Sunday, 13 May 2018

A boyhood in Corsica! Where you might end up!

Ajaccio as a city has a split personality. On the outer edges you will find the apartment blocks and cheap housing, sprawling outward and upward, with nondescript ring-road character, a lot of mobile fast-food vans in permanent parking positions, waste ground between graphically intense business premises, and only a faint sense of optimism.   Round the harbours with their ferry terminals, cruise-liner berths, plaited traffic routes, archaeological digs and ancient buildings, there is quite another thing going on. This is where the munnee is, in the quaint daily market and ‘places’ complete with statues of heroes (guess who?), and runs of boutiques with frankly delightful objets waiting to be bought.

It’s difficult to restrain oneself from responding to these two kinds of cultural music.   The ring roads are horrible. The old town is fascinating. Yet, of course, the people are the same…..

We headed to the Casa Bonaparte, the house where Napoleon himself was born, that meteoric rocket of a man, who started - how exactly?  The only place for us to park was underground. Fine. We got to the house fairly early, and had to queue for no more than ten minutes till the doors were open. We were not the only English people in the queue but it was mostly French people.   In we went. Up to the second floor……

We were not planning to stay for the full, whole experience, but just to walk through, and come back another time when we had more leisure (and I do not regret that decision).  The house is absolutely fascinating.  The family owned it from the late 1600s, and NP was born 15 Aug 1769, so it was with a grand-parently scale of time.  The Bonapartes did not own the whole house - they had the cellars and the lower floors, while other families lived above. Napoleon’s mother brought (as a dowry) some farms and olive groves in the countryside, and the produce from this estate was stored and processed in those cellars.  The family ate some and sold some, so this was a very moderately prosperous establishment.  As a little boy, Napoleon could run down the alleys to the harbour and see for himself the shipping coming and going, the trade, the danger, the idea of faraway places.   No doubt the family was proud, and hard, and industrious, and had an eye to the future.

But the patriotism of the island, the anti-French sentiment, was strong and the family did not agree with it. The disruption was strong enough for them to decide to leave - to move to Paris.  The Bonapartes left Corsica.  He was about 8 or 9 years old.  Britain (as it happened) allied itself with the Corsican patriot Paoli, and (as I said) sent Nelson to help with their struggle against the French.   And Napoleon, at a young age was sent into this meteoric trajectory which saw him as an Emperor, with his siblings as crowned heads of Europe, and he with powers greater than the Pope.  All from a small grocer’s shop in a tiny Mediterranean port.   It is astonishing.

The house as now presented is nothing like he would have known as a child, maybe with the exception of the cellars which were the stock room of the family trade.  Upstairs, the building is now re-integrated (as the various family members bought the various bits back), and redecorated in an extraordinary mixture of regal and private. By the mid-19th century, Napoleon's nephew Emperor Napoleon III and his wife the Empress Eugenie came to stay - and by then of course the place was opened up, wallpapered, furnished with lovely things, lit withe chandeliers, and with ceiling hand-painted with the most elegant designs.  But to see the dining room - it could pass still, today, as a country farm-house room with a plain round table and a few country chairs.   There are mirrors, an eagle over a fireplace, some good maps and paintings, and various museum exhibits.   

But still, that child, that little boy, that granite baby, who was born (so they say) on a plain, elegant spindly couch, divan or chaise-longue…. what sparked him off, what headed him into eternal glory and power, who can say?  

All I know is, I was surprised by how ordinary and humble his origins were, and how like the jumbled chaotic ambitions of my own family, and the families of people I know.  Just ordinary.  

We did not stay for the whole experience - listening to everything on the headphones.  We walked through, and were perhaps the first of that morning’s visitors to leave, having been inside for just 50 minutes or so…. But already as we came out, there was a long queue waiting to get in. 

We strolled through the food market, retrieved our car from its cool underground cavern, and headed  up the coast towards the Iles Sanguinières….. millionaire-land if you like, with gated communities and smart planting. There are a few, just a very few blocks of flats out this way, but somehow different from the blocks at the back of the city.  After a few failed attempts to find a beach-side restaurant open (many have closed down), we eventually found one.  The large car park across the road was liberally adorned with mountains of rotting rubbish, as elsewhere…… and stinking. 

