Corsica: April 9 - May 2, 2006 Sardinia: May 2 - 5, 2006
Language On Demand
During the 4 hour ferry ride from Livorno, Italy to Bastia in northeastern Corsica, Bill studied his German for an hour as he hopes to do most days and then turned his attention to translating the accommodation information in his new Corsica Lonely Planet--that was written in Italian. He had hurriedly searched the bookstores in Livorno for a guide book and an Italian version was the best he could find.
Our traveler's Italian that has been self-taught as we go was hardly up to reading books, but being very familiar with the Lonely Planet format and writing style was a huge help. A little time with his PDA's electronic Italian dictionary and he was sorting out which hotels had dark rooms, which hotels the author's considered over priced, and why indeed their recommendation was a good choice. The irony was that when we debarked and headed for the hotel, his conversation wasn't in Italian, German, or English but in French.
Corsica is one of those historically misplaced pieces of real estate: it's closest continental neighbor is Italy but it is French. I immediately wanted to read the history section of our guidebook to understand how this happened and then of course realized our book was in Italian. Reading history in Italian would tax my vocabulary which is slanted towards: roadside signs that had only advanced to words like "mud" and "landslides"; my hotel words that had expanded to include "towel" and "sink"; and my strongest suit, food label words, which don't usually appear in history lessons.
That night Bill downloaded a French dictionary on to our handheld computers from software he had previously purchased and stashed on our laptop. Even though he had no intention of being in a French speaking country this year, we were at least somewhat equipped for the challenge. Bill, who had studied a year of college level French in preparation for our traveling life, would be stuck doing most of the verbalizing. I deeply missed not having a phrase book and felt pretty mute during our stay without its pronunciation guidance. I could only help with the dictionary searches and with composing alternative ways to structure sentences to match Bill's French skills.
Our first evening in Corsica while doing his laundry, Bill was still shaking his head and remarking "I had no intention of going to Corsica this year." It was one of those fun flukes--a few days before when reading the Italy guidebook he noticed that one of the port towns we would ride through had daily boat service to Corsica. It wasn't far away, so why not..... Well, we had no guidebook, we weren't prepared with a French phrasebook, and we worried that by arriving on Palm Sunday we might be fighting an uphill battle with tight lodging and high prices. The French speaker at the Corsica tourist info office that Bill called from Italy was unable to speak English or tolerate his French to reassure us, so we decided just to punt.
We were off to a good start though. The ocean passage had been smooth so we arrived without any motion sickness; the highly recommended hotel in our Italian version of the guide book was a tremendous value compared to what we'd been getting in Tuscany; and the first French people Bill did business with were pleasant and helpful--not our usual experience with the French. One young man even apologized to Bill for not speaking English. And the threatening rain on our arrival day never materialized.
The English translation of "Cap Corse" is "Cape Corsica" and it was where we began our counterclockwise tour of Corsica, starting from the port town of Bastia. If you make a fist with your right hand, rest it on a table palm side up and then completely extend your forefinger, your extended finger looks quite similar to Cap Corse as it abruptly protrudes northward from the rest of Corsica. We were never able to find a book in English about the geology of Corsica, so we know little about how this distinctive landmass came to be.
What we did learn is that about 30 million years ago Corsica and its southern neighbor Sardinia, which together are considered a micro-continent, broke away from mainland Europe. Cap Corse in the north, like the rest of the little continent, is a complex of sedimentary and metamorphic rocks. Heat and pressure during the formation of the Alps transformed the sedimentary grit of an old ocean floor into what we saw. One small peninsula on the western side is volcanic rock, though we didn't notice anything distinctive about it.
We'd love to know the rest of the geological story however. The wonderfully weathered green rocks of the Cap, the red rocks around Porto, and the masses of yellow in between have their own tales to tell. And it was fun to watch the changing hues in the road surfaces from the use of local rock. One stretch of road up north had a purple-cast to it but the bit of old road peeking out at the edges was greenish. Around Porto, part way down the island, some of the pavement had a distinct pink tone.
