes the most of its natural surroundings by becoming a part of it in a clever design of rolled back glass doors and walls but our favourite and a family winner was the backyard. A labyrinth of greenery that is home to glorious trees, wildlife, ponds, a pétanque area, hammocks, a shower in the trees, a stone outdoor kitchen and the glorious ‘Love Cabin’.
The best thing about Cala d’Istria is the location. Even though a close drive from the more happening locations such as Porto Vecchio and Bonifacio, here you feel completely disconnected from anything resembling a tourist hotspot. The village of Pianottoli-Caldarello is your closest town, a tiny village where you can eat home cooked meals, shop locally grown produce and drink café with the locals.
CORSICAN PHRASES TO LEARN
Excuse Me | Scusatemi
I am lost | Sò persu
I lost my wallet | Aghju persu u mo porta muneta.
When is aperitivo time? | Quandu hè tempu aperitivu?
Thank you | À ringraziavvi
What is that scent? | Chì ghjè quellu aroma?
Can I have more cheese? | Puderaghju più casgiu?
This food is delicious | Questu cibo hè diliziosu
The beaches in this area are sandy, not rocky. There are no grottos, just stretches of white sand and the water so blue it defies description. Lido culture in these parts is rare, this is more about getting amongst nature and in the water than lounging with cocktail in hand. We did some serious research and below are our top picks in the area.
A short drive from the villa and en route to the medieval town of Sartene you will see a lion of rocks lying high on a jagged mountain of pink granite looking out to the Mediterranean. Before you see the majestic rock formation it will be the extraordinary blue waters that catch your eye. Roccapina beach lies below, a stretch of curved beach so beautiful that even tales of hiking in the heat won’t keep you from it. You can only access via a FWD access only dirt road. The brave (or stupid) do attempt a smaller vehicle (us) and it can work but the gamble is yours. Alternatively there’s the walk. A nice hike in the cooler hours but a shocker in the warmer ones. The beach has no facilities so remember to pack water, food and shade. The FWD is sounding good about now.
TIP | On the main road heading to Roccapina is a small shack with some table and chairs out the front. It’s a roadside cafe and we loved it for a panini, beer and ice-creams straight off the beach.
41.4956° N, 8.9288° E
Plage St Jean
Along the coast you will see 16th century Genoese watchtowers that were built at the request of communities to protect themselves against pirates. Look for the one close to the village of Pianottoli-Caldarello (you can visit and walk up which is a fun thing to do with the kids). Below it sits Plage St Jean. A tiny ‘off the beaten track’ beach accessed by foot down a winding overgrown track. Here you can be completely alone on most days.
41.4645° N, 9.05743° E
Now even though I said my favourite beaches are more nature than naughty cocktail sipping you can’t tick the Mediterranean holiday box with out drinking at least one Aperol Spritz while lying on a lido. Palombaggia is one of Corsica’s most famous beaches and for good reason. It is a stunning arch of electric blue and white sand perfect for families. It still blows me away how safe these beaches are compared to ours in Australia. From here you can see Cerbicale, a nature reserve made up of five separate islands. A nice view from where you should pull up stumps for the day, under an umbrella at SEA LOUNGE. Recommended and booked in advance by Jean Charles of course, here you can hang all day, renting kayaks and pedallos, and dining at their restaurant DA MARE. You will sit outside under shady trees on the sand feasting on locally caught fresh fish, cheeses and bread with an obligatory crisp rosé. Leaving is indeed hard.
41.5579° N, 9.3253° E
TIP | Plan for a whole day here. Relax and take it easy. In sunset you can drive over to Porto - Vechhio for dinner. Its a close drive and nice way to see the popular city. Remember to book the lounge and restaurant in advance. Both are very popular.
The Secret Beach
Ok so I know how annoying this must sound but this sums up The Thinking Traveller experience. Jean Charles took us on a private tour to his favourite local beaches. Ones we would never have found. Down tiny dirt roads and through tracks that can only be seen if you know they are there. Tiny sandy coves flanked by rocky headlands, crystal green water and not a soul in sight. It was mind blowing to think in the middle of a European Summer you could have your own piece of paradise. A few minutes from our villa some of our best memories were here, just the four of us. You’ll have to ask Jean Charles.
