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Travel

Corsica: Coast and culture

Magical mountains, dramatic coastline, centuries of history and delicious seafood cast a Corsican spell on Clive Nicholls

My plane landed in Ajaccio on the western side of Corsica. My destination: Sunêlia Perla di Mare resort in Ghisonaccia in the east on the Tyrrhenienne coast of France’s island outpost in the Mediterranean.

I thought the drive would be interesting but I wasn’t prepared for beauty and drama as I crossed the mountains. The scenery was magnificent as the road worked its way through the mountain pass. Still with snow on the peaks, towering mountains surrounded the road, a brilliant and rather wonderful surprise.

As I dropped down from the mountains to the coast, the Sunêlia Perla di Mare site occupies the prime position on the Vignale beach. The accommodation is a mix of apartments, mini villas and mobile homes. The term ‘mobile home’ undersells it dramatically. I’m staying in one; it’s brand-new and fabulous, with a fully equipped kitchen and my own deck for al fresco dining.

I borrow a bike to get to know the area. Near the coast the cycling is easy and I follow a trail through the woods. A fox crosses the path in front of me and in the heat of the afternoon the trees provide welcome shade.

Getting my bearings, I find a supermarket about a mile from the resort. I stock up on nibbles and wine and head back to sit on my deck, have a snack, a glass of wine and catch up on the newspaper that I bought at the airport this morning.

Sometimes the simple things in life turn out to be pretty special. The temperature is perfect, the Corsican wine excellent and it’s one of those days when there isn’t too much bad news in my newspaper. I had checked out the menu earlier and I’ve decided to eat in the restaurant tonight. It’s on the beach and the seafood is just so tempting.

I’ve planned an easy day for tomorrow… wake up when I wake up. A walk on the beach before breakfast, massage at the spa mid-morning, leisurely lunch, enjoy the resort in the afternoon. Take in entertainment with pre-dinner cocktails before dining in style once again. And, you know what? It all goes according to plan, only better. I have the beach to myself; there’s barely a ripple on the water and just the faintest of breezes with a hint of heat that will come later in the day – a moment to treasure.

At breakfast I’m joined by a cheeky chaffinch with a taste for croissants. It’s so wonderfully captivating, and I can’t resist setting aside a few crumbs on a spare plate. That’s probably frowned on but if we can’t share breakfast with a bird so charming and beautiful, it would be a poor old do.

My massage at the Sunêlia Perla di Mare Spa is wonderful. It’s a real treat, but if you can’t indulge yourself on holiday, when can you? Laura makes me feel relaxed and pampered in equal measures.

Tonight is one of the entertainment evenings on the open-air stage. It’s all very professional and the performers are brilliant at involving the children. As I sit back and enjoy my rum punch, I’m caught up in the holiday atmosphere and go into the restaurant still humming the songs.

In the morning I drive south along the coast road, through Solenzara, past the Tower of Fautea, and stop for coffee in Porto-Vecchio before arriving at Bonifacio on the southernmost point of Corsica, about 50 miles from Perla di Mare and just seven miles north of the Italian island of Sardinia across the Strait of Bonifacio.

The town is split into two – the harbour with its waterfront shops and cafés, and the older part set high on the limestone cliffs. If you don’t fancy the uphill walk (I didn’t) they’ve got one of those little land trains that leaves from the harbour every half-hour. You get a commentary from the driver and, if you sit on the right hand side, you get the best views and pictures. It will bring you back down again, but I think that it’s best to get off at the top, take in the sights and walk down.

There are some quirky little shops, and the Church of Saint Marie-Majeure with its dramatic altar is great to see, but best of all are the views along the cliff-tops. The white limestone has been sculpted over the centuries into dramatic shapes and the view from the old town is spectacular.

The other way of seeing the cliffs is by boat. They leave from the harbour and not only do you see the rock formations, but they also take the boat into the caves in the cliffs. My trip not only takes in the Corsican coast but stops off in the Lavezzi Islands in the Strait of Bonifacio. The brilliant thing is you can get off the boat and catch a later one back.

The island chain is officially the largest natural reserve in France and the main island (163 acres) is the getting-off point – very unspoilt, very beautiful. Take a picnic and enjoy the tranquility – just don’t miss the last boat back…

The islands have tasted grief in the past. On February 14, 1855 a French frigate, the Semillante, left Toulon to take part in the blockade of Sevastopol in the Crimean War. The next day she was passing through the Strait of Bonifacio when she broke apart in a violent storm with the loss of 700 lives (still the worst naval disaster in the Mediterranean). Two cemeteries, one for officers and one for the seamen, together with a pyramid monument, remain on the island as a reminder of that tragic day.

On the way back, the skipper takes us into the Cave of Sdragonato, believed by fishermen in the past to be the home of a dragon. The dragon isn’t at home when we visit but the natural beauty of the cave is amazing and a fitting end to my trip to Bonifacio.

I get back to Sunêlia Perla di Mare in time to spend an hour on my deck before dinner. On holiday it’s good to be busy and see the sights but it’s also important to relax.

Just a bit north of my resort is the archeological site at Aleria. With evidence of occupation for the past 8000 years, there’s a museum with fine pottery spanning the town’s history. Outside, the Roman town is clearly visible but little remains from earlier residents including the Greeks, Phoenicians and Persians. The streets of the Roman town stand out and it appears that this was a trading centre rather than a residential town. You can walk the same streets as the Romans did 2000 years ago.

Close by on the shores of Etang de Diane (the Diana Pond, an inlet on the east coast) is the Aux Coquillages de Diana, a famous seafood restaurant on the site of an historic oyster farm.

I’m a bit of a sucker for seafood. Starters is easy: a plate of oysters with a crisp local white wine. It’s even better when you imagine Romans sitting on the banks of the same lake eating oysters from the same waters. Main course is more difficult – it looks so tempting. I settle for a wonderful puff pastry creation from the ‘specials’ board with a bowl of mussels as a side.

My time in Corsica is all too short. I’ve loved the drama of the mountains, the coastline from its sandy beaches to limestone cliffs, the history and spectacular seafood. I’ve enjoyed the freedom of my accommodation, dining in or at the restaurant. We might disagree with the French on the details of the Brexit deal but with Corsica they’ve got a holiday destination that works for me.

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