Rugged Cap Corse was a delight and we fell in love with Corsica on our first day on its roads. We loved the drama of the exposed rocks; we loved biking on the twisting, up and down roads that skirted sometimes precariously along the sea; and we loved the dense, busy vegetation. Cap Corse, like much of the island, had a complex mix of plant life, including the distinctive Mediterranean maquis of juniper, myrtle, and sage.
Corsica was blooming in early April and we spotted graceful wisteria in the villages; wild cyclamen; little white, purple and blue flowers; and lots of brilliant dandelions. The vegetation changed with our ever changing elevation and climate pockets. We had an intense review of the trees that we had learned, with sightings of huge eucalyptus, stunted pines, sweet chestnuts (as opposed to horse chestnuts), oaks, cork oaks, tamarisks, and olive. Then there were all the trees we didn't know or had forgotten: beech, rock rose, myrtle, tree heather, Holm oak, strawberry tree, and cane apple. Scotch broom or something similar, mint and giant fennel filled in the middle ground between the flowers and the trees and lichens of many colors jazzed up the plainer rocks. And mixed in this botanical feast were numerous large and out-of-place-looking prickly pear cacti from Central America that Columbus introduced to Europe.
A Jerky Start
Our second riding day on Corsica however unexpectedly became an "in" day. Luckily we were at a small port with a captain's office from which we got a weather report. From the port officials we learned that winds that had intermittently awoken us through the night were forecasted to be 40 mph during the day with 70 mph gusts.
In 2004 we opted to ride several days in similar conditions in
Scotland as there was no let-up in sight and the combination of low traffic
volume and lack of flying debris made it
safe enough to try. But the Corsican coastal roads were a different matter. In a
few places the cliff-hanger roads had succumbed to erosion with parts of the
roadbed still missing. The plastic tape markers had also fallen over the edge,
making these roads no place for bikes in high winds. And often when the road
was intact and had barriers in
place, they were the knee-high stone walls that can feel like worse than nothing
when on a bike.
I have visions of hitting one of those low barricades and having my high center of gravity then flip me over the low barrier and down the steep bank or into the drink. I don't ride close to these barriers in the best of weather conditions and their presence made the prospect of wind-riding seem even more foolish. Given that this was a transient wind phenomena, we opted for a study day in our cramped room with a good view of the wind flattening the grassy fields and whipping the tree tops. A short morning walk to the market under the clear blue skies was enough to satisfy our need to be out in the turbulence.
Never Enough Time--How Can That Be?
We rarely take a day out for our studies as it seems pointless: our longings are so endless. Instead, we stuff what we can into our evenings and complain about not having enough time to do everything we think we want be doing. Of course, we have no excuse as we are completely in charge of our schedule. But even in Year 6 of this traveling life, we have yet to settle on the ideal balance between all of the forces that pull us: exploring, exercising, studying, socializing, doing the daily chores of life, resting, and having quality time together.
We have a couple of DVD history courses stored on our laptop that we thoroughly enjoy when we view them and have plans to buy more. And also on DVD, are several 6-week language courses that we could be working on. At any given time, I will have 2 to 5 webpage updates that are in varying stages of completion plus a half dozen shorter files on the gear that we carry or travel information that are close to being done.
Almost all of the time we have several hundred photos that need to be culled down to the 15% that we keep and a small number of those will need a little time with the photoshop software to resolve glitches. Bill likes to study his German vocabulary every day and route planning is also one of his daily activities. And then there are those half dozen history books stashed away for those months-long intervals when we can't buy such material in English.
We always have pent-up demand for study time so a weather-forced layover day or a 4 hour ferry trip like the one to Corsica are gold mines of opportunity for us. The trick is have enough comfort to concentrate. On ferries that means calm enough seas to be able to read and finding nooks away from the blaring TV's, screaming kids, and plumes of cigarette smoke. And a layover hotel room needs to be both reasonably warm and bright for me to be my most productive. Luckily our tiny room in windy Macinaggio in northern Corsica was just good enough to support a satisfying study day.
Where Am I???
We were able to buy an English version of our Corsica guidebook soon after arriving on the island and our lay-over day gave me a chance to read a few sections of it. I was stunned as Lonely Planet's cautions to women travelers made me think I was reading the Egypt book. They point-blank said that women traveling alone and off the beaten tourist path would likely be made to feel very uncomfortable and that they would be ahead to instead plan their travels to another Mediterranean destination. "Here in Italy...I mean, Here in France...??" was all I could think. But apparently the conservatism in the rural communities was the issue.
