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Measuring the Home of the Ruler Napoleon

April 23, 1989|JON D. MARKMAN | Times Staff Writer

PORTO VECCHIO, Corsica — Emperor Napoleon's sword was crooked. His big bronze shoes were dusty. And because there was no fence or guard, just about anyone could climb up a couple of granite blocks to stand beside his greatcoat, throw an arm around his giant metal waist and mug for a photograph.

Many riders of Le Petite Train Touristique did. I did, too.

Then I got out of town.

That was no way to treat a hometown hero, a speck of a man who rose from a tiny cold-water flat in Ajaccio on this tiny island in the Mediterranean to rule, at the start of the last century, virtually from the Arctic Ocean to the Sahara Desert.

In Paris, his bones spend their eternal slumber in a giant marble tomb surrounded by stained glass and gold. In Corsica, he's barely more than another face to stick on a key chain.

Home of Napoleon

Island elders probably don't make more of Napoleon Bonaparte because paying more homage to the man whose life symbolizes French nationalism and power could put them in hot water with the majority of Corsicans, who pledge allegiance to France with their fingers crossed.

As recently as the middle of this decade, separatists' bombs blew up banks and residential streets around Corsica with some regularity, as many as 20 or 30 a day, in an effort to frighten away rich vacationers and financiers.

It's quieter now; you don't have to pack a flak jacket with your tropical shirts and Panama hat to visit this island, which is a "region," or state of France, much like Hawaii is in the United States.

But you might pack an Italian phrase book to supplement your French. Corsica is much more Italian than French in geography, culture and temperament. Pizzerias outnumber bistros by at least four to one, and the dialect is more easily understood by visitors from Pisa than Paris.

Fleeing Ajaccio, the capital, might have been Napoleon's first good idea, because there is much more to Corsica than greenish statues and government buildings.

Less than half a day's drive on roads that twist like linguine up hot mountain slopes takes a traveler to centuries-old villages clinging to cliffs; long, empty beaches; four-star vacation resorts; some of the best rock-climbing in the Mediterranean, and marinas filled with good diving and fishing boats.

You can take a bus or a train, but rental cars are fairly cheap. I had no choice, as I was traveling with my family: wife, mother and father, two sisters, brother-in-law, two nieces, a friend, a mountain guide and his wife. We rented a van and sedan at the airport. Air France, Air-Inter and TATA fly several jets a day from Paris, a trip that takes about 1 1/2 hours.

Traveling Entourage

Leading our entourage were Eric and Dominique Charamel, who direct a guide service called Nouveaux Horizons out of their home in Bourg St. Maurice, a foothill village in southeastern France.

They run about two dozen small skiing, climbing, bicycling and kayaking tours of the Alps, Dolomites, Pyrenees, Himalayas and Greece throughout the year, but Eric also leads customized vacations for about 12 regular customers.

Over the last decade, he has guided my father on several back-country ski adventures in the Alps, as well as on treks in Nepal and Kenya.

Placing your trust in the Charamels is wise because their daily charge is reasonable and they find bargains on superb accommodations and transportation. But when they say--like Parisian taxi drivers--that a destination is "not far" and "won't take long," pack a lunch.

They are frequent visitors to Corsica for their own vacations, and chose the eastern coastal town of Porto Vecchio as our base.

On the road from Ajaccio, the cars caromed from hill crests crammed with towns that seem to grow out of rock down to valleys lushly carpeted with sweet-smelling grapevines and sagebrush.

With no need to hurry, we stopped in Propriano for pizza, salad and wine at a seaside trattoria. The view was spectacular: Our first chance to drink in the strong blue of the Mediterranean Sea, the rough old rocks circling to make a bay and, of course, topless sunbathers. After eating, we discovered we could change in the restaurant's restroom and take a swim ourselves.

When we rolled up in front of the Hotel Cala Rossa in Porto Vecchio, it looked, from the outside, like an overgrown motel in Ensenada. It's an impression that evaporates after one step into the lobby, which opens onto a flamboyant but elegant Italian garden.

Celebrity Hideaway

We learned that the hotel, as well as the entire peninsula of estates on which it rests, are a favorite hiding place of Italian and French actors and sundry other celebrities anxious to escape the hurly-burly of the Riviera.

There would be no escape for us, however, because Eric Charamel is a one-man Club Med. We chose Corsica to complete our two-week vacation in France because my wife, sisters and mother could sun on the beach at the hotel while my father and I drove into the hills to go rock climbing.

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