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The island of birth for 'Le petit caporal' and the roots of Bernard Nobili

a travel blog by rickandsuejohnson

I met Bernard at a seminar in Bordeaux in 1996 and found a kindred spirit. We corresponded from time to time and visited each other. Two years ago, we arranged to have a holiday together on the island of his roots on which he spent much of his childhood holidays, to which he returned regularly and wanted to introduce us; sadly Bernard died last year before it could be fulfilled. This trip is dedicated to his memory and to Daniele who soldiers on.
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Off to Bastia

Bastia, France

Up early at 05:30. On our way by 06:50, arriving at Birmingham International just after 08:00 after a good run with only the predictable slow traffic on the M42. We had tried to check-in online last night but the site was not working, so we waited in the quite long queue for check-in and we were issued middle seats on opposite sides of the aircraft.

We got through security and into the departure lounge with no time for the breakfast for which we had hoped. Air France today has responded to the low price fares by not doing meals and we just got a glass of orange juice and a biscuit before Paris. On arrival we decided we would get to Orly before eating. The Air France bus did not arrive for some time and then took some time to depart just after. On the periferique, traffic was slow in places and I began to get a bit concerned that we would be late. As it was we got to Orly check-in with a little time to spare. Once in the departure lounge we only had time for a toilet break and buy a couple of sandwiches before we were called to board.

The flight to Bastia was quite pleasant; the flight through southern France was bordered on the east by the Alps, the snow caps looking glorious in the spring sunshine. Shortly after this we flew over what I guess may have been Nice and as we reached the Mediterranean, started our descent to Bastia. Our approach crossed the island at the bottom end of the Cap Corse. We appeared to fly through the middle of a gap in the hills, the lighthouse on the hill nearest me appeared to be almost level and only a few hundred feet from our wingtip. It was quite an impressive bit of flying.

We collected our car and found we had been allocated a megane, which was very nice but the checkout inspection was pretty cursory and we had to point out some damage. We were then left without any instruction on usage. The key was a card which had been left in the car and pressing the start button did nothing. I found that we had to remove then replace the card, press the footbrake and press start. Once under way, at the first roundabout momentary panic as I couldn't find the gearstick. Unsurprising really as I was searching for it with my left hand somewhere in the door pocket.

We made it to Bastia relatively uneventfully, although one or two locals did make the mistake of thinking they could mess with me – and I can behave like a frenchman when necessary! We found our Hotel quite easily but were told they had no reservation in our name!! Fortunately they did have a room available for the 4 nights we required, so all was sorted.

We found a nice little restaurant for our meal, for which we were very ready. Then back to the hotel and an early bed.

permalink written by  rickandsuejohnson on March 20, 2008 from Bastia, France
from the travel blog: The island of birth for 'Le petit caporal' and the roots of Bernard Nobili
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Bastia, France

A beautiful sunny day and a deep blue sky greeted us as we stepped out of the hotel to start our walking tour of Bastia. The Square St Nicholas is only a short hop from where we are staying. The guide books say that it is one of the largest squares in France. One of the two longest sides is completely devoid of buildings and adjoins the harbour where the ferries from the mainland dock; the other is flanked by tall pastel coloured 18th century buildings. The square has two statues one at each end: a mother giving her son to the motherland (war memorial) and Napoleon dressed as a Roman Emperor and surrounded by palm trees. There's also the conning tower of a submarine – Le Casabianca., which took part in a number of missions to support the Corsican resistance in the year before liberation, 1943. For anyone interested in history the sub was named after the 12 year old Giocante de Casabianca at Aboukir in 1798 when he refused to leave his father's ship after it had been attacked by Nelson (”the boy stood on the burning deck....”.) We made our way through the town towards the old port, now a marina, and walked along the sea wall before climbing up through the Jardin Romiu to the citadel. There wasn't very much actually left of the citadel to see so we made our way back in the direction of the hotel, stopping off to look inside the very ornate churches that appear in nearly every street. The doors of these were all open and candles laid out in front of the alters in the shape of a cross (it being Good Friday). Beside one of the churches we spotted a nice restaurant-pizzeria 'Il Pulcinella' where we were able to share a lovely pizza with mushrooms, ham and emmental. This was followed by a complimentary limoncella, yum, and off we set again making sure we called in at a chocolaterie to buy some little easter eggs for Sunday! In the evening we went back to the old port for our meal at a restaurant recommended to us by the guy on reception – A Scaletta. We had a typical Corsican menu, starting with an aperitif called Cap Corse Mattei and finishing with a myrtle liqueur. Back to the hotel then to plan our next day, the east coast of Cap Corse.