In the busy season solo travelers of either sex would also likely encounter some hostility from restaurant servers who would only make half the money waiting on their table. Unwelcome singles could also expect to pay full price for a double room. These cautions didn't match the warm, helpful reception we were receiving our first few days on the island as a couple in low season (who weren't eating in restaurants).
The Genovese Relics
Despite its typically complicated European history, tracking down historical sites in Corsica didn't take much time. We quickly learned that Corsica is a phenomenal place for what Lonely accurately describes as "an activity-based holiday" but is a very short on other offerings. The majority of things to see, aside from the stunning scenery, fall into 2 categories: the Genovese towers and bridges from the 16th century and the Bronze Age sites from the 2nd and 1st millennium bce, the best of which are in the south.
The Genovese towers were easy to "collect" as many could be spotted
from the road and there was nothing more to see than what you first noticed. Most
were buttoned up and very close to the main road. A few can become the destination
for a short hike but yield nothing more than the easily accessed ones. They were
however fun to see as a prominent reminder of a by-gone era and we enjoyed
spotting yet another of the 60 towers that
remain of the original 85 as they came into view. And we, like surely almost every Corsican tourist, have an
full assortment of tower photos for our album.
The watch towers were built by the wealthy merchants from the nearby city-state of Genoa when it controlled Corsica. Marauding, especially by the Moors from North Africa, was hard on the economy, and the towers were built to alert the locals of an impending invasion. The signal towers could transmit a message all the way around the island in about an hour, as each was in clear view of several others. Taking of Corsicans for the international slave trade was one of the reasons for the raids. Raids and incursions by one group or another had Corsicans hiding in the hills until the 20th century, so most of their cuisine and other traditions are related to life inland, as opposed to life on the sea as one would expect from an island culture.
Tracking down the Genovese bridges took more effort than the towers and there are fewer of them remaining. The one we saw was a little too well restored and at first glance didn't reveal its centuries-old stones. Looking down at the wear-polished stones on the steep road bed that came to a point instead of being rounded did convince us that the bridge was from another era. However its steepness and its peaked crest made it look impractical for everyday use.
And as every traveler hopes, Corsica rewarded with little
unexpected sightings. As I was looking for the best angle from which to
photograph a Genovese tower, I spotted a man on the rocks with a spoon in one
hand and a shell in the other. I finally realized that he had been feasting on
fresh sea urchin innards. And on an inland hike at a wooded archeological site, I
concluded that the freshly turned soil wasn't likely the work of human hands but
of semi-wild pigs. I'd read about their contribution to deforestation as their
owners turn them loose on the public lands.
Calvi to Porto
We'd been looking forward to riding the highly rated, death-defying road on the way south to Porto that was mentioned in our guide book as a must see. The fabled 2 lane road wasn't really wide enough in all places, making dealing with oncoming traffic a hair-raising experience for drivers. Such roads are usually great for bikes because of the low level of traffic and the generally slow pace of driving. Mountain roads like that are usually very scenic and they are ample as bike lanes.
But this historic road is a thing of the past as the
government has embarked on a 16 month improvement program. Instead of focusing
on the views we were preoccupied with staying upright through 5 miles of loose gravel and
rock. A giant swath had been blasted through the complicated curves and
we and the autos picked our best path through the chaotic surfaces.
It was the Sunday following Easter, an important holiday in much of Europe, so there was no construction underway. The longer we were on the road, the more we appreciated that fact as the dust from the heavy equipment would have been a fright. As it was, we often stopped to let the plume of a faster moving car settle before continuing. As Bill pointed out, we were also lucky to be going down hill. We had done the big climb up to the pass on the paved side of the mountain and by chance our descent coincided with the unpaved construction area.
Later in our destination village of Porto, we discovered even more unknown good fortune, which was that this road had only reopened to traffic 2 days prior to our crossing. So, we were very sorry to have missed the charm of the now destroyed old road but realized we were lucky to have traversed the coastal route at all. Had it been closed, we would have been stuck making a huge inland detour with poor prospects for lodging.
