Nonstop sunshine, rustic cakes made with chestnut flour, honey tasting of sun-scorched wild herbs, sausages of boar and donkey: these are a few of the things I expected to find in Corsica, and over the course of the weekend more than one of these preconceived ideas would prove to be false.
I had somehow lived in Nice for six years without ever setting foot on the island where Napoleon was born, whose spectacular beaches and rugged countryside have earned it the nickname “l’Ile de Beauté”. When I found myself with a free weekend over Easter, I decided to make a solo trip to a place I had never visited. I considered Vienna or Budapest, Strasbourg or Biarritz, before thinking of all the friends who have come back from Corsica raving about its natural beauty. Next thing I knew, I was on the Corsica Ferries website reserving my ticket for the six-hour crossing. I could have taken a 45-minute flight instead, but the boat seemed to add to the romance of the trip.
One of the things that has always daunted me about Corsica is not knowing which part of the island to visit: there are ferries from Nice to Ajaccio, Calvi/Ile Rousse and Bastia. I e-mailed my friend Kathryn, who has written for guidebooks about the island, and she confessed to a special fondness for northern Corsica even if Bastia is a little rough around the edges, “a bit like a small Marseille.” Since I didn’t think the twisty roads of Corsica were the place to dust off a driver’s license that I haven’t used in five years, I decided to spend a full weekend in this city that most people just pass through on their way to more glamorous parts like Cap Corse or St-Florent.
As the ferry entered the terminal in Nice, 100 or so Corsican football supporters hung off the top deck throwing firecrackers that exploded with a convincing boom and cloud of smoke before a nervous-looking group of riot police. They were in France for the Bastia-Fréjus football match, and it took all of the policemen’s skill to herd them onto two buses. This reminded me that all I had really heard about Bastia was the occasional attacks on government buildings and ministers by radical separatists; luckily, these bombs have never targeted tourists.
The sunny weather we had been enjoying for the past two weeks in Nice was starting to turn, and a cold wind quickly chased the more resilient among us off the top deck into warmer parts of the ship. I had reserved a seat in what turned out to be a strange windowless room with silent televisions, so found myself wandering between the bar and the cafeteria, searching for a coveted table. On the way back, I decided, I would book a private cabin with a sea view. This was 30 euros well spent and as I write this I can almost imagine that I am on a far more expensive cruise ship.
Rain was beating down when we arrived in Bastia, and I made my way in the dark to the Hotel Posta Vecchia, were I would be spending the first night as the hotel Kathryn had recommended was full. For €72 I had a sea view and a clean, no-frills room, which I didn’t take the time to examine since my thoughts, not unusually, were on food. Just around the corner was the place de l’Hôtel de Ville, which is home to the city’s weekend food market and some of its best restaurants. The cheerful crowd of people outside quickly drew me into La Vinoteca di u Mercà, a wine bar with an Italian slant (even if the name is in Corsican, a language that is still very much alive).
Sipping a glass of crisp Clos Landry rosé from Corsica, I quickly felt comfortable here and from the blackboard menu of daily specials chose the squid-ink ravioli filled with shrimp and arugula. The waitress came back saying, “the chef says you can have it with butter or clams, which would you prefer?” I of course chose the clams, which came in a broth so delicious that I had to ask for bread to mop it all up. The ravioli themselves were some of the best I have ever tasted, and I congratulated myself for having chosen this restaurant and dish. I liked it so much that I returned the next day and had the less-good oven-baked prawns with potatoes, proving that some memories should be left alone.
Like anywhere along the Mediterranean, Corsica loses its lustre under heavy grey skies, but I had no choice but to embrace the weather. First thing Saturday morning, I was at the food market looking for real Corsican charcuterie – which is almost impossible to find outside the island, and runs out by the end of spring – and honey from the maquis (scrubby hills). I also discovered migliacciole, pancakes made with the ricotta-like cheese called brocciu, and flatbreads topped with the same cheese. There were few local fruit and vegetable farmers, but several stands selling hard and soft sheeps’ cheeses and sausages made with the local free-range pork. I didn’t see any sausages made with more unusual meats, and later found the explanation at a shop with a sign that said: “Donkey sausage has never been a tradition in Corsica; it is sold by unscrupulous vendors trying to promote a false image of the island.” Near the market, I visited an old-fashioned pastry shop, Mireille, to taste the canistrelli biscuits that are famed in these parts.
Public transport is limited in Corsica, to put it politely, so I took advantage of it being Saturday to catch a bus (€5 each way) from Bastia to St-Florent on the other side of the Cap Corse. Known for attracting celebrities with its long stretch of sandy beach, St-Florent is sometimes described as the Corsican St-Tropez. It was a little hard to see the similarity in the rain, but walking up to the citadel I did find a very good restaurant , L’Arrière Cour, where I worked my way through a plate of local charcuterie (I could tell it was the good stuff) and tasted hearty soupe Corse, made with root vegetables, beans and pork knuckle. The most remarkable features of this friendly, family-run restaurant are its homemade bread and the quirkily decorated courtyard in the back, perfect for a sunny day.
The next day, I decided to work off some of that charcuterie by walking up to the citadel beyond the Old Port in Bastia. Though the buildings are amazingly decrepit on the way up, with pigeons roosting in the crumbling bricks, the houses around the fort itself are well maintained and painted in sunny colors. As it was Easter Sunday most restaurants were closed, so I had pizza at a brasserie and feasted on the view. Back in the port I came across the small ice cream shop Raugi, run by the same family since 1937, and did a double take when I saw the price of a scoop: €1.20. In Nice the tiniest scoop of ice cream costs at least €2 and I expected something minuscule, but my cone came piled high with ice cream flavoured with the local nougat.
That evening, the sky finally cleared and though I had planned to nibble something in my lovingly decorated room at Hotel Central, Kathryn's wonderful hidden gem, I found myself wandering down to the port again and ordering the fish of the day at the unpretentious A Scaletta. Sitting on the balcony over a plate of sea bream with a simple boiled potato, fried eggplant and the obligatory glass of rosé, I finally saw Corsica as it should be seen: under a clear blue sky that makes the buildings glow and the fishing boats sparkle. I resolved to come back, this time with my driver’s license, a few extra days and a friend to share the experience.
6 comment(s) on this page. Add your own comment below.
gorgeous post and photos! Your intro made me think of the song "Favourite Things" from The Sound of Music ha! It seems as though I have found a fellow blogger who loves food as much as me!
The Wanderfull Traveler
Rosa I'll come with you next time! :) AND I know where to get your donkey charcuterie in Italy! xo kristy
Hi Rosa, I'm quoting you in my blog today. Love your work and thanks so much for your guidance in your Authentic Gourmet Paris. We look forward to going back and paying not wasting any time trying to find places ourselves. We trust you!!
Love this description of Corsica. We are hopefully getting the ferry from Nice to Bastia in June but I cannot find prices for a family of 4 - do you know how much it costs return??? Keep on writing! Thanks Hannah