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

[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. I was canyoning in Corsica for the first time.  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.

 

Corsica Canyoning jump

My name is Dan. I am eleven years ode.

 

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. It is like the Outdoor Adventure Capital of France. With hiking, camping, canyoning, swimming, bouldering. Everything you want outside.

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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.

 

Gorge de Restonica

Gorge de Restonica family

So I first read about the amazing Restonica gorge many years ago from the (now) very famous fashion photographer Garance Doré. A Corsica native, she had a section on her website about all these swimming holes along the blue-green streams tumbling down the gorge, with a strange photo not unlike this (of course, much better). Wait, what? Where’s this? I just knew I had to go. And filed it away. And here I was last July, years later, right in the same spot. Her instructions were kinda loose: “people just head out from Corte and pull along the road and find a spot to spend the day, picnicking, swimming in the pools and playing under the waterfalls.” Of course, with a crinkled nose, the vague detail was driving me crazy — I had to know The Best Spot! But as it turns out, she was right; they’re all the best spots, all up and down the canyon. Shimmering mouthwash-colored pools of crystal clear water, you literally do just find a wide spot to pull over and go poking around to find the perfect picnic rock. They’re all good. A million good ones. Just go with it. In some areas, you’ll be all by yourself, in others a sweet French family having a ball. And where you go the next day will probably be different than yesterday. Four months in Europe last summer and this was one of the coolest things I did.

 

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.

 

Gorge de Restonica bather

So the half of the island that isn’t on the beach is up here. Swimming in the mountains. It’s a Thing in Corsica. Practically an industry. You grab a picnic, some wine and some friends and head up the gorges. They’re all over the island. Steep canyons under the looming peaks. Mouthwash-colored crystal clear streams rush down between huge elephant rocks, creating millions of pristine pools, slippery chutes and a gazillion waterfalls to get a head massage. It. Is. A. Blast. I live in Colorado where we have mountains. We have streams. But we have nothing like this. Wait until you see why.

 

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

You just can’t believe how clear these streams are, the whole way up the gorge.

 

[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. 

Gorge de Restonica jumper

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. 

 

Driving in Corsica

 

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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Hiking up to Lac du Melu

Lac de Melu trail

At the tall end of the Restonica Gorge you can go on a great hike up to the 1700 metre high Lac de Melu and stumble upon these gigantor peaks. To get an idea how tall these puppies are, look at the wee little people along the shore on the right. The world famous GR20 hiking trail passes right along that high ridge as it cuts diagonally across Corsica. At 180km long, the GR20 is considered one of the most difficult (and most beautiful) hiking routes in all of Europe. Takes 15 days to complete. Too difficult for my old soles, but @mushroomcloud2 I think you should add this one to your list for next year.
This Lac is a great place for a sunny picnic. (As if there weren’t already 1,117 other great spots along the way.)

 

 

Lac de Melu lake

Lac de Melu

Canyoning in Corsica

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.”

 

Corsica canyoning group

Have you ever done Canyoning?!? OMG it’s my new favorite thing. I know it’s Old Hat to most, it’s all over Europe now, but this was my very first time (and in a little hat). For those that haven’t, you suit up in a wetsuit and climbing gear, head up to the top of a river and then pic your way down through torrents. Climbing over and under big round boulders, sliding down and off slick chutes and jumping into deep clear pools. It’s. Just. The. Best. The most fun I’ve had since jumping off Pedro de Gavea over Rio. It brought out my inner 11 year old. Later, it reminded me I’m not 11 anymore.

 

 

Corsica Canyoning huge waterfall

So this was the grand finale. A great slick chute, as I remember it, about 10m long and another 8m drop at the end. You haul ass down the chute and go flinging off the lip of the chute and plunge into the water. “But not too far, okay? There’s a big rock right there” said the darling and fearless guide with the cutest accent. A big rock? I gulped. 😳 Acting not manly. The red rope is for those who were uncomfortable with that thought. They zip line down. The fact that I have this pic is evidence that I missed the big rock. I’ve put a link at the top of the best canyoning organizer in Corte. Just stop in and they take care of everything. I’m playing up The Scary, but actually this was so safe. Kids and older people were in my group, everyone had a blast.

 

 

Corte — The Capital of Corsica

Corte mountain backdrop

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.

 

Corte view

Corte Castle.  Corte is cool.A college town surrounded by unreal gnarly Corsican mountains. It’s the center of Corsican pride and independence. You can base out of here where there are all sorts of ways you can duck into the surrounding peaks and gorges. Hiking. Rock climbing. Rafting. Swimming and my new favorite thing to do… Canyoning.

 

Omessa village

Omessa is just a beautiful little Corsican mountain town — aren’t they all?  Only 20 minutes outside of Corte, it’s great for a stop in, or get there before sunset and have dinner outside. My hotel hooked me up with a tiny, but very well known, restaurant in the heart of Odessa called Les Jardins de L’Oubly.Fanastic meal on a leafy terrace where you can watch the sun turn the surrounding mountains from orange to blue.Do you see the smiley face on the middle building?

 

Soveria village

As you leave Corte and head to northern Corsica — which we’ll be doing next — you immediately run across the picture-perfect town of Soveria. It’s the most photographed town in Corsica, although my crappy photo doesn’t make that obvious. You can google better ones. You need to get up higher to get the full on mountain effect, and I was running out of time. The mountain backdrop is just stunning and it’s a nice place to stop for lunch. I think it looks surprisingly similar to Omessa, that pretty hill town nearby that I posted earlier. I dunno, maybe whoever was second slipped some money under the table to the architect when it came time to build. “Psssst, Francescu, make our town look cool like theirs.” It worked.

 

Scala Santa Regina roadway

Driving around Corsica you run across one unreal looking scene after another. Different from any place I’ve ever seen. With the meanest, gnarliest looking mountains that look like they’re still in the larval stage. They’re all rarr-rarr-raaaa… everywhere. Like this gorge. Scala Santa Regina. It doesn’t even look real. I had to blink a coupla times.👁 it looks like a life size version of that crazy huge miniature railroad setup @miniaturwunderland in Germany. With a narrow road hand-chipped from the rock, a steep cliff waaay down to the coursing river below. It doesn’t even want to be photographed.Of this gorge, they say “if Corsica is the work of God then the Scala is the work of the devil’. I’ll buy that.

Where to Stay in Central Corsica

hotel Dominique Colonna terrace

The boutique hotel Dominique Colonna is an awesome base to explore the Restonica Gorge and all the gnarly mountains and clear streams around Corte. In fact, all those mirror like pools I previously posted are just upstream from here. You can stay in town, but I loved being smack on the river. One of my Favorite Finds™. The hotel is literally built all around the roaring stream; it’s right there. You can open your doors at night or have your café and breakfast in the morning sun, listening to the song of the river. Cool, nicely designed rooms and a friendly staff to tell you where you need to go and hook you up with reservations at outoftheway gems. The beds and sheets are killer. I was so zonked from running around all day, I woke up with my laptop on my lap nearly every morning, not having moved an inch.

 

 

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

More Information on Corsica

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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