We just minutes into making the long, steep haul up a scenic but narrow road out of the seashore village of Porto to the town of Piana at a about the 1700' level when another cycling couple passed us with their dog. We had stopped to snap this photo when these strong riders went zipping by. The dog was pretty well behaved though alternated running on the left and right sides of the lead rider. All 3 were keeping a brisk pace but I wondered what happened when these day riders made the return trip downhill going 5 times faster than they were now.
It wasn't long and I knew more than I wanted: the dog was
flying down hill alone--except for the 3 slow moving vehicles piled up behind
him. We screeched to a halt as did the half dozen motorcycles that were
approaching from behind and during this moment of frozen traffic, the dog rushed
over to Bill like his long lost friend. We let the traffic in both directions
clear and restarted plodding up the hill with our new, eager chaperone.
The sweet and good natured dog was quite cute but his zigzagging in front of Bill's wheel and to both sides of the road was dangerous for him, us, and the the autos. I finally dropped back instead riding within earshot of Bill as Bill's sudden stops were aggravating for him and terrifying for me. We were at a loss as to what to do and wondered how the other riders had finally ditched the dog. Perhaps as unloaded riders they were just too fast for him on the long haul. He however looked very at home with our almost walking pace up the steady 5-7% grades.
Several cars screeched to sudden stops to avoid hitting the dog and we did our best to alert drivers and to keep us all safe, though it was a nerve-wracking situation. The dog wasn't at all responsive to our demands to move when he suddenly stopped in front of one of our wheels and our nerves were quickly frayed by the extra challenges of being in traffic.
We had ridden unloaded the same road the day before to take in the spectacular scenery on this and a secondary road, so we knew that there were 2 places where packs of tourists stopped and hoped the dog would be distracted at one of the them. I'd asked Bill to start rehearsing a phrase in both German and French, something to the effect of "We need your help to hold back this dog while we bike ahead." We made it to the first hiker's parking lot and the fatiguing dog indeed became distracted by a hiker emerging from the trail. I was in the lead at this point and thought I'd successfully ditched him but no, he reappeared at my side.
I parked my bike on the hill and walked back to the hiker. Luckily the young woman at the trail head spoke some English and seemed to understand our request. I asked her to distract the dog for 5 minutes and she agreed to try. She apparently succeeded, as we made it to the next viewpoint with no dog companion. We held our breath though when Bill spotted another day cyclist and hoped the dog wasn't following him to where we were. Finally the cyclist cleared the walled area of the road and we could see he was alone.
We of course felt terrible about leaving the dog out on the
road but have learned that there is little we can do to advocate for
animals in foreign countries. We would have loved to flag-down a police car
and to have had their help, but we ride for weeks at a time in Europe without
seeing police on the intercity roads. Like with the cat we saw a woman dumping
on the roadside our first days in Corsica, there is little we can do with our
weak language skills and total lack of knowledge of the animal welfare systems
A week later we were befriended by what appeared to be 3 recently homeless dogs in one day and a cat the next morning. The list of abandoned critters wanting our help was now up to 4 dogs and 2 cats, a new record for domesticated animals actively wanting to join our pack in any country.
Losing its Luster
Despite the rigorous riding on the perpetually steep grades, we loved biking in northern Corsica. The low traffic, the grand and often spectacular scenery, the pleasant mix of charming villages and outdoor experiences, the clean air, and budget-friendly lodging made for a delightful tour. But after about 10 days of heading mostly south along Corsica's western coast, it began to lose a little of its luster. When we checked out of our Porto hotel, an extra fee was tacked on to the room price. Often in some countries or regions one must nightly clarify if the quoted price includes taxes, breakfast, or other charges but up until this day the price quoted in Corsica was the "out the door" price. It was a small thing but it meant that our easy going time in Corsica was now going to require a little vigilance to avoid feeling ripped off.
The very next day the posted price for bread in the supermarket was lower than the price at the till--again, it was a small difference but 'up north' we hadn't had these discrepancies. And we were starting to get a little cooler reception in the shops than we'd experienced early in our visit. As we approached the small city of Ajaccio, the idyllic country riding suddenly switched to cut-throat city driving. Now we had to dodge motorists speeding through red lights instead of being where there was no need for traffic lights.
