Why? Because I said so! (Didn’t your mother used to say that?) I’m Jean Moss, owner of Olde Ipswich Tours, and I have been planning perfect vacations for eighteen years. I know a lot about what makes a great travel experience, and Corsica is one of those heavenly destinations everyone who loves travel should not miss. Read these ten reasons and then tell me you want to come with me to Corsica in May.
1. Corsica has an average of 300 days of sunshine per year. That’s a lot! In France for the month of May the only place that has more hours of sunshine than Ajaccio (Corsica’s capital) is Marseilles. If you go there in the summer you are likely to run into big crowds of European tourists who have the summer off and are heading for the gorgeous sandy beaches. If you go in late fall or winter, almost everything will be closed. During my visit last March I asked my Corsican friends why everything was closed, when the weather was so perfect. They said it was because the shopkeepers don’t want to work so much! So I decided that May is the perfect time to go– not too hot, not too crowded, everything is open, and there is plenty of sunshine.
2. Great wines at great prices: Still not over-discovered. Check out Decanter’s Bronze Awards and be impressed by the list from Corsica. Or let me quote from the Kermit Lynch Wine Merchant, Berkeley, CA: “Let’s say it clear: Corsica is the most exciting wine region in France.” In 2009, Rosemary George MW of Decanter
writes: “Corsica boasts a host of original grape varieties. Some of those varieties were finally recognised earlier this year when the bestsub-£10 red blend of the Decanter World Wine Awards went to a Corsican wine…One of the most important grapes is Nielluccio, a variety thought to be a close cousin of Tuscany’s Sangiovese. The principal white variety is Vermentino, which is also called Malvoisie. And Sciacarello is a red unique to the island.” There are many reasons Corsica terroir is so perfect for grape growing: the sun, the volcanic soil, and 500 years of experience to name a few. You wine lovers will be in heaven.
3. Beauty: the coast, sea, mountains; the wild Mediterranean maqui (wild shrub grasses that spread from the mountains down to the sea). Corsica is a photographer’s paradise. That’s why they call it “l’Isle de Beauté”.
Everywhere you turn is unspoiled natural beauty. Before I went there to see for myself, I imagined the island to be raw, undeveloped, and only for hikers. But it is so much more: ancient villages nestled in the mountain passes; untouched beaches in tiny coves with mountain backdrops; photogenic ruins of medieval castles, decorated with wild flowers and palm trees; the blue, blue sea against the red and purple cliffs.
4. The Cheese! (and wonderful locally grown organic foods) Thinking about the beautiful maquis leads me to want to tell you about the Corsican herbs, which leads me to thinking about food. Corsican food is wonderful and so much is grown locally. My favorite food just happens to be cheese. Sibylle Hechtel wrote an article in Mother Earth Living (http://www.motherearthliving.com/Gardening/The-Wild-Maquis-of-Corsica.aspx) called “The Wild Maquis of Corisca” where she beautifully describes the unique maquis: The flowers among the dense maquis—shrubbery blanketing more than half the island—produce a fragrance that wafts far out to sea and has earned Corsica its appellation as “the scented isle.” For centuries, the wild maquis provided hideouts for bandits, and the province’s history is rich with adventure and mystery……..I’d read stories about Corsica’s maquis, but the mixture of fragrances that greeted me when I arrived overwhelmed me. Corsica’s scented maquis reaches from the sea up to 3,000 feet. In appearance, it resembles California’s chaparral, but the similarity ends there. Even after one visit, if you put me on an airplane blindfolded and took me to Corsica, I would know with utter certainty that I stood in the maquis.
Imagine standing on a fragrant hillside surrounded by eucalyptus, juniper, laurel, rosemary, highly scented shrubs of the rock rose family, heather, myrtle, sage, mint, thyme and lavender. Add to that more than a dozen aromatic flowers that grow only in Corsica and you’ll get an idea of the heady, clean aroma that infuses the island’s air. More than 2,500 species of wildflowers grow in Corsica, and about 250 of these are native to the island. Along with the familiar flowers and shrubs, I also encountered lentisk trees (Pistacia lentiscus), which smell like very strong sandalwood, and sticky, yellow-flowered inula (Inula graveolens).
Corsicans enjoy a bounty of aromatic herbs seen nowhere else and derive unique, valuable essential oils, as well as flavorings for their cuisine, from these plants. Corsican chefs frequently use a native herb, nepeta (Calamintha nepeta), which I’ve never encountered in food anywhere else, to season their dishes. Nepeta, variously called Corsican marjoram, lesser calamint, early mint, nepitella, mountain balsam or mountain mint, was popular as a medicinal herb in the Middle Ages. Today, mountain-goat herders coat their cheese with it.
Native herbs permeate this French territory’s cuisine and flavor the local cheeses, wines, beers and honeys. The strict French A.O.C. (Appellation d’Origine Controlee) laws that govern the production of wine and cheese apply even to Corsican honey (the only A.O.C.-controlled honey in France). The A.O.C. divides honey into three classes depending on when and where the bees forage. Four of the six Corsican honeys originate in the maquis, which shows the pervasive influence of the maquis in Corsican food.
If you Google “Corsica cheese” you find a wonderful article from Saveur, written by David McAninch, explaining the most famous Corsican cheeses.
