Ancient Corsica beckons with deserted beaches and historic structures

March 01, 1992|By David Roberts | David Roberts,Contributing Writer

Years after exile from his native island, Napoleon said, "I would recognize Corsica, blindfolded, by her scent alone."

As soon as I stepped off the plane, I knew what Napoleon meant, for I was awash in a wild, sweet fragrance, the ether of longing and regret.

That scent is nothing more than the aroma of the "maquis," the thorny, impenetrable brush found all over Corsica below 2,500 feet. Botanically, the maquis is a tangle of shrubby trees such as juniper and holm oak, myrtle and box, mastic and arbutus; of flowers such as broom and dwarf laurel, asphodel and cyclamen; of perfumed herbs that include sweetbrier and rosemary, lavender and thyme.

The maquis also stands for the thorny and impenetrable spirit of the Corsicans themselves. For centuries, pirates (the original corsairs), outlaws and revolutionaries took refuge in obscure hollows among the brush. These hide-outs were never betrayed by locals, no matter how black the crimes of the men who laid low. The vendetta was invented in Corsica, and the Corsican mafia is in its own way fully as powerful as its Sicilian counterpart.

During World War II, the maquis became the name and emblem %% of the French resistance; to "prendre le maquis" meant to go underground, to fight as a guerrilla. So fiercely did its citizens resist the Nazis that on Oct. 4, 1943, Corsica became the first French territory liberated from German occupation.

Nowadays, each July and August, the island is still overrun by foreigners -- French, German and British "pintuzos" (Corsican slang for tourists). During those months there are six holiday-makers for every citizen. But from September through October, and again from late March till the end of June, Corsica remains resolutely off-season, while the place is paradoxically at its best, with warm days and cool nights, unhurried hours in timeless villages, solitary strolls on seacoasts and mountain paths.

A 50-by-100-mile island in the Mediterranean, straight south of Genoa and straight west of Rome, Corsica seems at first to mimic other European settings. The names of the towns -- Bonifacio, Propriano, Bastia -- look Italian. The trackless white-sand beaches could belong to the Greek isles. On the Spanish Costa Brava you might find these craggy orange headlands calving into the blue sea. And the knife-edged cliffs leaning over alpine meadows slashed with streams seem straight out of Switzerland.

The people, however, are a mixture of French, Italian, Arabs and indigenes whose roots are lost in prehistory. The language has more affinity with medieval Tuscan than with any tongue now spoken.

Corsica today amounts to an alternative Riviera, only half as expensive as the spas of the French and Italian coasts. Here it is still possible to camp where you like, a freedom long since denied most Europeans. Here you may still walk a pine-nee

dled trail to an empty beach, where the whole day long no other wanderers intrude on your thoughts. And here, in reticent towns whose foundations were raised in Roman times, the lives of fishermen and farmers still overrule the posturings of tourism.

Americans know surprisingly little about the Isle of Beauty, as Corsica has been called for centuries. During a week of crisscrossing the island by rental car last October, a happy seven days of dining in seaside cafes, hiking sinuous canyons and pondering strange ancient monuments, I saw not a single other American.

Waiters and hotel-keepers present a facade of friendliness, but Corsicans are a hard people to get to know. You do not walk up to old men sitting on door stoops and take their pictures. Insular in both senses of the word, Corsicans resent everything Parisian. The City of Light signifies to them only two centuries of French paternalism. Nor have the Corsicans forgotten the Nazis, some of whose grandchildren frolic on their shores.

One breezy night at a cafe in Saint-Florent, I watched the proprietor interact with a group of Teutons. They wanted to dine outside, where the tables had not been set. "No, no," said the owner politely, "you'll get cold." "Don't be silly, we're used to it," demanded one of the group, speaking bad French. The proprietor gave in, but I heard him mutter, the weight of history in his words, "Moi, je connais ces allemands" ("I know these Germans").

For more than two millenniums, Corsicans have fought for freedom not only from the Germans, but also against a succession of foreign oppressors -- Romans, Pisans, Genoese, French and even British. James Boswell, Dr. Johnson's biographer, made a pilgrimage to Corsica in 1765 to pay homage to the great champion of independence, Pascal Paoli, whom Voltaire and Rousseau also admired. But Paoli's brave campaign failed, and for the last two-and-a-quarter centuries -- save for two years of British occupation and one year of the Nazis -- Corsica has "belonged" to France.

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