Prices on the maps we'd bought in Ajaccio were 15% higher than in a small town in the north and some of the postcards were up about 35%, though in contrast the food prices at the market were sometimes 30% lower than the best prices we'd previously seen. The biggest surprise was that Ajaccio was on middle season prices for the hotels whereas in the resort area just 25 miles north, most of the hotels were still closed for the winter. Other places we'd been didn't switch to mid season fees until May or June. Ajaccio is Corsica's biggest city, but at only 60,000 people and it being April, it hardly warranted the premium.
We also suspected that we'd seen that last of the really
stunning scenery. We braced ourselves to be on busier roads with less to
enthrall us. Though in fairness, even the less dramatic ride towards Ajaccio
would still have rated high on the scale of most of our touring days in other
We were grumbling more as we headed south but we also knew that was about to change: we were almost to the premier Bronze Age sites on the island. Inland Filitosa near the seaside village of Porto Pollo was the site of 3000 bce permanent settlements. There we saw the free standing early menhirs from1800-1500 bce and the slightly more recent ones from 1500-1100 bce which told the tale of a period of conflict with their etched swords, daggers and protective clothing. The Sea People, who threw the major Mediterranean cultures of the time into a dark age (with the exception of Egyptians who fought them off) were thought to have been the culprits here. In addition to the menhirs, there were some meager remnants of stone religious buildings with cantilevered rings of stone that had formed roofs. We also tracked down another larger fort, some additional menhirs, and a fine stone dolmen at other sites over the next few days.
None of these were "knock your socks off" sights, but they were what Corsica had to offer and they made a nice tie-in with other standing stones we had seen in prior years, especially in Brittany. Unfortunately the key museums storing the Bronze Age finds for the island were closed for 1 reason or another. It seemed odd that they didn't stagger the closures but 3 museums within a day's radius for cyclists were all closed.
And for a bit of more recent history that is known to some of you: Corsica, and specifically Ajaccio, was Napoleon's birthplace. During his reign, he decreed Ajaccio as the capital of Corsica even though Bastia had been the urban center on the island for centuries. Napoleon however wasn't overly kindly towards Corsica. He deemed that 2 intercity roads should be suffice as the people should mainly be moving around by the sea (though that ignored the needs of the significant rural population.) He also decreed that the native Corsicans should not be included in the local administration of the island because they weren't trustworthy. They weren't too fond of him either and pretty much shunned his legacy over the years until his tourism value was recently appreciated and now Napoleon is well represented in the cities.
Bonifacio is the southern most town on Corsica and it was where we ended our tour of the island. Arriving there was bitter sweet: it is a delightful port village with more scenic walking around town than anywhere else on the island but it was unexpectedly expensive. We had the misfortune of arriving on a holiday weekend and the 2 2-star hotels in town were already full. We were forced to stay at one of the few remaining 3-stars with rooms available and paid nearly double what we'd been paying. It would have been alright if we felt like we were getting something for our money, but the only real novelty was the persistent smell of mold in the room and halls. No lovely sea view, no charming decor, no extra wiggle room for our money--just a needed place to stay.
We were also disappointed that as our last stop in France
before heading back to Italian soil, that the markets didn't stock our favorite
French items. We'd planned on stashing a couple of kilos of bulgur away in our chuck
wagon on my back rack and indulging in the the yummy grocery store beet and carrot salads, but Bonifacio's markets
didn't deliver our delicacies.
The assortment of food in the
markets was down but the prices were higher than we expected.
But our Bonifacio woes paled in comparison to those of a 30-something motorist. We happened to be walking by as he just tapped a low, metal pedestrian bollard going a few miles an hour. Unimaginably, the fender on his late model car became caught on the small post. He backed up a little, completing ripping the entire front fender off the car and puncturing his front tire with the jagged fender in the process--all on a Sunday on a holiday weekend in an expensive little town. Bill's off the cuff guess was that the 2 second maneuver at almost imperceptibly low speeds probably set him back a $1000. In my wildest dreams I would never have guessed at a little tap like that to a metal post could cause so much damage to a car.