permalink written by  rickandsuejohnson on March 23, 2008 from Bastia, France
from the travel blog: The island of birth for 'Le petit caporal' and the roots of Bernard Nobili
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Oh - wow!! Up the Cap Corse.

Bastia, France

It was a beautifully sunny day although the wind was strong and keeping it cool. We travelled north up the eastern side of the Cap Corse along an exciting roller coaster of a road. Sue warning me whenever she thought I was in danger of misjudging the width of the car. The closeness to the nearside had more to do with the width of the road and the habit of the locals in using more than their half than any desire on my part. We went through many little picturesque hamlets and villages on our way to our first stop in the rather quaintly named Erbalunga, which sounds neither Italian nor French.

Most of the village is pedestrianised and we parked up and walked down to the harbour where there is a Genoese Tower. The wind here was very fierce at times so we didn't linger too long but took some nice photos of the tower and the little harbour.

We could clearly see the Islands of Elba and Monte Cristo some distance out to sea. From here we made our way up to Macinaggio; we had originally thought we might take a walk along a small part of the sentier douanier but the wind was so strong that we thought we could have been blown over at an inconvenient spot; discretion took the better part of valour. We had our picnic lunch in a relatively quiet spot near the start point of the sentier. This footpath is the only way to get to the north east coast of the cap and is supposed to be quite spectacular but takes about 4 hours to get to the next village. In summer it is recommended that you take 3 litres of water per person! I guess that at least your pack is getting lighter all the time! From Macinaggio, we carried on the so-called main road across the top of the island. The outside verge was well weathered and unpredictable in places; it certainly bore more of a relation to a small country lane in deepest rural France than a highway. This made driving particularly interesting. On the way up the east coast we had several 'Oh wow' moments most of which were to do with a vista opening up. Going across the top, with amazing views back over to the villages and sea beyond was full of more. At the western end of the road, there is an old windmill that has been restored by the manufacturers of the local aperitif – Cap Corse (which tastes very like red vermouth). We thought we would leave the car in the park and take a short walk up to the mill but when I stopped, Sue couldn't open her door against the wind. I found a more sheltered corner of the car park where we were able to actually get out but again decided that the strength of the wind made a walk up to the top inadvisable. We contented ourselves by photographing the mill and a flock of goats that had strayed onto the road.

The route down the west coast proved no easier but we were more than compensated by the increase in the number of 'Oh wow' moments, with the sun bouncing off the turquoise blue water and the roofs of the little villages, it was stunning.

At Pino we took a sharp left hand turn off the main road to cross back over the top of the island. This road was in even worse condition for the first few kilometres, then magically it became a real road of good width with an excellent tarmac surface. We stopped at col de Santa Lucia and parked up. The wind here seemed less fierce, so we decided to go for a walk up to the tour de Seneca.

