Another travel day today, though at least it didn't involve any flying. Instead we took the awkwardly-named but otherwise fine Mega Express 4 ferry from Nice to the island of Corsica where we disembarked at the town of Bastia.
There are a number of ferries connecting the island to continental France and Italy. The ferries vary in how fast they can go. I think this ferry is considered to be fairly fast, it makes the trip in less than 6 hours. The ferry from Ajaccio to Toulon will be an 11 hour overnight sailing.
To get a sense of the size of the ferry this shot shows a similar ferry (same ferry company, Corsica Sardinia Elba Ferries) parked in Bastia's harbour.
Tomorrow we begin exploring Corsica. Fortunately the weather gods are smiling on us.
Today was a day to explore Ajaccio. After espresso and pastries from the patisserie across the street - I quickly became partial to ambrucciata - we walked along the waterfront, hit the farmers market, ate some charcuterie, and took in some 16th and 17th century art at the museum. Ajaccio is easy getting around, everything is within a few blocks from our apartment, and the sidewalks are overflowing with cafes.
About a half-hour north of Ajaccio is the Tower of Parata, or Torra di a Parata in Corsican. It is an old stone structure sitting on top of a rocky hill. The tower, one of a series, was built around 1550 by the Republic of Genoa to defend against attacks by Barbary pirates.
In the far right you can just make out the outskirts of Ajaccio.
If I'd been clever I'd have positioned something in the photo for size relevance, like a person or an umbrella, but in light of that omission I'll say the tower is 12 m (39 ft) in height, so about 3 stories, and it has a diameter of 7.3 m (24 ft) at the roof.
While it isn't exactly the GR20 (the 180km trail stretching the length of Corsica from Calenzana to Conca), the Chemin des Cretes, or Path of the Ridges, provided a scenic hike in the green foothills above Ajaccio with glimpses of the city, its beaches, and the gulf of Ajaccio.
Stretching from Calenzana in the north of Corsica to Conca in the south is the famous GR20, a challenging 180 km trail. It takes at least two weeks and involves, among other challenges, ladders and ropes and rocky scrambles. I'm sure it's a wonderful trek but sadly we didn't do it. Instead, today we did the much much shorter Chemin des Cretes (Path of the Ridges) that starts about a half-hours walk from our central-Ajaccio apartment.
The best-known way to explore its interior is the challenging 180km GR20 one of the most famous walking trails in Europe. It stretches from Calenzana in the north to Conca in the south and is considered one of the most difficult long-distance treks on the continent (there are exposed scrambles, and at some points ladders and steel ropes to assist walkers). The whole thing takes at least two weeks, and involves staying in refuges or camping along the way.
Ajaccio itself is flanked by green foothills covered in an aromatic carpet of vegetation and herbs. Beyond them, a rocky ridgeline dramatically pierces the sky and below are beaches of golden sand.
As I headed up through suburban streets to the trailhead of my chosen route, the Chemin des Crtes (Path of the Ridges), I passed statue after statue of Ajaccio's most famous son Napoleon Bonaparte. Given the hero worship of this leader, the fighting spirit of its eco-activists begins to make sense. The route begins opposite the Bois des Anglais, a patch of woodland left over from the island's short stint as a British colony over 200 years ago. At less than 10km it's a much easier prospect than the more famous trail, but as it cuts along the peaks above the coast it offers stunning views for very little effort, and you can finish up with a very civilised drink in a bar in the seaside village of Vignola.
Who could blame them? With the full extent of the gulf of Ajaccio revealed, and the Iles Sanguinaires creeping out onto the horizon, my gaze, too, was fixed out on this tiny rocky archipelago, that breaks off from the mainland at Pointe de la Parata. They're called the Isles of Blood because of the reddish colour they reflect into the sea.
You can get a good look at the islands' wind- and spray-scoured shapes on another, shorter, walk here. Take the number 5 bus from Ajaccio to the start of the waymarked path (in the car park) and it's a 40-minute round trip to the end of the Pointe de la Parata peninsula. Come in the early evening to avoid the tour buses and watch the light play as the sun sets.
