EXPLORING CORSICA’S STEEP GORGES, CLEAR STREAMS AND RUGGED MOUNTAINS

CORSICA | FRANCE

[CORSICA, FRANCE] — “Emmm, Monsieur Dan, please be careful. The water is deep enough, but there ees a big rock down there. So you must jump out from the cliff to not hit it, but not too far. Or you will hit the beeg rock.

That was my super-cute young French guide, shouting above the roar. We were standing on top of a huge stack of elephant rocks, a swift stream was zooming under our feet, funneled into a torrent off the edge of this cliff, crashing twenty feet five below.

We were high, high up in the raspy mean mountains of inner Corsica, a lush island in the middle of the Mediterranean, that thrusts out of the sea into some of Europe’s gnarliest mountain ranges. I was “canyoning” for the first time, standing there soaking wet in a helmet and wetsuit, climbing gear strapped around my waist. The goal was: jump off this steep cliff into the shimmering green pool two stories below us.

Uhhhh. Okay.

Emmm, Monsieur Dan, please be careful. The water is deep enough, but there ees a big rock down there. So you must jump out from the cliff to not hit it, but not too far. Or you’ll hit the beeg rock.

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You may or may not have heard a lot about Corsica, unless you are French. You don’t read much about it in the American travel press — almost conspiratorially; it seems like the French keep this secret place all to themselves, this island they call “l’ile de beaute” (the beautiful island). When you mention the name Corsica to a French person, they purrrrrr; even if they haven’t been there, it’s on their list. But to others, their brows furrow as they try to place it, geographically. Is it an island? A small country? Blank stares. Yeah, I think I’m with you.

I was here in the summer of 2016, part of my four month travel sabbatical in southern Europe. It’s a small island, barely 200km long, but there is so. much. to. do.  Even though I was here for two weeks, I felt like I had barely scratched the surface.

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Weeks before I arrived in early July, I was flying from Barcelona to Croatia, cutting straight across the Med. About halfway to Italy, I looked out the window and was astonished at this massive green/blue/brown rocky island rising from the sea, in the middle of nowhere. The white-capped waves crashing on its beaches, but the land instantly rising up to a gigantic mountain range, dotting down the middle like my crooked spine. “Oh wow, that’s where I’m going next!”

As small at it is, I’ve never seen so much diversity of geography. The most beautiful sand beaches in Europe — quite a departure from the rocky beaches of southern France and Italy that pass for a beach — with a nearly impassible dramatic inland mountain range that remains snow-capped most of the year. The contrasts are startling.

In my other posts, you can find lots and lots of pictures of Corsica’s dramatic deep blue-green waters and soft sand beaches, but for this post I’m going to take you on a tour of the islands steep inland. Gnarly, raw, steep granite mountains that making driving hard, dramatic canyons that can only fit a single lane of road, but threaded with pristine champagne streams where people picnic, swim and sun on the rocks like lizards. Difficult hiking trails that take you to the top of the island, while still being able to sea the surf far away.

This is where we’ll go next:

2016-08-08_10-19-05

(Look how cool this map is! This was made by the super-talented and friendly Fabrice Weexsteen from http://aworldofmaps.free.fr He’s as awesome Frenchman who let me use this on my site.  He built this out of several source materials. He’s amazing. Check out his website.)

I’d always had heard about the Gorge de Restonica, but never could figure it out. Finally in a Wall Street article on Corsica by the popular fashion photographer Garance Doré — a Corsican by birth, with amazing taste and original style that I’d followed for years — finally got me going. I remember seeing a photo on her cool website years ago that showed a mysterious picture of this magical gorge with clear Listerine Cool Mint-green water and talked about how the thing to do in Corsica is pack a picnic and head up into the Restonica Gorge and just hang out on a rock all day. I was hooked. It went on the list.

So here I was, many years later, trying to find that bliss. And now I’m taking you along.

[CLICK A PIC BELOW TO FOLLOW ALONG]

 

 

 

How fun is this?

I was happy as a dog hanging out in these pools. For days. The whole island has tongue wagging clear blue-green streams like this. I mean, that water… like swimming in a bowl of Cool Mint Listerine.

Everyone packs a picnic and just hangs out on the rocks like puppies. Taking a schwimbob when it suits; the water cool, not freezing. No hoards of drunk frat boys woo-wooing and boom boxing. Nobody bumming your mellow. Civilized. Everyone in the whole gorge was always just chill. 

When you come to Corsica, because you will come to Corsica, plan on at least a couple of days doing this. It’s the right thing to do. I went for just a couple of days, which was way to short and under-planned. Plan on spending a long time here. 

 

 

I was driving out of Corte in search of my next hotel, weaving down the curvy road through a tight villagey spot, the road getting narrower and narrower. And narrower. 😬

I make a sharp left around a blind corner and aaaaaaaaaahhhhhhhhhhh!!!  Here I was staring down 10 speeding cars heading straight for me, tanned bathers and towels flapping out the windows. But the road was pinched between two old houses, barely room for one car to pass. OMG, am I going on the wrong way of a one-way road?? 😳  I slammed on the brakes, jammed it in reverse and promptly backed into one of the houses. All the cars sped by, each a foot off each others’ bumpers and ….. they were all smiling.  No one was honking their horns at me or flipping me off for being an idiot, they were giving me… the thumbs up 👍 !

