A Short Break in Sartene

Steve Davison chooses this typically Corsican town as the perfect base from which to explore the dramatic landscape of the Mediterranean's fourth largest island

Corsica, the fourth largest island in the Mediterranean, lies just 170km off the coast of mainland France. A place of diverse landscapes, from deep green maquis (scrub) to dense forests of pine and chestnut, and beautiful sandy beaches to lofty mountains. Dotted on this landscape are pretty towns and villages, all steeped in history and intrigue.

One such town is Sartene, described by the French novelist Prosper Merimee as "la plus corse des villes corses" or "the most Corsican of Corsica's towns". Situated in the south of the island, the narrow cobbled streets and solid grey granite buildings of this medieval-looking town cling to the side of the Vallee du Rizzanese. Sartene is the perfect base for touring the surrounding area, which includes stunning beaches, interesting towns and villages and some important archaeological sites.

When to go

Between mid-July and mid-August, the French take their holidays en masse, and Corsica becomes overrun with visitors. The best times to avoid the crowds are early and late summer. For a more cultural experience, time your visit to coincide with the religious U Catenacciu procession. Held on Good Friday, U Catenacciu, literally meaning "chained one", is a dramatic night-time re-enactment of Christ's walk to Golgotha. The procession is lead by the Grand Penitent, dressed in a hooded red robe and chained at the ankles, who carries a heavy wooden cross through the narrow candlelit streets of la Vieille Ville.

Getting there

Air France (tel: 0845 0845111) offers scheduled flights to Ajaccio from pounds 199, while British Airways (tel: 0345 222111) flies to Figari from pounds 239, both with stop-offs in Paris. For charter flights, contact Olney Travel (tel: 01234 241222). Or fly easyJet (tel: 0990 292929) to Nice and then take the overnight ferry to Ajaccio. The non-flying option involves Eurostar and the TGV network to either Marseilles or Nice and then the ferry. Book through Rail Europe (tel: 0990 848848).

Getting around

Though Sartene is quite small, and all parts of the town can be reached on foot, a hire car is essential to be able to travel further afield. This is best arranged before leaving the UK through a major company such as Holiday Autos (tel: 0990 300400), though some holiday packages do include car hire.

Where to stay

Sartene has only a few hotels and one campsite, so advance booking is advisable, especially during the Easter celebrations.

Hotel Villa-Piana, Route de Propriano (tel: 0033 4 95 77 07 04). Two- star hotel, with 31 en-suite rooms furnished in a Provencal style. The hotel is situated outside the town, about a 15-minute walk along the road to Propriano. Pay the extra for a room with a terrace, offering great views of Sartene. There is also an outside pool - ideal for relaxing after a busy day. Double rooms with a terrace cost FFr360 (pounds 36), breakfast is FFr38 extra.

Hotel Les Roches, rue Jean Jaures (tel: 0033 4 95 77 07 61). The two- star Les Roches, open all year, is situated within the town. Some rooms offer fine views of the Vallee du Rizzanese and Golfe de Valinco. A double room with valley view costs FFr305, breakfast FFr40 extra.

Camping Olva Les Eucalyptus, 5km out on the D69 towards Castagna (tel: 0033 4 95 77 11 58). Three-star campsite open from April to the end of October, offering a swimming-pool, restaurant and shop. Tent pitch costs from FFr28 a night.

What to see and do

The centre of life in Sartene is Place Porta, surrounded by shady trees and several cafes with pavement terraces. One side is dominated by the Hotel de Ville, the former palace of the Genoese governor, and the Eglise Ste-Marie. Inside the church you'll find the wooden cross and chain, which are used in the U Catenacciu festival. Place Porta is also home to a small Saturday market, where local produce can be bought. Through the archway beside the Hotel de Ville lies the Vieille Ville, a labyrinth of narrow passageways and solid buildings. Situated in the former prison, on rue Croce, is the Musee de la Prehistoire Corse (tel: 0033 4 95 77 01 09), open Mon-Sat 9am-12noon/2pm-4pm, FFr15). The archaeology museum is packed with artefacts from Corsica's past and is worth a look, though all the information is in French.

Only 10km from Sartene, a short distance off the Tizzano road, are the megaliths of Cauria, reached after a short walk through the trees. The most photographed of these is the Dolmen de Fontanaccia, known locally as the Stazzona del Diavolu (Devil's Forge). This is the remains of a Neolithic burial chamber from around 2,000BC. A few hundred metres away is the Alignement de Sartari, a series of menhirs, while partly hidden by trees is the Alignement de Renaggiu, another collection of 40 menhirs. The purpose of these standing stones, some with carvings representing faces, is unknown. At the end of the road lies the peaceful fishing village of Tizzano, with small, sheltered beaches. If you're after a spot of lunch or a refreshing drink call in at the restaurant Chez Antoine, and relax looking out over the bay.

The beautiful fishing village of Campomoro is reached by following the southern edge of the Golfe de Valinco. Be sure to stop on the way and admire the superb views of the bay and Portigliolo's deserted sandy beach. Campomoro, with its whitewashed chapel, stands on the edge of the beach, backed by maquis-covered hills. For great views of the village and the bay, head for the old Genoese watchtower, just a short walk away. La Mouette is great for a drink and a lunch-time snack.

