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Corsica – Mediterranean island in the sun

River swim en route Cap Corse, Selmace past Orletta

Cooling down from 32-degree heat in a little gem of a freshwater pool within a forest in Selmace.

Through the airplane window, Corsica looks like a melange of rugged mountains falling into a turquoise sea, staying true to its reputation as the most mountainous island in the Mediterranean Sea.

It is home to large tracts of pine forests surrounding glacial lakes and pockets of beautiful freshwater pools with crystal clear water, as well as quaint villages set among green hills and valleys.

Because it belongs politically to the French but is geographically closer to Italy, Corsica has a very distinct identity. The people speak their own language and have names of both Italian and French origins, and their unique cuisine is influenced by both countries.

The promise of adventure, along with the island’s easy-access airports, tempted us to plan a visit there – with a one-year-old in tow.

And so our family trip to Corsica begins in the hills of Ajaccio, under a clear blue Mediterranean sky.

Beach starter to art

Exiting Ajaccio airport, we are rather befuddled to learn that public transport here is scarce on a Sunday, even at the airport. But after making an SOS call to our Airbnb host Martine, we soon hear a car screeching to a halt outside. Out of a little red vehicle steps a man wearing a friendly smile: “Hi, I’m Guillaume, friend of Martine’s.”

Chambre Privilege 6

Palm trees fringe the Gulf of Ajaccio on the Route des Iles Sanguinaires. Photo: Hotel Les Mouettes

Guillaume drives us past gargantuan, mellow-toned buildings harbouring administrative offices of the island’s capital city. On the coastal road leading to Martine’s spacious apartment, the charm of the old town with its cobbled streets is juxtaposed against the modern-looking, yacht-packed marina.

Since most of the shops and restaurants are closed for siesta between noon and 4pm, Martine comes to our rescue again by inviting us to join her family for lunch. Since we speak little French, our new friend Guillaume interprets, telling us simply that “We’ll be having baguette, cheese and salad”. So we’re expecting a light lunch – but then Martine brings out a roasting pan filled with delectable roast beef and wild mushrooms, complemented by local charcuterie, olive oil, cheese and baguette. Everything becomes fuzzy merriment as we devour this gastronomic feast.

Adjacent to the hotel we stay in on the following day is the peaceful Paillote Trottel Beach, where we pitch a red parasol and kick back while our toddler builds sand castles. We are far from the madding crowds on Corsica’s usually sardine-packed beaches, grateful for our good fortune while paddling barefooted through warm seawater. At sunset, we set off for the old town in search of dinner, and spot the child-friendly Le Via Roma, where the chef is happy to omit salt from our toddler’s spaghetti Bolognese.

Yacht packed marina in Ajaccio

The marina against a backdrop of the city of Ajaccio and mountains in the distance, viewed from the Paillote Trottel Beach.

The next day, we discover more toddler-friendly facilities, this time the petit train that travels from Ajaccio towards the lighthouse at the end of the Route des Iles Sanguinaires. Along the way, the sight of white sandy beaches with turquoise water gleaming jewel-like in the sun make us a little wistful. But then, there is more to Corsica than just its beaches.

For instance, in the centre of Ajaccio is the Fesch Museum of fine art, which is composed mainly of large red halls laced with gold Venetian framed paintings and where we enjoy an enlightening exhibition on revolutionary icon Che Guevara.

But before that, on our way to the museum, we are drawn into an antique toy shop, filled with anything a child could dream of. A few doors down, I spot Amorino, an artisan ice cream shop, and we buy the creamiest blend of hazelnut chocolate, almond and macaroon-flavoured ice cream I have ever had.

The next day, it was time to fulfil my husband’s dream of taking the scenic train journey to Bastia, a route that is often ranked as one of the most picturesque railway journeys in the world. The towns that are dotted along the way have names that roll off the tongue: Mezzana, Vivario, Casamozza and Furiani.

View from the train as it glides on a mountainous route from Ajaccio to Bastia

The train from Ajaccio to Bastia passes through some mountainous terrain.

And right in the middle of this railroad is Corte, the heart and soul of Corsica and an outstanding natural landscape for those eager to hike canyons and rock-climb.

The railroad traverses dense forests of pine and chestnut trees and rivers that snake through valleys of the rockiest mountains. And despite weaving its way around hairpin bends and along unprotected drops, it never feels anything but comfortable and safe.

Twists and turns

Arriving in Bastia at dusk, we make our way through a maze of medieval streets edged by old houses on our way to the hire car office.

