Corsica: The 'Isle of Beauty' certainly lives up to its name

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Harriet O'Brien discovers wild French beauty in the Mediterranean

An island beyond?

Yes. Corsica is where you can discover wild French beauty in the Med. Stunning pink cliffs drop sharply down to implausibly clear turquoise waters which elsewhere are fringed with sandy beaches. Inland, high granite peaks tower up in breathtaking shapes while kites and buzzards circle the aromatic vegetation. From the Greeks to the Romans, Pisans, Genovese and French (and even, briefly, the Brits), the foreign forces that have variously occupied this Mediterranean island have been entranced by its magnificent natural drama. Which is why the presiding French have given it the soubriquet l'Ile de Beauté.

But as to that French factor... Well, Corsica was acquired by France only in 1768 and this island, 160km from the French mainland (yet just 82km off Italy's Tuscan coast), remains idiosyncratically a culture apart. The Corsican language, for instance, is notably different from French and is widely spoken, while signposts give place names in both French and Corsican – except where independence agitators have painted over the Gallic names. The current Corsican nationalist movement has been a thorn in the French government's side for more than 30 years, although it is currently stymied by factionalism. It is also unlikely to impinge on tourists. For visitors, the Corsican spirit – proud, defiant and stalwart, in resonance with the natural world around – is part of the attraction.

Vital statistics please

Corsica covers 8,680 sq km, so it is just a shade larger than Crete and roughly one-third the size of neighbouring Sardinia, from which it is separated by a narrow strait of 14 kilometres.

It takes less than three hours to drive from the northern city of Bastia to the southern town of Bonifacio. But that is along the east coast. Once you head inland or along the glorious west coast, the roads concertina with the contours and journey times expand accordingly.

The Genovese, who by-and-large held power between the early 13th and the mid-18th centuries, developed Bastia as their headquarters. But today Ajaccio on the mid-west coast is the island's capital, as orchestrated in the late 18th century by the city's most famous, if probably least loved, son, Napoleon Bonaparte.

Almost half of Corsica's 275,000 permanent residents live in either Ajaccio or Bastia – where the majority of jobs are. That overall figure may look slim but the population has increased enormously since the dismal days of the 1950s and 1960s, when the island was sadly neglected by the government and many people left for economic reasons. In the 1970s a movement for the revival of Corsica began, and it has been hugely successful. With a resurgence of population has come a rebirth of pride in the island. For visitors, this is most immediately apparent in the unspoilt quality of the island: development has been carefully monitored, so it is rare to see concrete blocks along the coast and, as a rule, buildings of more than three storeys.

Take me to the very heart

The spiritual capital of Corsica is the robust inland town of Corte, its daunting fortress presiding over a tiny warren of cobbled alleys, with newer streets spread out below. More or less in the centre of the island, it is set in an astounding landscape of rivers and granite mountains. Corsica's great hero, Pascal Paoli, established a democratic parliament here during the island's brief period of independence between 1755 and 1768. Today, Corte remains the home of nationalism and it also contains Corsica's university.

There's a particularly pleasing hotel, with art deco-style furnishings, just outside town in the lovely Restonica valley: Hotel Dominique Colonna (00 33 4 95 45 25 65; dominique-colonna.com ; doubles from €70 room only). Or make for Sartene, clinging to cliffs inland from the south-west coast and said to be the most Corsican of Corsican towns. Once the base of the feudal Sgio overlords, it still exudes an atmosphere redolent of Corsica's notorious vendetta culture.

In the north-west, the inland villages of the Balagne district offer much staunch Corsican charm. St Antonino is said to be the oldest village on the island. Less tourist-trodden Speloncato looks as if it has grown organically from the rocks. Little Pigna is a picturesque haven of cobbled lanes and has become a centre for arts and crafts. It offers an appealing choice of guesthouse accommodation including Casa Musicale which, as the name implies, is also a venue for traditional music (00 33 4 95 61 77 31; casa-musicale.org ; doubles from €55, room only).

I want coastal drama

Most spectacularly seen from the water, the southern town of Bonifacio has a remarkable setting atop dazzling white cliffs. On a sunny day (one of the estimated 300 annual days of sunshine), the colour of the sea is mesmerising.

But Corsica's most celebrated sea scenery are Les Calanches on the west coast. This is a range of fabulously weathered orangey-pink cliffs set between the little harbour town of Porto and the pretty village of Piana. The drive through this area is spectacularly winding. Better still, there are several well-marked walking trails: these are described in English in a booklet (costing €3) which is sold in the tourist office at Porto (open Mon-Sat 9am-5pm and on Sunday mornings V C in peak season; 00 33 4 95 26 10 55; porto-tourisme.com ).

The long peninsula of Cap Corse in the north offers ruggedly appealing scenery, dotted with old fishing villages and the remains of Genovese watchtowers. A corniche road twists its way around the 40km-long finger of land, a circuit that takes at least two days of relaxed driving, depending how much time you allow for hikes in the maquis-clad interior. Among the range of accommodation here is elegant Hotel Castel Brando, a 19th-century mansion in the lovely village of Erbalunga (00 33 4 95 30 10 30; castelbrando.com; doubles from €105, room only).

And for the best beaches?

Corsica has about 1,000km of coast, along which there's an alluring array of sandy beaches. East of the fortress town of Calvi there are expansive stretches of sand with safe, life-guarded bathing in the summer: for seclusion and a great view across to the citadel of Calvi head to the beach at Lumio overlooking the Bay of Algaio. But if you want to get right off the beaten track make for Plage du Lotu, which is accessible only by boat from the thriving town of St-Florent, dubbed the St-Tropez of Corsica because of the opulent boats that moor there in the summer. For a chic retreat, check into the Hotel La Roya (00 33 4 95 37 00 40; hoteldelaroya.com ; doubles from €180, room only).