But the little resto (les Girelles) was perfect, we could see the astonishing colours of the clear water and we ate pizzas (very nice at about £15 each), and I made a painting.  


Rather than go back - though we were tired - we went to explore a little more of that headland and found ourselves in a vast field of wild flowers, of such vibrant colour and variety it was spellbinding. We stayed for ages, just looking, calming ourselves down.  Wild roses, wild pea, orchids, daisies, tiny poppies, brilliant yellows, purples, whites, creams, pinks, blues, tall fennels, lavenders, wild oats and other grasses, euphorbias, layers and layers and layers of them, intermingled, differentiated, dazzling.   

Then back, to rest, consider, snooze, pack.  This was our last day in Corsica.  We packed our flotsam cactus into its box packed in with beach shoes and laundry to keep it safe. We ate a picnic of gazpacho and biscuits and various ends of things.   We crashed out.   

Writing this today, at home, having faced the delays of the French air traffic control strike, and found a mutual acquaintance with the lady sitting in the seat beside us, and getting back in time to see Faversham’s Transport Weekend exhibitors, it all feels a bit strange…. Napoleon!!!! Wild flowers!!!!! Dazzling blue bays and soft sand!!!!! Snow-capped mountains!!!!! All this EXISTS.  All the time.   We unpacked the extraordinary flotsam cactus animal and it stands now in the front window.  Another traveller.

Saturday, 12 May 2018

Making use of things

From the beach we had carried a large piece of flotsam - a chunk of cactus in the form of an animal with many legs, beautiful to look at either in standing position or on its back. This I decided I would like to bring home, so we had to find a way to pack it. Our journey south along the east coast was thus interrupted by a search for packing, which we found at last in a small brico, where a very helpful lady found us a cardboard box which fitted, and some Fragile tape to seal it all up.
We were also keen to find the Graeco-Roman site at Aleria, and made several wrong turns due to discrepancies between satnav and road signs.  One diversion, to the southern end of the Etang de Diane, led through huge vineyards extending as far as the eye could see. Gangs of workmen were busy on a huge drainage ditch.  Birds of many unknown kind swooped and sang.  Kites wheeled overhead.  The light, reflected from the sea and the lagoon, was incandescent.  Wildflowers were spread like a colossal embroidery along the verges. We found a resto up on a small hill, where the superb views had encouraged a hippy-entrepreneur to start up - his little house was extended with terraces, sheds, canopies, gardens, signposts and sculptures, with an extreme emphasis on driftwood (like our cactus).  The ornamentation was eye-boggling.  This place is called Veni et Posa. We waited for ages and ages before a young waiter arrived, very cool. He'd done some training or work experience in Mayfair and thought Queensway in London was cool too.  We had a coffee and moved on. Lunch there would have been very expensive indeed - about €60 pp. Too much for us, anyway, despite the views.
So, heading to the archaeological site at last we decided to picnic, and settled under a huge ancient olive tree. In the distance we could see the sea. Butterflies danced over the flowers. A cat as big as a small lamb strolled past. It was all quiet. We feasted on last night's bread, some terrine in a jar, the last of the superb tapenade from Zonza, some cheese, pears, carrot salad and water. This was perhaps the finest lunch you could command and cost us 'nothing' in the way of further expenditure.
Then we wandered up into the citadel which overlooks the huge site - it has a small church (nice outside, Victorianised inside), a Genoese fort from the early 1500s (now an excellent museum), and admired the superb view.  The Greeks were here at the time of the Persian War, the Romans came in waves. Imagine if you were posted here, instead of (say) Hadrian's Wall. You'd be delirious.
The site was discovered in the 19th century mostly because there was one half-arch standing alone in a field, once part of an arcade. Various illustrious excavators have been and done a reasonable job of exposing and explaining the history. Their work is not done yet. This place, along with Mariana which we visited a couple of days before, represent the largest Roman remains on Corsica.
Then we turned up into the mountains again, passing not far from Vizzavona as it happened, so we could see where the railway made its way through the precipitous landscape - and where we had been the day before, in rain and cold. Today, it was breezy but fine, and sunny. Such a difference. It is hard to know what to wear here, as the weather and temperature change so rapidly and so much.
I have run out of superlatives to describe the beauties of the roads. I think one of the attractions is that is is all protected - development is strictly controlled. Patriotism and environmentalism are inextricably linked - so the views are unimpeded, and the land remains green. It is profoundly restorative - whether you are looking at distant peaks and valleys, or tall pine forests, or gorges with rushing rivers, or tiny villages clustered tightly on hilltops.
Our arrival in Ajaccio was a horrible shock, to be honest. Noise, scruburbia, traffic, fumes, delays, congestion, something rather debauched about it all.  We eventually found our Ibis hotel far up on the outskirts, and having established ourselves in the little room headed back down to the water to explore and find supper.  We were fortunate to find a parking place really quickly. We sauntered through the market, and eventually walked a further mile or so around the old port to choose a meal from one of hundreds of restos. It's a bit of a gauntlet manoeuvring past all the greeters on the pavements, keen to lure you in. It makes it hard to read the menus on display when they seize on you and start telling you what's best for you.
However, we chose, we ate, we were entertained by two pretty but irritating little sisters who shouted and played between the tables, we watched the ferries glide out of the harbour, and we watched the darkness arrive on the water.  As this was where Napoleon was born, no wonder he developed a sense of 'the rest of the world' with this harbour to watch. A place like this is a kind of world birth-place, where everything is on offer, everyone has been here (bringing something, taking something), and it remains fantastically attractive. We were both very tired, and the little room at Ibis was calling.