The Dark Side of Corsica
Corsica was an absolutely lovely place to cycle in April, especially in the north, and we'd do it again in a flash. But it was interesting to learn of Corsica's darker side, though it doesn't affect tourists--at least yet. We hardly rode a day without seeing signs of previous range fires. We didn't see (or smell) a single fresh burn, but the story of prior fires was told by the pockets and expanses of charred stumps and brush.
bit of pyromania runs in the blood of Corsicans and every summer parts of the
island go up in flames, with as many as 20 fires a day in the peak of summer
heat and thousands of fires each year, with most of the fires being
intentionally set. The speculation about the reasons for the fires include:
farmers wanting to produce soil enhancing potash; shepherds prompting new growth with which to
feed their flocks; real estate developers solving some difficult landscaping
problems; and the latest round of vendettas. Corsica is still a land of
vendettas and setting fires is a traditional way of settling the score. We read
that murderous vendettas were fed by a tight clan structure and a tendency towards
organized crime--a tradition that Napoleon had tried to disrupt.
Abandoned stone houses in ruins are a familiar site in Mediterranean countries, but their histories have a little different twist in Corsica. The brain-drain to the mainland France by the young is one reason homesteads get abandoned, but vendettas are another more active reason for the destruction. I was surprised at how many of the ruined stone homes that we could get close to showed signs of fire, especially in the ceiling cross beams. I could only wonder if the fire was the cause of the abandonment or if the beams became scorched in a subsequent wave of range fires. A French couple we shared dinner and a dorm room with also mentioned that non-Corsican French effectively could not own homes in Corsica because the locals routinely blew up the homes of French-mainlanders, whether they purchased existing dwellings or built new.
After riding in the rain for 3 hours, our attention was focused on the bluing of the sky as we arrived in the center of inland and hilltop Sartene, but being pelted by a water balloon hurled from a group of teenage boys changed everything. I felt lucky to have only slightly wobbled with the assault on the rear of my bike while in traffic and was stunned at such mischief just yards from the town square. We parked just out of sight of the young men as Bill was preparing to search for a hotel room for the night, hoping that they wouldn't continue to make us the center of their fun.
But it was a balancing act to be out of the range of their water balloons but not too close to the even younger boys setting off a series of progressively louder firecrackers in the square. We were dumbfounded by the rough play in the ceremonial center of the village and even more surprised that the outdoor restaurant owners didn't object to the nearby racket. I watched the shenanigans unfold while Bill was away and no one batted an eye at any of it, though 5 pm on a Thursday didn't seem like it was a built up to a celebration. Bill remembered the guide book's comments that Sartene was both the hotbed of secessionist activity and vendettas and we had to wonder if a more aggressive manner of play was tolerated or perhaps even encouraged in their young men.
We'd watched for signs of the separationist's sentiments as
we toured Corsica and none were overly overt. A little faded graffiti here and
there on the concrete walls with words recognizable as "liberty" and the painted
over town names on the road signs were about all we noticed. In the Basque
Country of Spain and in a few other places we've encountered the assertion of
ethnic pride in obliterating the bilingual signs so that only the indigenous
language is displayed. The bullet
holes in some literally and figuratively punctuated the message but we consider
it a rather ordinary form of protest.
Corsicans, like many other Europeans wanting to splinter off, have dug themselves in a hole. France purchased Corsica from the Genovese in 1769. The Corsicans didn't like the deal, but they didn't like the Genovese either. France granted many but not all of the Corsicans' requests for special treatment in recent years, but as is often the case, the Corsican's then wanted more. Curiously, the vote in a 2003 referendum to give more local power to Corsica as a part of an overall strategy of decentralization in France was narrowly defeated by the Corsicans, doing nothing to end the 30 years of nationalist violence. It's estimated that 70% of Corsicans want greater control and that less than 10% really want full independence. And as often is the case, fighting seems to alternately bond and polarize, and the Corsicans are now polarized and fighting between themselves.
Fortunately, tourists have been considered off limits as terrorism targets, but French politicians are fair game and the highest ranking French official on the island was assassinated in 1998. We wondered how long it would be until someone violated the unspoken agreement, adding Corsica to the growing list of regions in which tourists must evaluate their terrorist-exposure risk before traveling. It's interesting that tourists have been spared as tourism itself is one of the points of contention.
