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A Circuit of Corsica

by Paul Theroux

CORSICA is France, but it is not French. It is a mountain range moored like a great ship with a cargo of crags a hundred miles off the Riviera. In its three climates it combines the high Alps, the ruggedness of North Africa, and the choicest landscapes of Italy, but most dramatic are the peaks which are never out of view and show in the upheaval of rock a culture that is violent and heroic. The landscape, which furnished some of the imagery for Dante's Inferno, has known heroes. The Latin playwright Seneca was exiled there; Napoleon was born there, and so, if local history is to be believed, was Christopher Columbus (there is a plaque in Calvi). Part of the Odyssey takes place there -- Ulysses lost most of his crew to the cannibalistic Laestrygonians in Bonifacio -- and two hundred years ago, the lecherous Scot and biographer of Dr. Johnson James Boswell visited and reported, "I had got upon a rock in Corsica and jumped into the middle of life."

The landscape is just weird enough to be beautiful and too large to be pretty. On the west are cliffs which drop straight and red into the sea; on the south there is a true fjord, on the east a long, flat, and formerly malarial coast with the island's only straight road, on the north a populous cape, and in the center the Gothic steeples of mountains, fringed by forests where wild boar are hunted. There are sandy beaches, pebbly beaches, boulder-strewn beaches; beaches with enormous waves breaking over them and beaches that are little more than mud flats; beaches with hotels and beaches that have never known the taint of a tourist's footprint. There are five-star hotels and hotels that are unfit for human habitation. All the roads are dangerous; many are simply the last mile to an early grave. "There are no bad drivers in Corsica," a Corsican told me. "All the bad drivers die very quickly." But he was wrong -- I saw many and I still have damp palms to prove it.
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Discuss this article in the Global Views forum of Post & Riposte.

See other travel essays and short stories by Paul Theroux published in The Atlantic:

  • The Imperial Icehouse,
    April, 1979.

  • Greene,
    April, 1978.

  • The Johore Murders,
    March, 1977.

  • The Odd-Job Man,
    April, 1976.

  • The Last Mohican Between Khabarovsk and Moscow,
    August, 1975.

  • Misery on the Orient Express,
    July, 1975.

  • Pretend I'm not Here by Paul Theroux
    February, 1974.

  • Burma,
    November, 1971.

  • Two in the Bush,
    July, 1968.
  • On one of those terrible coast roads -- bumper-scraping ruts, bottomless puddles, rocks in the middle as threatening and significant as Marxist statuary -- I saw a hitchhiker. She was about eighteen, very dark and lovely, in a loose gown, barefoot, and carrying a basket. She might have been modeling the gown and awaiting the approach of a Vogue photographer. My car seemed to stop of its own accord, and I heard myself urging the girl to get in, which she did, thanking me first in French and then, sizing me up, in halting English. Was I going to Chiappa? I wasn't, but I agreed to take her part of the way: "And what are you going to do in Chiappa?"

    "I am a naturiste," she said, and smiled.

    "A nudist?"

    She nodded and answered the rest of my questions. She had been a nudist for about five years. Her mother had been running around naked for eleven years. And Papa? No, he wasn't a nudist; he'd left home -- clothed -- about six years ago. She liked the nudist camp (there are 900 nudists at Chiappa); it was a pleasant, healthy pastime, though of course when the weather got chilly they put some clothes on. Sooner than I wished she told me we had arrived, and she bounded toward the camp to fling her clothes off.

    At Palombaggia, the tourist beach a few miles away, I hid behind a pine tree and put on my bathing trunks. I need hardly have bothered -- the beach was nearly deserted. Rocks had tumbled into the sea, making natural jetties, and I decided to tramp over a dune and a rocky headland to get a view of the whole bay. There were, as far as the eye could see on that far side, groups of bathers, families, couples, children, people putting up windbreaks, strollers, rock collectors, sand-castle makers -- and all of them naked. Naked mummy, naked daddy, naked kiddies, naked grandparents. Aside from the usual beach equipment, it was a happy little scene from idealized prehistory, naked Europeans amusing themselves, CroMagnon man at play. It was not a nudist camp. These were Germans, as bare as noodles, and apart from the absence of swimming togs the beach resembled many I have seen on Cape Cod, even to the discarded Coke cans and candy wrappers. I stayed until rain clouds gathered and the sun was obscured. This drove the Germans behind their windbreaks, and one woman put on a short jersey -- no more than that -- and paced the beach, squinting at the clouds and then leering at me. I suppose it was my fancy trunks.

    I had decided to make a circuit of Corsica, to rent a car and drive slowly around the edge of the island, then pause and make my way over the mountains, from Moriani-Plage via Corte to Île Rousse, arriving where I had begun, in Ajaccio, the capital city. The trains are too small and tramlike to be anything but practical for the Corsican and vaguely amusing to the visitor; the three and a half hours by rail from Ajaccio to Bastia are not my idea of a railway gala. Besides, the best parts of Corsica are unreachable by train.

    The first twenty miles south of Ajaccio, through the Col S. Giorgio to the handsome port of Propriano, are gorgeous -- a fatal distraction because the road is so narrow and winding. Once out of the capital it is clear how underpopulated Corsica is, an emptiness of eucalyptus trees and deep blue hills, stubbly fields and vineyards, and forests of cork oak and sweet chestnut. Ambitious Corsicans flee the island as soon as they can scrape the fare together, and the ones who stay rather despise the menial servicing jobs in hotels.

