Corsica: On a high on the Ile de Beauté

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This rugged island is the starting point for next year's Tour de France, but you don't have to be king of the mountains to fall in love with it, says Sarah Baxter.

Next year the iron-thighed riders of the centennial Tour de France will make their grand départ from Corsica. It's the first time Bradley Wiggins and co will have paid a visit to the island and, as I looked across it now – a land some god seemed to have screwed up like unwanted newspaper and chucked into the sea – I thought: good luck with that.

The Ile de Beauté is almost devoid of flat bits: indeed, it's the Mediterranean's most mountainous isle. Pyroclastically formed 250 million years ago, Corsica is crumpled and puckered, rising to peaks still tinged with snow in summer and corrugated with valleys rippling right down to the shore. Drama? Yes. Beauty? Undisputed. Good for the average cyclist? Not so much.

It probably won't stop the yellow-jerseyed Bradley, of course. But mercifully, I wasn't here to bike. I was here to absorb – the tumultuous history, the fierce national pride, the fine rosés, the scent of the maquis.

I discovered pretty quickly, however, that Corsica cannot really be known. As we wound along twisting roads south of the capital Ajaccio, my guide Stéphane explained: "We have a phrase here: prendre le maquis. It means to go bush, to hide from the world. It sums up Corsica."

Maquis is the catch-all term for the vegetation toupéeing much of the island, jungly thickets of pungent mastic, thorny scrub, wildflowers and herbs – rosemary, lavender, mint, thyme. This, in combination with the rugged underlying terrain, means that if someone decides they don't want to be found here, there is no way to find them.

I longed to get lost in all that green. We'd had a quick poke around Ajaccio, the city where Napoleon was born: his family home is now a museum, and a toga-ed Boney statue lords over Place Foch's farmers' market, which was heady with hams and cheeses. However, I was glad to leave the port city and get into the hills. We were headed for Bonifacio, not so far as the crow flies, but distances here are measured in hours, not miles – the roads being perilously steep and bendy. The view was always spectacular, though, both across the wild valleys and down to coves where white sand meets a lapis sea – not a high‑rise hotel in sight in this, the south-west, and least-populated, corner of Corsica.

We paused for espresso and aniseedy pastis in hilltop Sartène. This medieval hillside town was built for defence – its granite walls are high, its streets narrow, its houses like fortresses. And for good reason: Sartène's history is pestered by tales of piracy, invasion and vendettas; on a mizzle-misted day, it felt sombre and secretive still.

The sun had reasserted its cheerfulness by the time we neared Bonifacio, flushing the town warm amber. Although it's been teetering at the island's southern tip since AD828, I still feared for Bonifacio's safety: it just looks so precarious. The Haute Ville is built flush to the edge of the limestone cliffs; knock a geranium off your window sill here and it drops 100m to the sea.

For the best view, local guide Pierre took us up Il Torrione, a reconstructed Tuscan tower that once formed part of the ninth-century battlements and is now the storeroom of a local school; gym mats were piled by the spiralling staircase. It's generally off-limits, but on Tuesday and Thursday evenings the tourist office runs city tours, open to all, that finish up here for a sunset panorama. From the top I could see north, over the town's tightly packed terracotta rooftops, to the maquis-cloaked hills; either side the Corsican coast crinkled, craggy granite promontories to the west, chalky-white scarp to the east.

Perhaps the best way to see Bonifacio, however, is from the sea. So I hurried down through the narrow alleys and archways of the old citadel to the marina, where Bonifacio's harbour ends in a tinkle of yacht masts and cafés. As I sailed out of the narrow fjord, the town towered above like an oversized gateau, the cliffs beneath riddled with caves. From the open water the views of the town were as beautiful as they were vertiginous – it looked likely to fall at any minute.

My tourist boat was bound for the Lavezzi Islands, a protected archipelago, 4km offshore. Here I planned to do very little: these granite boulder islets are uninhabited save for tiliguerta lizards, sea birds and a lot of fish. I thought about walking the three-hour-long marked circuit or visiting Achiarino cemetery, resting place of all 600 sailors that perished when the French frigate Sémillante was wrecked here in 1855. But the little beaches were too tempting, the water too blue – and time too tight. Alas, after a quick, delicious dip I had to catch a boat back.

Bonifacio sits at the island's far south; next I was headed for the far north. We zipped up the flatter, faster east-coast road, and by dusk we'd arrived in Erbalunga, a pretty village at the base of Corsica's poking-finger peninsula, Cap Corse. Though sleepy now, in the 16th century Erbalunga was one of the island's busiest ports; a sturdy Genoese watchtower – one of 85 guarding the Corsican shoreline – hints at its former glory. And so too do the palazzi americani, oversized colonial mansions built here in the 19th century by returning sailors who'd made their fortunes in Latin America. One such, Castel Brando, has been converted into a hotel – where I could happily have stayed for days. My antiques-furnished room looked down, through green-shuttered windows, on a walled courtyard, where tables clustered under date palms and olive trees.

I didn't loll, though. Instead, I took to the hills. Behind Erbalunga, Cap Corse's mountainous spine rises to its highest point, 1,305m Monte Stello. Sadly I didn't have the six or so hours to stage an ascent, so I set off for closer Castello instead. The verges were bright with poppies and pungent with honeysuckle, all the richer for a dapple of rain. After a few miles, the modern palazzi gave way to ancient farmhouses; an old stone bridge spanned a stream, and steps led up to the ruined fortress that gives Castello its name. Just outside the village was the 10th-century frescoed chapel of Notre Dames des Neiges, one of the island's oldest religious buildings.

As we drove south and west from Erbalunga to Calvi – cruelly ignoring the rest of the wild Cap Corse – we traversed the Nebbio Valley, where the island's best vineyards cried out to be sampled. Then we wound up along the desert road, where the land turned to a dramatic scrub of succulents and gorse.

Calvi turned out to have a bit of everything: a beefy 15th-century hilltop citadel (alleged birthplace of Christopher Columbus); a Côte d'Azur-lite harbour; a long crescent of perfect sand; and old streets selling tourist tat, emblazoned with the symbol of Corsica: the head of a Moor, wearing a flailing bandanna.

I retreated to a tiny park with a cassis gelato and watched old men play pétanque, the chink of their boules mingling with the yacht-mast jangle of the nearby marina. I could have embarked on the stroll out to Pointe de la Revellata, for great views back to Calvi; perhaps I should have caught the wheezing old coast tram to the promontory of L'Ile-Rousse. But, then, that seemed to be my story in Corsica: always another option beckoning, always another unknown to know.

Travel Essentials

Getting there

Corsica has four airports – Bastia, Calvi, Ajaccio and Figari. The main carriers from the UK are easyJet (0843 104 5000; easyJet.com), Titan Airways (01279 680616; titan-airways.com) and BA (0844 493 0787; ba.com).

Staying there

Hotel les Mouettes, Ajaccio (00 33 4 95 50 40 40; hotellesmouettes.fr). Doubles from €100, room only.

Hotel Genovese, Bonifacio (00 33 4 95 73 12 34; hotel-genovese.com). Doubles from €140, room only.

Castel Brando, Erbalunga (00 33 4 95 30 10 30; castelbrando.com). Doubles from €109, room only.

Hotel Santa Maria, L'Ile-Rousse (00 33 4 95 63 05 05; hotelsantamaria.com). Doubles from €87, room only.

More information

visit-corsica.com; rendezvousenfrance.com

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