The day we left Corsica we spoke with a young French man who had also toured the island by bike. He commented that a bomb had gone off in Ajaccio, the largest city, while he was there (and we were approaching it). It was a protest against the visit of a top level French politician. The locals assured him that there was no reason to be concerned. Care was taken to make sure no one was hurt and that included tourists. The implication was that a number of people knew of it and shared in responsibility for managing the situation.
Lonely Planet referred to Corsica's "siege mentality" and it resonated for us. It was easy to apply that label in small situations not really knowing if it was accurate. But it came to mind when cycling and looking for shelter from the rain or a discreet place to pee in the bushes: barbed wire was everywhere, making stepping off of the narrow roads for any reason a challenge. Granted, the grazing animals and the need to protect some environmentally sensitive regions make barbed wire important, but....
Some days we were hard pressed to find public spaces outside of the towns to even sit on the ground for lunch. And there were no accessible overhangs under which to take shelter, or open doors on outbuildings that we occasionally shelter in during thunderstorms. Their absence was not unique in Corsica, but it was a 'batten down the hatches' culture we notice in some rural areas and not in others.
One abandoned house had what appeared to be loopholes
(for armed defense) on the ground floor at one end and the windows behind the
iron grills had been bricked closed to small little openings at the other end.
Perhaps it was a change in the use of the ground floor area
but our first thought was that the function-oriented remodeling reflected fear. The fact
that it was now abandoned made it even eerier.
The Moor's Head
The most visible and perplexing symbol of Corsican pride was the silhouette of a Moor's head, and we saw them everywhere. Bumper stickers, hotel stationery, product labels, and anything likely to sport a logo could have the Moor's head on it. Satisfying explanations of the significance of the Moor's head were hard to come by. It was made the official emblem of Corsica by a national hero, Pascal Paoli, in the 1700's but no one knows why.
During the time of the Crusades, such a Moor's head was a symbol of victory and one could be added to your coat of arms if you had a victory over the infidels. But the Moor's from North Africa harassed and enslaved Corsicans for nearly a thousand years, so it seems incredibly odd that they would honor them on their flag.
The little museum in Ajaccio had a long explanation about the Moor's Head in French but the 1 sentence English translation made reference to slavery and that was it. The best the staff person could do in English was reinforce the link with slavery and that it was very important. Did Corsican's feel enslaved? Was Corsica a stop-over point on the African slave trade? And who would want a symbol of slavery as their 21st century logo?
We pressed at the tourist info office for an explanation of the Moor's head and they finally found a piece in English on the internet which they printed out for us, but even it left us perplexed. The silhouette apparently first appeared in the 1200's with 4 such heads on a banner as a symbol of conquest, sort of notching the shotgun handle to tally adversaries killed--which fit with the Crusades story. It appeared here and there in Europe until 1736 when a German baron ruled much of Corsica for 9 months and used it as his logo. After that, the single Moor's head was here to stay in Corsica and we were later surprised to see the 4-headed version as a symbol for Sardinia.
To add to the confusion was the frequent pairing of an updated, frontal version of the Moor's head and with one of the familiar poses of Che Guevara. I'd think he'd being rolling over in his grave to be depicted so on Corsican beach towels and key fobs as Corsica's struggle isn't in the same league as the causes that he dedicated his life to.
Traveling in the Mediterranean keeps a question alive in me: Is there something hard-wired in humans that makes us feel purified by dumping garbage over a cliff? Again in Corsica we saw the remnants of this ritualistic process of people driving to the highest ridge around and then unloading a truck full of garbage down a bank. How many times must one do that until it's noticed that it is in full view from the road below? It seems like someone would figure out that the garbage is less visible tucked in a low corner rather than on a high exposed hillside.
Egypt On My Mind
Tales of Corsican terrorism and struggle brought our recent visit to Egypt to mind and the points of contention of the Corsicans have with the French government seemed so trivial compared with the fundamental rights some Egyptians are fighting their government to obtain. It was hard to have much sympathy for the Corsicans. Fortunately, the magnitude of terrorism to protest against the government in the 2 countries reflects the differences in the degrees of oppression.
