Wild at heart: A journey through Corsica's rugged north

They may speak French in Corsica, but with its tales of vendetta, lay brothers and an artistic renaissance, this wild, Mediterranean island is a culture apart

Harriet O'Brien
Saturday 23 April 2011 00:00 BST

Gunfire cracked loudly from the valley below the church. As I stopped the car, another shot rang out and a couple of shiny black choughs flew from their perch on the bell tower. More fire was followed by the barking of dogs. In the recesses of my mind I conjured an act of Corsican vendetta taking place below me.

Yet the canine accompaniment was, I realised, a likely indication of rather less dramatic scene – in all probability an afternoon game shoot. From the shelter of the car I peered warily down the slopes clad in scrub and spindly holm oaks.

But on hearing a distant shot and fading barks, I reckoned there was little risk of encountering stray bullets, so I got out to explore the church that I had come to see.

Built in a random arrangement of green and white stone and set on a neatly clipped sward of grass, the little church of San Michele looks as if it has been transposed to its site in northern Corsica from another world, arriving slightly jumbled, which isn't far off the local legend. The story goes that the residents of the village of Murato woke one morning to find that the thick wood crowning a hill beyond their cottages had disappeared. In its place was a strange and wonderful church. It had been built by angels.

The more pragmatic explanation is that San Michele de Murato was constructed in about 1280, during the tail-end of the era when Corsica was governed by the city-state of Pisa – and long before France laid claim to the island. The simple, barn-like structure is typical of the Pisan Romanesque style (the bell tower is a later addition). It is remarkable, though, not only for its asymmetrical stone patterning, but also for its embellishment of small carvings. Snarling animals, primitive-looking human figures and strange symbols adorn the entrance archways and the high arcades around the exterior. Above one narrow window recess a naked Eve with enormous hands is given an apple by the serpent. Below it, a band of vines is flanked by an angel and a knife-wielding man. When you gaze at the carvings you tune into a primeval, slightly eerie quality that resonates with the landscape around.

Wild, ruggedly beautiful Corsica was acquired by France only in 1768. I had read of how, for centuries before, it had been a Mediterranean magnet for raiders and invaders – Vandals, Pisans, Genovese and British had variously fought hard for this territory. But even so, I had little expectation of how un-French the island would be.

Corsica lies about 160km from mainland France and it remains defiantly, idiosyncratically, a culture apart. They speak French here, but the Corsican language – a direct offshoot of Tuscan-influenced Latin – is also used widely. Road signs give place names in both French and Corsican – except where independence agitators have painted over the Gallic words.

Resentment of French rule simmered for two centuries before finally developing during the 1970s into an impassioned independence movement. The ensuing violence has since been checked, particularly after the arrest in 2003 of nationalist Yvan Colonna. He spent years evading capture and living in hiding in the craggy hinterland, protected by the local code of omerta, or silence. It was, in effect, the existence of a latter-day Corsican bandit.

Traditionally, those who fell foul of the law often simply vanished into the Corsican landscape: man and nature in tough harmony. And that synthesis was what intrigued me most about the island. I wanted to see something of Corsican culture alongside the island's exhilarating scenery of stark mountain ranges, deep gorges, cliffs and china-blue seas. But where best to go? Corsica is a little larger than Crete and about a third the size of neighbouring Sardinia, from which it is separated by a narrow strait of only 14km.

It can take just a few days or several weeks to get around the island, depending on your route. From the northern city of Bastia you can drive to the southern town of Bonifacio in less than three hours. But that's if you opt to take the smooth and generally less attractive east coast highways. Once you head inland, or along the glorious west coast, you're in a very different world of concertinaed roads dotted with wonderfully rural villages. This was the Corsica I wanted to see.

With a limited time frame of a week, I opted to concentrate on the northern part of the island, taking in the natural showstoppers of the north-west coast and then heading inland before finishing my trip back on the north coast.

My journey started in Calvi in the north-west. A mighty fort dominates this old settlement, its walls encircling a tangle of cobbled lanes while a more modern town stretches out around. With a string of beaches to the east and a marina filled with sleek yachts and fringed by cafes, today Calvi looks a picturesque seaside venue. But take a walk around the ramparts of the fort and you inevitably recapture a sense of past military drama – and indeed the present. As you wander by the walls you pass one of the buildings of the French Foreign Legion's Second Parachute Division, which is based on the island. Its flag flutters over the western walls, while a notice warns tourists to keep out.

Drive 12km or so into the hills east of Calvi and you're in calmer country. The area is dotted with stunningly unspoilt hilltop villages that seem to have grown organically from the rocks around them. They perch above ancient terraces where olives, figs and citrus trees are grown, while other slopes around them are abundantly coated in maquis, or dense shrubland. The aromatic vegetation grows throughout the island but here it is particularly verdant – and pungent. Every time I stopped to take in a view – and inevitably there were many such moments – the heady smell of thyme, oregano, fennel, rock roses and much more was almost overpowering.

I headed to Pigna, a particularly pretty hill village and a significant centre for arts. Stone houses with blue shutters line its winding lanes, with an art gallery here, a music shop there, and perhaps best of all, a café whose terrace offers a magnificent panorama over a rolling hillscape and down to the sea. Being spring, the waitress had time to chat: had I visited their church? Its organ was famed throughout Corsica. Had I heard of the village's July music festival and the concerts held in its acoustically state-of-the-art auditorium?