Apparently, the old man was banished here for seducing the Emperor Claudius' niece although this didn't prevent him trying it on with the local women. As it took Sue & me about an hour and a half to complete the round trip and at least today, there are no near neighbours, I can't help feeling he must have been an extremely fit fellow. What's more we didn't venture the last 60 feet or so to the tower itself; there is no path and it is just a scramble. Even without the wind to contend with, we didn't fancy it without ropes and pitons.
However, from the ledge below the tower, we were able to see both sides of the cape with some wonderful views. While we came down we could hear what the local youth were making of this nice quality bit of road; clearly a challenge not to be missed, several cars roared up the road, tyres screeching as they fought for grip against centripetal force around each of the many corners. I have always thought French driving was at the poor end of the spectrum but I found myself wondering what percentage of the Corsican reach their middle ages. Certainly, they make the average French driver look like an angel. In case there should be any debate about this, I have already mentioned that our hire car had a couple of dings; as we walked aound town, I had noted that most cars have a collection of dings – perhaps it is a mark of passage? (Daniele if you are reading this, I realise what you will be thinking but in my defence will point out that I have no dings on my car!!) And so back to the coast road at Santa Severa, heading south back to Bastia with a big decision about what to do about dinner.

permalink written by  rickandsuejohnson on March 23, 2008 from Bastia, France
from the travel blog: The island of birth for 'Le petit caporal' and the roots of Bernard Nobili
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Views over Bastia and west Cap Corse

Bastia, France

Well yesterday's wind had dropped but today we have rain. Nothing daunted we set off on our planned trip across the spine of Cap Corse towards St Florent. The road climbed steeply out of town and despite the showers there were beautiful views of the whole of Bastia below us and south to the coastal nature reserve of Biguglia. We entered cloud for a while climbing ever higher before descending and then heading north along the west coast road to Nonza. From the promentory beneath the tower there were views across to the desert des agregates (south), north towards the finger of Cap Corse and east to the town itself nestling against the cliff face. We headed back to Bastia taking a detour just before the town to travel along the route touristique of La Corniche skirting high above Bastia and passing through the pretty villages of Ville de Pietrabungo, San Martino Di Lota and Santa Maria Di Lota each with their own church with large sometimes rather Moorish bell towers. From the road we could see far below us the village of Erbalunga which we'd visited the day before. Even on a dismal day the island is enchanting.

permalink written by  rickandsuejohnson on March 24, 2008 from Bastia, France
from the travel blog: The island of birth for 'Le petit caporal' and the roots of Bernard Nobili
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Pied d'Orezza

Porto-Vecchio, France

Today we left Bastia; we settled up at Les Voyageurs and set off to find Bernard's roots. We had read in the local paper that the storms of the last few days have dropped a large amount of snow on the high mountains and snow was forecast for today down to 700m. Apparently some 500 motorists have been caught in the weather. We were therefore prepared not to be able to complete the trip, although Pied d'Orrezza was just under 700m. In the event, although it was quite bitingly cold, we managed to see the place Bernard spent much of his childhood holidays. A tiny village perched precipitously on the side of a mountain and looking as though it has had a bit of a facelift. It is clearly in the same vein as Cockshutt a working village with no pretentions and quite delightful too. The trip up there was as exciting as any we have had so far, with narrow sections, steep hairpins and dramatic vistas opening up at every corner. It was amplified by sighting a kite as we started our ascent, followed by another shortly after and then a buzzard! The animal kingdom went on to be represented by several groups of pigs and cattle wandering aimlessly all over the road as we made our way up. We retraced our steps back to the main road and drove along the coast road for an hour or so until we found the turning that would take us up to the Aigulles de Bavelle. We followed a lovely, very clear river up its valley which was characterised by a bed of warm honey-coloured stone. The road was typically difficult but Sue who was now driving managed to take it all in her stride. As we got higher, it started to rain, then it rained harder before starting to turn to sleet and then rapidly to snow. We carried on for a little while to see how it was going but when we reached the Bocca di Larone at around 700m, the snow was falling thickly and with the temperature at 0, it was obvious that we would have problems if we tried to continue to the Aigulles at 1100m. We decided, not for the first time that discretion is the better part of valour and hope to do this at the end of the holiday if the snow has receded. Back to the main road with me driving and watching the temperature rise to 5 with some relief. We drove on to Porto Vecchio, arriving mid-afternoon and in time to do a bit of sightseeing of the town itself. Some of the original Genoese fortifications are still standing and certainly the town has a late mediaeval feel to it. Founded in around 1500, the initial Genoese were killed off by the malarial mosquitoes until the swamps were were made into salt marshes. The town is built above a natural harbour and the modern marina has a delightful backdrop. The salt pans that used to be a feature of much commerce are no longer used but still clearly visible from the heights of the town looking down across the harbour below.