Thursday, 10 May 2018

Overcoming difficulties

It's shocking how sleep deprivation so quickly reduces your (my) capacity to deal with things. The b&b is fine, the bed is more or less comfortable, but.... new neighbours arriving in the night woke us up, and it was too hot, and then too cold, and I slept badly.
So the minor inconveniences of the day became grossly irritating.  Having to get up early to drive to catch the train which (as far as Andrew was concerned) was really the sole purpose for coming to Corsica - the Micheline, a 1m gauge mountain railway which connects Ajaccio, Bastia and Calvi.
The glories of the T20 road - a fantastically beautiful valley route, complete with snow-capped mountains in the distance, and interesting industrial buildings along the way, along with old and new river bridges of great beauty - were instantly eradicated by the blithe announcement of the young lady in the station ticket office that today is a jour ferié, so the normal timetable was not running. We'd have to wait an extra hour to get up to Vizzavona, and then wait 5 hours to come back.  And it was going to rain.
We had little choice but my grumbling resentful nature emerged and I was bitching and worrying about not having enough time to sit and paint...
We walked, and we walked and we walked to try to find the Centre Ville of Corte, once the capital of Corsica, but on foot the roads led only to apartment estates and building sites.  I got crosser and crosser, carrying my art materials, feeling time slipping by, and nowhere to sit and choose somewhere to paint.   Andrew picked a sunny spot to stop for coffee, and we were instantly surrounded by a coach load of English tourists, much older than us and being rude to the exasperated waiter when he didn't understand their orders of 'caffuchina'..... He though we were with them. Eventually we established that we were not, and that we spoke reasonable French and loved Corsica. He melted and was charming, but still I could not paint, with the sun streaming in and the fine statue of patriot Pasquale de Paoli looking the wrong way. There is, incidentally, a bust of Paoli in Westminster Abbey. We were allied to him as he was fighting the French to gain independence. We sent Nelson to help him.
Eventually we got back to the train, and set off up one of the most spectacularly beautiful and breathtakingly engineered railway lines in the world, I suppose.  On either side, the gorges and cliff tops march in a parade of splendour. The train rattles and shudders and shakes, its brakes and wheels squealing as it clambers up and up into the mists.
Our arrival at Vizzavona was quiet - we stepped off onto the tiny platform, gazing around at the trees, and two little bars.  That's about it.  There are a lot of signposts telling you about hotels and campsites, and a couple of houses, and two closed hotels, and that's it.  We had 5 hours to kill.  We could hear birdsong, and waterfalls, and up above the snow lay in the crags of the mountains. It was quite chill, and dull.
Just up the road is a fine old hotel, utterly in ruins.  We strolled on, made friends with a man in a sort of shack, and bought two coffees from him. He turned out to be a descendant of the family which built the hotel.  He had so many stories to tell us, in very good English.  His name was Grimaldi. His family was originally from Anjou - a crusader who went to Jerusalem but was shipwrecked on the way home and settled in Sicily. This was a very tall man.   His two sons also settled in the s of Italy, but eventually came to Corsica - and climbed the mountains and found a village with very small women, whom they married.   Their graves are still there, very long, proving how tall they were - 2m at least.
His great grandfather was a doctor in the British Indian Army and conceived the idea of building a hotel up here, for the officer class to come and relax.  He helped build the railway and then his hotel. The officers and their wives and children and servants came, staying for 2 or 3 months at a time.  On Fridays they played bridge. On Saturdays there was a ball (dancing). And on Sundays there was a piano concert. This went on for decades, beyond both world wars.
The grandfather made a lake to collect ice - which was sawn into blocks each winter with mule-power. The ice was stacked (layered with leaves for easy separation) in ice houses and then taken by train down to Bastia.   The snow fell 3 metres deep each winter apart from 1956 when it reached 11 metres and many of the local roofs collapsed under the weight of snow.  Lady Rose Barrington came to stay, doing her researches into traditional life on Corsica.  In the end, the families stopped coming. The Grimaldi family sold the hotel and the new owner shut it up... It was rapidly ransacked and stands today as a dark ruin.   Mr Grimaldi owns a tract of land between the hotel  and the river, which he runs as a campsite for the walkers who come through the mountains. His tiny shop (epicerie) sells the very basic minimum of what anyone might need.  He would not let me take his photograph, as he says, like Native Americans, he believes photographs steal something of your soul.  But he had a nice face.
We had a basic lunch in one of the two bars (filthy at it turned out, and as expensive as yesterday's haute cuisine meal at St Florent), and then we walked in the chilly dark air. I managed to get two or three poor sketches done and we waited and waited for the train back.   Once again we trundled through the most magic of landscapes, rocking along in the little train.  Back at Corte, where it was pouring with rain, we bought bread and bananas and found the car.     Getting back to the lowlands, the sun came out and everything warmed up.
During the day we heard that my uncle had died in Oxfordshire as I thought he would, and Lucie and her James landed safely from NewYork. The connectivity of mobile phones is useful and beguiling, and a million miles from the steady antique evidence of granite and forests.   We have picnicked in the sun on our terrace, strolled on the beach, discussed tomorrow's travel plans and what was best about the day. I liked the way the individual sleepers along the railway line were numbered, and the way the waterfalls adorned the mountains like chains of diamonds.  The clouds of mist on the peaks was constantly changing, making landscape-drawing almost impossible. I liked meeting Mr Grimaldi and hearing all his stories.  The Micheline railway is almost unbelievable, but it actually is the island's main commuter and transport artery through the centre.   Another slice of the old days.

