Corsica April 2006
We loved biking in Corsica and highly recommend it to any one comfortable doing hills. We started at Bastia on the northwestern coast and rode counterclockwise around the Cap Corse to the southern tip. We hopped a ferry to Sardinia to catch another one back to Livorno, Italy without having to bike north along the east coast to Bastia. The east coast road is straight and on a major highway with nothing in our guide book to recommend it. The lure of bragging rights to having "biked all the way around the island" wasn't enough to endure heavy traffic after such an idyllic time.
The Corsican roads were rarely flat or straight as they skirted along the intricate coastline. Interesting geology, lush Mediterranean scrub, and endless views made for delightful riding. Low season lodging prices were around 50€ a night for 2, making it a good value. Food and water were available frequently enough for them not to be a worry, though Bill was careful to keep our mileage down because of the elevation gain. Some of the windy roads had very rough pavement which combined with the winds and grades to make for slow going some days. We sat out 1 day with gusts to 70mph. We rode a lot of steady 5% grades in the north but as we traveled south there were some fierce 15% grades on the main road. Some of the village roads must have been closer to 20%.
And a special note about the highly recommended scenic road
Porto to the top at Piana on the west coast. It is only 13 km but we accumulated 510m gain or 1673' in 8 miles.
200'/mile and we consider 100'/mile a good workout. There is a 30-40 minute scenic
walk at about the 7 km point which we weren't able to do because of a problem
with a dog. And a special treat on this road: a free public toilet (without wash basin)
is located at the souvenir
stand at about 8km.
There is a pair of Corsican maps made with bikes in mind: IGN's #73 & #74. We didn't have them at the beginning of our journey, but it was a case of "better late than never" when we did get them. At 1:100,000 they provided welcome detail. Bill doesn't usually use that large of scale as we generally are off the maps too quickly, but not so when looping around this island. We started with Michelin's #345 Local which indicated some, but not all, of the very steep grades. Amazingly, the bike-oriented IGN maps had no grade indicators at all--something extremely relevant for biking in Corsica. As is frequently the case, it was useful having 2 different maps that covered the same area.
Corsica is a big draw for diving, sailing and sunning on the beach and it also draws a hiking crowd. But aside from being outdoors, there isn't a lot to do on Corsica. It's short on history and museums and thoroughly exploring each of the towns doesn't take long. The windy roads are fun, especially on a bicycle, if you like that sort of thing, but not everyone does.
Corsica is long on natural beauty: it has more than 100 peaks over 2,000 m high on its herringbone mountain range with its highest peak being 2706 m. There are 43 glacial lakes contained in the mountains. It sports 1000 km of coastline and has long distance hiking routes plus horseback and mountain bike tracks. One often mentioned hiking trail is the difficult 15 day "GR20" that is over 168 km long and requires camping plus serious food and water planning. There are shorter excursions that end in a refuges or perhaps a hotel each night with a cooked meal and a bed to sleep in.
When to Go
Being off-season travelers, we tired of our guidebook's constant comments about how horrible Corsica is in July and August but it must be dreadful given all the negative comments. Corsica is a top destination for French and Italian vacationers in the summer, swamping the resources and driving up the prices. We traveled in April, which is probably as early as is good to be on the island. Things were just opening up from their winter closure and the island seemed to easily absorb the flood of German and Austrian Easter holiday tourists in their camping rigs.
Especially if biking, be sure to take business hours into account. Most every service you need as a tourist, whether it be lodging, food, something from the pharmacy, or help from tourist info, shuts down for 2 or more hours in the afternoon. The closing times ranged from 12 to 1:30 and reopening would be at least 2 hours later.
Given that some days only afford 1 opportunity to buy food, these closures need to be factored into your route planning. On a couple of occasions we were left sitting on the sidewalk for hours when we had intentionally planned a short day and wanted to have time in the afternoon for doing indoor chores but the hotel reception was closed for the long lunch. In one town the place we wanted to stay didn't reopen until 3:30 and in another village the only hotel open for the low season didn't accept guests until after 5. Even then we had to wait for another half hour while they made up the room.
Buses vs Car Rental
Our guide book commented that the public transportation was inadequate for sightseeing on the island and our limited experience agreed with their comment. We hoped to take a bus for the 30 minute journey between Bonifacio and Porto Vecchio in the south. Other than high season (when its ill-advised to be in either town) there are only 2 buses a day going each way and they aren't timed for a sensible round trip journey. For example, our departure time choices from Bonifacio were 7:30 am or 2:30pm and they don't run on Sundays and holidays (we were there on a holiday weekend.)
