Situated due north of Sardinia, with which it was long treated as one economic unit, Corsica lies off the American traveler’s track. Although some 30,000 British now annually visit the island. I have only run across a handful of my compatriots there in the last five years. Yet it is easy of access; from Nice to Calvi is but ninety-five sea miles, less than an hour by plane, and during the season there are dozens of flights to Ajaccio and Bastia and Calvi from the French mainland, as well as direct services from Paris and London (even one from Düsseldorf now). There is a lot of quite comfortable, usually overnight, shipping out of Marseilles, Nice, and Toulon, in case one wishes to bring across a car, though in July and August these boats become heavily booked ahead by currency-controlled French estivants. Corsica is also attainable from Italy (Livorno) and Sardinia, but prospective travelers from the latter should perhaps be warned that although the trip takes no more than an hour, the Strait of Bonifacio is often rough enough to delay the tiny boat put on this service.
Corsica always appears much larger than its actual land size of 3378 square miles. This is due, first, to the astonishing variety of its scenery, for it possesses surely the most abrupt contrasts in the Mediterranean. Within forty kilometers of baking beaches, the traveler can reach almost-Alpine villages, or the finest chestnut forests in the world, in the Castagniccia, or mountains shaggy with resinous maquis rising to labyrinths of tormented peaks 9000feet high and continually tipped with snow, or great plains of olives and gaunt gorges reminiscent of North Africa. Second, communications are poor, compared with those in Sardinia; Corsica is even currently threatened with extinction of its uneconomic but beloved onetrack railway system. Third, the roads, which are pretty bad, thanks to French denial of funds, are tortuous and spin out short distances; it was calculated that in last winter’s sports-car rally the island tour selected involved some 1500 corkscrew bends. Although there is a perfectly satisfactory network of bus runs between major points, I recommend highly the hire of a small car there. Both Bastia and Ajaccio have reputable drive-yourself agencies, and the very unkempt nature of the roads lends delight to modern motoring. It is hardly possible to drive for more than a few minutes in Corsica without some spectacular view to one side or another, and this is also the only sensible way to penetrate the interior and get some idea of what the island is really all about.
This essential character is not easy to communicate summarily. It must be emphasized initially that the island is a fully integrated department of France, the last to join (about a hundred and fifty years ago), the sixth largest in size, potentially the richest in soil, the poorest in population. and the first — forget it not — to free itself from the German yoke in World War II. I labor this possibly elementary point, since there was some irreverent local publicity when a well-known American magazine recently addressed an Ajaccio subscriber, “care of Corsica, Italy,” two centuries late, and I have frequently found my own U.S. mail, when the word Corsica alone was used, sorted for Italy.
French is thus the official language, everywhere spoken and understood, but the native Corsican tongue sounds like a south Italian dialect. Since, for most of its modern history, Corsica was either a Pisan or Genoese gift of the Papacy, Italian is understood throughout the island, but even with some Italian you are unlikely to understand Corse, which is still peppered with Arabic derivatives. For Corsica was notably prone to the typical Mediterranean invasion waves, since the Genoese early imposed authority by confiscation of arms (hence the certain dignity of carrying arms there today). The Moorish profile, with the white bandeau around the forehead, which forms the national emblem, and which Pascal Paoli struck on coins when creating a mint, is meant to symbolize that the pagan captive has had the bandage over his eyes raised by the more liberal regime of Pascal Paoli, that hero of independence, whose ashes lie in his old house at Morosaglia, appropriately facing the highest mountains.
Just as there is an Ajaccio-Bastia feud — I am charmed by the latter, a leafy, unassuming Corsican suburb of Marseilles — so there is some Paoli-Napoleon rivalry. Everyone knows something about Napoleon, and his birthplace in that surprisingly substantial house in a side street of Ajaccio should certainly be visited; but not all tourists remember Paoli, the architect of the island’s brief but vital period of independence, before it became, still more briefly, British at the end of the eighteenth century, largely thanks to Nelson, who prized the 150-foot-high laricios of the Valdo-Niello for masts. Paoli’s capital, Corte, in the heart of the island, is well worth visiting. Here, in the old citadel, you can sec the shot-pocked house which General Gaffori’s wife defended almost single-handed against the Genoese in 1750 (“our women were good enough to deal with them”); and here, too, the islanders recently ratified a successful case of civil disobedience in their forcible refusal to allow the French government to stage atomic tests at Argentella.
All this is to say that the best preparation for meeting Corsicans is to expect them to resemble summer Scotsmen. They are not gay Italians. They have been exploited by outsiders for centuries. Despite the fact that Corsica’s cost of living is currently assessed as 30 percent higher than that of any other French department, there is no misery on the island, principally because the Corsicans are stoic (witness their record in German concentration camps) and have disciplined themselves to what textbooks call the psychology of scarcity. Also, Corsicans arc people of “face” and tend to conceal their sorrows. Physically, I might add, they arc short dark people, often with pale-blue eyes; sober, frugal, dour, severe, remarkably honest, disapproving of the Continental, and unattached to money values. Good friends in adversity.
However, the Corsicans most tourists meet are the employees of restaurants and hotels of the coastal fringe, and these are frequently French, since it is a deshonneur to be anybody’s servant in Corsica. This tourist fringe, especially along the incomparable west coast from Propriano to Ile-Rousse in the north, is a relatively arriviste, post-Edwardian phenomenon; and yet it is here that the prospective traveler will find what are to my mind the finest beaches in the Mediterranean, unsurpassed submarine fishing, and wonderful camping sites, particularly around Porto-Vecchio, itself a dull village, but surrounded by glorious stretches of platinum plages, by one of which the King of Belgium has just built a house. 1 should not pass over, either, the deep clear mountain pools inland, some with sand edges, where in full summer you can roll off hot rocks into icy water. But elegant hotels or chic nightclubs are not to be found. IleRousse is alone in having a luxury hotel, given red type and four gables by Michelin (the Corsican section in the Michelin Guide is very poor at present, but the Michelin map is a must); Calvi has an amusing nightclub run by an ex-Cossack; but on the whole the visitor should not expect highly developed amenities, or cheap prices, or even sophisticated cooking.