Wednesday, 9 May 2018

Hidden cities

The landscape, geology and architecture of tiny areas of this island change very rapidly as you drive. And the climate does the same. You can be in broad sunshine down on the marshes, but just 2 miles away, drenching rain or thick clouds of mist screen everything. A large tract of land in the north is called Nebbio - Mist!
The rain this morning made no apologies. We could see the massive dark mass of clouds arriving from the north west quite a while before the rain actually started. We we driving along a narrow spit of sandy land between the sea and an inland lagoon called Etang Biguglia, admiring the mix of trees and the green peacefulness of the place, but by the time we reached Bastia just 15km away, the monsoon arrived. It was a ferocious rain. The roads became rivers. The water had nowhere to go.  Drains became fountains as the surge of the flood pushed up out of the ground.  As this was our first visit it was impossible to know if this is a normal occurrence, or something unusual.
Miraculously, we found a parking place right down in the old port, which sits behind a handsome sea wall surmounted by a pair of grand lights - red and green. The port is ringed with tall buildings, mostly pretty ancient, and brooding overall is the bastion, or the bastions, currently a museum but unmistakably military.   We had coffee, strolled up the hill, recognising there's too much to be seen in each of these places. It will be less stressful if we regard this whole trip as something of a recce for future visits. Bastia is a great place, a real place, working, and with lots of students and cafes and activity.  Definitely worth a longer visit.
Our options were utterly governed by uncertainty about the weather. The rain and mist were so powerful it would be a shame to make the trip round the Corniche (the northern cape of the island), with its millions of twists and turns along the coast road, if we could see nothing.
So we chose instead to go westerly over the ridge, and see if the west coast was any better. The road up to Col de Teghime was ornamented by strings of cyclists, in their tight lycra and apparently effortless determination to push on to infinite heights and distances.  We stopped at the Col - where a gun is on display, and the story told of how this was the first part of France to be liberated in the war, in 1943.  The stone letterings are in French and Corsican, but do not say who the battle was against....
Up there, where the land forms a crisp crest dividing east from west, you can see the mist and fog actually forming right in front of your eyes.
We pressed on to the west, towards Patrimonio (the wine centre of Corsica), and then down to St Florent.   Again we could see how the rocks change from schists to granite, and the plants create a different harmony, and the trees amend their outlines to match the climate and the wind, and the flowers change in each tiny bend of the road.
St Florent has a fine yachting harbour and enough rich visitors as a result to allow some of the restaurants to charge €70 for a plate of beef, but there are also pizza houses and cafes and brasseries.  We ate in a hotel dining room which took a serious approach to food.
They brought us a tiny cup of Jerusalem Artichoke soup laced with walnut oil, and then Andrew ate squid with herb risotto while I had a lasagne of local goats cheese. It was absolutely splendid and cost us €47 including one glass of wine, one bottle of water, and two local desserts based on chestnut and that local goats cheese again.