If you're not biking, you might want to consider renting a car. The 2006 charges from an agency in Ajaccio were as follows for unlimited mileage, plus a potential 45€ fee for not returning the car to your departure city:
Smallest Car Medium Car
3 days 165€ 231€
7 days 298€ 354€
14 days 462€ 571€
There is very limited train service in Corsica. One line runs from Bastia to Ajaccio (through Corte), though when we were there much of it was closed for construction work and people were being bused for part of the journey. Normally bikes can travel on this line, but not while we were there because of the buses used during construction. From the printed schedule, it looked like it was about a 3 1/2 hour journey and it ran 4 times a day.
A second line breaks off from the Bastia-Ajaccio line in the mountains at Ponte-Leccia and travels west to the coast. It arrives at the sea at L'Ile-Rousse and journeys a little farther south to Calvia.
I believe the fee for bikes on the train is 18€ , regardless of the length of your trip.
The website for the trains is www.ter-sncf.com.
This website, which is likely only in French, has package deals from Marseille, Nice or Paris to Bonifacio on the southern tip of Corsica. The ad we saw quoted per person, per day packages that included airfare, car rental and a 3 star hotel in Bonifacio from the following daily rates: 94€ for 2 nights/3 days; 87€ for 3 nights/4 days; and 78€ for 6 nights/7days. Bonifacio is nice, but of course, it would be more fun to stay in a number of towns, not just one. But this website might be a good reference point from which to evaluate other package deals: www.ccm-airlines.com.
The ferries between Corsica and Italy are cheaper than those serving the island from France, but the prices are a real shell game. A quick look at the fee schedule for Livorno, Italy to Bastia, Corsica made it look like it would be just over 30€ for the one way trip for the 2 of us but it was close to 70€ after the taxes and fees for the bikes were included. It looks like the fee for the same trip with a small car would be about 50€ but I assume there would be passenger charges on top of that. People from France often rent a car rather than pay to transport their own across the ocean.
We were shocked that the 50 min ferry ride between the islands of Corsica and Sardinia, at low season rates, was 34€ for 2 people and 2 bikes, one way. The bikes were a small part of the bill, at 4€ for the pair. The islands are only 7 miles apart, though the ports are farther. It was a journey that in other countries might have cost us a total of 10€. On these lines as with the ones serving Italy, look carefully at the tariffs as the taxes are listed separately and are often close to half the total price. Here are 2 ferry websites: www.moby.it; www.sardiniaferries.com.
By law, service charges for hotels and restaurants in France are including the bill so tipping isn't expected or required.
The following were hotels with which we were satisfied and that met our basic criteria of being moderately priced (usually around 50€ for 2 people, 1 room, 1 night), close to the old town and basic services, and that had an indoor location for our bikes. April was definitely low season, even with Easter falling on April 16. Many places begin switching to mid-season prices in May and June.
May 1 is a holiday that shuts many businesses down in France (and elsewhere in Europe), including some hotels. Bonifacio however was fully-booked that weekend and the ferry to Sardinia was charging high season rates for May 1 itself. Unlike the most of France, the food markets in Bonifacio were open all day for the Sunday and Monday holiday.
We wondered if the hotels were required to post their prices as many had them on the sidewalk or on the door or at the very least, at the front desk. The practice was a huge help in dealing with the language obstacles. Also watch for "Garage Motos" which means that the hotel has a garage available for their motorcycle guests to store their bike, which means that usually bicycles can be safely kept in the garage too. Some signs will add "Velos", which are bikes. Usually there is no charge if they are advertising 2-wheeler parking.
Bastia: Hotel d'Univers
We stayed here our first night in Corsica and were thrilled. For 50€ we were much more comfortable than in 70€ rooms in Tuscany, Italy. The bright, modern room had a private bathroom with a shower stall big enough to bend over in and tight enough that it didn't soak down the floor. The room was quiet at night, though the bed wasn't the best.
The location was excellent in that the post office, tourist information, a bookstore with guide books and a great internet shop were each within 2 blocks or less. Both the port and a small food market that was open on Sunday weren't far away.
The situation for the bikes was good but not the best we'd had. We locked them to the metal railing of the stairway at the basement level. The outside door had a key-pad access for other tenants though there was only 1 small business drawing people to the basement. Especially on a Sunday night when the business was closed, it was a satisfactory arrangement. When we have a longer stay, we prefer the bikes be more hidden from view just to decrease temptation.
