We have arrived and have begun our exploration of Corsica. It would properly take a lifetime to do it right. We got here by flying overnight to Paris and then taking the direct bus to Orly and then flying to Calvi in Corsica and finally renting a car for the half hour drive to Daniel’s place, called “A Chiosella”. It is a place nestled precariously on many levels among olive and fruit trees on a hill overlooking the town of Corbara. Looking like it has been there forever, it was all terraced and built after 2000. I have a theory that the soul of the architecture of old Europe is carried in the bones of the contractors who build like their fathers before them and their father before them and so on. This doesn’t happen everywhere or all the time, but it happens enough.
I carry two concepts around the meaning of the word “here”. One, where the word is followed by “and now”, where it refers the the physical part of the present moment in Buddhist thought. The other meaning distinguishes where I am now versus the other places that I might have been in the past or will be in the future. When one meditates, one tries to stay in the present time, but when I travel to Europe I feel that the place has a very strong past also. A Chiosella is full of little places to gather. As I sit I recall that civil is the root of civilization and is the root of just surviving. In a group, one must be civil to survive. The history of the place is about growing food, worshipping and a glass of wine. The basics of life make themselves felt very strongly to me as I sit here.
We have been traveling for twenty-five years now. Normally we rent apartments, but because we have never been to Corsica before we decided to get rooms in Airbnbs instead. For us Daniel’s place was perfect.
To simplify our first night, we made arrangements for table d’hôte, where we would eat with our hosts. It can be practically anything, but it turned out to be dinner for ten of the guests who were staying there. Five couples, from Quebec, Switzerland, France, England and of course us from the United States, a dish of white eggplant and one of purple, a dish I don’t remember, a huge salad, a cheese course, tiramisu for dessert followed by a round of digestifs. Took about two and a half hours. In between Daniel played a little guitar and sang folk songs from the various countries of the guests. We were the first to leave, begging off with “jet lag”.
Our table d’hôte dinner the first night was the epitome of why we travel. As Stephen mentioned, there were couples of different nationalities and generations. One of the Swiss couples had an adorable eight-month old baby whom we met at breakfast the next day. The primary language around the table was French, with some English thrown in. Daniel was great at introducing everyone and making us all feel at ease. Daniel’s mother is an essential, energetic part of the operation as well. She and Ines, another guest, discussed various methods of making jams and confits. All the veggies and many of the fruits were grown right there in their garden.
View out our window onto the church
Our room was fine, and I was able to find a good spot for my yoga mat the first morning. Daniel offered to make eggs every morning and enjoyed learning the American expression “over easy.” A couple who shared a common living room with us were an English woman and man from Gascony. As they left, they expressed a fervent wish for a change of administration in Washington in the next election. Yes, the world is waiting and hoping, as we are.
The next day was unstructured. We followed a sign for a restaurant/photo galerie and found the studio of Antoine Perigot, (www.antoine-perigot.com). He was just finishing up his lunch service and asked us to call back after four if we wanted to come to dinner. We said we would. The photographs were mostly in his book, Opera Umana, and were landscapes, all of which had human works in them.
We found a hiking sign for a neighboring town which is where we were also thinking of having dinner. This trip is different for us in that we are staying in rooms rather than apartments, so we have to find restaurants rather than supermarkets to have our meals. This is going to be a challenge in that the island is coming to the end of its tourist season. We decided to walk a little on the path and after immediately taking a wrong turn we recovered and ended up walking over to the town, Pigna. It was mid afternoon when we got there and things were mostly closed, so we called Antoine and left him a message that we were coming to dinner around eight and returned to A Chiosella for a quick nap before walking down to the town for dinner.
When we walked in a little late, there was a group already seated. We were the second and final table. I think he was glad to see us, because the country code 1 was unfamiliar to him and he thought it was some kind of spam. We ordered drinks and he brought over the large book of his work for us to browse through as we waiting. The soup de poison, fish soup was good and I had a salad that was not as good. The rhythm of the meal was different, hard to explain, but like eating at the house of a deranged uncle. He would talk to us and then talk to the other table. The tiramisu was really good. All in all, a couple of hours well spent.
Our little beach for swimming, stretching and meditating and a rock with a view.
Sunday was a gorgeous day. We threw our bathing suits in the backpacks “just in case,” and went off for a hike on the rugged Punta di Spano. It turned out to be such a warm day that we changed into our bathing suits behind some rock formations and truly enjoyed a couple of swims in the Ligurean part of the Mediterranean Sea...in October. Although the following day was cloudy, rainy and downright cold, we learned that most of October is usually warm enough to swim.