Horatio Nelson came to St Florent, fighting under Admiral Hood to support the Corsicans who were rebelling against the French, and it was very soon after that he joined battle against the French again a little further west at Calvi - where he lost an eye.
We wanted to go and see the original Martello Tower - actually called the Tour de Mortella - but although it's only a few miles across the bay from St Florent, it's about an hour and a half's drive to get there, so we reluctantly decided against it this time.  Instead we went south-east to the unknown village of Penta-di-Casinca. This was because Andrew's sister Gillie's partner James had announced that this is where part of his family came from..... We went to see if we could find anything of his origins.
Up and up we went, with speedy Corsican drivers pleased to overtake us on the precipitous roads. When we got there, we were really astonished to find a tiny city perched on a mountain-top, with tall and ancient buildings of 4 or 5 stories, narrow streets, and a densely settled area. This is quite unlike other villages we have seen which tend to be lower and more sprawling. Penta is unmistakably Italian in tone.  The rain was still hammering down and the mist sprawled and twisted around us. There was no view, at all.  
But we parked, scuttled around in the rain, went into the church which is crammed with statues and carvings, and then into an almost invisible cafe - the Cafe du Centre. There the owner told us that James' family were all décédée, but the house is still there. We had a bit of a muddle about this as he spoke in dialect/Corsican and I thought he meant one of the huge but ruined houses along the main street, but then he said no, it was not ruinée, and so I think the house he meant was a massive Renaissance house, with MCCCCCXX carved over the door, and its back wall forming part of the ramparts of the citadel.
We sent photos back to Gillie and she said she and James would be visiting soon. What excitement!
The whole story of the island is one of conquest, culture, control, forced trade and taxation, and of course emigration...  Who would not want to own and control this beautiful, rich and beguiling place? It is one of the greatest treasures of civilisation, and sufficiently argumentative to keep exploitive tourism at bay, so not a lot of people know about it.  But it is glorious.
Heading home again, finally, still in the rain and mist, we stopped - down on the sandy marsh - at a place where an ancient church lies directly in the path of the road.  You have to drive right round it, in a weird wiggle.    The church stands all alone, you feel, in the prairie. It is made of whitish stone, and completely plain, almost totally unadorned. It is Pisan. It dates from 1119. It is built on the site of a Roman basilica, part of the paleochristian development of a Roman port founded here in 100 BC.  There are a few Roman foundations excavated around it, that work being done just before the war.    But since then, technology and international interest have revealed far more. This was a city called Mariana, named for the general who founded the place as a centre for Mediterranean trade, one Marius.   The site extends to more than 30 hectares, most of that utterly invisible under the flat fields. They are now building a huge new archaeological museum to explain all this. The new building can be seen a couple of fields away, modern and rather lovely.  But the little church, once a cathedral, is the star.  It shines.  Utterly plain. Utterly beautiful.   This building alone is enough reason to book a return visit to Corsica.  It is wondrous.