" White bread and ripe figs - long may it last! " - Corsican Proverb
Cascades de Polischellu Waterfalls via Aiguilles de Bavella
If there was one adventure you should not miss when visiting Corsica it is the drive up to Col de Bavella to swim or hike at the Cascades de Polischellu Waterfalls. We had no idea that this country had such a diverse landscape and is known as a hiking mecca across Europe. Corsica is not all about the beaches. It is mountainous, raw, wild and untouched. So breathtakingly beautiful and unique to this island. Aiguilles de Bavella felt like a crazy mix of the Colorado Mountains, our Aussie bush and New Mexico’s desert. There are a number of routes that you can get here from the East Coast but the simplest and least winding (the interior mountainous roads wind and curve like the veins in my legs and if I am using this description you will understand this means it can be painful) is to follow T10 coast road to Col de Bavella. Alternatively you can take a more scenic route driving though the medieval town of Sartene and stopping at A Pignata for lunch (see below). If you are booking with The Thinking Traveller, Jean Charles will help you map it and book.
41.8200° N, 9.2604° E
There is a good chance your smaller passengers might get car sick but persevere as the reward far out weighs the pain. Hair pinning up high into the Alta Rocca mountain range can be a little distressing for those afraid of heights (not mentioning names Sam) but the view of the jagged mountains partially covered by clouds surrounded by brilliant green rainforests and woodlands and the odd is mountain goat is 100% worth it. This is an adventure epicentre and if you are looking to hike, canoe, go rafting, cycling or climbing, this is the spot. It was by chance that we found what was to be the highlight of our trip. With the kids starting not to feel well I started to google the area looking for places to swim and Cascades de Polischellu Waterfalls came up. We couldn’t find exactly where it was so we stopped at a curve in the road where cars were parked and people looked wet and thought what the hell. Following the noise of waterfalls and people laughing we found a small rocky track through the forest, a steep stumble direct down to the most incredible green rock pools. Clear mountain water streaming from rocky waterfalls into emerald stone natural pools and beyond. Framed by mountains and forest we knew this is why we had come here. We spent a few hours lounging on the rocks, water sliding between them, floating in the crisp mountain water. A popular spot but not too busy.
TIP | Pack a snack pack and wear hiking boots or sandals (cool ones). We were barefoot and it wasn’t a problem but access is a little slippery and rocky.
They call Sartène the soul of Corsica and a step back in time to it’s medieval origins. We spent time drinking café on the Place Porta eavesdropping on local conversations, listening to the Corsican accent. This is the ‘true Corsica’ they say and it feels like here tradition is paramount. There is something in the air too. The locals look at you with patience, not contempt but I feel it might be a fine line. I like this feeling. Made us very aware of being respectful to the townsfolk who are trying to go about their everyday business. We loved the cobbled streets and alleyways twisting and turning, vendors in the square selling home made treats and the topsy turvy feel of the village and its granite houses topping down the hill.
41.6218° N, 8.9747° E
From Sartene you can keep driving to the small mountain village of Levie, home to a fine museum and with the archaeological sites of Cucuruzzu and Capula in the countryside nearby, makes a worthwhile stop. If you are looking for a smaller version and perhaps quieter of Sartene plan your coffee stop here.
41.7028° N, 9.1230° E
A short 5km for Levie you will find A Pignata. A Michelin star rustic restaurant in the middle of the countryside that feels a little similar to an Italian Agriturismo (a farm stay or farm house resort). Here you will find traditionally home cooked Corsican fare and for us it was the a true insight to real Corsican cooking. The whole experience felt more Italian than French which can be explained: many of the island’s gastronomic and oenological traditions have been imported over the years from across the water. Yet it at the same time it was neither. Traditional Corsican food has it’s own distinct character. The menu is already decided and you eat what is made on the day. Like traditional Agriturismo stays, the food is produced on the property or by neighbouring merchants. Their cheeses and cured meat are famous in the area which they produced on their farm. To be honest I have never seen Sam (my dude) eat this much food and that is saying something. We dined on zuppa corsa (a vegetable minestrone in a ham-bone stock), Abergine Farcie (Provençal Tomaotes and Aubergines) and Cannelloni Brocciu (a type of pasta bake using Corsica’s best known cheese, brocciu) followed by goats cheese and fresh apples for desert. Oh and of course a little local red to wash it down. Be rude not too.
41.7134° N, 9.1017° E
TIP | Again, we would not have found this gem without the help of our TTT hands on the ground expert, Jean Charles. Make sure you book in advance as they only prepare enough food for those booked in.