permalink written by  rickandsuejohnson on March 25, 2008 from Porto-Vecchio, France
from the travel blog: The island of birth for 'Le petit caporal' and the roots of Bernard Nobili
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From the beach at Tamaricciu to the Lion at Roccapina

Ajaccio, France

A little look at the fabled beaches just south of Porto-Vecchio (Palombaggia, Tamaricciu and Ascigghju), deserted now but apparently heaving in high season. Well worth the detour if you're going on down to Bonifacio. Lovely little coves with long stretches of white sand and turquoise shallow water.

A reasonably short and again spectacular drive down to Bonifacio, the nearest ferry port to Sardinia and what an impressive citadel. Its perched high up above the marina where you need to park and it's a steep climb but what magnificent views of the harbour and bay when you get there. The citadel was built on a large high spur of land that juts out to sea, so on the one side below you you have the marina and on the other breathtaking views of the bay and the waves pounding the rocks below. It was beautifully sunny but the wind was so ferocious that we had to abandon our walk to the very end of the promontory and when we got back to the car both the windscreen and our glasses were covered in salt! You'll be pleased to hear that we cleaned both before setting off again for Ajaccio.

The N198 passes high over the mountains again from Bonifaccio heading west before winding North. At the furthest point west you look down into the Cala di Roccapina and across to the rock formation of the Lion de Roccapina Rocher.

It does look like a Lion doesn't it! We stopped off at Sartene north of here for a quick drink and then headed on up to Ajaccio. Unfortunately we arrived during the evening rush hour but managed to park up by the ferry terminal to call the hotel we'd spotted in both the Rough Guide and Lonely Planet. Luckily they had a room (the evening ferry had been cancelled due to rough seas and they were filling fast) and we parked up and headed out for what we think was our most authentic Corsican meal to date.

permalink written by  rickandsuejohnson on March 26, 2008 from Ajaccio, France
from the travel blog: The island of birth for 'Le petit caporal' and the roots of Bernard Nobili
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Blood red rocks and a nice pair of churches

Ajaccio, France

Before hitting the road, we took a tour around Ajaccio. Our first stop was the museum where books that had been confiscated from the aristocracy in the revolution had been sent. Apparently, many of these beautiful leather bound volumes can be observed on rows; this would have been interesting if repair work wasn't about to be started and the books removed! We saw instead an exhibition of Corsican scenes over the last 150 years or so, which was actually more interesting than it sounds.

It had come as a surprise to us that Napoleon was actually from the aristocracy; we saw the house in which he was born, the font in the Cathedral where he was christened and the very exotic house of his childhood friend, Pozzo di Borgo just round the corner. Pozzo ended up opposing Napoleon, fighting with (on the same side) Wellington at Waterloo. Apparently Napoleon was not very keen on Corsica but it appears that although he was unfriendy to them, the Corsicans enjoy his fame – or should that be notoriety?

We then motored down to the Isles de Sanguinaires (named after the red colour of the rock). A lovely drive along the seafront to the end of the promontory with a tower on the headland at the end and a lighthouse on the rock just offshore. On the windward side, the sea was whipped up by the wind and pounding the rocks with some venom. The cafe above was quite delightful, though I suspect that at the height of summer would just be another tourist trap! The shop underneath was by tourist standards very tasteful and we got most of our holiday presents here. Back along the seafront to a picnic on the beach – very British, in our jumpers, braving the chilly breeze.