In Algajola, a view straight up from dinner.
The town of Algajola was our favorite beach town and the Chariot was our favorite bar/restaurant. We stopped here twice, once for a drink and then back for dinner when we couldn't find parking in île Rousse because they were having some kind of event. Dinner was a theatrical event, not because there was anything staged, but because of the natural flow of the evening. The strings of overhead lights gained in strength as the sun went down. The place filled slowly as customers entered, each in their own way. Some were tourists, like ourselves, slightly confused as to the rules and being rescued by the accomodating and professional servers. Others were regulars and were greeted by the owner with the customary two kisses. On the edge sat two women who were professional beauties and they knew it. They were accompanied by their boyfriends and the owner spent some time with them as they eased from a couple of rounds of drinks to dinner.
It is hard to describe French servers. They are very efficient, getting you the drinks and food that you want without an extra word. During this evening they seemed as choreographed presences, floating from table to table. The restaurant took over the whole town plaza and it was the only one. Normally there would be at least two, competing with each other in a silent way.
The addition of the palm tree in the square was the only hint that we were not in a village in the south of France.
View from a tabac over île Rousse and then a view from its front into the interior. The little dots over the red roof are actually a small village.
Driving up into the mountains to find a place for that night's dinner, we instead found a small tobac with a great view. We ordered coffee and tea to take the chill out of our bones and she was very nice, finding the tea for dawn in the lower shelf and then throwing in some biscuits for our enjoyment. not only are Corsicans friendly, they seem to me to be down right cheery.
Dawn on break. She loves the sun.
We are moving on today, leaving Daniel’s wonderful place, driving the car to the airport and returning it. We called a taxi from the car rental place and now are sitting at L’Amphi at the marina in Calvi, where we have finished lunch. Dawn has returned from buying a new hat.
Dawn 's new hat
Now she guards the luggage while I take a little stroll up to the citadel take a couple of photos of the bay of Calvi.
Soon it was time to go. We said good-bye to the restaurant staff, took the 5 minute saunter to the station, and got on when they opened the doors. The train started on time and wended its way along the beach, passing Algajola as we started up into the hills that would becomes mountains that would leave us in Corte.
Going into a tunnel
The train ride to get there was spectacular, with a combination of mountain and coastal scenery. There is something about boarding a little two-car, narrow-gauge train that is charming and old world. Moreover, the train goes through tiny mountain villages with Italianate ids that seem to be lifted right out of a storybook.
Old Village of Corte
Corte is a mountain town AND a college town. It is a bustling, energetic small city with lots of old buildings and lots of young people. There are also new buildings constructed to house the students. Founded in the 1980's, the university has a large Corsican student body, but it is also part of the Erasmus program, an international student exchange program. I had a little fantasy that maybe my oldest granddaughter, who is now looking at colleges, might want to come here!
The food at the trattoria was good enough that we went back the second night. Took the same corner table in the back where we both could sit on a padded bench. My pasta is served in a dish that is a combination of a bowl and a plate, somther is more pasta thqn it looks. Dawn had a good fish, dorade.
Hotel U Passu Tempu
A surprising place. The room was small, the walk from the train was a little long. It was quiet and close to the restaurants and the beginning of the hike.
We took the Tavignano hike, walking right out of our odd, little hotel room and up to the start of the hike. It was a gorgeous trail. Hopefully our photos will give you an idea of our experience. We met families, students, tourists of all ages, a pair of German women with whom we chatted a bit, but the trail never felt crowded. We didn’t get quite as far as we had initially hoped, but it turned out to be about five hours round-trip which was the right amount for our bodies at this point. We had a nice snack stop of smelly, Corsican brebis (sheep cheese), pain grillé, clementines, and chocolate. On the way down we stopped at a little pool fed by a small waterfall and soaked our feet in very cold water. It felt great.
Train Ride #2 - To Ajaccio
Walking to the train station the next morning, we went a different way, through the university, but it was still longer than Alain said it would be. It was certainly quieter. The suspension bridge was a challenge for Dawn as it had a lot of movement in it as we crossed. The train came on time, we found seats and proceeded down the high central valley of the island, bent a little west and descended to the capital city of Ajaccio.
After arriving at the train station in Ajaccio, we dropped our luggage at our hotel and headed for the Fesch Museum. The entrance was inexpensive because I think that half the galleries were closed as the tourist season was ending.