We walk past a busy playground and local mums watching over their kids give us warm smiles and exchange knowing looks, signalling our membership in the universal parenthood club.

In our car, we set off on a 20-minute journey towards the village of Erbalunga and the only hotel in the area, Castel Brando. Walking underneath century-old palm trees, we arrive in a peaceful courtyard and reception area from which we are taken to our family suite for a sound sleep – sorely needed to recover from travelling across the island with so many bags and a baby in tow!

With the sea a few steps down the road, we wake to the sound of nature. Picking up a simple breakfast – a baguette, pain au chocolat and fresh pastries – we head to the harbour and sit on large rocks to eat, admiring the view of the soft morning sea.

Erbalunga is ancient and rustic, full of beautiful stone houses, tiny alleys, and nooks and crannies with secret passages. Crumbling Genoese towers dot the coastline, having served as a defence against Barbary pirates back in the 16th century.

Most of our evenings are spent in one of the village’s many harbourside restaurants, ranging from the fancy Le Pirate to the less expensive A Piazzetta. An astounding selection of seafood delicacies is common in this area, with fresh fish and other seafood coming practically straight from the sea to our dining table; there is also BBQ-glazed pork ribs, fresh pasta and pizza dishes, and mouth watering ice creams.

Beside a Genoese Tower at the harbour in Erbalunga

Genoese Towers dot the coastline, which served as a defence against Barbary pirates back in the 16th century. This particular one is located at the harbour in Erbalunga.

Typical scenery along Cape Corse.

Typical scenery along Cape Corse.

We spend our days exploring Cap Corse, the 40km-long craggy peninsula at the northern tip of Corsica that looks like a long finger pointing at the Ligurian Sea.

The dizzying turns of the mountain roads around the commune of Brando lead us to the village of Silgaggia, set among green hills and overlooking a wonderful vista. We find ancient houses and unusual breeds of chickens reared by their occupants.

We drive past charming villages perched on cliffs, and park to walk along little pebbly inlets that lead to secret harbours, fishing ports and wild sandy beaches.

Past Orletta, we discover a freshwater pool within a forest and my husband swims in its cool water.

In the evenings, we go to the Ambuglia and Pietracorbara beaches, where we catch the daily sunsets and swim in the sea to complete the day.

Cosmopolitan city

On our last day, we drive back to Bastia to visit the lively Saturday market adjacent to Place St Nicolas. It offers an abundance of fresh local produce – cheese, charcuterie, aperitifs, biscuits, jams, honey, fruits and vegetables, meat and beer.

Close by, we stumble upon Les deux Mondes, a brilliant bookshop with an extensive children’s section and a local boulangerie (bakery) where we find delicious chocolate and caramel mousse.

The market crowd at the Place St Nicolas in Bastia.

The market crowd at the Place St Nicolas in Bastia.

While Bastia has all the friendliness of island inhabitants, it also has a cosmopolitan quality with all of the shops and commodities you’d expect as part of any modern city.

The easy vibe and elegant Baroque architecture of this part of the island gives the city an authentic charm. It’s tempting to spend a few days here but we are determined to explore the wilderness outside of the city walls.

From Bastia, we drive up steep hills and along winding roads towards Saint Florent on the island’s west coast. Every sharp twist and turn gives us breathtaking views of the Gulf of St Florent.

The most beautiful beach in this region is Plage de Saleccia, accessible by boat from Saint Florent’s harbour. Its dazzling, 1km-long white sandy beach spilling into the emerald sea is undeveloped.

Sunbathers congregate in the western tip of Plage de la Roya, Saint Florent

Sunbathers like the western tip of the Plage de lat Roya in Saint Florent.

Plage de la Roya is also popular with families and sun worshippers. After walking the whole length, we find the western tip of the beach to be a more suitable spot for relaxation, as it is protected from the strong wind that affects the eastern tip.

At the end of our holiday, it is hard to leave. Corsica captured our hearts with its astounding beauty and afforded us a sense of adventure that we had thought was beyond us since we became responsible parents.

Our toddler may not remember much from this trip, but I’m convinced that the sights, smells and sounds of a new place will give her a broader understanding of the way things work. Travelling with our daughter has also added another dimension to our holiday, as we came to see the world through a child’s eyes.

Corsica is a place where one can appreciate a slower pace of life. Visit with no expectations, and you will be rewarded by the beauty of unfiltered nature and a renewed admiration for the simpler things in life.

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As published as a travel feature in The Star2 Travel, March 20, 2016.

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