Wednesday, March 7, 2012

A trip to pre-season Corsica

A trip to pre-season Corsica gives Mick Brown all the time in the world to enjoy its breathtaking views and heartstopping hairpins. If only more of the restaurants were open.

I have driven on hair-raising roads through the Alps and Pyrenees, and in the Himalayan foothills of India, where peering down into the ravine below you might spy the occasional wreck of a bus or car that hasn’t quite pulled off that tricky manoeuvre around a blind bend.

Perhaps my latent vertigo is getting worse, but no drive has been quite so unnerving as crossing the Bocca di a Battaglia pass in northern Corsica. The narrow road twists up and around the mountainside, with no guard-rail or wall to offer even the slightest illusion of psychological comfort. The sheer drop, falling hundreds of feet, seemingly inches away from the front wheel, and the prospect of meeting a tour bus barrelling round the corner in the opposite direction, is disconcerting enough, but it is the fact of being able to look across the expanse of countryside all the way to the sea, some five miles distant, that makes it so unsettling. You feel as if you’re clinging to the side of the world.

My wife and I went in the first week of May, surely the perfect time to visit this most spectacularly beautiful of islands. A week of rain had left the countryside an emerald green, and spring flowers threaded a riot of colour along the roadsides. In July and August visitors descend from France in their droves. But for now the roads were empty, the cafes and restaurants almost deserted.

Over the centuries, Corsica has suffered invasion by the Romans, the Moors, the Genoese and the French, leaving a rich architectural legacy of fortified coastal towns, outstanding Baroque churches and medieval villages, clinging limpet-like to the mountainsides. Our stay in the north-western region of the Balagne began in the harbour town of Calvi. We rented an apartment in the imposing old citadel that stands above the town, a labyrinth of steep, cobbled lanes winding around the Cath├ędrale Saint Jean-Baptiste, a peeling medieval fascination with its ornate Christmas-cake altar, its vivid paintings of the agony of the Virgin, her heart pierced with arrows, and its oldest treasure, a 12ft long wooden crucifix that was supposedly swung at Turkish invaders in the 16th century.

Is Bournemouth really one of Europe's best beaches?