Driving out of Ajaccio to Cortège, we saw many beautiful sea and landscapes; at this time of the year and in the sunshine, it is absolutely captivating. Amplified, it has to be said by the icing sugar coating that many of the high peaks have recently acquired and which were disappearing under the sun. It is not stretching the imagination too far to see how in peak season, others (in huge numbers) would be attracted too. Though for my taste the numbers would destroy the very reason for going in the first place.

Arriving in Cortège, just before 4pm, we successfully booked in to the St Jean Hotel, then went walkabout in the (little) town. We first went to see the two churches, one Roman, the other Orthodox, facing each other on opposite sides of a little valley. Conundrums that have often struck me is that one of the commandments is that images shouldn't be worshipped yet both churches had many – and both churches had extensive and very good trompe l'oeil; in one sense one has to admire the artisanal artistry to achieve this; in another sense, the image is pretending to be something it isn't.

We walked down to the quite delightful and unspoiled harbour (even if there were a couple of pizza emporia) and marvelled once again at the perfect clarity of the water. The walk back up the hill proved to be rather more effort and gave us an appetite. The restaurant below the hotel provided us with a thoroughly enjoyable meal.

permalink written by  rickandsuejohnson on March 27, 2008 from Ajaccio, France
from the travel blog: The island of birth for 'Le petit caporal' and the roots of Bernard Nobili
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Calvi, France

Off via Piana for a walk from the Tete de Chien to reach a broad outcrop high above the Golfe De Porto with amazing views both of the bay and the deep rocky inlets from the rock formation known as Les Calanques. The path isn't very well signed but we eventually found it and made our way along the tortuous narrow path, passing scatterings of wild crocus and cyclamen along the way. At one point Rick spotted a buzzard! It was about 15 degrees and we were even hotter when we got back to the car.

From the Tete de Chien the road winds its way down to the village of Porto and from there we made our way inland into the mountains to see the Genoese bridge at Ota before heading up past Evisa towards the Col de Verghio.

The Col is the highest point accessible by road on the island (1477m). As we wound our way round the edge of spectacular passes we came across herds of goats, wild pigs and cows and the odd large Boulder in the middle of the road! As we climbed higher the clouds drifted in and it started to rain. We headed on up watching the temperature gradually drop. As we left Evisa we spotted snow by the road. The temperature headed on down as we headed on up and the snow had reached about 2 foot deep at the sides of the road about 4 Kilometres further on. We had intended to stop for a picnic lunch in the woods of St Antoine and take a short walk to a waterfall – clearly not on the cards. Rick did a 3 point turn and we headed back on down to Porto before the drive on up to Calvi, arriving just as all the mums were collecting their children, en voiture bien sur, from the school along from our hotel (5.15 pm).

The bar in which we had dinner had some very nice music on and we asked for a note of the band and album as it appeared to contain some polyphonic singing for which Corsica is famous.

permalink written by  rickandsuejohnson on March 28, 2008 from Calvi, France
from the travel blog: The island of birth for 'Le petit caporal' and the roots of Bernard Nobili
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Polyphonics but no fuzz in the furse

Bastia, France

At breakfast we had a bit of a show from the French Paras based in the Citadel as they practised abseiling down the walls of the Citadel. After picking up provisions and a copy of the CD referred to last night we headed off towards l'Isle Rousse with the strains of I Murivani coming from the CD player.
L'Isle Rousse is named after the red coloured rock just offshore from the town and which forms part of the harbour. A relatively new town and pretty unremarkable; I imagine that when busy in the summer months, like Calvi it would be pretty unbearable – for me anyway. We then made for the hills behind, where we gathered are some very pretty villages. We were not disappointed; the road made for the familiar exciting drive higher and higher until we reached the lovely hilltop village of Saint Antonio, where we had our picnic lunch. On the way up we stopped at Aregno to see an unusually constructed church with a chequered pattern of brickwork. We also saw some sheep standing rather pointlessly on a roof – perhaps it felt more like a mountain? Saint Antonio is a delightful village that has managed to retain its authenticity and eccentricity, while making only necessary concessions to make it somewhere people want to live. It is genuinely on a mountain top; many of the houses have parts of the rock forming walls, steps and paths, morphing the natural with man-made materials. From the top, you get a fabulous view of the area in a 360º sweep. When we arrived in the car park at the bottom of the village (the one road ends here), there were a lot of vehicles around the church with some generators and tents hidden behind and after some analysis concluded that some filming was taking place but it being France, lunch is god and everyone was taking their allotted time. In due course the luvvies emerged and started fussing around the next location shot by a gate about 200metres away.

