Discovering the lush mountains of Corsica

Driving through the red rocky terrain

(Before diving in, I feel I should point out that all these beautiful photos were shot by Jan Polášek and all the questionable phone quality photos were taken by me.)

When Jan’s parents suggested two years ago that we all take a trip out to Corsica, I have to confess that it had never really been on my travel radar. I knew vaguely that the island was positioned somewhere between France and Italy (although definitely could not have told you that it was in the middle of the Ligurian Sea, what’s that again?). For no logical reason at all, I assumed that Corsica was Spanish speaking but in fact, it belongs to France. In my mind, Corsica only really held a faint association with enthused Duke of Edinburgh sixth-formers who would bravely don backpacks to traverse its rocky terrain.

So, when we rocked up to Corsica (no pun intended) in June 2018, I was taken aback by how much this stunning, mountainous island should have been on my radar all along. It is so beautiful! I think we timed it well going in early June, because the summer heat hadn’t yet set in and we arrived just after weeks of rainfall. This meant that everything was incredibly lush and green, with forested mountains covered in tiny wildflowers and tumbling waterfalls. I think Corsica could also aptly be described as the island of roses because every village was brimming with them and carried a beautiful heady scent in the air.

Isis, the effervescent border collie, drove over from the Czech Republic with Jan’s family

Having had the luck to be introduced to Corsica by Jan’s family, I’ll include in this reflection of the trip as many recommendations as possible. I’m sure we only scratched the surface, but here’s what I can point to. Prepare for plenty of panoramic photos!

Getting there

Unlike most of Europe, reaching Corsica is a bit more complicated than hopping on a quick flight. There are flights to be found, but the routes are quite scattered and tend to be more expensive than your typical budget airline. The Corsicans have done fairly well to keep huge tourist crowds at bay! After some head-scratching, we flew from London to Genoa, dosed up on pasta and hopped on a seven (!) hour ferry along with a similarly determined and sporty looking crowd of German, Austrian and Czech visitors. It seems that these outdoorsy nations have clocked Corsica as a good place to go whilst Brits tend to head to the more arid, beachy island of Sardinia next door. Admittedly a long ferry trip might not be ideal for those with motion sickness – but overall was Corsica worth crossing the seas for? 100%.

En route to Corsica!

At one point, I spotted a jumping dolphin from the ferry and called Jan over to see it, naturally pursued by a hoard of other travellers. Of course, it never appeared again but I swear I didn’t imagine it.

‘Do I smell me some snacksth?’

Where to stay in Corsica

Once we arrived on the shores of Corsica, we drove inland where the Queen of Airbnbs had unearthed a blue villa that looked like the perfect place to stay. I hold this title proudly and, to this day, have never selected a dud Airbnb. Situated in the stunning old village of Venaco, Villa Bleue is absolutely among my favourite places that we’ve ever stayed in. I’ll link it here in case anyone else feels inspired to go. I have always loved that Airbnb provides such an affordable option if you want to give hotels a miss and stay in a real neighbourhood. This one happened to be nestled in a mountainous valley which meant that we could fall out of the front door and hike straight out of the village, head to a nearby waterfall or, as we often did, potter up the road to a sweet local cafe for some tiny French coffees. Jan’s dad rose before the rest of us every morning and kindly went to the boulangerie to buy some croissants which were melt-in-the-mouth delicious. My dad does this too on holidays – it’s a very important task.

For those who hanker after the sea, Venaco is quite inland so you might want to stay somewhere nearer to the coast. We did head to the sea a couple of times though and went on a jaw-droppingly spectacular drive through what felt like ten different landscapes, ranging from misty forest mountain tops to towering red mountain ravines.

Bells of goats jangling down the mountain roads
First glimpse of Villa Bleue

Mieke is the lady who owns beautiful Villa Bleue and she made us feel so welcome. She mostly left us to ourselves but we had some lovely times drinking wine all together in her beautiful stone kitchen and at one point, she even got up really early one dawn to lead Jan’s mum, Alena, and I in a yoga class on the deck outside. I’m not an avid yogi but with a morning view this beautiful, it had me sun-saluting like never before.