Saint-Florent: Hotel Madame Mere
At 50€ this was a great find at the top of the hill just a couple of blocks from the markets and tourist info. We had a room with a little balcony and a stunning panorama of the harbor, plus CNN on the tube. The bed was small and very average but the room had heat and a good shower. The bikes were happily stored on a back stairwell that was locked at night. It was too cold for the swimming pool to be tempting. Rte de Bastia, Tel 04 95 37 40 50, www.hotel-madame-mere.com, email@example.com,
Ile Rousse: Hotel L' Isula Rossa
Another 50€ room. For another 15€ we could have had a balcony and sea view but our budget room had a pleasant enough view. Heat, a good shower and after pressing a bit, the bikes were stored overnight in a locked shed in back. The basic bread, butter and coffee or tea breakfast was included in the price. Route du Port, 20220 Ile Rousse; Tel: 33 (0) 4 95 60 01 32, firstname.lastname@example.org.
The pricing on our small room reflected the seasonal changes as 50€ was the price for a double in March, April and October. In May, June and September the price goes up to 65€; the first 2 weeks in July cost 85€; and peak season from mid-July through August will see a doubling to 100€ for our little room.
Calvi: Bel Ombra
What a steal at 38€ for an apartment! Heat, a great shower, a good bed, CNN, a balcony and a bit of a view made this an unbelievable value. It won't win any beauty contests but it was long on function with its kitchenette. Ask to see another room if you don't like the first one as they come in many shapes and colors. Open April to October with prices doubling to 72€ in high season for 2. We elected to keep the bikes in the room rather than the ground floor corridor. Avenue Commandant Marche, 20260 Calvi; Tel 33 (0) 4 95 65 93 50; www.residence-belombra.com .
Fango: Hotel a Farera
Fango is a dot on the map that is a good stopover between Calvi and Porto to avoid a 90km day. There are 2 little hotels and B&B at the same intersection. All 3 are open year round. It was 45€ with the bikes going in a locked garage at Hotel a Farera, though unfortunately, this hotel represented our first night without heat, which we wished we had. Tel: 33 (0) 4 95 62 01 87; www.corsica-net.com/farera. . The telephone for the place across the road, Le Fangu, is 33 (0) 4 95 62 01 92. The nearby B&B is: Chambres d'Hotes, La Casaloha; Tel 33 (0) 4 95 34 46 95; email@example.com.
There was no market in Fango though there is a restaurant and snack bar. We carried all we needed for 2 days as it was a long holiday and we knew that any markets would be closed. We tried something new, which was to ask our hostess the night before if we could buy bread from her in the morning for our picnic lunch. The answer was "Yes" and though the frozen bread wasn't the best quality, it met our needs for the situation.
I won't recommend the place we stayed at as they were not forthright with us about the price and tacked on some poorly explained extra fee as we checked out. But Porto is little more than a hotel row, though a quite pleasant one. Many of the establishments advertise free parking for motorcycles and bicycles and had beaten their prices down for the low season.
South of Porto
We had our first experience with being inconvenienced by off season-closures. We guessed it was because we crossed the invisible line between the hiking clientele of the north and the beach crowd of the south. It was still too cool for the beach scene and the tourist info office hadn't opened for the season.
Ajaccio: Hotel Kalliste
This hotel was just under 60€ and they didn't charge us the posted 5€ per bike for parking in the garage, though I'd recommend clarifying that before you accept the room. It's located in the center of the old town and a little traffic noise makes its way through the double paned windows. 51, Cours Napoleon, 20000 Ajaccio; tel 0033 (0) 4 95 51 34 45; www.cyrnos.net
Porto Pollo: The Eucalyptus Hotel
This was our all-round best place in Corsica. For 55€ we enjoyed a delightful sea view from our balcony, we had CNN, good beds, and plenty of heat and hot water. The bikes had a cozy, secure room to stay in and the staff were all exceptionally friendly and welcoming. Their "no eating in the rooms" policy was a nuisance and they are temptingly situated just across the street from the small supermarket in town. Larger rooms with the same amenities are available for 65€ and the more budget minded can give up the view and TV but spent the night for 42€. Tel: 04 95 74 01 52; Fax 04 95 74 06 56.
We arrived on a holiday weekend during low season and had to settle for a very expensive, moldy smelling room in one of the 3 star hotels. If there is any question of availability, call ahead for reservations as there are only 2 2-star hotels right in town, both of which run around 50€ for 2 people per night in low season. They are: Hotel des Etrangers Tel: 04 95 73 01 09; Fax 04 95 73 16 97;http://hoteldesetrangers.ifrance.com; they had a garage for motos so presumably would take bikes. Le Royal Tel 04 95 73 00 51; Fax 04 95 73 04 68; email: firstname.lastname@example.org; we don't know if they have a place for bikes.