Napoleon was born here, Nelson lost an eye here and so many different nations have invaded so many times it’s difficult to keep track. This is Corsica, the island to the west of Italy’s leg. The location (and all the invasions) have had a huge impact on both the people and the architecture.
In Calvi, a town on the North coast of the country, the citadel is Genoese, the buildings around the harbour are very Italian and once you leave the coast things start to look French.
Calvi is great not just for what it has, but also for what it lacks: despite tourism being the major industry here there are no tower block hotels, there is no McDonald’s and no Pizza Hut either. Why?
Firstly there are very strict rules about development and secondly because the locals are militant: the last time somebody tried to build big here it was nipped in the bud with explosives!
The sights A day spent wandering around the lazy pedestrianised streets of Calvi is long enough to get to know the town well. There is no one, ‘must -see’ item but the whole town is charming, historic and beautiful. It’s like walking through a three-dimensional picture postcard.
Start at the marina where the yachts of the rich and famous rub bows with small fishing boats, then start to walk uphill, up to the statue of Christopher Columbus (the locals say he was born here but the evidence is flimsy).
Then enter the Citadel, go past the very posh Chez Tao bar and go up to the Cathedrale St-Jean Baptiste and look at the ‘black Christ’ which is carried though the streets in religious festivals.
Finally, walk back into the light and take a few minutes to look at the amazing views of the city, the sea, the mountains and the beach.
Walk the walk The main reason people come to Corsica is to walk. The country is famous for the GR20, a 15-day walk running from Calenzana to Conca. The track is over Corsica’s many granite mountains, it’s a very tough trek, so unless you already own a pair of broken-in walking boots, a hiking pole and a compass you shouldn’t even think of attempting this.
The good news is that there are many alternatives. A series of much less strenuous walks are dotted right across the island. From Calvi there’s a lovely 2-hour walk to Notre Dame de la Serra, a tiny chapel more than five centuries old. From the chapel are some spectacular views of the surrounding landscape.
All at sea A great way to see the coast is by hiring a catamaran. You can sunbathe on the netting between the bows watching the sea swell beneath you while the sun toasts your back, divine.
A 30-minute ride takes you to a bay where you can kayak, snorkel or just swim. The water is an inviting clear blue, a small slice of paradise. On the return trip, if the wind picks up, check for lifejackets and ask the captain to steer you out into the waves. Being lifted by a 20-footer is like riding an all-natural rollercoaster powered by the hand of god.
An afternoon on the catamaran costs £28 per person, you can book on the harbour. If you are feeling even more energetic a diving club and a sailing school are located up the road in Ile Rousse.
On the beach Another big pull is the beach. North of Calvi is a series of sandy beaches and coves. If one section gets too busy for you, just go to the next. A local train serves the many miles of beachfront (see getting around).
Hunting and fishing For the adventurous there are a few quirky activities on offer. For £35 it’s possible to go out with a team of local fishermen on a small boat to witness how life has been lived on the island for hundreds of years.
You leave at midnight and return at 6 in the morning – nobody said fishing was easy, but this is the real deal. Alternatively, if you feel the urge to kill something beautiful, it’s possible to join a pack of wild boar hunters. They hunt with guns and dogs every Sunday in the summer and there is no charge to tag along. Contact the Crystal rep for further details.
Getting around Crystal offer fly and drive packages which really open up the island, but for me travelling is as much about the journey as the arrival, and if that’s your attitude you just have to take the train.
The Tramways de Balange is a rickety antique train that runs along the coast connecting Calvi with Ile Rousse. Each of the 18 stops leads to a new patch of lush beach. For further information and to check out other routes, viist the SNCF website www.tersncf.com/trains_touristiques /corse_anglais.htm.
Ile Rousse boasts a farmers market (do try the honey it’s fantastic), a cathedral and a range of water sports, but the real pull – once again – are the miles of sandy beach.
Good nosh Pizza restaurants are dotted around the city at various intervals; expect to pay around 7-10 euros for an individual pizza. For something more traditional check out L’abri Cotier (www.abri-cotier-calvi.com),which has some great views out over the harbour. They serve fish caught that day cooked in a local style, which is fantastic, set menus start from £14.
If you want to venture out of town, I highly recommend the Stella Mare on the beachfront in Ile Rousse. From the beach the restaurant itself looks unspectacular(indeed I walked right past it) but the food is amazing.
I’d go as far to say that the restaurant provides a culinary experience to rival any of the top restaurants in London. Expect to pay £28 for a three-course meal.
Bar crawl The harbour is dotted with cafés and bars but if it’s late and you want to go somewhere special check out Chez Tao. It’s an exclusive hangout for the rich and famous with views of the sea to kill for.
Kylie was spotted here this year and there have also been whispers that Brad Pitt too has made an appearance (this information comes from the same people who say that Mr Columbus was born here so it should be taken with a pinch of salt).
There is a live band and the bar opens at 10.30 in the evening and closes when the last client leaves – normally at about 6 in the morning. Expect to pay £10 for a glass of wine.
A week’s stay in Corsica for summer 2005 starts from £474 per person based on two people sharing. The price includes return flight from Gatwick to Calvi, transfers, 3* hotel and breakfast.
Another option (for groups of five people)is to look at hiring a cottage. For £295 per person you get a self-catering cottage in Cargèse, flights from Heathrow to Ajaccio and car hire.
Contact Crystal France on 0870 888 0233, call 0870 240 7545 for a brochure or visit www.crystalholidays.co.uk
Travel facts Costs: Corsica is a lovely location, but it’s expensive. Even with the pound strong against the euro many visitors will find themselves inhaling sharply as they open up their wallets. A good general guide is to think: London prices plus one Euro.
Eating out: The best restaurants get booked-up. If you want a table with a view and you are travelling peak season it would be advisable to book a table before you travel. L’abri Cotier: www.abri-cotier-calvi.com ;tel:0033 4 95 65 12 76. Stella Mare: Tel: 00 33 4 95 60 05 76
Tourist information: There is an office in the centre of town, just off the high street. Visit the website at http://www.visit-corsica.com or email email@example.com for specific queries.
Language: In the tourist areas most people will speak French and English, but if you venture further a field you will find the locals will only speak French.
Mobile: Phones work well in the costal towns but the signal fades in the mountains.
Reading up: The Lonely Planet is strong on history but the Rough Guide has more pages dedicated to Calvi.
Cash points: Yes, 3 on the high street.