Several shingles around the island will invite you to enjoy Spécialités Corses, but during summer these consist in the main of tasty pâtés of blackbirds and thrushes and rather crude charcuteries, or ham products of the prosciutto variety. Fine goat’smilk cheeses abound on the island (Roquefort, from ewe’s milk, is made here), and there is some magnificent Corsican honey. There are also some good rosé wines — try Royal Corse, named for the first Corsican regiment — but most of the other wines, together with local liqueurs and pastis, generally disappoint. These strictures should be emphatically qualified by the fact that in winter Corsican game is unrivaled, not only the famed bécasse, or longbeaked woodcock, but also the lowly rabbit or hare. Mountain trout is also almost absurdly abundant and excellent.
The visitor who does not expect too much, then, may well be pleasantly surprised. Nearly all the larger coastal towns have clean, comfortable summer hotels and good restaurants. These are crowded from Bastille Day in mid-July until the rentrée des classes in early September. Corsica is glorious in both May and June, when parts of it resemble vast wild gardens, and the weather is fully hot enough for swimming.
Actually, the Corsican experience is best felt in the little hill villages, today being deserted. Like the ports built around squat Genoese warning towers, these villages are generally defensive in structure. Many are set ten to twenty miles back into the interior from the coast and were originally mother villages to which the fisherfolk retreated whenever Barbary menaced; for example, Macinaggio, the northern village from which Paoli set out to capture the island of Capraia, is the port for charming, sleepy Rogliano higher up. It is important to visit the lushly overgrown houses back in the Cap Corse hills to the north. Here is a tranquillity most of Europe forgot a century or more ago — among donkeys and potted plants and pigtailed girls and pensioners and shepherds in flannel cummerbunds. But these villages are often sadly elegiac, since each now shows signs of recent abandonments.
For Corsica is uneconomic. It runs at an annual commercial deficit of 150 million new francs. It is depopulated and overpopulated. Between 1937 and 1956 its census showed a loss in population of 75,759, and though the official figure was over two hundred thousand at last count, it is now thought to be down to about 140,000. When you deduct from this total Bastia and Ajaccio, towns of forty and thirty thousand inhabitants respectively, Corsica’s population density sinks to ten inhabitants per square kilometer, while that of Sardinia (roughly its equal at the time of the Second Empire) is now fifty-three, and even Africa, with its deserts, boasts eighteen.
Here the trouble is cultural as well as economic. For a variety of reasons Corsica has been penalized for its insularity, deprived of tax compensations such as affect and assist Sardinia, Sicily, and even the Channel Isles. Life is expensive. Not only is there no financial incentive for the young to remain; there is no intellectual stimulus, nothing at all beyond the lycee stage of education. Those who wish to go to the university are obliged to leave for le continent, as France is called, and are almost inevitably lost to the island as a result. Two world wars have further depopulated Corsica, which claims to have sent proportionately more of its manhood to death for the mother country than any other department. At the same time the birth rate and the drift back of old relraites to live on their inherited lands mean overpopulation by the nonproductive. This problem might be somewhat alleviated if Algeria should gain independence, at which time, it is guessed, many colons would return to Corsica. This happened in the case of Morocco.
Corsica offers today the wildest scenery easily accessible in Europe; a sense of pre-industrial peace (few roads, one short grassy railway, a risible telephone system); an utter lack of regimentation and organization (I am not encouraging trespassing when I say that private properly is a liberally interpreted term there); and an absence of money values.
Writing at the close of some fifteen months’ residence on the island, I realize with some amazement that I never once locked my car or house. In this heavily policed enclave, everyone knows everyone else. The old, vanished bandit class were always perfectly known to the police. Apart from forest incendiarism, a tragic affair I cannot cover here, crime is virtually nonexistent on the island. The resulting sense of trust and community is a remarkably rewarding one to experience. Off the island, of course, the Corsican feels less bound by local morality, since he is dealing with his equivalent of the gringo. This in turn raises that rather banal subject, the vendetta. Originally it was a form of de facto government in the teeth of an official injustice imposed by aliens. But the aliens, or Genoese, encouraged the vendetta, to split indigenous resistance. In his pages on the island, Voltaire expressed especial horror at the resultant interfamilial bloodshed. Such killings eventually became vulgarized into sexual revenge, of the type shown, and shown critically, by Merimee. As such they still exist, though in a very attenuated form.
Above all, Corsica is what the sociologists term a shame-culture. The acquisition of riches is unimportant and truly avails you little on the island itself. Honneur, what others think of you, is all. Thus, to be a mayor is terribly important, and has brought many to grief; to be rich is not. The tourist may well find his tips returned, though never his gifts. It is all profoundly democratic. There may be a count in every third village, but no social advantage is involved in a title. One meets simple carpenters and shepherds with the famous names that ring through the island’s history, like Pozzo di Borgo, Colonna d’Istria, di Rocca Scrra, Grimaldi d’Esdra. Consequently, to be an American in Corsica has a certain cachet, not thanks to any monetary distinction, but because the American has demonstrably paid Corsica the compliment of coming from very far to visit. The welcome will be reserved, but none the less warm, and true.