Elisabeth King mixes with the European jetset on the island playground of Corsica.
They call Corsica the French island with an Italian temper. In the 1960s. Corsican gangsters set up what became known as the ‘French Connection’, the notorious network that smuggled narcotics into the US.
Organised crime hasn’t loosened its powerful grip on the island, either, with local police logging over 25 contract killings last year. Fears of terrorism from Corsican separatists have deterred many non-French tourists, too. Yet, strangely enough, it’s this violent, independent edge that has done the most to prevent Corsica from becoming just another fly-and-flop beach zone for package tourists.
Not that visitors need to watch their backs. European mags regularly run glossy spreads of the island’s near empty beaches, rugged mountains, Roman ruins and the pastel-coloured port towns that give Corsica its modern nickname – ‘L’Isle de Beaute’- The Isle of Beauty. Kylie Minogue, Sting and Bill Gates are regular visitors.
But there’s none of the artificiality of the French Riviera. Famous people come so they can be incognito among locals whose ancestors, only a generation or two before, employed vendettas, witchcraft and donkey carts.
Over the past 10 years, the opening of designer hotels such as Casa Del Mar in Porto-Vecchio have “heralded the start of a new jet-set era”, according to the local tourist authority. Two things haven’t changed, though: driving is the best way to get around… and the road really is hazardous. The winding, guardrail-less, clifftop lanes make Italy’s head-spinning Amalfi Coast seem as straight as the Pacific Highway. Unless you have a death wish, driving 40km can take several hours and on an island only 225km long and 93km wide, you can end up driving nearly 1800km tackling the most efficient circuit on the island, through the major towns of Ajaccio, Corte, Bonifacio, Porto-Vecchio and Calvi.
Ajaccio, Corsica’s gateway to the French mainland, is a sun-bleached port town with one focus – it’s Napoleon Bonaparte’s birthplace. A good way to shake off jet lag is to climb to the Place Foch to eyeball the Napoleon Monument with its lifelike battle scenes. Then stroll down to the Maison Bonaparte (where the great man first drew breath) and the cathedral in the Rue Saint-Charles (where he was christened). Napoleon’s body is absent (his tomb is in Les Invalides in Paris), having snobbily put Corsica fourth on the list of places he wanted to be buried in.
Corte is where you are most likely to see evidence of Corsican nationalists-road signs peppered with bullet holes like an Albanian bar after a wedding and men flouting the French national ban on smoking in restaurants. The capital of Corsica during the island’s lone 15 years of independence from Italy and France in the 18th Century, Corte’s food shops bristle with traditional Corsican delicacies – ropes of sausage, pungent cheeses and the rough, but drinkable local wines. It’s about the only place on the island you will hear old men chatting in the native Corsican language – a dialect of Italian.
The coastline of Bonifacio is staggeringly beautiful-massive chalk cliffs, caves filled with dripping stalactites and wind-eroded rock formations as large as Victoria’s Twelve Apostles. Legend has it that Ulysses and his men took shelter here and discovered a race of brawling giants. A rowdy crowd is still in evidence in the quayside restaurants and bars. All summer long, techno-music and Euro soccer stars popping Champagne corks echo down the narrow streets.
East from Bonifacio is the Golfe de Sperone, a cliff-top golf course designed by Robert Trent Jones. If you hitch a ride on a speedboat, sail past the Ile de Cavallo, a gated community known quaintly in the French media as the ‘Isle of Billionaires’. You might see many of them, too, sailing into the Casa Del Mar, the only hotel in Corsica with a dedicated yacht mooring. It attracts the likes of Giorgio Armani and Marc Jacobs for its Mediterranean Michelin-starred restaurant.
Corsican nightlife is sleepy except in Porto-Vecchio. Tanned from laying on the town’s Pacific-type beaches, linen-suited guys and scantily clad models hang out at the town’s art galleries, gelato bars and cafes downing Corsica’s Pietra beer.
After midnight La Via Notte, the largest dance complex in Europe, cranks up with laser lights, go-go dancers and some of the biggest names from the European DJ circuit, including Roger Sanchez and Dirty Sound System. The vast VIP area is used to ‘segregate’ major names such as Jean-Paul Gaultier, supermodel Laetitia Caste and soccer legend Zinedine Zidane. Bouncers make sure the paps don’t get within snapping distance.
“Calvi is the most beautiful place in the world,” a tattooed Russian tells me poolside at La Villa, a five-star luxury hotel with a two-star Michelin restaurant offering a breathtaking view of the Mediterranean and the town’s ancient citadel. A huge marina and smart beachside bars lead up to the old town’s warren of cobbled lanes, where Napoleon lived in hiding from Corsican nationalists during the Revolution. If you see a lot of tough-looking men, they could be French Foreign Legion soldiers, whose museum and main French base is close to Calvi.
Ultra-buff bodies also abound at Octopussy beach club, home of Calvi on the Rocks, a hip music festival held every July. Lounging outside, the view of the mountains almost tumbling into the sea and the clarity of the water is intoxicating-with or without a glass of Foreign Legion Esprit de Corps rose, whose wine label depicts hard-faced soldiers firing off a hail of bullets
Five-Minute History of Corsica
· The island has been occupied by many tribes in its history, including the Carthaginians, the Greeks and the Etruscans, before becoming part of the Roman Empire. Vandals, Visigoths, Saracens and Lombards traipsed through thereafter, until the Genoese took control in 1347 and maintained it until 1729. A revolution followed before the Corsican Republic was formed in 1755. It lasted until 1770 when Corsica was incorporated into France, where it remains one of the country’s 26 regions.
· ‘Vendetta’ – the social code requiring Corsicans to murder anyone who wronged their family honour- claimed around 30,000 of the island’s inhabitants between 1683 and 1715.