View from the villa

On our last evening, Mieke introduced us over wine to one of her friends, who I’m mentioning in this blog because she was such a fantastically unusual character. Alas, I’ve long forgotten this lady’s name, but she was in her late seventies and introduced herself as nothing less than a ‘mountain runner’. I remember glancing inquisitively over the table at this tiny, nut-brown woman (with the most amazing springy explosion of wiry grey hair). With twinkling eyes, she proceeded to tell us in rapid French that she had moved to Corsica from France in her 20s and set about helping to plot the famously difficult GR20 hiking trail that traverses the mountains of Corsica. In the years since, she had, quite literally, run almost every mountain trail several times over with her late husband and still made a regular habit of it. In fairness, she did look like one of the healthiest people I’d ever seen. I also learned from our new mountain running acquaintance that Corsica has quite a big problem every summer with lightning strikes and sadly subsequent deaths. This is only really an issue with people that go up hiking into the mountains without checking the weather properly first. As an experienced mountaineer, she stressed that if there is any threat of thunder, ‘find something else to do that day!’. So, I’ve stuck that in my back pocket for future reference.

Breakfast on the deck under the fig trees
Beautiful Venaco

Hiking

It goes without saying that Corsica is very famous among hikers and mountaineers for its GR20 trail. From what I recall, we did 2-3 hikes ranging in duration from two hours to most of the day and one of them included a stretch of the GR20. I don’t have too many photos of this particular hike but it started at a waterfall with icy crystal-clear water and took us right through the forest (also conveniently past an ice-cream stop at one point) and further up into the hills. If planning to hike (and hike you should, when in Rome), definitely do some research and plan which routes to take. There are so many and you’ll be spoiled for choice.


Looking down over Venaco

If you ever go into the forest with Czechs*, it is inevitable that you will end up foraging some mushrooms. That’s exactly what happened here and we found this magnificent cep below. Sure enough, Alena carried it home and we cooked it for supper!

*Only do this with Czechs because they actually know what they’re doing, unlike the rest of us. Don’t poison yer’self.

One hike that made for a slightly dramatic turn at one point was the day we headed right up into the mountains. I remember initially that the hike took us quite steeply through some dense forest for maybe an hour or two before reaching more open ground. Fuelled by sliced pear (always delicious but especially when halfway up a mountain), Jan suggested we add a extra loop onto the hike. Exposed to all the fresh oxygen and the sun beaming down, we decided to go for it. I’ll let the photos do the talking for the rest of it!

Starting our ascent
Getting steeper
Looking rosy under a rock
Reached the top!

This is where our trek became a bit dicey. Undeniably, it was incredibly beautiful to feel up among the mountain tops and the views were insane. Most of the trails are fairly well-trodden in Corsica but after a while of traversing the mountain side on our route down, the path disappeared completely into some very dense hawthorn groves. We thought we might have taken a wrong turn but the map said there should be a path so we decided to start carving our way through the thick branches to try and find it.

Unbeknown to us at that stage was that we were surrounded by a pack of boars. Habitual hikers will know that these guys are to be avoided at all costs, especially when the young are around, at the risk of getting gored. Doing some reading afterwards (bad idea), I learned that boars are not only among the most intelligent animals on earth but that they also move insanely fast and have tusks sharper than razors. Sooo, possibly not super wise of us to track right through their dwelling. We couldn’t really turn back at this stage because we were so thickly immersed in the under story and literally pulling ourselves through branches, still trying to keep to the route back down the mountain. It was pretty terrifying every time we heard a large grunt or growl but finally we got to quite a steep area where we climbed down some boulders, with the support of branches to prevent us from falling. I have to admit, it was quite funny doing this all whilst carrying the dog and Jan’s camera equipment but we were definitely relieved to eventually stumble out of the under story onto a track again. We sat there counting our scratches for a few minutes until some other hikers passed by. So, moral of the story is… not really sure! We definitely followed the map as closely as possible, I think we just picked a very old, unfrequented trail. Avoid boars when possible.

Back on terra firma

The next day Jan and Rosta’ headed off to hike around this lake…

…and we stayed home to do some painting!


Corsican food of note

We had a funny experience at the little restaurant in Venaco. It was extremely good, so much so that we recognised the same locals in there a few times and apparently people drive in from the nearby villages to feast on boar stew and other meaty dishes (Corsica not great for vegans, it has to be said). Despite being an island, seafood is interestingly not a signature dish in Corsica. When we asked why, it was explained that many of the islanders headed inland to protect themselves from coastal barbarian raids. Thus, to this day, boar remains the key dish. Because the food in Bar de la Place was so delicious, we ended up going back a few times to work our way through the menu. It was also really good value for money!

The reason it was funny is down to the grumpy waiter who I was convinced had taken an immediate dislike to the island invaders. After a while, I just understood that he was French. I stand in a long line of mildly perturbed Brits (and even more offended Americans) who encounter the abrupt nature of French waiters and wonder if we did something to upset them. With my French degree tucked freshly under one arm, I couldn’t wait to parley-voo with this waiter but he was not having it. Needless to say, I hadn’t reckoned with navigating the coarse (lol) Corsican dialect. We danced the same old rigmarole every time where I would attempt to order a bottle of the house red and he would grit his teeth and explain that there was no ’bouteille’ but I could order a ‘pichet’ (carafe) if I wanted. After about three rounds of this, he eventually said ‘per-apps eet wud be bettar if we spik in Eng-leesh?’, whilst I resisted whacking him over the head with said figurative French degree.

