The approach into Bastia doesn’t look very Mediterranean. As you bank around the mountain forests with their foggy halos Bastia feels more like South America than northern Corsica. The pastel tenements built into the hills and the port lit up by blazing sun means this could be modern Medellin or Cartagena’s old city. Corsica’s mountains with their pea green beards stretch all the way south like a bony backbone to the island. This mountain in the sea is shaped like a foot with one long skinny big toe pointing towards France.
That long toe is Cap Corse and the setting for a holiday I didn’t think was possible in this part of the world any more. I’d given up looking for the perfect holiday a long time ago. I’m not complaining and am more glass half-full than empty, but I know you can get more into the glass. There have been successful holidays with average food or wine – not both – beautiful places with cheap hotels, but the real dream is disconnecting completely from native English speakers. I’ve made it through 24 hours on Holbox off the Yucatan and in a snow globe Tokyo where the spell of being in someone else’s land and language weren’t broken by an English, American, Australian or Irish “hi” but seldom for more than a day though.
Cap Corse is a blind spot for thousands of Europeans who roll off ferries into France’s second biggest port. They might wonder if Bastia is Italian for “roundabout” as they slo-mo south with La Corse’s resorts and fourth gear in their future. Ignoring Bastia is their first mistake. Bastia is old, intact and lively, with a handsome harbour under a reassuring solid natural awning of granite and green. For now, Bastia doesn’t have much in the way of sights, those scene-destroying random things that attract selfie sticks and plastic picture menus in four languages.
What’s to see in the Vieux Port where you can sip a Casanis watching the lemmings purl and stitch their roundabouts towards the sun-blasted beaches, or imagining Corsica’s most famous son, Napoleone di Buonaparte leaving home for the first time for an alien country that he would adopt as his own before conquering it and half of Europe? What’s to see in the tangle of lanes in Terra Vecchia, the city’s heart and old town, stacked with local shops and restaurants and local prices? Nothing to see except this entire port city and the Tuscan Archipelago from your perch outside the museum in the citadelle – not a sight to be seen in Bastia, move along.
If Erbalunga was a setting in a novel it wouldn’t be plausible.
Bypassing Bastia isn’t their biggest mistake – ignoring what is beyond it is. The road north into Cap Corse is a petite version of the Amalfi Coast but without the murderous jack-in-the box coaches at every bend. Erbalunga is only 20 minutes away but within two you’re asking yourself, why is everyone going the other way? To your left are steep sheer dramatic mountains. To the right a slide reel of Genovese villas, 19th-century mini resorts and 16th-century watchtowers overlooking a foamy mackerel sea. A breeze comes off the sea on one side and bounces off the super-heated granite walls, the wild thyme and mint, and back into your car, causing real concern that this hidden magical kingdom must have something dodgy ahead. It had been nagging at me since I booked it. Everything looked too good to be true. Was there a radioactive waste plant, an artillery range or a Trump Casino I hadn’t found?
What I did find was a spectacularly wild peninsula with a handful of beaches and villages on either side of Monte Stello. I had snagged decent rates for a sweet looking hotel in the little fishing village of Erbalunga. They still fish in Cap Corse, not something really done south of Bastia. Erbalunga’s grand old houses were well-to-do at some stage but not for the last couple of centuries, and they look all the better for it. Like an unlikely collage made from the best postcard images in my head, there’s a crumbling castle on a tiny harbour alongside very old villas where only locals live, with laundry hanging on old iron balconies. Morning in Erbalunga is best: headfirst into the sea before being ambushed by the smell of baking bread and coffee while watching fishermen fixing their motors and nets. Then looking back up from your croissant past the pink and brown stone village to what look like Swiss valleys and mountains beyond. If Erbalunga was a setting in a novel it wouldn’t be plausible.
Tucked away into that view and hidden behind old walls within the village is Castel Brando. The hotel is more country house than hotel, more living room than lobby. Apart from some random jazz, Castel Brando is also gloriously near silent from dawn to dusk.
I stayed in one of the main villa’s old suites where the TV and AC are the only signs of modernity. The rest is a perfect 1930s set, down to the glorious porcelain light switches. Behind my room was an old-school rooftop pool among the palm, cedar and lime treetops, a pool with a view of that out -of-place alpine valley. Straight ahead out my window was the Med, beneath it were the tables and chairs among gnarly olive trees that make for the hotel restaurant. The menu was homecooked Corsican with little choice, or need of it.
There were a dozen or so other restaurants in the village; one held a Michelin star for twelve years. Those poor chefs only have wild forests, alpine pastures, hothouse weather and day boats from which to source their produce. Add Italian and French culinary traditions and a splash of their hyper-local wine and this place is having a laugh. After your first day on Pietracorbara, the nearest beach, drinking La Vela’s cost price champagne from a real glass, you are wondering if you’ve used up all of your genie’s wishes. Except for the boldest one.
A few days in, I noticed we hadn’t heard a single native English speaker since we landed in Marseille airport. It became a challenge, weighing people up based on their clothes or sunburn, but that “hi” never happened. For ten whole blissful days. Until a nice Irish woman burst my precious bubble with “Is this the priority queue?” and got a disappointedly grumbled “Yes” in reply.
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