Porto Vecchio on the east coast has become something of a hip haven thanks in no small part to the beaches that lie to the south, notably Palombaggio, which is bordered with pines and pink granite rocks; and Santa Giulia which offers plenty of beach activity. Among the accommodation options is Hotel Alivi on Santa Giulia, a stylish boutique outfit with doubles from €135 room only (00 33 4 95 70 03 46; santa-giulia.fr ).

Where can I tap into history?

Stroll in any of Corsica's fortress towns and you breathe in a great sense of the island's colourful, chequered past. In the north, Calvi's citadel is magnificently austere. In the south, the battlements of Bonifacio are terrific.

The three most striking ancient centres – Ajaccio, Bastia, and Corte – contain the island's best museums. Below Ajaccio's citadel Maison Bonaparte at Place Letizia (00 33 4 95 21 43 89; musee-masonbonaparte.fr ; Tues-Sun 10-noon and 2-4.45pm; €6) gives chapter and verse on the emperor, who was born there. To its north, near Ajaccio's marketplace, is the remarkable Musée Fesch, showing the art collection of Napoleon's step uncle, Cardinal Fesch. The gallery is set to reopen on 26 June after a refit (50 Rue du Cardinal Fesch; 00 33 4 95 21 48 17; musee-fesch.com ; opening times and prices still uncertain).

In Bastia's well-restored old citadel, the grand Palais des Gouverneurs is in the throes of impressive refurbishment. Showing the art and history of the city, it is due to open in mid-June. (Place du Donjon, La Citadelle; 00 33 4 95 31 09 12; musee-bastia.com ; opening times and prices still unconfirmed.) Corte's entire brooding fortress has become a museum. A visit to Museu di a Corsica (the name is, of course, Corsican) takes in the town's high battlements dating from the 15th century and offers an absorbing insight into the island's culture, with a permanent ethnographic collection and major temporary shows. This year's show is due to open later in the month, and will present an intriguing exploration of Corsica's thriving lay brotherhood, which is similar to the freemasonry but far less secretive and has some women members (00 33 4 95 45 25 45; musee-corse.com ; 10am-5pm daily except Sunday; €5.30).

And mystery?

It isn't only the landscape that exudes an other-worldly air. Head to Filitosa, south of Ajaccio, to see an extraordinary collection of standing stones, discovered in the 1940s. These aren't just menhirs, they are neolithic sculptures for, amazingly, the stones have carved faces. Station Prehistorique de Filitosa (00 33 4 95 74 00 91) is on the winding D57 west of the village of Sollacaro and is open daily 9am-6pm from April until the end of October; €6.

Take in, too, the ethereal harmonics of Corsican polyphony. This haunting, entirely vocal form of music was rapidly becoming a lost tradition in the 1960s and 1970s but it is now enjoying a huge revival. During the summer polyphony concerts are frequently held in village and town churches and at dramatic outdoor locations. Ask for information at local tourist offices – Calvi usually offers a particularly rich schedule of events (Port de Plaisance; 00 33 4 95 65 16 67; balagne-corsica.com ).

How do I get there?

The summer season's direct flights between the UK and Corsica are just starting. Ryanair (0871 246 0000; ryanair.com) flies from Stansted to Figari in the south, a service that began this Tuesday. From mid-May easyJet (0905 821 0905; easyjet.com) offers services from Gatwick, Manchester and Bristol to Bastia and from Gatwick to Ajaccio. Corsican Places (0845 330 2059; corsica.co.uk ) has a new weekly charter between Stansted and Calvi from 23 May. The company has an extensive portfolio of villas-with-pools to rent and it offers hotel trips, all of which can be arranged with or without flights. Other tour operators offering packages from the UK include Corsican Affair (020-7385 8438; corsicanaffair.co.uk ), Simply Travel (0871 231 4050; simplytravel.co.uk) and VFB Holidays (01452 716 840; vfbholidays.co.uk ).

And by boat?

There is a good choice of ferries from the French mainland and from Italy. Among the options, Corsica Ferries (00 33 4 95 32 95 95; corsicaferries.com ) operates year-round between Nice and Ajaccio, Bastia and Calvi, and from Toulon to Ajaccio and Bastia; CMN La Meridionale (00 33 4 91 99 45 00; sncm.fr ) offers year-round services from Marseille to Ajaccio, Bastia and Propriano and also from Porto Torres in Sardinia to Ajaccio and Propriano; and Moby Lines (00 49 611 14020; mobylines.com ) has a summer service (starting at the end of May) between Livorno and Bastia, Genova and Bastia, and Sardinia's Santa Teresa di Gallura and Bonifacio.

Where can I find out more?

Contact the Corsica Tourist Board on 00 33 4 95 51 00 00; or see the website visit-corsica.com. Alternatively visit the website of enthusiastic resident expatriates: corsica-isula.com

The great outdoors: Natural wanders in Corsica

Crisscrossed by well-marked routes, Corsica is a hiker's haven – although bear in mind the high temperatures during the mid summer.

The most challenging trail is the GR20, taking about 14 days and offering much mountainous terrain as it stretches 200km diagonally across the island from Calenzana in the north to Conca in the south. Other long-distance routes include the two Tra Mare e Monti paths on the west coast: the spectacular northern trail is broken into 10 stages; while the southern route is a relatively gentle five-day walk.

Of course you don't need to go the whole distance: there are plenty of options for following parts of these routes on stunning day walks. The mountain village of Evisa above the Spelunca gorge (pictured) offers many hiking options including sections of the Tra Mare e Monti Nord. You also follow part of this long- distance path on the spectacular hike from Col de la Croix to the west-coast village of Girolata, which is accessible only by boat or on foot.

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