Saturday, June 16, 2007

Cardiff to Corsica and back

Holiday !

Nearly two weeks without phone, TV, video, radio or computer,I had only my Clié Palmtop to keep daily notes of our holiday trip to Corsica, to jog the memory about the 400 plus photos I took (yes, I know mad obsessive). Spending so much of my work life in a city that welcomes visitors certainly shapes the perspective from which I tell the story these days. Like holiday snaps, for what it's worth, here they are.

Bus to train station, train then bus to Bristol Airport, plane from Bristol to Nice, all seamless, well co-ordinated, despite the Bristol traffic congregation. Arrived in Nice vieille ville area from airport bus as it was getting dark. Fortunately hotel was only ten minutes walk from there, and so at midnight we were strolling around the port checking out here the Corsica ferry terminal was. we were both quite hungry but few places remained open, and all, apart from a kebab stall, looked like they mght be pricey. In the end, we found a small halal grocery store still open , not far from the hotel, where we were able to buy some bread and a bottle of wine for a late feast. Quite a eucharistic start to our vacation.

We woke early to a noisy street below, and enjoyed a big breakfast before continuing our reconnaissance of the port, still unsure of where the ferry departed from. Eventually a helpful traffic marshal pointed us to the right quay resolving sign post ambiguities for us. We lazed around until after midday and then trundled our cases to the ferry terminal. Half way along the eastern quay we were offered a lift by a ferry shuttle bus driver. A free minibus circulates in the port, presumably to reduce the number of pedestrians mixing with cars, and to save the confused and the lost. There is a ferry office at both extremes of the port, but the signage doesn’t make it clear on the side which the ferry used to leave from, that it no longer does. So the shuttle bus is a multi functional response to the problem. The ferry’s departure was, due it seems to a problem with a passenger's vehicle, the driver of which could not be traced. He was paged for a good half hour,and we left twenty minutes late. We dozed comfortably in a lounge for much of the journey, as it rained and was cool out on deck. When Cap Corse came in sight, we were amazed to see twenty wind turbines atop high ridges overlooking the shore in an area that seemed remote from habitation. That's new since our last trip here five years ago. On disembarcation, we trundled our cases up through the town of Bastia to a small hotel close to the train station, booked on the internet by Clare to ease our early getaway. We found a small restaurant near the cathedral of St John the Baptist, for a supper of delicious couscous. Afterwards we walked back through the delightful old port area before turning in for the night.

Early breakfast, boarding the 08.40 from Basta to Ajaccio, a three coach diesel railcar of eighties vintage. It looked rather shabby, especially set against a newly rebuilt station. Only a dozen or so passengers aboard hen we left, bu at each stop for sixty of the ninety mile trip, it picked up more passengers than it dropped. They were predominantly holidamakers like us - walkers with packs. We arrived at lunchtime found ourselves a hotel, had lunch and booked a hire car, whilst exploring the older parts of Ajaccio. There's one long street, which is pedestrianised, with fine small shops and restaurants, a few churches, and the national library with the Bonaparte mausoleum next to it. We spent the evening resting in our quiet room , as I had the gripes from excess of white bread. The air of Ajaccio is thick with swifts food gathering and emitting their high pitch burst of twittering, like a tape run very fast. Blackbirds are also in evidence, and some other song birds which may be captive, I'm not sure. Despite the volume of car traffic, the beauty of birdsong is comfortingly audible.

After breakfast, we hired a diesel Opel Corsa, and headed south from Ajaccio, through thickly wooded mountains on the winding Route Nationale over two cols, rising from sea level to 750m or thereabouts, towards Propriano, then turning west along the north side of the Gulf of Valinco, to look for some accommodation to last us the week. This we found in a motel facing the beach at Abbartello, where we were warmly welcomed by an retired couple, former Moroccan colons, who were in charge of the place. After settling in we made our way to Ponti Pollu at the westernmost end of the bay, to have lunch -crepes provencales - and mooch around until the shops reopened, to buy food supplies. Then back for a swim, and a verre du vin before supper in the small restaurant opposite the motel. A nice quiet place to be, with a great sea view.

A good long night's sleep, breakfast on the balcony in the clear bright cool morning sun. Half an hour spent just trying to capture a photo of a lesser spotted Corsican flycatcher or two that use a tree close by as their hunting base for their midair food forays. Then a stroll up the road to the local campsite shop, as our supermarket next door has yet to awake from hibernation for the summer season. Saw a cormorant atop a rock as black as itself on the edge of the water - also saw it in flight patrolling last night. After checking out the beach, we returned for lunch of salad including a super Corsican sheep Tomme. After siesta, we drove towards Proprianu, inspecting beaches and taking pictures. We found one of the watch towers that characterise the region, which had been restored as a dwelling with nice gardens surrounding, and a wonderful view of the bay and Proprianu. Then we turned round and drove back past our lodgement and on to Porto Pollu for a swim and a shop visit, before returning for supper.

After another lazy breakfast, we drove up to Porto Pollo to visit the open air fruit and fresh fish stalls to buy for tonight. With a pair of Pageot a local variant on sea bream tucked in the fridge, we headed off up the Taravo valley to visit Filitosa, where there is an archaeological site which was occupied between five and one thousand years before Christ, and features a number of dwellings, walls, tombs, and a sacred site with sculpted granite menhirs with faces. A large site, rated as one of the best in Europe. Most impressive, well laid out for visitor interpretation. Much more varied than Stonehenge, but not quite so accessible. A marvellous find - and only discovered 50 years ago. Back for a late lunch and siesta, the a swim, then supper with those Pageot as honoured guests.

