Driving 30km along a narrow mountain valley at 10pm by moonlight in search of an elusive hotel is not much fun after a hard day covering the Tour de France. But it certainly helps to focus the mind.
As the constantly twisting, rising road to the tiny village of Asco in Corsica shrinks from double to single track to a single car’s width, there are no oncoming headlights: instead, bony brown cows – in ones, twos and even family groups – lying on the tarmac to absorb the day’s warmth, replace vehicles as the most frequent obstacle.
But Asco, first inhabited in the 11th century and high in Corsica’s central massif, is well worth the stressful journey. Its two dozen houses perch perilously high on a valley side where most times the only audible sound is a river, several hundred metres below in the deep darkness, cheerfully burbling away. When we (finally) open the car doors outside the tiny hotel, we’re greeted by outstretched hands to shake, a large but friendly Dalmatian and its tiny, white mongrel pal, polite questions from locals about the trip so far – and a delicious roast lamb supper cooked with garlic and local rosemary.
Asco itself has a tourist trade, but also survives by producing honey and pine tar. Only made accessible by road in 1937 and with the main, gorge road built as late as 1968, local guidebooks describe the inhabitants – who used to elect a “wise man to enforce the rules of solidarity and equality” – as “a very close-knit community due to their isolation”. But there can be no doubting their friendliness, either, or Asco’s memorable, wild beauty.