Tuesday, 8 May 2018

The three washerwomen of antiquity

The wild flowers are magnificent - some familiar from unspoiled places in Britain but many unknown to me. Wild cyclamen flood the woods. There are dazzling spreads of orchids, daisies, wild roses, a tiny dwarf lavender, mesembryanthemums, wild peas, pale dandelions, centaurea, thistles, grasses and so many more.
The birdsong fills the forests, and again some calls are familiar - especially the blackbird, but there are so many I do not know. We have seen woodpeckers, jays, many sort of crow, eagles in the higher reaches, and today several aerial skirmishes between kites (black kite?) and crows chasing them away.
Everything here is on the move - the mountains, the horizon, the clouds, the light, even the roads are dynamic.  Engineered to bring you across the astonishing gorges and peaks of the various mountain ranges, the roads are - for the most part - in pretty good shape, although occasionally, some stretches seem to be maintained by Kent County Council, being bumpy, rough and full of holes.  But these tracts are exceptional.  For the most part the roads are excellent, with all their climbs and corners, U-bends and cambers.   They are attacked day and night by hostile forces - rocks tumble down onto them, and bits of trees fall. The earth banks slither and slip. Water courses are usually directed beneath them, but sometimes flow randomly over the surface and can always undermine the tarmac.  Tree roots push their way underneath and then up, making unmarked bumps and hillocks. It's all fluid, shifting.
Today we left the quiet eccentricities of the Moufflon d'Or at Zonza and turned to the north east towards the coast. The road is one of the most spectacular in Corsica, with various stopping points along the way. The views are - frankly - staggering.  The granite peaks present an ever-ascending culmination of vertical faces, sliced and swept bare by the millions of years of erosion and weathering. Today they presented a sort of flesh-coloured pinkness in the sunlight, striated with black shadows and thin lines of vegetation clinging on against all odds.  The final crescendo of height is called the Col or Aig de Bavella, which is barely credible to understand.  The tops are so far up, jagged and dramatic you can only imagine someone dreamed them up in a kind of dystopian vision.    As you descend on the eastern flanks and finally arrive at marshes and meadows far down by the sea, you have to pinch yourself to remember what you have just seen.
Down here in the eastern lowlands the land is rich and fertile, with grazing flocks and fat little farmsteads. The tourist industry has bitten only gently - with low-rise buildings and a family-run air. Finding a big-brand supermarket is not easy. And although this is definitely French, it's not like other parts of France. This is called an autonomous collectivity, and is an expression of hundreds of years of a desire for independence. The Corsicans have been battling against ownership for centuries - against Pisa, and Genoa, and latterly France. There's an interesting and instructive article about all this dated Sept 7th 2017 in the Financial Times.  It even recounts the almost unbelievable story of how partisans blew up the villa belonging to a Paris property developer to stop him going ahead with an unpopular scheme - this had the effect of scaring all the others off too, which may account for the unspoiled and quiet atmosphere along the coasts and in the beautiful interior.
We had lunch at a beach cafe near the Roman port of Aleria, and then made our way north - diverting into a tiny steep valley ornamented with two tiny villages dedicated to Santa Lucia and San Nicolao.  Here the roads are tiny, and the land apparently abandoned to scrub. On my arm I found the smallest ant I have ever seen, no bigger than a money spider.  We saw three ladies sitting on a bridge in the woods, far from anywhere, with a fabulous river cannonading below them. These I am sure we're the three washerwomen of antiquity, heralding a death - and indeed, this very day, I heard that one of my lovely uncles has not very long to live. These three Ladies were dark and serene, and returned our respectful greeting as we passed by.  There, the rocks have changed to the schists which mark the east of the island, and there was wild water mint growing in the gullies, and stately little orchids.
Our hotel is so strikingly modern and clean, right on the beach at Plage de la Marana - near Bastia airport but you would never know it - anyway, we had booked in for one night and decided to stay for three. The room has its own west-facing terrace. The beach has creamy grey sand, and a colossal assortment of logs and trees washed up all along the sand.  It is all quiet.  Large black ants patrol but do not nip. The birds are singing their hearts out. There are great swathes of flowers growing along the fields.  I feel we could be in the past..... Maybe twenty or thirty years ago.  Magic.