Croissants for breakfast today, as its Sunday, then a trip into Proprianu to find a church with Mass. There seemed only to be one church on a promontory in the middle of town, quite austere, built of granite blocks, unsurfaced. It was fairly plain inside with just a main altar. Mass was already over and we were directed to Olmetu, the prominent hill village to the north of the bay. We made it just in time. The church and large school building next to it were painted in a rich yellow (maybe a patriotic colour?), which looked good against the paler hues of the granite's almost flesh colour, with red highlights. The Mass was sung, choir of seven women and two men, one of whom played the electronic organ and acted as cantor. Two primary aged kids served the priest, and there were another four children in the congregation of around 50 in all, mostly over fifties. We had Benediction as a post-communion devotion, in honour of Corpus Christi, which fell this week. The priest read the Gospel as a story teller would, and preached simply with much hand-waving - very relaxed. We had a drink on the terrace of a main street bar overlooking the church forecourt, and Clare says she felt sure the guys at he nect table were talking in Corsican. Noticeably the signposts are all bi-lingual. Here and there the French was painted out in yellow - made us think of Wales. Bach for lunch, snooze then a swim at Porto Pollu, before supper. Lots more birds, two birds of prey, and a buzzard, and several small species to look up.

After breakfast we drove to Porto Pollu and hunted for the path around the coast to Cupabia the next sandy bay along to the north. After a couple of tries, we set out north through the olive groves on a rough gravelly path, from which we had some great views of unpopulated coastline. We didn't make it all the way to Cupabia but found a place close to the water's edge in the vicinity of a deserted modern house, which had collapsed in on itself - who knows why? We lingered there on a terrace close to the water's edge with only the sound of the sea and the sight of butterflies - few birds out here. Then, back to Porto Pollu for a swim and a drink before driving home for a shower and supper.

After breakfast, we set out to find the section of coastal path running along the ridge above our motel , walking about 2km along the road to Porto Pollu and trying various tracks uphill without success. In the end we came home and had lunch and a snooze before going by car on the narrow twisting road to discover Cupabia beach - a mile long, fringed by dunes, beneath we wooded hills of the enclosing bay. There was no shade and quite a wind, so we cut short our visit, preferring to swim instead at Porto Pollu where it's more sheltered. On the way down we stopped to look at the small hill village of Serra di Ferron, with its delightful well cared for simple church, containing two Virgins , two St Anthonys, a St Julie, and a well clad male saint with a pig for a companion. Glorious views of the Golfe de Valinco from up there. After our swim, we returned for an apero with the gardiens of the motel and a few other guests, mountain walkers before returning to Porto Pollu for supper at a beach restaurant.

We decided to explore further up the Taravu river valley today,our last full Corsican day. we found a delightful hotel restaurant in an old mill building next to an ancient stone bridge crossing the river, at Calzola. There was a spacious campsite and a winery in the vicinity. After a drink on the terrace overlooking the river - saw a kingfisher, heard another cuckoo, twice this week, and could see trout and eel clearly in the water below. We went on up the mountain road, towards the col d'Aja Bastiano, visiting the hill villages of Cogliocpli-Monticci, and Pila Canale, with their houses constructed of granite blocks - all different - with exquisite mountain views. Then we descended to take lunch at the old mill restaurant, a most enjoyable affair,ending with local cheese and fig jam, accompanied by a pichet of excellent cheap local red wine, probably from the surrounding land. Then a stroll in the heat before heading to our favourite beach at Porto Pollu for a last swim. Then home to clean up and pack, ready for an early start.

And yes indeed, we were breakfasted and saying farewell by eight o’clock and taking the Route Nationale north to Ajaccio. The roads were hardly busy, thankfully, for the narrower sections must a nightmare when there are dozens of summer coaches, and work lorries, not just an early morning handful. Ajaccio seems to be perpetually traffic congested, however, but checking in the car was easier than feared, as the small service team was expecting us and pleased when we arrived to time. We sat on the main street and had a drink and a croissant in a pavement café. Then Clare went for a last minute Christmas present hunt (as is her wont on summer holiday), and I sat and people watched for an hour. Just a short walk down the hill took us to the air conditioned modern ferry terminal, and just an hour to wait before the ferry arrived.
The crossing was fine, apart from an awful American baseball romance movie on the ubiquitous overhead monitors. By tea time we were checked into a spacious (for Nice) hotel room, in the hotel next door to the one we’d stayed in on arrival. We had time for a stroll around old shopping haunts before eating out at a pasticceria in the vieille ville, which looks a lot less tatty than when we were last here five years ago. I spent time during the meal watching a young man begging, and observed that of the hundred or so passers by, while I watched, two young men offered him cigarettes, a third gave him money. The four women who gave him money were all old enough to be his mother, shall we say. The body language of lots of the younger passers by was fascinating – neither aggressive, nor indifferent, but clearly dissociative.

Despite a night in a comfortable room, neither of us slept well, and we were up and about by six, readying ourselves for the airport bus at seven forty. Which left on time, despite the generally surly atmosphere that seems to typify Nice bus station at all hours of day and night. We were ahead of time at check-in, and thus had a good two hours of indolence, plane and people watching before the flight back to Bristol. Bus and train transfers were seamless, so we were home within two hours of landing. After ten days of perfect weather, however, the heavens opened was we arrived in Cardiff Central station, and so we arrived home from the local ‘bus dripping wet, with a not too huge pile of mail to greet us – not to mention a thunder storm!

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