On the way back down, I managed to stop, get out my camera, change lens and capture a kite before it disappeared over the hill. It was a wonderful moment, even if the shot wasn't. We drove on to Monticello, which was a pleasant enough village with the usual bog-standard lovely vistas but fairly unremarkable apart from the fact that Frank Muir had a place here.

We came down from the mountains a bit like Moses but without the tablets of stone, although with the way the local drivers hog the road, we could well have collected some embedded in the car (stone tablets that is).

Our tour then took us along the coast road before turning off to cross the Desert des Agriates before almost completing our circuit of the island at St Florent. The compulsory tortuous road through this contained its usual level of attention demand but the scenery was quite remarkable. It was like a lunar landscape with bushes. Although on our trips around the island, there have been relatively few occasions when the speed limits could be safely exceeded, I have never been temped – it struck me on one or two of the straight stretches on the Desert that I could exceed 90kph, I was reminded of Ollie's experience and was sure that a gendarme would triumphantly appear from behind a bush having waited a week for a passing car. (He would have filled his book in under an hour on the main road).

We arrived at St Florent and having found a hotel, set out for a quick assessment of the place. Again, without tourists, it is quite delightful, especially as by now the weather was absolutely glorious with temperatures in the sun a balmy 15ºC and the wind having dropped. The view from the citadel over the harbour with the sun low in the sky over an azure bay and sparkling off the water was wonderful. The only consequence of there being no tourists is, in common with so many of the places we have visited that so much of the place is closed, which gives it a slightly surreal atmosphere.

By mid-afternoon, the clouds that have constantly shrouded the mountain tops over the last week had dissipated. So hopefully the change in the weather will mean that we should be able to complete the things we want to do in the centre of the island over the next few days.

permalink written by  rickandsuejohnson on March 29, 2008 from Bastia, France
from the travel blog: The island of birth for 'Le petit caporal' and the roots of Bernard Nobili
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Who needs a roller coaster for adrenaline?

Corte, France

Back along the same road through the Desert des Agriates to the the N197 first thing and on down to Corte. We arrived soon after 10.30, parked up and had a quick look at the couple of hotels we thought would be a good bet. Booked in to the Hotel Du Nord right in the centre and then took a packed lunch up to the 'High Town'. Sat just below the Citadel walls in a deserted and sheltered spot (temperatures had reached 16 degrees!) before climbing to the Belvidere and spectacular views of the valleys radiating from Corte. We wandered back down to the hotel and set off in the car to the Restonica valley. Its a 15 km drive to the end of the road at the base of the mountains. The road doesn't have room for 2 cars for most of the drive and at times there is literally nothing between the road and sheer drops to the base of the gorge. My nerve gave way about 5 kms from the end so we parked in one of the few pull offs and walked on up the road for about an hour. Needless to say the scenery is breathtaking. Towards the end of our walk we came across evidence of the snow that the region had had about a week ago. Hopefully the it will have disappeared from our route tomorrow down to Vizzavona and for Monday's drive back up to Aleria. From there we are going to try and head down the see the Aiguilles de Bavella before retracing our steps towards Bastia.

permalink written by  rickandsuejohnson on March 30, 2008 from Corte, France
from the travel blog: The island of birth for 'Le petit caporal' and the roots of Bernard Nobili
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