Monday, 7 May 2018


After the dispiriting cold and wet on the day of our arrival, we were very pleased to head out into the mountains yesterday to Cucuruzzu, a prehistoric site hidden in the oak forests about 20 miles away. To say that the views are spectacular sounds very lame. The basic geology of Corsica is a massive thrust granite creating the western side of the island with schists crashed into the eastern side, the whole clothed with dense velvety coverings of forests of pine and holm oak. These woods are full of birdsongs which fill the air, and the verges along the sides of the roads are covered in wildflowers. The sounds, colour and perfume of the whole landscape is ecstatically beautiful, and behind and underneath it all, are these immense valleys and mountains. 
The area where we are staying is characterised by colossal granite boulders which have been exposed by millions of years of erosion and then rounded off. These are much larger than elephants, sometimes as large as houses. They lie scattered about in a casual kind of way, and whole villages are built around them, beside them, or underneath them. For the very earliest inhabitants of this area they provided shelter, and the settlement of Cucuruzzu shows how attractive and valuable they have been to people for thousands and thousands of years. 
To see this extraordinary and remarkable place you must walk for a couple of kilometres through a shady forest of oaks and laurels, carefully treading between ankle-breaking rocks along your path. and finding your way across boggy streams which criss-cross the mountain sides. 
The origins of the settlement predate the invention of agriculture, and indeed here it would have been very difficult for anybody to sow any cereal crops because the land is so steep, the rocks cover nearly everything and the trees create such shade. But from Stone Age times, through the Bronze Age and right up into the mediaeval period, people choose to live up here. Huge blocks of stone created a natural citadel for them which they enhanced with walls, chambers, lookout points and rooms. The very few small areas of flat land cleared to make fields have clearly been used and cherished for thousands of years, and were farmed until very recently, but are now left as sunny open grassy spaces with wild flowers growing in them. It seems they were very first occupied by people who lived on the flat marshy lands to the south, near the coast, during the winter and only came up here with their beasts during the summer. 
The bellicose nature of history is never far from one’s mind in areas like this: one tribe against another, one chieftain holding his territory through force of arms, castles and strongholds, viewpoints and territory, a very masculine view of the world.  Castles and fortresses are physical representations of a particular kind of culture. So even up here where the use of Cucuruzzu changed quite a lot, I’m still reminded of other castles like Dover, Walmer, the castle at Ponferrada in Spain, and so on. I imagine a baleful countenance staring out into the gloom looking for enemies, and I couldn’t help remembering the remarkable archaeological site we visited in La Palma earlier this year with its strange female fertility rock carvings  - a very different tone in a very similar landscape. 
We got lunch in a cafe on the edge of the forest where a charming waitress from Thailand explained how many languages she had learnt to speak since coming to live in Corsica.
And in the afternoon we drove all the way down to the coast to Portevecchio, the swanky beautiful and historic port on the south coast of the island. There we saw an estate agents window with the unexpected but familiar name of Sotheby’s, displaying photos of a couple of dozen properties for sale, featuring swimming pools, shining marshlands, islands, clear water in the bays, and not a single price on display. As Andrew said,if you need to ask the price you can’t afford it. Climbing up into the Bastion of France, standing on the open battlements at the top, peering through a telescope to see a flock of flamingos in the distance as they waded around in the deserted salt-pans on the other side of the river, we read about the continuous history of this pivotal place from the Romans onwards. And we looked down on the little marina with its lines of yachts, and watched the ferry to Sardinia easing its way out. This is a very rich place. 


