Simon Calder: The Man Who Pays His Way

If you want to hitch a ride in Corsica, don't give drivers the thumb
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The Independent Travel

La Corse - c'est tout le temps le bon moment, goes the slogan for the Mediterranean's loveliest island. It's always the right time to be in Corsica. But I know for a fact that there is a wrong time: specifically, between 1pm and 4.15pm last Tuesday afternoon.

La Corse - c'est tout le temps le bon moment, goes the slogan for the Mediterranean's loveliest island. It's always the right time to be in Corsica. But I know for a fact that there is a wrong time: specifically, between 1pm and 4.15pm last Tuesday afternoon.

The shape of Corsica looks remarkably like a hitch-hiker's fist, with the Cap Corse peninsula representing the thumb. One of the fundamentals of hitching is that island folk tend to be less distrustful than those on the mainland, and therefore more inclined to give lifts. This applies everywhere from the Isle of Lewis to Tasmania, and particularly in the Med. That should make getting rides in Corsica a piece of gateau.

The D81 is one of those roads that, on the map, resembles a medical diagram of an intestine. It wiggles west from the heavenly port of St-Florent for 20 miles before joining the main road to L'Ile Rousse, from where the ferry departs for Marseille. Tuesday was my last afternoon on the island, and I could think of no better way to end a visit than the spectacular drive across the hills. In someone else's car.

The trip began optimistically, with an eight-mile ride from a sun-dried man named Maxim aboard an old Peugeot van that looked, rather like its driver, as though it had rolled off the production line in the 1930s. Maxim gently coaxed the vehicle up to his village, Casta, where he cast me out with a " bon voyage".

I checked my watch: 1pm. The sun was at its highest, and so were my spirits. What better location to wait for a lift than high in the hills of Corsica, with sea and mountains melting into the distance? The warm air was heavy with a complex scent of gently roasting herbs and pine needles - more appealing than the most upmarket disinfectant.

Now, the main aim of hitch-hiking is to do as little hiking as possible, but this fine afternoon I chose to wander west until a car appeared to accelerate my progress. I did not expect the kind of traffic volumes that you find on the M25 on a Friday evening, but a handy hitcher's maxim is that the propensity of drivers to stop increases inversely with the amount of traffic. In other words, the fewer the cars, the more prepared are motorists to pick you up. Besides, the tourist board promises that "Corsican hospitality is far from a myth".

As I walked, three more elementary principles began to nag away at me: that the world owes no one a free ride; that most Mediterranean motorists stay off the roads over lunch; and that you can't get a lift if there are no cars.

Finally, after 43 minutes, a silver BMW approached and slowed. Its driver studied me and my "about time, too" expression, then accelerated sharply past. The next car, 40 minutes later, did not even bother to slow. At this rate, I concluded, I would miss the ferry and end up swimming to Marseille. Some serious traffic-flow research was called for. For every car that was travelling my way, there were four or five going in the opposite direction. Each driver would give a friendly wave of acknowledgement - exactly the kind of empathy that was missing from that rare species, the westbound motorist.

As the involuntary walk progressed, past such cheering sights as the Devil's Bridge, an outbreak of cacti by the roadside reminded me that I was completely unprepared for a long, hot walk, having anticipated a short, cool hitch. After two hours, by which time five cars and a motorbike had ignored my offer of sparkling wit and conversation, I reached the Bocca di Vezzu, more than 1,000ft above the Med. This is a pass that acts as a door between two different worlds. To the east, the high, hungry desert landscape, with sun-bleached hillsides and vegetation almost as sparse as the traffic. To the west, I found myself in a version of Scotland: suddenly a rushing stream appeared, its banks embroidered with thistles. The landscape became deep green and layer after layer of mountains marched off into the haze. The only two things that these worlds had in common was the D81 and the absence of traffic.

It was here that I made a profit from the journey: I found €0.50 in the middle of the road, which I vowed to give to the first homeless person I met (who turned out to be 700 miles away in Paris). Soon afterwards, I met a pair of gunmen, which did little to improve my humour. They appeared to be working for the local council (as almost everyone in Corsica seems to be), and were engaged in some kind of culling.

I hoped they were not aiming to keep the hitch-hiking population down. "Walking on Corsica is the best way to explore the true Corsica," is the official recommendation of the island's authorities. It seems a bit harsh to enforce this with shotguns. Having survived this encounter, I scrambled down a bank to join the main road.

Luckily, there is one more principle of hitch-hiking that never fails. Wherever you are hitching, and however hopeless things seem, there is likely to be a German driver around the corner. Fifteen seconds after I reached the highway, Hans's hire car squealed to a halt beside me, and off we whizzed to the ferry.

Only once on board, after 195 minutes of unintended hiking, did I remember another essential part of hitching lore: that, in Corsica, the outstretched thumb can be regarded as a deeply offensive gesture, roughly equivalent in meaning to an invitation to "sit on this". It's never the right time to offend your hosts.