When I remarked on the tranquil outlook, she smiled wryly: in the peak of summer, she said, the place heaves with visitors. Pigna has been a pioneer in the rebirth of Corsican culture. Back in the Fifties and early Sixties the VCisland had become badly neglected by the French government.

Poverty was widespread, the culture almost moribund. Yet in the mid-Sixties an artists' cooperative started in Pigna. Then, during the Seventies, along with the independence movement, an island-wide campaign for cultural regeneration gained momentum. Known as riacquistu, it re-established enormous pride in Corsican crafts, arts and music, particularly the haunting harmonics of the island's polyphonic choral traditions. In Pigna, a choral initiative was started in 1978 and since then the village has become one of Corsica's most important music venues.

I began to appreciate why that music has such bitter-sweet tones the next day as I headed away from the relatively lush north and wound my way down the west coast.

There is a savage beauty to the landscape. You feel belittled by the soaring peaks, unsettled by the sharp, sheer drops of cliffs, amazed by the boldness of the colours.

Just as you think the coastal scenery could not get any more overwhelming, you reach Les Calanches, an area of extraordinary pinky-red rocks that tower up some 300m above the sea.

They have been fantastically weathered, the shapes suggesting a dog's head, a dragon's back, a roaring lion and more. Adding to the drama, the vertiginous road twists dauntingly around tight bends.

I spent the night at the village of Piana, just south of Les Calanches, and then pressed on inland to the very core of Corsica. I was heading for Corte, the spiritual capital of the island and home of Corsican nationalism. The road there took me snaking around the spectacular Spelunca Gorge and through a landscape of impossibly contorted mountains. Over the 1,480m pass of Col de Verghio, you reach the formidable Niolo Valley, with Corsica's highest peak, Monte Cinto, towering over it. This is a stupendous region of great granite boulders and circling buzzards – classic territory, you imagine, for bandits.

Gun-toting they may have been, but traditionally Corsican bandits were outlaws riding high on a sense of honour. This I learnt the next day when I fell into conversation with a shopkeeper in Corte. It would be impossible, he said, to overemphasise the importance of the family in Corsican life. Infringing on the honour of a family could well spark a vendetta that would continue for generations. In the course of it the perpetrators of honour killings would fall beyond the flimsy rule of law, hiding out as bandits in terrain so rugged it was impossible to track them down. Did vendettas still continue today, I asked.

"Maybe," was the evasive, almost furtive, response.

Today, the roadsides of the impressively harsh terrain around Corte are marked at intervals with the graffiti of the island's nationalist agitators. It makes for an atmospheric approach to this defiantly patriotic fortress town. Corte looks the stuff of fairytales; of the Brothers Grimm variety.

Set amid brooding mountains, it is dominated by a daunting citadel atop a craggy peak. A small warren of cobbled lanes beneath leads down to newer streets. The town's must-see sight is that citadel, its battlements now mainly housing an impressive ethnographic museum, Museu di a Corsica. The permanent collection here provides an introduction to Corsican life, from farming to today's burgeoning wine industry. And there's also a section on Corsica's intriguing lay brotherhoods.

There are lay brotherhoods in other Mediterranean regions, yet Corsica's are particularly strong, having fairly recently experienced a great revival. The first were founded here in the 12th and 13th centuries, and today there are some 73 such fraternities across the island. The big draw is the music. It is the lay brothers who lead the singing at festivals, funerals and church services and their music is very much part of the rebirth of Corsican culture.

From godliness to glamour; moving back to the coast, I made my way to the harbour town of St-Florent, increasingly dubbed the St-Tropez of Corsica because of the large yachts that moor there in summer. It is a bustling, pleasant old settlement, complete with beach, Genovese citadel and a big Pisan Romanesque church – Santa Maria Assunta – on the outskirts.

You could happily spend a couple of days here people-watching and soaking up the sunshine. But there is a host of places to explore almost on the doorstep. From St- Florent I took in Corsica's most renowned wine region around the village of Patrimonio, where pungent Muscat is produced. Then I proceeded up to the hills to explore Murato and the primeval little church of San Michele. Heading back down to the coast I found the road blocked at the village of Oletta. It was a fête day and a large procession of local residents was escorting an icon of the Virgin Mary around this pretty, hilltop settlement. Welcoming me along, two ladies ushered me to the front of the slowly moving group. It was led by the church's lay brothers, who filled the air with the haunting sound of their harmonic singing.

Travel essentials: Corsica

Getting there

* The writer travelled with Corsican Places (0845 330 2113; corsica.co.uk). A seven-night itinerary exploring the north of the island and taking in Calvi and the Balagne, the north-west coast, Corte and St-Florent, starts at £998 per person. The price includes return flights from Stansted to Calvi on Corsican Places' charter flight, car hire, and B&B at Hôtel St-Christophe in Calvi, Hôtel Capo Rosso in Piana, Hôtel Arena in the Restonica Gorge and Hôtel La Roya at St-Florent, plus one dinner at the Hôtel St-Christophe and Hôtel Capo Rosso.

* Corsican Places' weekly charter to Calvi starts on 22 May.

Visiting there

* Museu di a Corsica, Corte (00 33 4 95 45 25 45; musee-corse.com). Open Tues-Sat, 10am-5pm; €5.30.

More information

* Tourist Board of Corsica: 00 33 4 95 51 00 00; visit-corsica.com.

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