Les Bains de Caldane
On the way home, stop in at the village Sainte-Lucie-de-Tallano to visit the thermal baths at Rosa De Caldone. It’s with FOMO I say we didn’t make it here. They say the basins of sulphur water have healing properties. The venue is a little outdated but of you think charming then it might be for you. Let me know.
41.6644° N, 9.0516° E
Do not wear beach or swimwear in the supermarket | It is frowned upon and you might even be escorted out. Many times we did a shop straight off the beach and I often wondered why I felt a little chilly, metaphorically of course. Apparently in some towns, mayors have issued rules stipulating that one should be dressed decently when entering any shopping center.
You are not in France. You are in Corsica | Let me repeat. You are not in France, you are in Corsica. Technically speaking you are on French owned Territory but the people, the food, the dogs and the towns are not French, they are Corsican.
Rent a FWD | I never recommend this unless it is necessary to the terrain and if you want to make the most of all Corsica adventure has to offer you will go off road at some stage. Which brings me to another point, when a sign says FWD only, this is what the sign actually means.
Get cash out at the airport when you land | If you are staying at Cala d’Istria or this area your nearest ATM is back at the airport and no one wants to go there until you have to leave. Am I right?
Ferry to Sardinia
If you can spare a day or a few (stay tuned our guide to Sardinia will be up soon) head to Sardinia via ferry. It’s a fun adventure and super easy, a great way to travel between both countries. You depart from the marina in Bonafacio to Santa Teresa Gallura in Sardinia. You can catch frequent ferries by Moby Lines and Blu Navy which can also take cars, and their schedule often allows for a day-trip in either direction.
TIP | Remember to bring your passport as you are country hopping.
Straight off the bat Bonifacio must be explored in two ways. By foot and by boat. The two experiences are entirely different and equally magnetic. I fell in love with Bonifacio and it is now one of my favourite towns anywhere in the world. A UNESCO World Heritage site, Bonifacio is Corsica's most dramatically positioned and picturesque towns. It sits perched, seemingly perilously, on a high cliff above the water, a fortress against the perils of the sea. Below is the port, a bustling miss of yachts, ferries and fisherman boats. As the most Southern tip of Corsica, Bonifacio is the gateway to its Italian sister island of Sardinia and where you will find the ferry terminals.
41.3872° N, 9.1593° E
We did a history walking tour through the Citadel or ‘Haute Ville’. This is a Think Experience organised by the team of Experience Specialists at The Thinking Traveller. It was an incredible history lesson that the very patient and knowledgable Antoine took us on through the walled old town, a warren of alleyways, restaurants, museums and historic sites. The highlight was walking ‘The King of Aragon’s Stairway’. Legend has it these 187 steps where built overnight by the hands of men in 1420 during the famous siege of Bonifacio. A steep winding stairwell cut into the sandstone cliff plummeting down into the crashing sea. I didn’t think the kids would make it but it was such a fun challenge and one of their best history lessons to date. Definitely worth of a gelato reward.
Capo Pertusato | Antoine then took us on a hike 5 km south of the city. To be honest I am not sure exactly where we went. It was one of Antoine’s private hikes that took us to the light house at Cap Pertusato. It was 8km and I was sure it would end with Sam carrying two not so small bodies but Antoine made it a sensory adventure of discovery where we immersed ourselves in the sights, scents and sounds of the area. From flora to faun, through overgrown tracks and across wind carved cliffs the kids ran and walked till sunset and it was magic to experience Corsica in this way.
We hadn’t planned on getting a boat to explore the coast but Jean Charles insisted we must see his home from the sea and he was right. We took a two hour tour on a chartered boat looking back on Bonifacio as centuries of sailors did. Old city houses teetering on the edge of the cliff as if they might fall to the sea below at any moment. Inspired by tales of Jacques Cousteau we explored natural caves and grottos before heading to Isuli Lavezzi (A tiny island that is part of the Archipelago of Lavezzi. A collection of small grant islands and reefs in the Strait of Bonaficio that separates Corsica from Sardinia) where we swam in water so emerald green it seemed simply fake.
Butteghe Ricumandatu | A recommended shop
Pétanque | sport of boules, or bocce
Charcuterie | Delicatessen
Brocante | Secondhand or Vintage Store
Vinu Corsu | Corsican Wine
Brocciu | Corsican Specialty Cheese
Banque | Bank
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Photography by Sam Elsom on location in Corsica