On a lighter note, one of the first people I saw on the streets on our first full day in Corsica was a cross-eyed guy who reminded me of the many cross-eyed Egyptian men we'd seen. His physical features made it easy to believe he was from North Africa, but of course I had no way of knowing where he hailed from. Once we got our English version guide book (that had warnings to single women travelers like our Egyptian guidebook had) I read that the French colonial history had resulted in large populations of Moroccan and Tunisian immigrants settling in France, including Corsica. We presumed that the poor access to health care in those countries had resulted in these men being untreated as children as appeared to have happened in Egypt.
Sardinia--A 3 Day Sampler
Our trip into Sardinia was only intended to solve a logistical problem in getting back to Italy. We were on the southern most point of Corsica and would have to ride the road north along the east coast for several days to catch an Italian ferry--a straight road that on the map smacked of high-speed truck route. Taking a short hop ferry and riding 60 or 70 miles south to a Sardinian port looked like a better option. Enticing, small back roads were shown on the map, plus we'd get a taste of Italian Sardinia.
Comparing 3 weeks on Corsica with 3 days on Sardinia is hardly fair, but from that unbalanced experience, we would definitely recommend seeing Sardinia first if you are going to visit both islands. It is only fair to Sardinia to do so as it pales in comparison with Corsica, but compared to the adjacent mainland, Sardinia is beautiful.
The northeastern corner of Sardinia has fascinating big rocks like Corsica does, but Corsica's are even more dramatic. It seems like the Corsican island of rocks was compressed, making it more extreme and more interesting than Sardinia. In contrast, the Sardinian panoramas seemed more stretched out and relatively flattened. The mountains are farther away instead of encroaching on the coast in Sardinia. The less contorted Sardinian roads were less dramatic but they still managed to dish-out the 10-15% and occasional 20% grades that were practically a daily diet in Corsica.
The big disappointment in Sardinia was the traffic. Even on
the most minor coastal roads, cars and trucks were whizzing by, sometimes in
impromptu convoys of a dozen at a time. The roads were definitely wider with
better surfaces than Corsica, but the extra traffic volume resulted in cycling
feeling less safe. The Italian truckers of Sardinia though treated us much
better than the French on Corsica. Regardless of the oncoming traffic, the
Sardinian truckers always gave us a comfortable margin and wouldn't pass if they
couldn't. Perhaps they get more help from the oncoming drivers, but whatever the
source of their courtesy, we deeply appreciated it. In contrast, a few of the
Corsican truckers would
seemingly set the cruise control and ride the horn about 50% of the time instead
of slowing down. We were outraged and astonished as we watched (and heard) a
Corsican concrete mixer use this technique on an endless series of blind curves
on a cliff-hanging mountain road.
We only got a small sample of what Sardinia outclasses Corsica with, and that is Bronze Age historical sites. The Nuragic Civilization left some remarkable ruins in Sardinia. The best of what wasn't dismantled for road projects in the 19th and 20th centuries were out of reach to us in the south of the island, but we saw a sampling of 3 sites in the north.
If you've been to Sardinia, we'd love to know if the south is more dramatic than the north and if the traffic situation for bikes improves anywhere on the island. We planned on going back for a several week visit in a year or 2 but are less excited after negotiating the heavy traffic. Traveling there also takes more preparation than it used to as the island's new president has closed down many of the tourist info offices which in Italy have been a great source of lodging and sightseeing information if you can coordinate your schedule with their hours. We would likely have extended our stay on Sardinia but couldn't get the information we needed from our guide book.
Where We Are Now: 6/18/06
We have just completed an almost 2 week tour of southern Switzerland today by crossing over Splügen Pass back into Italy. We crossed 2 other passes, San Gottardo and Klausen, with the better views of the 2 being on Klausen. Like last year, we were disappointed to stumble into some unseasonably hot weather and an abundance of pollen to jazz Bill's nose and eyes. Aside from choking on the always high prices of virtually everything, we've enjoyed our brief tour that took advantage of reduced traffic due to a rock fall closing some of the major roads in our area. Now we are heading east to explore some new corners of the Italian Dolomites, our all-time favorite area to ride.