So far, all signs are that it was just a guy, just one more American killer who got his hands on some collection of weapons designed for the sole purpose of killing people, and who then killed people. We know that if it was a Muslim with a foreign name, we would be in full panic mode and all we would be hearing about is the ever-greater dangers of terrorism. Indeed, the killings in France, on Sunday, which were surely terrorism, have already begun to attract that kind of attention from the right wing here. But when it happens here, what we're told by the entire power structure of American life - both houses of Congress, the White House, and now the Supreme Court, locked and loaded to sustain the absurd and radical pro-gun ruling in District of Columbia v. Heller - is that there is nothing at all to be done, save to pray. Adam Gopnik in The New Yorker
This morning we picked up a car, a small white Citroen, at the Ajaccio airport. We then headed north, to spend a few days in a beach-front hotel in the small seaside town of Algajola.
We picked the scenic route, via Piana and Porto. It is a twisty, two-lane road the whole way, except where it narrows to one lane. It took us through pink-granite canyons along narrow roads carved into rocky mountainsides, with scenery ranging from merely beautiful to spectacular. The only problem with photographing it was finding a place to park, the road being barely two cars wide in places, with a wall of rock on one side and a steep drop on the other side.
In addition to walking along the beach and watching the wind surfers here in Algajola we explored the nearby town of L'Ile-Rousse, a slightly larger (but still small) town. Just off shore, but connected by a narrow causeway, is a lighthouse-topped island called Ile de la Pietra.
Today we toured four hill towns: Aregno, Sant Antonino, Pigna, and Corbara. We spent most of our time in Sant Antonino. All are old settlements with rough stone streets, narrow passageways, and lots of steps. The granite homes and pathways are made of the same material as the hills so they seem to all blend together. And all feature great views of neighboring towns, the surrounding valleys, and the coastal communities far below.
We decided to leave Algajola a day early, to get in some hiking in the Porto - Piana area. So we got back in the Citreon and retraced our path from a couple days earlier. Our goal was Serriera, a village about 10 minutes outside of Porto. After a while we arrived. On checking into our simple but roomy hotel we learned from the friendly proprietor that the road to Porto was closing in half an hour! Turns out the road was being used by the Tour de Corse. It would reopen at 19:00, she said. Since she spoke no English and we know little French the conversation took place courtesy of google translate which we used by taking turns typing into a computer. This worked quite well actually. p>
Of course we'd no idea what the Tour is, a bicycle race? A foot race? A car race? Turns out, well, more on that later.
We jumped back into the car and headed south to get past Porto and then onto the trailhead. The road either side of Porto, a road we'd driven days earlier, is both painfully beautiful and white-knuckle scary: it's carved into the side of a wall of granite and in places it is barely one car wide.
Within five minutes we were stuck in a traffic jam. Cars, trucks, buses, and motorbikes took turns squeezing past each other on this ridiculously narrow road, with granite hanging over us and a sheer drop to the sea below. On the bright side it was great for picture taking: while Paul sat in the Citroen's driver's seat I walked around and shot photos.
Eventually we made it to Porto where we discovered the Historical Tour de Corse is a car race. So that mystery was cleared. It also explained the cars we'd seen earlier, all decked out in numbers and stickers.
The hike was great: it overlooks the Calanche de Piana with its pink granite forest broken by views of the turquoise Mediterranean. Much of the hike follows an old stone path, what was likely an old road connecting villages.
Corsica looks to be a hikers dream as the mountainous island is covered with trails. We see many people decked out in full hiking gear. The Corsican trails are well marked plus every one I've looked for I've found in OpenStreetMaps using the CityMaps2Go app.
After the hike we headed to Piana for lunch then followed that up with another hike. We had to kill time till the road re-opened. We hiked about half of the Capu Rossu trail, which heads west out to a promontory with, again, great views of pink granite mountains, scrubby green forests, and that crystal clear Mediterranean sea.
Soon we were back in Porto where we hung out with the Tour racers and waited for the road to reopen, which it did promptly at 19:00. The drive back involved another traffic jam as cars, trucks, vans, motorcycles, and Tour support vehicles squeezed by each other to get to their destinations. At this point we thought we were through with the boy racers. We weren't, though.
It was a long day with a lot of beautiful scenery topped with a taste of an old Steve McQueen movie. We were glad to get back to our charming hotel, drink a beer, and call it a night.
We left Serriera for Zonza (pronounced 'tzonz') to do some hiking around the Col de Bavella, which is in the south center of the island. So another day on the road. Fortunately in Corsica the road doesn't mean boring superhighway, it means a two-laner, hugging a mountainside, and squeezing through tiny villages where the buildings are so close you can almost reach out and touch them. The flip side to this lack of superhighways is that what appears to be a short distance on a map will actually take a long while.