How small things can bring you down

It was a bit of a shock going into the house in Brighton. The last time we were there, 2 years ago, it looked pretty and cherished - which was not surprising as so many of us had worked so hard to upgrade it. Now we were there to empty it out. Our son was selling it to move to Ireland. But the tenant had not taken care of it. Everything was dirty and untidy. The lavatories had dark black and brown stains under the water. The kitchen was piled with dirty dishes. There were tears in the wallpaper and everything looked very sad. One of the electric sockets was literally hanging off the wall.  It was shocking seeing something so abused. 
But everybody worked hard and we soon filled our car and our son’s van with the possessions that needed to be saved. He and his brother-in-law would be driving the van back to Ireland on Monday morning.
We drove home from Brighton to our own house through the ecstatically beautiful countryside, the sun shining on the downs. And then we started preparations for our own trip away to Corsica.
We left shortly after 3 o’clock in the morning. Most of our trips from Gatwick leave from the South terminal but this time we had to go from the North terminal. Somehow the extra few miles to the car park,  the poor signage, the patchy road surfaces and unlit bus pick-up stops made it all seem rather grim. However our flight was soon called and we boarded the plane to sit in the very last row of seats. My seat/neighbour was a very large young man whose knees barely fitted into the space in front of him. He wasn’t trying to cause trouble but he did take up a lot of space, and I sat awkwardly on my seat beside him. It wasn’t until we were well into our flight and I stood up to go to the loo that I realised my seat was in fact quite wet. My clothes were sticking to me - my long cardigan, my long shirt, my silky trousers and my undercrackers, all wet through. It  was an unpleasant discovery.  The cabin crew acted swiftly and found a dry seat cover which they placed over my chair and the flight continued more comfortably, haunted only by dire imagination about what the liquid could have been.
We queued in hot sun to pick up the hire-car at Corsica airport,  and made our way up towards the delectable mountains. We could see ragged clouds and mist rolling over the peaks. Of course the higher we got the colder the air became. And I realised that not only did I have to find a way to wash all my clothing but also that I had probably brought completely inappropriate things to wear. My suitcase has a meagre selection of shorts and T-shirts, whereas we were facing rain, wind and a plummeting temperature. By the time we got to Zonza the rain could only be described as torrential. Along the winding route we were very pleased to see wild red pigs grazing along the sides of the road, happy cattle allowed to wander through the woods and a huge horned creature (an Ibex? I do know), something with shaggy beard and wild horns peering at us over a stone wall. 

Arriving at last at our destination - a strange residence called me Moufflon d’Or, we had to call to get somebody to open the reception. The young lady assured us that we could only leave our car outside the gates, our villa being about half a mile up the steep hill with the rain sheeting down like a monsoon. Our chalet is an irregularly shaped but spacious building, one of many grouped around a swimming pool in the grounds of what was once a hotel. There are some fine trees, and some truly remarkable huge boulders made of granite dating from 250 million years ago. The centre of the park is crowned by the original hotel building, a four-storey stone edifice of painful ugliness occupying the centre of the view. We were a bit dispirited having come so far and being so tired. But we discovered that the air-conditioner also works as a heater which we turned on to maximum to warm ourselves and dry our belongings, and we went out with the car to the village back up the hill where to our great good fortune we found one single umbrella for sale, and a tiny a epicerie open,where we bought a picnic for supper. We came home and prepared our meal – a powerful tapenade spread in tiny croutons, slightly toasted bread, delicious Corsican sheep‘s cheese,  grated carrot salad, and for me a very nice local rosé wine which cost no more than 4 pounds. And so to bed.