Given Corsica’s mountainous topography, it’s no surprise that sheep’s and goat’s milk cheeses reign. The most famous of them is brocciu, the ricotta-like cheese made from a mixture of whey, the watery by-product of the cheesemaking process, and whole
milk—either sheep’s, goat’s, or both. Brocciu, which is richer than ricotta, may be the Corsican cook’s most cherished ingredient; the cheese is essential for a host of savory and sweet dishes. The island also produces a natural-rind semifirm style calledtomme, a generic French term for a disk-shaped cheese. The ones pictured at right are sold under the names tomme de brébis (made from sheep’s milk) and tomme de chèvre (goat’s milk). These are aged from one to three months and can range from soft and supple to tangy and crumbly. Developed more recently are the creamy sheep’s milk cheeses calledbrin d’amour and fleur du maquis, both rolled in dried herbs and made primarily for export. Another Corsican cheese is fromage piquant, made from scraps of long-aged tomme whose sinus-clearing bite comes solely from fermentation.
5. Unspoiled “old Europe” villages (no McDonalds on the island)
If you are one of those travelers who seek out cultural experiences that are different from the way you live at home, you won’t be disappointed. Corsica is so organic!
You’ll often see goats, pigs or sheep crossing the road. Shepherds still tend their flocks in the mountains. The people who choose to live here love this way of life. I actually searched the Internet to make sure there were no McDonalds chain restaurantsin Corsica, and I found an interview
where the Corsican who was asked why this was so answered, “Because Corsicans believe that eating good food is very important.” Yeah.
6. The triple culture: Italian, French and Corsican: Much of Corsica was settled by the Pisans and Genovese, beginning in the 11th century, and the architecture, culture, food, and language all have a strong Italian influence. In 1755 the young hero Pascal Paoli won independence for Corsica, which only lasted a mere fourteen years, but to this day Corsicans have retained a proud spirit of independence. Corsica has belonged to France since 1769 and so is very French, although many native Corsicans feel more Corsican than French. If you love France, and you love Italy, you will love Corsica.
All the Corsicans I met were extremely welcoming and friendly, and boy are they laid back. That’s why they like to take the winters off.
Corsicans are proud of their culture and have a number of outstanding museums.
7. The history: If you’re a history buff, Corsica will fascinate you. Napoleon was born and spent his childhood in Ajaccio, and
there is an excellent museum on his life there. The national hero Pascal Paoli also gets plenty of attention. Before the Romans, came the Greeks, the Carthaginians, and the Etruscans. In the 5th century came the Barbaric tribes, then the Byzantines, the Lombards, and then the Saracens. In 1007 new invaders from Pisa and Genoa chased away the previous invaders and stayed until the 18th century. All of the present villages and cities were built during the Italian period. Still remaining along the entire perimeter of the island are the ruins of 70 “Genoese towers”, dating from the 16th century when Genoa and Florence were defending the coast.
8. Prehistory: The Lady of Bonifacio is a skeleton dating from 6,470 BC, exhibited in the Musée de l’Alta Rocca in Levie, and is the oldest trace of human presence in Corsica. The region of Sartène is the prehistoric capital of Corsica, where you can see wonderful dolmen and menhir statues. In Filitosa you can see archaeological sculptures and tools from the Cardial Neolithic (6,000 BC) period, the recent Neolithic, the Bronze Age, and the Iron Age. Stonehenge fanatics, eat your hearts out.
9. The mountains, the rocks, the natural wonders: You don’t have to be a mountain climber or a geologist to be mesmerized by Corsica’s rocky beauty. The Regional Natural Park of Corsica on the Scandola peninsula, which occupies one third of the island, is a unique, geological phenomenon. Declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the reserve contains stunning red rock formations, jagged and sheer cliffs, grottos, islets and coves of spectacular beauty.
Millions of years of wave and wind erosion and volcanic activity have resulted in unusual basaltic pillars of rock, striking cliffs that change from red to purple to pink in the sun, and bizarre shaped granite monuments. Mountains cover two thirds of Corsica, which has the highest mountains and the most rivers of any Mediterranean island. The highest point is Monte Cintu at 2,710 meters. Over 100 of Corsica’s peaks are over 2,000 meters high.
Geologists and rock collectors find a wide range of semi-precious stones here. On the west coast magnificent crystals can be found. You’ll see many strange shapes in the rock and many holes, called “tafoni”. Orbicular diorite, known as “corsite”, is a strange mineral which has only been found on Corsica and recently in Finland. There is very little left in the quarry now, so get your specimens in the souvenir shops quickly. Throughout the region
called Cap Corse, and the Castagniccia, are found “folded schists”, the material used to make stone slate roofs.
Corsica’s mountains are full of ancient paths, many of which are now hiking trails. Shepherds still mind their flocks on the high grassy pastures below the highest peaks. There are also many high mountain plateaus where remains from the Neolithic and megalithic ages, the iron age and medieval times can be found.
10. Very few Americans have discovered Corsica. I don’t mean to
say I’m anti-American. But isn’t it nice to travel somewhere and know for sure you are not home? I am absolutely positive it won’t be long before we won’t be able to say this any more. Corsica is certainly ready to spoil its tourists: luxurious hotels, fabulous Michelin starred restaurants and mouthwatering cuisine, world class museums, beautiful towns full of cafés and
shops, and protected natural parks with miles of maintained walking trails.
I hope I’ve convinced you to sign up for my May tour and help me to write the next twenty reasons why Corsica makes an ideal vacation destination!