We had been going to pretty nice restaurants, having some fabulous salads for lunch and everything from pasta to fish to meat (once) for dinner. Tonight we were looking for a casual pizza place. Compared to the bustle of cafes, stores, bars, and restaurants in the afternoon, the town seemed kind of dead after 8:00 p.m. We found a true hole in the wall with three tables and a group of three already eating pizzas. “Pizza Napolitana” seemed like the right idea.
The young pizza chef, server, busboy, dishwasher and everything else greeted us with some English as he must have overheard us speaking. Since the place boasted authentic Neapolitan pizza, I addressed him with my sprinkling of Italian only to find out that he really only spoke French, with a bit of English. The threesome next to us chimed in and we got into the whole discussion of how/where did I learn French, where were we from, etc. This group was our generation, and one of the women was from Corte and had just arrived in Ajaccio on the train today as we had. We all sang the praises of Corte as a town and for its beautiful mountain surroundings.
The other couple had traveled in California and had visited the big National Parks out West. They didn’t have much interest in the East Coast or urban centers. A young man came in who was a friend of the pizza maker and got a pizza loaded with arugula. It seems that he had spent some years in Baltimore, working with a French company, teaching cooking. At the end of the meal, a digestif was offered, and I tried the one made from figs. It was lighter than they often are and very pleasant. It turns out that the woman from Corte had made it. The man in the group, who reminded us both a bit of our Parisian friend Jean, asked us how we liked our president. I said that the French have a very good word for him: épouvantable. (If you don't know the meaning, you will just have to look it up.)
All in all, it was a delightful evening. The Corsican people are by and large extremely outgoing and friendly.
Dawn in bed, ready to take off and on the elevator on the way out
Our only one-night stand so far, the Hotel Kaliste was the most modern, high-tech place we have ever stayed in. It was renovated from an old building, with some of the stone and brick work left tastefully exposed. The amount of lights, outlets and charging stations was impressive. The setup around the bed felt like a spaceship, hence the photo caption of 'Dawn about to take off,'. The shower was fabulous, the only problem being that the door leaked water onto the bathroom floor. I was actually able to put my yoga mat on the narrow balcony and do some yoga the morning before we left.
These tripods were defenses against amphibious invasions. Now, they seem to be protecting seawall that is part of the marina.
While we were hanging out about the bay, we got to watch two planes practice sccooping up water and then make drops. I guess the fall will be fire season here and they are getting ready. It made me think of the urban legend of finding a scubu diver in a tree ln a forest that had. een. urned. Looked possible to me.
Moving on to Sari Solenzara
The road to Sari and our car is taking a break.
The next day we took a bus to the airport and rented a second car for the rest of the trip. At this time of year, Alexandre, the young man at the rental counter had a parking lot full of cars and no customers, so he offered us anything he had for the same price, even an automatic which usually is twice as much. We went with a small car with a manual shift which turned out to be much easier to drive than our “Aircross”. The Aircross was irritating with its beeps whenever I got out of the lane. So far, all the roads between villages have been well paved. The hardest driving has been getting up to our Airbnb with Audrey which we will talk about soon
View from Sari
We can walk right out of door and onto our hiking trail.
Writing corner. I used the phone to write and the Ipad to manage photos. Right after the picture was taken, I fixed the problem that prevented me from writing on the Ipad.
A few of you may already know, but last May I stopped drinking alcohol. I had been getting more and more irritated by being addicted to drinking. I didn't drink alot but I drank mostly every day and spent a lot of energy controlling my drinking, especially once I started. One evening I read an article in a 2008 Psychology Today Magazine where the author was discussing addiction and Buddhism. The most interesting thing he said was that everything is a choice; you can choose to drink, you can choose to not drink or you can choose neither. It astounded me, and I knew immediately that I had stopped drinking.
As time went on, various hurdles were jumped over: going out to a nice restaurant, attending a dinner party, going to a family reunion. But always lurking ahead was this trip to France where a glass of wine at a brasseries, or a spritz at the end of the day seemed welded into the experience. I am happy to report that I haven't found a time that I need to have a drink. Mostly I have been drinking liptonic, a cold bubbly tea/seltzer combination. The virgin mojito I had was stupidly sweet but the bitters that I found twice was very good. In a restaurant, if I feel that the server is disappointed that I am not drinking their wine or beer, I just tell them it has been five months and their attitude changes completely into one of support and understanding. They might say something like,'oh very hard' or 'good luck'.
I am very happy about all this, especially the comment from Dawn's son, Adam, congratulating me on controlling my incipient addiction to liptonic. Probably, I have to keep an eye on my Agrume consumption too.
