Destinations

Corsica is a taste of the old Mediterranean

Corsica is rocky and green, just as the Med should be, with a pretty coastline of coves and beaches. Mountains soar through the interior, nestled in which are sleepy villages that are barely on nodding terms with the 21st century.


It’s Majorca meets Middle Earth. The people look Italian, with olive skin and dark hair; the countryside looks like Wales or Cornwall, only with pigs roaming the hills instead of sheep.


At the coast it all turns a bit St Tropez, with chic megayachts jostling for harbour space. It’s a beguiling place, and despite the international flavour, it’s as French as Edith Piaf singing La Marseillaise.


Until now, Corsica has catered mainly to French holidaymakers, which possibly explains why it’s refreshingly free of fast food chains, and so rich in family-run restaurants and hotels.


Italians make up the second-biggest market, with Brits lagging far behind the Germans.


But with a new British Airways flight into capital Ajaccio, operators are well placed to offer Corsica as an alternative to more crowded Mediterranean islands. If you don’t want to bump into your neighbours, this is the place to come.


BA launched its first Corsica route, to Bastia in 2004, but the Sunday-to-Sunday rotation meant being limited to seven or 14-night holidays. A Thursday flight was added last year, and an extra flight on Tuesdays was new for 2006, making short breaks a possibility for the first time.


Last month also saw the launch of the weekly Ajaccio service, which is great news for anyone who’s enjoyed Palma and fancies something similar, or who wants to incorporate a stylish city break into their summer holiday.


Ajaccio is famous among the French as the birthplace of Napoleon. But don’t assume this means museum after ponderous museum of military history.


There is the Musée National de la Maison Bonaparte, housed in his childhood home (just down the road from the church where he was baptised), but the monument count is surprisingly low.


The best one is the shop next to the museum, where you can buy all the Napoleon tat you never wanted and more: toy soldiers, chess sets, eagle emblems, or a three-dimensional diorama depicting his sound thrashing at Waterloo.


Only kidding, I made that last one up. But you could, if you had £300 to spare, pick up a triple life-sized bust of the great man, which I loved so much I tried to take a picture, but got a snooty telling off from the manageress instead.


They’re clearly very protective of the (little) big man’s image around here. Not that that stops them flogging Napoleon-shaped biscuit tins at the market, which is another of the city’s jewels.


corsica feature 060706 - marketMarkets are a great way to get the measure of a place and Ajaccio’s is no exception. The produce hints strongly at the comfortable lifestyle at which the French excel.


A staggering selection of fish – all fresh from the morning’s catch – gives way to a bewildering array of fruit and vegetables, cheese and charcuterie. My advice would be to stock up here before heading off for a few days in the mountains.


Leaving Ajaccio could be a wrench. There are chic shops and restaurants, a pleasant coastal ambience and a spotlessly clean beach. There’s also a very good small art museum – the Musée Fesch – which houses works by Titian and Botticelli. But anyone with an inkling of an interest in the great outdoors must surely head for the hills.


Mountain walking may not be the first thing to spring to mind when booking a holiday to the Med, but Corsica is home to one of Europe’s most fearsome Grande Randonées – the GR20 – which scythes through the island like a jagged rocky spine.


A serious walker would take around 15 days to complete the 120-mile trail, but it’s easy to dip in and out of. With 50 mountain peaks over 6,500ft – many still snowcapped in the summer – the Corsican countryside is a hikers’ and bikers’ paradise.


But it’s not all rock and ice: there are also pretty villages with fine restaurants. There are meadows full of wild flowers. There are herds of pigs roaming about, as if to remind you of the freshness of the local produce.


There’s a decisive shift in atmosphere as you move away from the coast; it’s less posey and more homely. Menus migrate from fresh fish to hearty wild boar and charcuterie, and a variety of local cheeses.


The good news is you don’t have to choose between the two; it’s quite feasible to cover the coast and the mountains in a week.


In fact, the only drawback to Corsica is also its chief asset. This is the old- fashioned Mediterranean in every sense. The hotels we stayed in were basic, with the focus very much on the food, which was excellent, not the 1970s bathroom suites, which were not.


The radio was charmingly retro too. We tuned into Queen, the Police, Dire Straits, Nik Kershaw, Madness…it was like mainlining Magic FM for a weekend.


A visit to Corsica is a return to the traditional Mediterranean, with all the benefits and drawbacks that brings: no tatty fast food chains, but quite dated hotels; no hoards of British tourists, but very little English spoken.


Pack your sandals, swimsuit, walking shoes and phrasebook and you’ll take back the satisfaction only the unspoilt Med can give. But don’t mention the war (the Napoleonic one, that is).


Sample product


Holiday Options offers seven nights at the three-star Hotel San Damianu in Sartène, in the foothills of the mountains, from £745 this August, including flights and three evening meals.


Corsican Places offers seven nights’ bed and breakfast at the three-star Hotel Castel D’Orcino in Tiuccia near Ajaccio from £859 per person, including flights and car hire.


Walks Worldwide has three itineraries based on the GR20. The full route takes 15 days and leads in at £1,295, including flights, most meals, guiding and accommodation in a mix of gîtes, campsites and mountain cabins.


Simply Travel offers seven nights’ self-catering at the Villa Gaia near Porto Vecchio from £629 this August, including flights and car hire.


Read more about Ajaccio on Wikipedia
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