THIRST STREET: A CYCLE TOUR IN CORSICA
Mark Shelton and friends drink in the scenery en Corse …..
The 200th anniversary of Waterloo? An excuse for a week’s tour in Corsica. As well as being Napoleon’s birthplace, Corsica is also “l’Ile de Beauté”, with coast, mountains, sunshine and quiet roads: catnip for cycle-tourists. We scheduled it for late June, and we were told in one of our hotels that that was a wise choice. It’s generally hotter in July and August, and the island is very crowded with tourists, most of whom have little experience of driving on mountainous minor roads.
The next day we were heading south-west, keeping a little inland from the coast. Spinning quickly through St. Florent, a touristy town around a large marina, speed slowed noticeably for the next 20 km during the haul over the Bocca di Vezzu, the col which carries the road through the region known as the Desert des Agriats. As the name suggests, there isn’t much else there but one road, bare rocky peaks and the ubiquitous maquis, crackling and popping in the heat. There was, though, a restaurant-bar near the top, whose proprietor was a funny, fussy little man with hair dyed ginger. He didn’t like the idea of cyclists sitting at his restaurant tables, so we were shooed out onto the terrasse; he didn’t like the idea of anyone using his toilet, which was locked; and he didn’t like the idea of filling our bidons from the tap, instead pointing us in the direction of ‘the fountain’, a trickle of water emerging from the rock face outside the bar. It takes all sorts.
A wiggly afternoon route twisted round the hills of the Balagna, one of Corsica’s most scenic regions, dotted with red-roofed hilltop villages such as Monticello and Corbara, and overlooking the little peninsula of l’Ile Rousse, with its port and marina.
We took every opportunity to refill our bidons, but after an hour or so the water inside them was so hot that drinking was pretty unpleasant. In Santa Reparata di Balagna, we paused to buy multiple cans of Liptonic, the great refresher; the shopkeeper said that this sudden heatwave was as much of a surprise to the Corsicans as it was to us.
The descent from the col, the Bocca di Salvi, was broken briefly in Montemaggiore, where our road dived away in such a tight hairpin to the right that none of us saw it, and we circled the church a couple of times, harassed by a yappy terrier, before finding it. At the bottom, it was heads down along some more straightforward roads into Calvi.
Day 3 took us south down the coast to Porto. The coast road in the morning was as lovely as a coast road on a mountainous Mediterranean island should be, though for 15km most of the tarmac had been stripped off by wear and tear, leaving a potholed surface of impacted stones. There was a reasonable amount of traffic on the winding and narrow roads, but almost all the drivers were very patient and considerate.
We lunched in Galèria, a small resort on a bay. I’d been a little disappointed so far not to be offered more in the way of seafood from the island’s eateries, so I opted for a plate of fried cuttlefish. Generally, the restaurants tended to do salads, charcuterie, the routine list of pizzas, steak and chips, and pasta stuffed with bocchiu, the ubiquitous local cheese. Good but not great, probably sums up our experience of Corsican cuisine, though there were one or two excellent dishes here and there. Large salads at lunchtime, with plenty of bread, were perfect for me anyway.
Tackling the afternoon’s climb of the Bocca di Palmarella, I monitored the temperature read-out on my Garmin, which went up by a tenth of a degree every minute. It started at 36.2° as we left Galèria, and mounted to north of 39°. The day’s final stretch of cliff road into Porto presented us with the classic Corsican road experience, snaking in and out of red rock pinnacles as it traversed the face of the crag.
We were scheduled to stay in Porto for two nights. The following day could therefore be taken as a rest day; though there was also the option of a ride without packs to the Col de Sevi, passing through the Gorges de Spelunca, which promised to be dramatically scenic. The hotel had a swimming pool… Reader, we rested.
On our rest day we tried but failed to find an alternative to Pietra, Corsica’s home beer. Not that there’s anything wrong with it, but after a few days of it our palates were a little jaded. The unusual thing about Pietra is that it’s brewed using chestnut flour. The châtaigne trees are everywhere in Corsica, and chestnut flour is used for anything and everything. Pastries, breads, all employ chestnut flour. Resigned to more Pietra, we had early evening drinks in a bar whose toilet was screened by a panel painted as a street scene, complete with the sign “Rue de la Soif”. It seemed as good a summary of our Corsican tour as any.
From Porto we were heading inland, back towards Bastia. The Col de Vergio was the main item on the agenda, at 1470m, gained over 36km of riding. That was to be followed by a commensurately long descent, and then another climb, the 300m of the Bocca d’Ominanda, before finally descending to Corte. It was going to be a bit of a test, and we made an early start, getting under way as soon as the hotel’s breakfast hours would allow.
The route through the Gorges de Spelunca was a treat. Not only were the views tremendous, but the climb was largely shaded by chestnut trees. With the early start providing lower temperatures anyway, we were for once riding in heat which was actually enjoyable. Plus, Corsican road-builders are the masters of very long climbs which wiggle all over the map, and as a consequence never get too steep.