Audrey and Eoghan’s Place, (Pronounced Owen)
After a hair-raising fifteen-minute drive of extreme switchbacks, many with no warning, we arrived at Audrey and Eoghan's place, high up in Sari Solenzara, a tiny village. Once again, their home and welcome seems to me to be the epitome of what an Airbnb experience is meant to be. We have a sun-filled room with French Provincial décor and private bath with great shower.
Although they did not advertise doing table d’hôtes, they invited us to have soup with them that evening. I was so grateful as I did not want to do that drive down and back again in the dark on our first night. It was a wonderful, hearty soup of veggies from their garden and sanglier, the wild boar that is ubiquitous in Corsica. A couple of pieces of homemade bread by Eoghan and some strong Brebis cheese we had brought complemented Audrey's soup.
The conversation ranged from everyone’s varied backgrounds to the similarities between Corsica and Ireland. Eoghan is Irish, Audrey Corsican/French. Although they are certainly younger than my own children, there was an immediate bond and mutual respect established. The conversation continued every morning over a lovely breakfast with good, strong coffee.
Eoghan explained to us that the Corsicans held the same place in mainland France as the Irish held in America, especially places like Boston.
They immigrated and became the police ... and the criminals, and often were friends. We talked about the Bulger brothers, (they had seen the movie). Audrey talked about Sartène. It is considered in the tourist world to be the most Corsica of cities, but if you live there, you will find it very old school, the society is dominated by old aunts and grandmothers who expect things to go their way. As tourists, we have no way to know about this, except to wonder if the narrow roads that turn into narrow paths represent more than an efficient use of space in a mountain town.
Today we are completely fogged in and "il tombe des cordes." It is falling in cords or raining like cats and dogs. So we are taking a bit of a vacation from our vacation, doing yoga inside, reading, writing, doing some NYTimes crosswords puzzles and chatting with our hosts. Audrey made us afternoon tea, with another slice of the delicious date cake she had made for breakfast.
The Monastery, but actually a convent.
As mentioned in my email, on Sunday we went to Mass at the monastère of the Sisters of Bethlehem. Eoghan explained later that these nuns had been an order in the original Bethlehem in Israel. They left about 25 years ago because of all the difficulties there, and found a beautiful site for their order here in Corsica.
From my email:
Although we are both more Buddhist than Christian at this point in time, we love liturgical music, and the relatively simple, modern church is in a beautiful location in the mountains. We arrived a half hour early so had time to settle into our own meditation. When the bells started ringing, with a second lower-toned bell entering as almost a drone, we both got a bit teary. Somehow, the sound of bells or chimes in any tradition seems to be an international language for a call to spirituality.
Ready to go out to dinner. After a few minutes, as we got lower, the fog dissipated.
After spending the day in the deep fog we rousted ourselves out to go down into town for dinner. The first restaurant that we thought might be open was not, so we returned to the marina and found the Port Glacier (Ice Cream). The meal was good and we finished up with some gelato. We have stopped counting handsome waiters with killer smiles. On the way back up the mountain, we sighted the famous wild boar. A family of them were running up the road in front of our car. Quickly they dashed to the side of the road and then off into the woods. The biggest one was a little more the knee height and fairly thin. Eoghan said later that the hunters are slowly driving them up the mountain. They are a staple part of the diet and we have been enjoying them at dinner in various forms of cooking.
Le Glacier du Port
Short Trip to Bonifacio
This was easy. We said goodbye. We drove down the mountain on the twisty road that was becoming an old friend. We took the same road that lead us to the beach where Dawn wrote the first email. Then a half an hour later on a pretty straight road we found ourselves at a small lane that said, do not enter except for Hotel Solemare. At the gate, Dawn spoke through the intercomm to the front desk and it opened and we were in.
What I have forgotten is that when I was just a hundred yards or so from Audrey's I heard a loud low-pitched truck horn. I had no idea where it was but I gave a pip-squeaky beep in return. When I got arounf the next corner I found a large truck carrying some telephone poles blocking my way. He totally filled the gap from stone wall to stone wall. But in fact he was waitng for me. He had heard my beep and stopped just before a driveway that I could slip into. Then he lumbered past us and I could back up into the road and be on my way.
We left the car parked at the hotel and began our exploration of the town.
Looking down at the old town and cliffs
Dawn is at yoga and I am about to take a swim.
