A powerful cocktail of absinthe and tradition

Corsica is characterised by beautiful scenery and defiant independence.
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The Independent Travel
In 50 BC the indomitable Gauls arrived in Corsica. They found an island of rich beauty peopled by a fiercely proud race with a taste for donkey sausage. There were bandits in the mountains and sleeping dogs cluttering up the roadside.

Two thousand years on nothing much has changed. The donkey sausages are perhaps harder to find, the bandits have turned to politics, but the dogs are still everywhere. And the people are as fierce and proud as ever, although possibly a touch more hospitable than back then.

Corsica is an island that wears its heart on its sleeve. You don't have to search to discover the "real" island. It's all around. The hospitality at the many fermes auberges - literally a restaurant on a farm - is a case in point.

We discovered one such place in the southern hill village of Monaccia d'Aullene. Our host, Alex, served up absinthe under a canopy of vines before a setting sun. Bouillabaisse and grilled fish were consumed long into the night by a virtual league of nations along a trestle table. Before midnight Alex was strumming his guitar and singing songs that sounded like Gregorian chants but were, we were firmly told, of traditional origin.

Alex's clientele includes a regular sprinkling of locals who indulge the visitors in their curiosity, and smile politely at the indifferent singing. The people are Corse, not French, Alex explained. Tradition is all. They pursue a life of defiant independence. And the ferme auberge typifies the Corsican attitude to life. All that's consumed has been produced right there on the farm, and each is entirely self-sufficient. Alex argues that the island itself should be the same.

Corsica feels like a maverick among islands - a rogue compared to its suave neighbour Sardinia, or its discreet, smaller sister Elba. It is typecast as the romantic, devastatingly good-looking hero.

Napoleon claimed to be able to recognise his homeland with his eyes closed by the smell of the maquis, the vast scrubland that stretches down to the sea. It is a dense carpet of fragrant shrubs: rosemary, thyme, lavender, broom, myrtle and mastic tree.

Corsica is known as "the mountain in the sea". Its vast, wooded highlands are crowned with green pastures through which jut peaks of pink granite. The north has mountain ranges reminiscent of the Alps. The south is altogether softer and more rounded - great walking country. And for reasonably energetic visitors, the coast-to-coast walk from Propriano to Porto Vecchio is perfect. You make your way through pastures of tall grass and chestnut trees and arrive at a chic little town with a central square jam-packed with cafe society. The chill mountain air is replaced with a warm sea breeze - and walking boots exchanged for designer deck shoes.

Heading south from Porto Vecchio to Bonifacio is the island's only almost- straight road. Resist the temptation to gather speed over 30 mph or you will miss the turnings to some of the best beaches on the island - Palombaggia, Rondinara, Balistra and Santa Manza. Tucked away down tracks to the left are these Mediterranean cliches: strips of fine, white sand beside clear waters.

There's the odd wooden hut of a beach cafe and an occasional, discreet camping site in the maquis or pine woods. Corsican planning rules are strict, so there are few if any big hotels and villa complexes - and there is a shortage of five-star accommodation. But the result is probably the most unspoilt island in the Mediterranean.

The southern-most town is Bonifacio, precariously perched on a promontory. Its ice-cream pastel houses are built into and on top of cliffs overlooking a gorge-like entrance leading into an ancient harbour. It feels like a mini Panama canal through which large yachts glide and ferries from Sardinia deliver battalions of Italian tourists.

The harbour is the hub for Corsican boats, and their skippers hustle to offer seafaring trips along the rocky coast and to grottos, or even better to the Iles Lavezzi. Halfway to Sardinia, these uninhabited islands have been given protection as a nature reserve. After a choppy journey of about an hour, you are deposited on pumice-like white rocks and left to find deserted coves and swim in translucent turquoise water until you hear the horn of the boat warning of the last return journey. Seeing the limestone cliffs and the maquis-covered hills from the sea is quite something, but it can't match the arrival back into the gorge with Bonifacio town looking down from its dominating position. And you rather wonder why anybody would ever want to leave this fierce, friendly and undeniably beautiful place.

CORSICA SURVIVAL GUIDE

Getting there: Air France (0181-742 6600) flies from London Heathrow via Paris Orly to Ajaccio for pounds 282.60 including tax. A more economical way is to take advantage of the present cheap fares to Nice (for example, pounds 105.70 including tax from Luton on EasyJet, 0990 292929) and take the ferry across to the island from there.

High-speed ferries from Nice started this year, and take less than three hours. Ferries also go from Toulon, Marseilles, Genoa, Piombina and Sardinia.

Accommodation possibilities: Camping: there are sites all over the island, but more around the coast. Some of the best are at Roccapina, Palombaggia and Campomoro.

Gites D'etape: very basic, some similar to youth hostels with dormitories, occasionally with restaurants.

Fermes auberges: these farmhouse restaurants with rooms are very authentic and can be found all over the island. Liz Warner stayed at Chez Alex, Monaccia D'Aullene (00 33 95 71 85 97). The Corsican tourist board has a full list of other such places.

Hotels and villas: the most straightforward way to book these is through a British tour operator, such as Simply Corsica (0181-747 3580), Voyages Ilena (0171-924 4440) and Corsican Affair (0171-385 8438).

Footprints: The hiking prospects are excellent. As in mainland France there are Grand Randonnee routes in the mountains, which are challenging even to experienced walkers. For details contact Information Randonnees, Parc Regional de la Corse, rue Fiorella, Ajaccio (00 33 95 21 56 54).

It is easy to arrange for a walking guide to accompany you: phone Associu di Muntagnoli Corsi, Quenza 00 33 95 786 405; or write to Muntagne Corse, Parc Billelo, Avenue Napoleon 111, Ajaccio. These are particularly recommended for tough routes such as Grand Randonnee 20.

For less hardy types, there are two main coast-to-coast walks: Da Mare e Mare (from sea to sea), on which orange markers denote the route taking you from the west coast to the east. Propriano to Porto Vecchio: accessible for less experienced walkers, all year round.

Further information: Information Touristiques, 13 Boulevard Roi Jerome, Ajaccio, Corsica (00 33 95 51 77 77); or the French Tourist Office, 178 Piccadilly, London W1V 0AL (0891 244124, fax 0171-493 6594).

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