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An island apart

Rugged and atmospheric, Corsica is a place of unspoiled tranquillity

By Colin Barraclough
Globe Correspondent / September 11, 2011

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VENACO, Corsica - The sonorous “parp’’ of a conch shell played like a hunting horn greeted me at the entrance to the marquee. It was followed first by a carillon of goat’s bells, then by gales of tipsy laughter.

Fifteen years ago, small-time producers of brocciu, a creamy, ewe’s-milk cheese from this Mediterranean island, launched an annual gathering to showcase their products. Since then, the “Fiera di u Casgiu’’ fair at Venaco, an ancient hamlet in the island’s heartland, has grown into a full-blown country festival.

Corsicans come to partake in cheese-making competitions, sheep-breeding shows, and outbursts of polyphonic song, a unique tradition rendered by all-male choirs. Bearded farmers display pig liver pâté, pork loin flavored with acorns, and prizuttu, a ham cured for three years to acquire its distinctive hazelnut tang. Dozens of stalls are laden with farm-produced vinegar, bone-handled knives, and liquors flavored by just about every nettle, root, and aromatic herb that grows in the Mediterranean basin.

As I soon discovered, the fair is also a good excuse for a party, Corsican-style.

Picking up a bottle of Pietra, a 6-percent-proof brew scented with chestnuts, I wandered into the music tent, where folk guitarists were bashing out country melodies. Without warning, a wild-looking farmhand clad in work jeans and Hawaiian shirt stumbled on stage. Flailing for the mike, he grinned lopsidedly, displaying his two remaining front teeth to great effect.

The band plowed on, still in rhythm, and the farmhand let loose, growling out the lyrics of a well-known ballad in a painful, gravelly monotone. Recognizing one of their own, the crowd roared for more. Uncomfortably off-key, the unannounced guest was slurring his way through a fourth consecutive song when the crowd gave a last cheer and he tumbled off-stage.

I had come to Corsica on a quest to understand its archaic, pastoral society. Best known as the birthplace of Napoleon Bonaparte, the 114-mile-long, French-controlled island rises abruptly from the Mediterranean to a tangle of craggy peaks, its population clustered in stone-built villages in remote valleys or skewered dramatically atop granite outcrops.

For a week, I drove switchbacks and hairpins through the island’s interior, finding a land that was everything the Mediterranean used to be: rugged, atmospheric, and almost devoid of people. Isolated by cliffs, gorges, and forests - and by its inhabitants’ fierce sense of independence - Corsica feels as if it got left behind while the rest of the world marched on.

I had set out from Bastia, a rough-and-ready port on the northeast coast built around a 14th-century Genovese citadel, taking a sinuous coast road along Cap Corse, a mountainous, 25-mile-long peninsula that points a finger at the French Riviera, 110 miles to the north.

In the early mornings, tentacles of sea mist still shrouded the stone watchtowers built by the Genovese in the 16th century atop cliffs and outcrops to safeguard their presence on the island. Each time I cut the engine, the aromas of asphodel, lentisk, rosemary, and thyme - the distinctive herbs of Corsica’s maquis highland scrub - wafted in on the breeze, a concoction so powerful that Bonaparte is said to have smelled it from exile on the island of Elba, some eight miles north of Cap Corse’s tip.

The road is a driver’s delight. Cut into sheer granite cliffs, it affords dizzying views of diminutive fishing harbors, inlets, and scalloped bays far below. Hamlets emerged from the land’s crumpled folds, settlements with pithy names like Vani, Pino, and Luri, their tiled-roof houses, ochre campanile towers, and shaded squares packed too tightly for even a small car to enter.

Each night, I dined on lamb or goat freely grazed on maquis herbs, or feasted on a lobster freshly plucked from the sea, washing it down with a crisp white wine or a thin, quaffable red from the Cap Corse vineyards. The meals ended with a plate of brocciu and a compote of fresh figs.

Cap Corse’s highland interior once provided refuge for bandits and smugglers. I heard only the wind’s gentle moan and the clank of an occasional goat bell before descending to the lobster-fishing village of Centuri, its cottages’ terracotta-painted walls suffused with gold by the rays of the setting sun.

Such scenes are vivid enough to explain some of Corsica’s pull. Hikers come to roam alpine slopes so numerous they disappear into a blued horizon of jagged ridges. Beach lovers fawn over some of Europe’s best beaches. But it’s the sense of unspoiled tranquillity that really sets Corsica apart from other Mediterranean destinations.

The visitor’s hardest task is getting to meet the locals. As stoic and rugged as the landscape, Corsicans are not given to idle chat. An Englishman who had lived there four years told me he still earned little more than a passing nod from his neighbors. I lost track of the times I tried to converse, only to meet with pursed lips or a dismissive frown. More than once, locals made it abundantly clear they would prefer me simply to leave their village.

