The Romans knew it. The whole of France knows it. And droves of Germans in their vans know it. But we Brits still haven’t quite twigged that the most beautiful island in the whole Mediterranean is Corsica.
But thanks to the recent launch of direct low-cost, two-hour flights from London, the island the Greeks dubbed ‘Kallisté’ (‘the most beautiful’) has never been more accessible to the independent British traveller – particularly those prepared to forego the luxury of a villa and hire car in favour of a rucksack and pair of hiking boots.
Whether your thing happens to be coastal ambles along isolated turquoise bays and windy chalk-and-pink-granite clifftops, seriously exposed trekking over snow-encrusted ridges, or woodland walks with idyllic picnics and skinnydipping along the way, the island offers limitless hiking opportunities. Moreover, the weather is dependably gorgeous between late May and late September, with brilliant sunshine and warm sea water practically guaranteed.
Physically closer to Italy than France, Corsica has over the centuries been ruled by both, yet has somehow emerged not quite like either. Nominally French, its inhabitants are fiercely independent in spirit and proud of their own distinctive language and traditions. Rare indeed are the road signs whose Gallic renditions of Corsican names have not been belligerently sprayed out, and French government buildings and gendarmeries are regularly attacked by local nationalist paramilitaries.
It’s not hard to see parallels between Corsica’s present political troubles and the attitude of previous generations to outside rule. For centuries the islanders have maintained their own way of life in the face of foreign oppression by deploying guerrilla-style tactics – and where these failed, by legging it into the hills where invaders, Barbary pirates and malaria-carrying mosquitoes could not follow them. To this day, the island’s rugged interior remains the crucible of ‘L’âme Corse’ – the ‘Corsican soul’ – which lends an interesting edge to on-foot explorations.
Corsica currently boasts 11 waymarked itineraries, lasting between two and 14 days, as well as countless boucles de journées – round day walks. The most illustrious route of all – in fact, the reason why nearly 17,000 trekkers come to Corsica each year – is the Grande Randonnée 20, or GR20. Winding for 170km across the island’s spectacular mountain watershed via a knee-crunching 19,000m of climbs and descents, it’s held to be the toughest of France’s great haute routes.
This reputation is somewhat exaggerated – primarily because so many of the people who attempt it have never ventured into the mountains before (there are a few fixed ladders and stanchion cables to ease you over the more vertigo-inducing sections). But the big GR is a serious undertaking by anyone’s standards, requiring great physical commitment – especially if you opt to carry your own supplies and kit.
The pay-off: you get to penetrate a mountain zone of staggering beauty that makes the Alps feel like an overcrowded amusement park by comparison, and which would – without the waymarks and ingenious routing – be off-limits to all but experienced climbers.
The GR20’s notoriety – fostered in recent years by a string of documentaries and magazine articles – has tended to eclipse the existence of other, less well-known walking routes further down the same mountain slopes. Traversing the island via ancient paved mule and timber trails, they’re a bit easier on the old knees but are still no pushover.
The big selling point of these lower-altitude routes, though, is that they dip in and out of villages, yielding a flavour of island life lacking from the big GR. Down on the coast, towns and resorts are awash with Italian bling and French Riviera kitsch; up in the mountain valleys, however, it’s another world.
Clustered around a single baroque belfry, your typical Corsican village comprises a tight warren of granite, terracotta-roofed tower houses perched high on a natural balcony above a valley, swathed in lush chestnut forest, olive groves and that quintessential Corsican scrub, the maquis.
These villages were designed to keep out both invaders and marauding neighbours, the entire island having been riven by Sicilian-style vendettas until well into the 20th century. Traditions of secrecy and family honour remain as strong as ever, but so too do the old codes of hospitality, and you get the feeling that walkers are welcomed as much for their conversation as their euros.
Accommodation comes in the form of good-value, French-style chambres d’hôtes and country hotels. In addition, nearly every waystage of Corsica’s long-distance hiking trails is also equipped with a little gîte d’étape, a privately run trekkers’ hostel where a bunk bed and quality half-board will set you back around €35 (£24). Gîtes are always impeccably clean, relaxing and well situated (often with wonderful terrasses panoramiques), providing plenty of scope for meeting other walkers and practising your French – a much easier proposition if the gardien’s house wine is up to snuff. Some also offer en-suite doubles and cooking facilities, as well as packed lunches.
The real advantage with gîte hopping, compared with wild camping, is that it enables you to walk with a lightweight pack – a godsend given the gradients. (Camping illegally also brings with it the additional hazards of grumpy wild boar, and the trigger-happy locals hunting them.)
The local cuisine – based on chestnut flour, pungent ewes’ cheese and free-range pork – was designed for precisely the kind of monster appetites you work up hiking. I’ve attained post-prandial states of cosmic bliss sitting on the terraces of the island’s backcountry auberges.
Maybe it’s the earthy local wine or the slug of myrtle-tinged eau de vie the patron always pours you if you’ve made enough appreciative noises. But I don’t think so. Few pleasures in life come close to that of plodding through sublime landscapes, swimming in cool mountain streams and winding up a perfect day on the trail with supper under the plane trees on a little Corsican square.
Best of all, you can – at least for the time being – enjoy this delicious prospect secure in the knowledge that it won’t be compromised by droves of your beloved compatriots. On British tourist maps of France, the interior of Corsica might as well appear as blank white space, labelled with dragons and question marks. And given the local nationalists’ typical response to second home ownership it’s more than likely to stay that way.
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