The issue of where to eat breakfast was solved by having to return to the restaurant where we had dinner the night before to retrieve my scarf. I made Dawn ask the patron about all the sailors at the marina. Was there a race? He said in fact there was. The group was sailing around the island and if we walked back up to the high village, we could see the start. We returned to the hotel for yoga and a swim, then packed up and put our stuff in the car. We returned to the view point where we could see maybe thirty sailboats in what a woman standing there said, was brownian motion, random movement. At noon, things got more focussed and by ten after they were nearly all on the start line on the starboard tack and sailing away. The drive to Sartene was easy and just a little over an hour. Our room was ready for us and we set off to explore the town.
Town of Sartene
They totally knocked us out. We discovered the concert accidently by seeing a poster while looking for the prehistoric museum. Five singers, not the six advertised, sang with power, grace and sweetness. They could sing loudly and very quietly, music both sacred and profane, modern and ancient, and then afterwards served us wine, juice and cookies outside in front of the church.
The church was not beautiful, but it was acoustically perfect for these singers. The five men could fill the space powerfully with the vocal polyphony that they have mastered. Although the leader’s speaking into the microphone was too fast with too much reverberation for me to understand much of it, and although I didn’t understand many of the lyrics in Corse or French, the actual SOUND of the music made me feel deeply the history, the spirit, the passion, the intelligence of Corsica. It was incredibly moving. It made me fantasize about doing a site-specific video with their music and the menhirs at the prehistoric site Filitosa that we were going to visit the next day.
Filitosa was fascinating with ruins of prehistoric shelters as well as the mysterious large, standing figures known as menhirs. Estimated at 6000 B.C.E, the homo sapiens who inhabited these shelters took advantage of Nature’s carving of the rocks by added stones to create a small village. There were scores of possibilities for video: a figure half hidden and emerging from the fabulous rock formations, 'dancing' with the menhirs, inhabiting the massive olivier that they claim to be the oldest tree in France. However, I felt like I would essentially be repeating what I have already done in other wonderful locations so decided not to make any performance videos here. Perhaps I have done enough. Again that feeling that the world does not really need another Dawn Kramer site-specific performance video.
Last visit to the Beach (Cupabia)
Restaurant du Cours - Wrapup on Corsica
So we decided against eating at the fancy restaurant in our hotel and found the Restaurant du Cours with Corsican specialties. From the photos, you can see that it is very much our style, a small place built into a real cave. It made me think of our friend Joe, the proprietor of Sophia’s Grotto in Roslindale. Joe’s Grotto was designed to look like the real grotto that we were eating in on our last night in Corsica. The food was great and copious. I had courgettes stuffed with Corsican cheese and fresh herbs, after a huge salad to start. Stephen had another Sanglier stew, this one better than the last. The server wondered what we Americans were doing in Corsica, something we are often asked.
By some odd coincidence, on our second gray, rainy evening in Paris, we found a wonderful documentary on Corsica on French TV in our Airbnb apartment. The travelers in the documentary visited many places that we missed. So I have a suspicion that we might get back to Corsica in the not too distant future. After all, at this stage of life, one never knows if there will be a distant future.
Hotel des Roches
We spent our last two nights here and were pretty happy. Once we got the powered shutters up, we saw the great view down to Propiano and the pcean,and had a balcony from which to eat our clementines and watch the sun go down. After some back and forth, we decided not to eat at the upscale restaurant with a great panaramic view of what seemed to be most of Southern Corsica. In the summer, there would be light at dinner, but in mid October, it would be dark. The room was not spacious, but it had what we needed, shelves and a closet and a great shower. We also had room to pack for the airplane. The staff was great, even finding us a brush and dust pan so we could get most of the sand out of the car before we returned it.
To the airport
The reason you shouldn’t have breakfast at the hotel is that the local cafe/bar will offer much more interest. You just hope that you are not taking the table that some guys have been sitting at for the last ten years. The proprietor said yes to our order of two cafe cremes and that he had some pain au chocolat. In a way, because five minutes later we saw him returning from the bakery with our food. The comings and going are fascinating and we could have stayed all morning, but we had a plane to catch.
We drove for an hour and a half, did a total elevation gain of 1,600 meters and came down 1,900. I think we did a thousand curves, all through really beautifully country. We would drive for fifteen minutes without a sign of humanity, and then ease through a country village clinging to the side of a mountain. In one villlage, the national highway (one lane in each direction) went down to one lane total. The traffic light alternated traffic one way and then the other. We topped up the gas before we returned the car and were soon in the airport with time to spare. A slow coffee, getting our bag ticketed, hanging out, meditating took care of those minutes. The plane was twenty minutes late which is not late. I think Dawn has wrapped up Corsica, so the next stop in the Travelogue is Paris.