    Two decades ago the island was dying economically, but the arrival of excolonials from Algeria brought mechanized wine-making methods and the growing of mandarin oranges to Corsica. And now there is a degree of prosperity in Corsica's agriculture, with the export of cheap wine. The good wine -- and it is not the plonk the mainlanders say it is -- is drunk locally. I can vouch for the Torraccio, Patrimonio, Sartèene, Domaine Vico, and the resinous Clos de Bernadi. The Corsican table wine that is exported is little more than red ink.

    Propriano has many good restaurants, specializing in the seafood that is caught offshore -- the langouste and the ingredients for bouillabaisse. It has three excellent hotels and, like many other Corsican towns, a number of pizza joints. It is the sort of place you expect Antibes or Juan-les-Pins to be: small, uncrowded, sunny, and decked with oleanders and geraniums -- geraniums so healthy they have become bushlike, three or four feet high.

    The climb by car to the fastness of the steep mountain town Sartèene is not rewarded by anything other than a glimpse of one of the most forbidding (Prosper Méeriméee called it "the most Corsican") towns I've ever seen. It is a town like a citadel, built on the summit of a rocky hill, with a dark main street and a reputation for the vendetta. Beyond Sartèene, still moving south, I saw two remarkable sights: the great granite mountain of white oblong boulders called Montagne de Cagna; and, as I neared the coast, the splendid sight of a lion in stone crouched on Cap de Roccapina. The strange features along this road are preparation for something even stranger at the end of it: the sheer limestone cliffs which plunge past the fortified town of Bonifacio, the settlement on the fjord. It is a natural harbor, and the town one of the oldest in Corsica, but although it is spectacularly beautiful it has no good hotel. For that I drove up the coast to PortoVecchio, Corsica's newest resort town. Porto-Vecchio, for all its sandy beaches (Palombaggia is the best of these), has a blowsy look of gimcrack modernism unrelated to the ancient town above it that shares its name.

    From this point in the southeast to Bastia in the northeast are sixty or more miles of empty, glittering beaches, rising to extensive vineyards which disappear at the foothills of tremendous mountains. Because this is Corsica's straightest road, it is also the island's most dangerous -- the only stretch, really, where you can get out of second gear. The seaside towns here are small, likable places; some look as if they have been put up within the past year, others (such as Aleria) were resorts at the time of the Roman Empire. Further north at Moriani-Plage, a seedy, half-abandoned resort with one overpriced hotel flanking a stagnant swimming pool, it is hard to make out whether the town is in the process of being built or destroyed. But I had no sooner concluded that I would never return to Moriani-Plage than the hotel's waiter, who was also the cook, said he had a plump pheasant in the kitchen which was mine for the asking.

    I had been apprehensive -- as who would not be? -- by the thought of crossing the spine of Corsica's mountain range. I took what I later realized to be one of the worst roads on the island. But if one proceeds slowly along these mountain tracks (the road to Corte follows the course of the Tavignano River; Edward Lear went this way in the 1860s purely for its scenic beauty), one can get from the east coast to the northwest, via Corte, in less than a day's drive. Corte is a bright, windblown town on a crag, with at least one fine restaurant, in the Place Paoli. It is the heart of the island's political and cultural identity and was the capital of the brief republic declared by Pasquale di Paoli in 1755.

    At Corte, if one seeks a destination, one has many choices: a short drive to the hunting lodges at Venaco, or the longer drives to Bastia, the quiet promontory of Île Rousse, the noisier resorts of Calvi or Porto. I struck out for Île Rousse and ended up at the two-hundred-year-old Grand Hotel Napoleon Bonaparte, a bizarrely ramshackle chateau with a billiard room and a porter who tells you to go to bed when the clock strikes eleven. Île Rousse is a neglected town, a bit geriatric in tone, with a great deal of charm. Some of this charm still lingers in the narrow streets of Calvi, but in the oversettled gorge which is Porto -- a harrowing four-hour drive away -- the charm is gone. It is as if, having accepted that German tourists are inevitable, the Corsicans had decided to dump them wholesale into this almost inaccessible notch to bellow away their vacation.

    Because it is purely for vacationers, I think Porto is a place for vacationers to avoid. The fact that it is probably the most beautiful corner of the island is a bit sad, for what is inescapable is that it is overcrowded, overdeveloped, and irredeemably Teutonic. The pseudo-luxury is similarly a feature of the newer resorts at Sagone and Tiuccia; none of these west-coast watering holes has the rocky charm and comfort that I found elsewhere in Corsica.

    A car seems a necessity, but cars are easy to hire, and driving, one discovers how small Corsica is, how much can be seen in a week. There is no need to be stuck anywhere on the island, and the Corsicans speak French badly enough that no visitor need feel self-conscious. I spoke nothing but Italian for a week and managed very well. The only Corsican I met who spoke English was the girl nudist near Chiappa, but I guessed that she came into contact with all sorts of people.

    The Corsicans have a reputation for being unfriendly. They certainly look gloomy, and their character is incontestably dour; but they are not smug or critical, they can be helpful, and they seem genuinely interested in strangers. "Simple in manner and thoroughly obliging," wrote Edward Lear, "anxious to please the traveler, yet free from compliment and servility." One old woman in the market at Île Rousse told me in pidgin Italian that she thought Americans were "sweet." It is not a sentiment I have heard expressed anywhere else in Europe.

    Copyright © 1978 by Paul Theroux. All rights reserved.
    The Atlantic Monthly; November 1978; "A Circuit of Corsica"; Volume 242, No. 5; pages 90-93

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