Comment dit-on: ‘Just gimme the wine’ ?

Anyway, by the end of the week, I think our grumpy waiter had grown secretly fond of our group because he stopped grimacing and even gave us a pichet of wine and incredibly delicious Flan à la Châtaigne dessert on the house. This, if ever in Corsica, is definitely something to consume in large quantities. It’s essentially a creamy chestnut flan; we liked it so much we order bags of chestnut flour when back in London to try and make it ourselves. If you go to Bar de la Place, here are my tips:

  • For heaven’s sake, order a pichet, not a bottle, of the house wine
  • Ignore everything else on the dessert menu and go straight for the chestnut flan
  • Say something nice about the waiter on TripAdvisor afterwards (there are plenty of hilarious reviews about the ‘surly waiter’ but we now know this to be a mere cover for the softie within)
A rare photo of Jan en route to dinner (not behind the lens for once!)

Other things to do in Corsica

As I said at the start, there will be countless things to do in Corsica but, at the risk of this blog going on forever, here are some more things I can recommend.

Head to sea

Whilst Isis, the dog, was not thrilled to leave dry land, the rest of us really enjoyed taking a boat out to see some of the incredible rugged Corsican rock topography up close. As the Mediterranean Sea’s most mountainous island, the boat trip affords some beautiful views of Corsica’s volcanic formations. Whether a budding geologist or not, I think this was really worth the dough. The shore is dotted with caves leading into glistening pools of turquoise water and I’m sure that for those who enjoy diving and the like, there must be so much to do in this area.

Jurassic World, looking East
Who does this look like? Hint: French politics
Crazy beautiful evening light after a day spent by the sea

Potter throughout all the beautiful historical towns!

There are so many towns and villages, both inland and dotted around the coast. Like many, I can’t resist a local market and nothing says ‘summer trip’ like walking around a cobbled town without fresh nectarine juice running down one arm. Corsica has many castles too, some with spectacular views over the hills or sea. Dinner in the harbour as the sun sets is also hard to beat.

Drinking tiny coffees and watching pétanque in a pretty square is surely a must any time you find yourself on French territory. Not put off by the waiter’s reluctance to speak French with me, I imposed myself on this unassuming elderly French man. Sometimes I see elderly people sitting alone outside and can’t help but wonder if they’re perfectly happy and escaping the grandkids for some peace and quiet or possibly a bit lonely. I remember on my year abroad at university learning of an old man in the town who would go once daily to the boulangerie because it was the only human contact he would have that day and I could never quite forget it. Certainly, that’s been even more of an issue during the covid lockdown and for my own grandfather, too. In any case, this seemed like a nice chance to have a chat with someone new. He was very accommodating and we had a lovely chat about growing up in Corsica whilst Jan wandered around taking shots of the square.

Don’t do this

If there were one thing not to do in Corsica, it’s to try and make friends with these not so friendly locals below. Don’t pet the cows. I know, I too can hear a chorus of ‘friend, friend, cow friend’ running through my head. A little known fact is that Corsica is home to the world’s happiest cows and has in fact one of the largest populations of wild, free-roaming cattle. Somehow, at one point, they made a bid for freedom and now spend their days frolicking at the beach free of being turned into sausages. A little snooze here, a little wade in the water over there. One day I went for a swim and noticed I was re-embarking where a group of cows was mid mother’s meeting on the beach, so I beat a hasty retreat. Occasionally, someone tries to disrupt the cows’ peace and ends up gored through the stomach on one of those horns. Just let them be.

‘I’ve already reserved this sun lounger, mademoiselle.’
Bye, cow, bye

Finally, whack out the sketchbook

This one’s for the creatively-inclined. My mum always said to take a sketchbook when travelling because there’s nothing better than looking back on small details you sketched at the time but had since forgotten. And it’s true! I have so many little drawings and paintings on scraps of paper and on the back of postcards from various travels (even just out on a day trip somewhere!). It’s always a joy to find them and recall beautiful moments from a trip. Here’s me sketching in a sunny corner of Venaco, surrounded by the local cat brigade (and a nice photo of Alena for good measure!).

It’s safe to say that Corsica is incredibly beautiful and definitely one of those places to which I know that we’ll return. I’m looking forward to that day already!

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