Driving in Corsica also involves frequent encounters with wildlife: cows, pigs, donkeys, big-horn sheep, we've shared the road with all of these creatures. My favorites to date have been the herds of big-horn sheep and the donkey that was chasing a cat.
And if you're driving in Corsica this week you're also sharing the road with participants in the Tour de Corse. Zonza, it turns out, is another checkpoint in the road race, so while we travelled today we were constantly being passed by speeding Porsches and Alfas and all manner of other vehicles, each covered in stickers and manned by a suited-up driver and navigator. A bit boy racer, a bit dangerous, but it feels oh so European.
Today we drove to a nearby mountain pass, hiked out to an odd rock formation, then ate a delicious lunch on a patio overlooking mountains, the Mediterranean, and the island of Elba.
About 15 minutes from Zonza is the Col de Bavella, a 1,218 m pass that offers great views of the Aiguilles (needles) de Bavella. The Aiguilles are rocky spikes of red granite. The col also offers several trailheads (the GR20 passes through) as well as accommodations and restaurants. The hike to our destination, the Trou de la Bombe, starts at the Col. It is an easy hike out to an interesting hole in a rock face.
We returned to our hotel in Zonza just in time for me to catch the last few cars in the Tour de Corse.
By the time we got back to Zonza most of the cars in today's leg of the Tour de Corse had passed. Still, I walked from our apartment to the center of town (this took about 1 minute) where there were no spectators just a few support vehicles – largely Porshe SUVs – as well as drivers and support staff. I crossed the street and then sat on a wall where I hoped to capture a few of the laggards slower cars as they came into town.
Unlike the Porto leg this leg doesn’t feature a closed highway. So the racers share the roads with the public.
I like Zonza. It is a charming village set on a lush green hillside and with a number of nearby hiking trails. It has my essentials: decent patisseries (we jokingly named one Luke's and the other Loreli's, both characters in a favorite tv show), a number of nice restaurants (though half were already closed for the season), and a grocery store. I didn't see any interesting shopping but that doesn't mean it isn't there. Actually, nowhere in France did we do much shopping.
Another beautiful day weather wise. After breakfast at Luke's we drove again to the Col de Bavella to hike a bit of the GR20, the trail that runs the length of Corsica. Unlike yesterday, today's trail was a vertical rocky scramble to a high overlook. During the hike we saw a large group of student rock climbers edging their way up a granite cliff, then we saw a team of rescuers carry an injured climber to a helicopter.
After a lunch of charcuterie, a Corsican speciality, we headed back to Zonza where we did another short hike into the forest.
We're in Bonifacio, at Corsica's southern-most tip. We arrived after a short drive down the east coast. Bonifacio is built on chalk-white limestone which has been eaten away by the ocean, leaving parts of the town precariously cantilevered over the sea. The old town, what you see in the first picture, is very charming, a warren of old buildings and narrow streets, outdoor cafes and shops.
Today we took a look at some of the defense and navigation aides located in this most-southerly point of metropolitan France.
In 1825 the French built 5 lighthouses around Corsica to help ships navigate, a program led by Augustin Fresnel. In addition to the one shown below, the Pertusato lighthouse, others were built in the Sanguinaires islands (near Ajaccio), Chiappa, Revellata, and Giraglia. The Pertusato lighthouse is a 21m high square tower, made of stones, centered on a rectangular building. It has been automated since 1985. Near the lighthouse is the Pertusato semaphore. It is still in use, guiding ships through the Corsica/Sardaigna strait.
Today we hiked out of town to the lighthouse which is on the island's southern-most tip and which is just a few km north of Sardinia. The beautiful hike tracks the edge of a limestone cliff. It passes the semaphore, some ruins of old buildings, and then ends at the lighthouse of Pertusato. As a bonus we were buzzed by a few French fighter jets as we walked along the cliffs. The greenery is plentiful but low and scrubby. An easy hike though there isn't any shade.
Today we explored the old town of Bonifacio. The town is precariously perched about 70m above the sea on a long peninsula. On one side of the peninsula are ocean-eroded white cliffs, on the other side is a long thin harbour. The harbour, as one might expect, is full of yachts and catamarans and tour boats, with the occasional Moby ferry which sails between here and Sardinia. And of course the harbour is bordered by a well-maintained boardwalk fronting hotels, restaurants, and cafes. Life is good in Bonifacio.
Like every other town we've visited in Corsica Bonifacio is well-maintained, spotlessly clean, and good looking. Since it is fall some shops and hotels are starting to close for the season. Still, there are a lot of tourists though it's not crowded with them unlike Toledo or Venice.