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Ancient Corsica beckons with deserted beaches and historic structures

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

The campaign for independence thrives today among leftists and students, whose angry graffiti you see spray-painted all over the island. The FLNC and the ANC, the two chief movements, blazon their acronyms next to the classic symbol of nationhood, a stylized map of the island -- triangle topped with handle -- that also resembles a butcher's cleaver. "Lingua corsa obligatoria," demands one motto, and "Camping sauvage basta" another ("Enough of Europeans camping wherever they like").

Yet as an American, I was greeted with old-fashioned civility wherever I went, and I felt more welcome on the Isle of Beauty than I have on visits to west Texas or down-east Maine. Each night I slept in a different town: brown and stately Bastia, fortress of the Genoese tyranny; secretive Porto, whose bay looks through a granite gun sight toward the ocean of the Hesperides; landlocked Corte, ancient capital of Corsica; Propriano, where French nymphs swim in the bay at sunset; and astounding Bonifacio, on the southern tip of the island, crowded atop a giant pedestal of overhanging limestone that crumbles away, inches each year, under the wear of waves and wind.

In fact, they name the winds in Corsica. On my fourth day there, the sirocco came in hard and hot from the south, graying the heavens with sand blown all the way from the Sahara. A day later, the world was colored afresh, as the cleansing libeccio winds poured east from Gibraltar. That night, as I sat in a bar in Propriano, a violent lightning storm knocked out the power. Bereft of candles, the bartender made bonfires of matchbooks in ashtrays, and the place assumed the festive abandon of a pagan camp.

The ambience of the bars and cafes is genial, although Corsican cuisine is undistinguished, except for such traditional farmer's fare as hard sausages, smoked pork in the form of "coppa" or "lonzu," and a dry goat cheese called "brocciu."

If the food seldom surpasses the ordinary, the island's architecture is spectacular. The rich and troubled history of Corsica is written in its buildings. From the four-and-a-half centuries of Genoese rule (1284-1729), the most formidable remains are the stern castles guarding such venerable towns as Bastia and Calvi. Even more striking, however, is the necklace of watchtowers that circles the coast. Built originally in response to the terrible depredations of Barbary pirates from Africa (in 1560, 6,000 Corsican slaves were hauled to Algiers), the towers were placed with exquisite care to ensure line-of-sight signaling from one craggy cape to the next.

Crumbling and derelict, 67 of the original 85 towers still stand, looming as high as 60 feet; some lie right beside the highway, while others take a tough push through the maquis to reach. On the Capo di Muro, I hiked to one of the finest of these towers. As a thunderstorm passed overhead, I hid in the maquis like an outlaw, for the tower was a perfect lightning-rod. After the storm, perhaps foolishly, I climbed a rusted iron staircase that barely clung to the vertical stone, entered the tower, and spiraled inside it to the roof. The view that greeted me commanded eight bays and a fleet of imagined Barbary ships.

For two centuries before the Genoese, Corsica was ruled by their great sea rivals, the Pisans. The most handsome Pisan memorials are a series of small Romanesque churches, scattered among somnolent villages built on perches of inland rock. I once spent three weeks in Spanish Catalonia on an obsessive quest for Romanesque churches. On that whole trip, I found no more beautiful example than the Trinity church at Aregno in northwest Corsica.

Built in the Pisan polychrome style, it has arcades and capitals crowded with monsters and damned souls, carved with the formal rigidity that renders the Romanesque nightmare so startling nine centuries after anonymous sculptors gave shape to its fever.

The most remarkable constructions in Corsica, however, are the prehistoric stone monuments found in the southwest quadrant of the island. These include dolmens (table-like structures of huge stones), menhirs (standing stones), and alignments (rows and columns of standing stones). They date from 3,500 to 1,000 B.C. Lost in the maquis, most of these monuments -- including the finest single site, an enigmatic complex called Filitosa -- were only rediscovered after 1950.

The eerie anthropomorphic menhirs at Filitosa, engraved with shallow human visages and long swords, were, along with the circular fortresses pierced by underground rooms at Cucuruzzu

and Alo Bisucce, the most stunning monuments that I viewed. We may never know what these structures mean, but they prove that 4,000 years ago, when Paris and London were nothing but marshland, Corsica stood as one of the centers of European civilization.

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