High above the Vallee du Rizzanese is the picture-perfect town of Santa- Lucie di Tallano. En route, stop and admire the beautiful 13th-century Pisan Spin' a Cavallu, or horseback bridge. While wandering through the deserted streets, head for the tree-shaded Place des Monuments aux Morts and the bar-restaurant La Santa Lucia, next to the fountain. A short walk up the hill brings you to the Couvent St-Francois, offering views of the town and surrounding countryside. The D268 passes the lovely village of Zonza before reaching the truly spectacular scenery of the Foret de Zonza and the Col de Bavella. The jagged granite needles of the Aiguilles de Bavella stand above the lush pine forests, in the distance lies the east coast of Corsica. The bar-restaurant Les Aiguilles offers basic food such as soups and omelettes for FFr40.

To the north-west of Sartene, in the Valee du Tarravo, is the Station Prehistorique de Filitosa (tel: 0033 4 95 740091). The archaeological site, occupied since Neolithic times, has been described as one of the most important prehistoric sites in the western Mediterranean. A small museum helps to untangle the mysteries. After feasting on the treasures of the past, it is worth making a short detour down to Porto-Pollo on the northern shores of the Golfe de Valinco. The charming village, with a beautiful sandy beach and small harbour, offers great views. For a drink or snack, try the restaurant-pizzeria L'Espace by the beach.

Food and drink

Sartene has a good selection of restaurants and pizzerias offering many local dishes. Some to look out for are cannelloni al Brocciu (cannelloni stuffed with cheese and mint), courgette farcie au Brocciu (stuffed courgettes), daube de sanglier (wild boar stew). Deserts include tarte au Brocciu (cheese tart), gateaux de chataigne (sweet-chestnut flour cake) or fiadone (rich lemon- flavoured cheesecake). The area around Sartene produces some good wines, with rose being produced in the greatest volume. Try either Santa Barba or Fiumicicoli.

For local Corsican produce, such as wine, dried meats and cheeses, try visiting either La Cave Sartenaise on Place Porta or Epicerie U Maggiu in the Vieille Ville. The latter is worth a visit for the mouthwatering display of local produce.

U Marilulinu, Avenue Gabriel Peri (tel: 0033 4 95 77 22 83). A small rustic restaurant with outside tables. For starters, try the delicious salade U Marilulinu, a mix of red mullet, ham, bacon, Roquefort and croutons. Three-course meal with wine for two is FFr360.

Restaurant-Pizzeria Calypso, Cours Soeur Amelie (tel: 0033 4 95 73 46 45). A small cosy restaurant just off Place Porta, offering a good selection of pizza and pasta dishes. Three-course meal with wine for two is FFr320.

La Chaumiere, San Bastianu (tel: 0033 4 95 77 07 13). Choose between the granite restaurant or the street terrace. There is a good-value set menu at FFr95, with a pitcher of wine FFr38 extra, or try going a la carte.

Chez Jean-Noel, Rue Borgo (tel: 0033 4 95 77 75 70). Small, friendly restaurant situated near the tourist information office. Choose from a limited, but great value FFr85 menu while dining under a picture of Che Guevara. Wine is FFr60 for a pitcher.

Nightlife

Sartene is not famed for its nightlife. The most important evening activity, after eating, is having a drink at one of the cafes around Place Porta and people-watching. Drinks worth a try include Cap Corse, a fortified wine flavoured with herbs from the maquis and quinine, sweet white muscat or the strong aniseed- flavoured pastis - the favoured local brand is Cassanis.

Out of town

For those wishing to travel further afield, the delights of Bonifacio, Corsica's most southerly town, await. While wandering through the narrow streets of the citadel, dramatically sited on high cliffs, be sure to visit the Eglise St-Dominique and the Escalier du Aragon, a flight of 187 very steep steps down to the sea. One definite "must-do" when you're in Bonifacio is a one-hour boat trip to the sea grottoes or grottes marins. Boats visit several sea-caves, including the impressive Grotte Marine du S'dragonato, and also pass below the cliffs of Bonifaccio, giving great views of the old town and the steps of Aragon.

Deals and packages

For flight and accommodation packages, try Corsican Affair (tel: 0171- 385 8438); or Magic of France (tel: 0181-741 0208). With Magic of France, prices for a week start at pounds 509 per person (up to pounds 645 in August) based on two sharing, and including charter flights between Gatwick and Ajaccio, car-hire, and accommodation in the two-star Villa-Piana just outside Sartene (see Where to Stay).

Further information

For leaflets (mostly in French) and a street map, visit the Syndicat d'Initiative, 6 rue Borgo, off Place Porta (tel: 04 95 77 15 40), which is open Mon-Fri 9am-12noon and 2.30pm-6pm.

From the UK, contact the French Tourist Office at 178 Piccadilly, London W1V 0AL (tel: 0891 244123, premium rate call), or send a fax to the Agence du Tourisme de la Corse at 17 Boulevard Roi-Jerome, 20000 Ajaccio (tel: 0033 495517777; fax: 0033 495511440).

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