“The Corsicans are a feisty bunch,’’ a Corsican exile had warned me before traveling. “They’re fiercely proud, very militant, and they harbor a strong sense of discrimination. It’s a heady combination.’’

Corsicans’ suspicion of foreigners stems from a long history of invasion. The island’s strategic importance has drawn armies of Greeks, Romans, Saracens, Pisans, Genovese, and French, who have occupied Corsica almost continuously since the Stone Ages. Independence has flowered just once, in the 18th century: National hero Pasquale Paoli’s republic survived just 14 years.

With their coastline harassed by invaders, pirates, and raiders, Corsicans withdrew to the inaccessible interior. The retreat was both physical and existential: Islanders fell back on ancient traditions like storytelling and polyphonic singing, inward-looking cultural pursuits expressed in the outlawed native language, a dialect of medieval Tuscan.

For English speakers, the richest glimpse into this closed society comes from Dorothy Carrington, a British historian who settled on the island for five decades. Carrington wrote about culture, archeology, and history, her insights so perceptive that in 1991 the University of Corsica awarded her an honorary doctorate of letters, an unusual accolade for someone born outside the island.

Her best-known work, “Granite Island,’’ flows with the lilting rhythms of village life, of cheese-making and goat-herding, its gentle pace upset by the mazzeri village mediums who prophesied illness and death or shattered abruptly by village rivalries that spiraled into bloody vendettas.

The first-time visitor can still spot fleeting shadows of such traditional lives. In the isolated Niolo plateau, I saw semi-nomadic shepherds taking their flocks to the high ground in summer. At Spelongato village in the Balagne region, a verdant bowl of olive-producing valleys, I sat in the square as gnarled men in flat-brimmed caps and plaid shirts gathered beneath an acacia, the bells tolling all the while in the village’s granite campanile.

Yet despite elderly Corsicans’ vehement defense of their culture, the world Carrington observed is changing, the villages slowly emptying as the young venture to the cities in search of work.

At Sant’Antonino - population, 77 - one of the Balagne’s prettiest hamlets, I found the houses shuttered, the cobbled alleys deserted. At Belgodère, a village clustered around a sheer, 330-foot cliff, I saw just a black-shrouded widow scuttling silently through the back streets. At Muro and Feliceto, there was no life at all, save a Frenchman on holiday, gamely on the trail of local handicrafts.

“Corsicans may dream of their villages,’’ wrote Carrington in “The Dream Hunters,’’ “but they avoid living in them until they retire.’’

I have never felt more like an outsider than in Corsica. Unable to engage locals in conversation, I contended myself instead with hiking through the central Restonica valley, tramping through forests of laricio pine to the upper slopes of 8,600-foot Mount Rotondo.

Rising through a canyon of shattered limestone and granite, exposed for millennia by wind and rain, I realized I would never understand what it meant to be Corsican. But as I cooled off in the frothing torrent of the Restonica River, a spreading vista of pine-carpeted valleys below me, I could at least enjoy what the Corsicans want so dearly to protect.

Colin Barraclough can be reached on colinbarra@hotmail.com.

If You Go

Where to stay
Hôtel Le Vieux Moulin
Centuri
011-33-4-9535-6015
www.le-vieux-moulin.net
Large, airy rooms in the main house. Excellent terrace restaurant with panoramic views. Doubles $185-$325.
Hôtel L’Onda
Avenue Christophe Colomb
Calvi
011-33-4-9565-3500
Clean, serviceable hotel backing onto the beach. Doubles $160.
Hôtel Arena Le Refuge
Vallée de la Restonica
Corte
011-33-4-9546-0913
www.hotel-arena-lerefuge.com
Clean, ample rooms overlooking the Restonica River. Great base for walkers. Doubles $120-$160.
Where to eat
Via Marine
20 rue Clemenceau
Calvi
011-33-6-1484-7057
Seafood, pastas, and salad. Book ahead for a table on the terrace overlooking the port, $20-$42.
U Museu
Rampe Ribanelle
Vieille Ville, Corte
011-33-4-9561-0836
Good value Corsican food. Specializes in wild boar and local cheeses, $15-$30.
What to do
A Fiera di u Casgiu
Le Château, Venaco
011-33-4-9547-1519
www.fromages-corse.org
The Venaco cheese festival, held each May.
A Runcata
Aléria
membres.lycos.fr/runcada
A June festival dedicated entirely to donkeys and mules.
Fiera di a Castagna
Route de la Gare
Bocognano
011-33-4-9527-4176
www.fieradiacastagna.com
A December fair extolling the chestnut and its uses.