What is going on here? I kept creeping backward, more cars careening toward me down the road. More thumbs. Holy shit, there is no other lane. This IS the road. One lane the whole way up!

And that’s how I learned to drive in Corsica.

Most of the roads are, in fact, one lane and curvy like this. And, like this, barely carved out of a steep hillside, a town or raging river. And usually full of speeding cars, typically a 90 year old lady one-handing it, her hunchback hunched over the steering wheel, smokin’ a Gauloise and going 120km six inches off your bumper.

But it is also the most polite and democratic of driving. Like anarchy with order. People figure it out. So really, it’s the Fastest Car Wins game. So when heading up-mountain, you just have to go for it. Wait for the slightest break in traffic and then floor it, preferably like this, finding 3-4 other salmon ahead of you that you can ghost behind, riding their ass the whole way until a bigger, faster group coming down the hill wins. You literally pic your way up the road, looking for the next asphalt eddy on the side of the road as your safe haven, lest you drive off the shoulderless steep edges.

After you pee your pants a couple of times, you finally get the hang of it.

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I’d never been “canyoning” before. I was always scared of it. Nor could ever really figure it out. But it’s the rage across Europe right now. All across France and Spain, I saw signs advertising it, but was so busy going to the next place, or the weather tanked, I never could try it out. But here, I finally got to try it.

What you do is put on a wetsuit, climbing gear, complete with helmets and carabineers, start at the top of a roaring stream and work your way down the stream, in the stream. You climb over and around smooth boulders, jump off rocks into clear pools and slide down slick moss-covered chutes, plunging into the cool words below. The most fun I’ve ever had.

 

“We have given you these special shoes, made just for canyoning. They are really gud at clinging to slippery wet rocks. But these are not Magic Shoes, so be careful. You do not have wings.”

 

 

 

Corte is the capital of Corsica, spiritually and physically. A centuries old bastion of Corsican culture and home to its feisty separatist culture. It’s a great base to roost and explore the steep gorges all around central Corsica, floppy exhausted into the nice sheets of your hotel at the end of each day. I found an awesome boutique hotel, right there next to the roaring stream in the gorge. I think you’d like it.

 

 

 

 

GO NOW BEFORE THE HOARDS FIND OUT ABOUT IT LIKE SANTORINI AND RUIN IT.

Here are some great reference articles for more details:

A great article in Travel & Leisure called Escape To Corsica

Another T&L article that really got my brain going a couple of years ago called So fine, yet so Corsica

A really fun Travel & Leisure article from this summer called Love on the Rocks.  Totally nails the vibe and difficulty driving around.

A good survey article in Departures magazine called Corsica’s Untamed Beauty

Where to stay in Corsica in Conde Nast Traveler. http://www.cntraveller.com/guides/europe/france/corsica/where-to-stay

The Villages, Valleys and Views of Corsica from Fathom Way to Go http://fathomaway.com/guides/europe/france/itineraries/itinerary-corsica-france/

Garance Doré’s Insider’s Guide to Corsica from the Wall Street Journal http://www.wsj.com/articles/SB10001424127887324021104578550762270667192

High in the Hills of Corsica from the New York Times http://www.nytimes.com/2011/08/14/travel/high-in-the-hills-of-corsica.html?_r=1

This is a great guide from the UK Conde Nast Traveller “The Best Unspoiled Parts of Corsica” http://www.cntraveller.com/recommended/beaches/hotels-villas-north-coast-corsica

And from the UK’s Telegraph Travel Section “Corsica: An In-Depth Guide” http://www.telegraph.co.uk/travel/destinations/europe/france/corsica/733092/Corsica-an-in-depth-guide.html

This is an awesome site on Corsica, called Corsican Plaeces.  Here’s their detailed pages and pretty pictures of some of the same beaches. https://www.corsica.co.uk/beaches

And this is a fantastic article from Travel & Leisure called “Corsica’s Wild Beaches, Mountains and Beauty”  http://www.travelandleisure.com/articles/corsicas-wild-beaches-mountains-and-beauty

I’ve never seen this site before, but it has cool insight into other great beaches I didn’t know were there. On World’s Best Beaches. http://www.worldsbestbeaches.net/destinations/europe-best-beaches/corsicas-best-beaches/

And here’s a video slide show of some great pics of Corsican beaches, some I’ve never heard of. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=90CCkiUW4Uw

Another great overview article of the south of Corsica from Conde Nast Traveler http://www.cntraveler.com/stories/2013-01-23/the-south

And finally, here’s a great overview from The Independent. http://www.independent.co.uk/travel/europe/corsica-beach-bliss-on-a-wild-isle-2346380.html

Last visited: July 2015. 

 

 

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