Life in the slow lane
At an early break, James mentioned that he’d seen some eagles floating round the mountains. There were certainly large birds of prey to be seen throughout the tour, whether eagles or perhaps some sort of kite. Eagles or no, this remark prompted Gus into a short burst of ‘Hotel California’: “On a dark desert highway, cool wind in my hair”. That was enough to set the tune circulating round the inside of my head for the rest of the climb. As we climbed, we passed at one point through a sizeable group of large, black pigs, snoozing all over the road; another dish which featured regularly on restaurant menus was ‘sanglier’, wild boar, and for a nervous moment we thought that was what we’d encountered. The incident derailed my mind onto another lyric from ‘Hotel California’: “They stab it with their steely knives but they just can’t kill the beast”. Unless you’re a chatty rider, getting up a long climb can be an introverted business, and the mind does some odd stuff. Next thing I knew, the aliens from the old Cadbury’s Smash advert had come into my head, leaving me struggling to resolve something without a solution, along the lines of “And then they peel them with their little metal knives but they just can’t kill the beast”. This went on for several kilometres. By the time we got to Evisa, where we paused for cold drinks in a bar, I had to plead with the others to switch me off and then switch me on again.
The decent is long, with many a winding turn
The descent was long, and therefore not especially fast for the most part, though it had its moments as we flicked left and right through pine woods, which gradually became less dense as the scenery opened out towards the bottom. The last 10km or more of the descent took us down the Scala di Santa Regina, a narrow and bare gorge, where the sunshine bounced off the stone harshly.
Our evening meal in Corte was at a restaurant in a square dominated by a large statue of Pascal Paoli, who led Corsican independence struggles, first against Genoa and then against France, at about the time Napoleon was coming to adulthood. Paoli was an early inspiration for Napoleon, although they subsequently took different paths, and he is revered as a patriotic freedom-fighter - so long as you discount minor complications like having assisted the British to invade. (International politics: messy then, messy now). At any rate, he’s still a figurehead for the islanders, and celebrating Paoli is one way of thumbing their noses at the mainland French. There is still some agitation for Corsican independence, though nowadays largely expressed in the mundane form of the defacement of road signs throughout the island. Like Wales, the island has dual language road signs - though often the difference is only that the Corsican version of the name ends with a ‘u’ instead of an ‘o’ – and it’s commonplace to see the French version spray-painted out.
Lost in the translation
The last day of the tour would take us to Lucciana, just a couple of km away from the airport, and the main feature was the Col de Prato, on some very minor roads. The views on the climb were some of the most stunning of the entire tour. In Morosaglia, near the top, we found a restaurant-bar for lunch. Madame supplied us with cold drinks, but was not encouraging about lunch: “Very little food, just some charcuterie, maybe enough for a couple of sandwiches…” That was the gist of what she said, though she wasn’t speaking in English. We overheard some conversation from inside the bar in what was not French, either, so it’s likely that her first language was Corsican. We said that was OK. It took about an hour for us to realise that she’d taken us to mean “That’s OK, we’ll do without”, as we watched plates of charcuterie taken to others, but not us.
It was an entertaining hour, though. A middle-aged couple arrived on a motorbike, and produced a small dog from inside the top-box. Another dog, pertaining to the bar, wandered across to have a friendly sniff, then peed on my pannier. Inside the bar, we could hear monsieur endlessly sharpening knives.
Paper, scissors, stone, Glastonbury
Just out of Morosaglia we passed Pascal Paoli’s birthplace, but didn’t pay a visit. Our loss, no doubt. The map indicated that the descent would be steep and wiggly, and on very narrow minor roads, so our approach was cautious, calling out the hazards as we descended. “Car”. “Potholes”. “Hairpin”. “Goat”. The tour’s final sting in the tail was the climb through the villages of Volpajola and Scolca, gaining 250m over only 2 km. Then it was that familiar end-of-tour feeling: a descent to the coast, re-packing of the bikes, and cold beer by the hotel pool.
It’s a moment when I always feel the way I imagine Michael Eavis might feel after Glastonbury: it started as an empty field, and then for a week it was an amazing festival. Now you’re looking at an empty field again. There’s always the next time to look forward to; and Corsica will see us again.
PUBLISHED DECEMBER 2015
Our route totalled 472km and 6770m of ascent.
For anyone who prefers not to organise an itinerary themselves, and to have luggage transferred rather than carried on the bike, there are companies who will look after all that, eg EuropeActive www.europe-active.co.uk/cycling-holidays/.
A good website for information on cycling in Corsica is CorsicaCyclist www.corsicacyclist.com.
Easyjet fly from Gatwick and Manchester into Bastia-Poretta, but only once a week.