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Coasting in Corsica

Exploring the shores and crossing the interior to see ancient monuments, citadels and Napoleon's birthplace

October 01, 2000|EDWARD HARPER | Edward Harper is an author and former reporter living in Virginia

BASTIA, Corsica — I stood on the top deck of the ferry Napoleon Bonaparte, looking down on the wine-dark sea that separates Marseilles, France, from Corsica. A Frenchman turned to me and said that a delegation of Corsicans petitioned Napoleon when he was emperor. Napoleon didn't much like Corsicans and greeted them with, "I Corsicani sono tutti banditti." ("Corsicans are all bandits.")

"No tutti, sire," the delegation's leader replied, "ma buona parte." ("Not all, sire, but a large part of us.")

Napoleon, Corsica's most famous native son, had a sense of humor and granted their petition. The tale was but just one I heard during 2 1/2 months I spent on the island while finishing a novel last spring.

Corsica, about 110 miles southeast of France's Co^te d'Azur, is a lost continent. For thousands of years, the 3,350-square-mile island was key to the control of the central Mediterranean. The Greeks called it Kaliste, the isle of beauty, and it remains today much as they found it around 600 BC: a great snowcapped mountain chain 9,000 feet high rising abruptly above the pristine sea, with a jagged coastline interspersed with harbors and sandy beaches.

One way to explore the island is to ride a train from Bastia in the northeast to Ajaccio (ah-ZHAK-syo) about 95 miles to the southwest, as I did, then continue south by car about 75 miles to Bonifacio, past haunting stone statues dating back thousands of years. From there, other highways cross back north to the fashionable resort town of Calvi on the western coast.

After the fall of Rome in 476, Corsica ("Corse" in French) suffered through 15 centuries of conquests. Vandals, Goths, Saracens, Aragonese, Pisans, Genoese, Barbary pirates and the British ruled the place until the French finally took over late in the 18th century. These days, the invasion comes from more than a million tourists from Europe.

My trip began with the 12-hour overnight ride in an immense square cocoon of a ship (2,650 passengers, 708 cars). We descended into Bastia, the island's capital for hundreds of years until Napoleon transferred the administrative center to Ajaccio in 1801.

Since then, Bastia has slumbered. The city (population 39,000) has a central plaza leading to the citadel, which hovers over a tiny harbor. Inside its walls, the look is virtually unchanged from its 13th century origins.

It's a somnolent place now. There isn't much to see except the never-fading charm of narrow alleys and streets in an unspoiled medieval city. Scabrous five-story stone houses, ubiquitous throughout Corsica as a defense against pirates, surround the harbor. Chic restaurants and cafes occupy the ground floor. To the north of the citadel, the 17th century Terra Vecchia neighborhood is full of restaurants, cafes, brasseries, bakeries and butcher shops.

I spent a morning and early afternoon in Bastia eating in one of the many open-air restaurants along the main plaza with a view of the harbor. The food, here and elsewhere, is mostly based on a variety of seafood, from raw sea urchins to lobster, plus wild boar, lamb and dishes built around the infinite varieties of goat cheese.

The little diesel train that crosses the island's mountainous spine leaves at 3:30 every afternoon from Bastia and spends the next three hours in a vertiginous passage along its single-track, narrow-gauge roadbed. Heading southwest across the island toward Ajaccio, the train clings to the edges of slashes in the granite mountains and rattles through tunnels cut by hand in the 1800s.

Great snowcapped peaks look down on the dark and mysterious maquis, flowering aromatic shrubs and trees. For centuries clan members roamed these hills in the endemic feuds called vendettas.

Halfway to Ajaccio, the train stops in Corte, the island's capital during a period of independence from 1755 to 1769. Now it's home to a university and a hotbed of another independence movement, which stresses, among other things, the study of the Corsican language besides standard French in schools. The town has been the heart of the island's traditions and culture since Gen. Pasquale Paoli founded the short-lived Corsican republic and ruled from here.

Corte is small and compact. Its one long street, the Cours Paoli, ends in a charming little square dominated by the general's statue and ringed with cafes and restaurants full of students.

The rest of the journey toward Ajaccio has, without a doubt, the most spectacular mountain scenery I've encountered.

As the train descended into the valleys, a single shaggy horse, as tough as the mountains around him, appeared in a meadow among a herd of goats and sheep. One of hundreds of tiny Romanesque churches rose on a hill, its rounded front hunkered against the wind. The train rattled on, packed with chattering students bent on a weekend at home in Ajaccio.

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