July - August 2003 Corsica
afternoon and evening in Baie de Canobière (see Anchoring)
were enlivened (?) by the huge forest fires burning on the hills across
the Golfe de St. Tropez. The French have been fighting them using
prop-driven tanker airplanes that come down to the bay and scoop up
water, like huge bright yellow sea birds. One morning, they used our
anchorage and scooped up the water about 100 meters from Akka. Cool.
The fires looked pretty dramatic by day but at night they were even
more remarkable. We could see flames on the crests of some hills,
and others were backlit by the bright orange and deep red of raging
fires. A huge plume of dark, smelly smoke completely obscured the
sky just north of our ancharage.
had a boring trip from the Côte d'Azur to Corsica -- no wind,
not much moon, motoring in calm seas and trying to stay awake. Saw
lots of other boats and some dolphins, and almost got run down by
a sport-fisherman leaving Corsica at first light, with no running
lights on. The boat was white and the mist was light gray, and Rob,
who was on watch alone, never saw her until she was upon us. Fortunately,
she must have seen us, as they passed 100 meters or so away.
we arrived, we took a mooring in the harbor of Calvi, on the east
coast of Corsica. After checking things out there, we rented a car
for a day and toured around the environs. The terrain is incredibly
rocky and steep, and the population is quite sparse. We drove up
into the mountains just north of Calvi, stopping along the way to
taste some local wine, then stopping along the way to taste some
more wine, then stopping along the way for lunch (without wine --
Rob wanted to be able to keep the car on the windy mountain roads).
Naturally, we also had to take a peek at the local church, which
turned out to be a scale model of St. Peter's in Rome and contained
the body of an actual saint, preserved under glass (you can see
his wrist bones through a sort of gauss that, we guess, holds him
together). We then wound our way down from the mountains and headed
south for a real mountain road, which switch-backs up and then down
again to the little port of Porto, passing at least one coastal
village that can only be reached by a 1-1/2 hour hike over a steep
rustic path, or by boat. The road is only one car wide in places,
and of course half the turns are blind, so one finds oneself face-to-face
with oncoming cars with no notice, not to mention the cattle and
pigs that roam loose; so the trip was fairly slow. But the scenery
was magnificent, all pine and rocks and distant views of the sea
down below. Despite the morning wine tasting, we had no trouble
tourist guidebooks emphasize the importance of vendettas in Corsican
life of the 18th and 19th centuries. At one point, over 900 deaths
a year were attributed to vendettas, out of a population of only
240,000 or so. This all ended, purportedly at least, around 1955.
Rob was dying to ask some Corsicans about vendettas their families
might have engaged in, but he wasn't sure how to introduce the topic.
(We think we may have caught a whiff of one, in the description
of the pickled saint, which said that they used to parade the corpse
through the streets on his saint's day, but there were controversies
about who got to carry him, so they gave it up and now he rests
eternally in his glass coffin.)
their history of violence, the Corsican people were very friendly
to us, and tolerated our (well, Rob's) broken French very well.
In fact, they don't speak it that well themselves (from a Parisian-accent
point of view). They kept on correcting us, putting back all the
terminal e's that we learned in school to keep silent!
key we've discovered, for dealing with people in a foreign language:
Start the conversation with the statement that you're American and
don't speak the language very well. They become amazingly patient,
as compared to if you just jump in and mangle their native tongue.
engine-driven refrigeration system broke again on the way from the
French coast to Corsica. The compressor finally packed it in, and
we spent some time looking for a new one, even though Corsica, with
its sparse (and poor) population is not a promising venue for such
a search. The compressor is intended for automobile air conditioning
systems, and we spent one day in Ajaccio wandering around town with
the old compressor in hand, checking out the auto parts stores.
One of our stops was at a little one-man shop, where the proprietor
expressed no hope of finding a replacement. Then he suddenly thought
of somebody who might have one, and called them. The telephone conversation,
in French, went something like this:
Hello, this is the Corsica Auto Parts Store. I've got an American
here ... Well, he needs an air conditioning compressor ... It's
a ... Wait, let me tell you! ... If you don't give me a chance to
talk, how can I tell you the problem? ... No, he's not a tourist,
he lives on a boat ... Damn it, let me finish my sentence! ... If
you don't let me talk, I'm not going to buy anything from you ...
Good-bye! [hangs up]
asked him what's up with this guy, and he just said "C'est
fou!" (He's crazy!) Anyway, no compressor there.
spent 2 days in Ajaccio, the capital of Corsica, then headed south
toward Bonifacio. There were reports of huge forest fires in that
area, and we saw the "dipping" planes again the morning
we left Ajaccio, scooping up water right near our anchorage, then
climbing slowly with their loads and heading for the fires, where
they dumped the water on the flames.
Ajaccio we had a nice sail for awhile in 10-15 knots of breeze,
just perfect for Akka, until the wind died, then a rolly motor.
It was quite hot, about 83 degrees Fahrenheit down in the cabin
and nearer 100 in the sun -- but the breeze cooled us some, and
we stopped once to jump into the water. The first day out of Ajaccio
we went to a really small village, Tizzano, and wound up there for
2 days when a weather system blew through with 25+ knot winds and
high seas. It was a north wind and we were headed south, so would
have been OK, but we were in a safe, pretty anchorage and saw no
reason to move. How mature of us...
we motored in calm weather to Bonifacio, stopping en route at a
gorgeous cove for lunch and a swim. Clear turquoise water, fantastic
rock formations; lovely! One of the rocks is famous as looking like
the silhouette of a lion, but it looked more like a turtle to us.
As we rounded the last point heading to Bonifacio, the composition
of the rocky shore totally changed, from the pink-beige to grey
lumpy granite, often eroded into what the guide book calls Henry
Moore sculptures, and then changed dramatically again, into white
limestone cliffs rising directly out of the water, horizontally
stratified and very eroded in places with undercut caves.
sits atop such a cliff, some 70 meters high. We found it hard to
believe that we'd never heard of it -- it's truly amazing. Its citadel
seems to simply grow up out of the cliff, and its houses are perched
right at the edge, which is in part undercut, so they look quite
precarious. The harbor entrance is totally hidden until you get
right up to it, making the approach rather amazing, because the
boats ahead just keep disappearing suddenly into what appears to
be an unbroken cliff! The harbor is a very deep ravine ("calanque")
in the limestone cliffs. Inside the harbor, which is quite large,
there is a side calanque just opposite the citadel, and we are anchored
there, our stern tied to one of the large rings on the cliffs and
our anchor hooked on the huge chain down the middle of the calanque
(this took 2 tries). The setting was spectacular, much nicer than
in the crowded harbor, where the dozens of tour boats plow along
at 6 knots amongst big yachts maneuvering to get into the gas dock,
and slips cost $60 a day.
sits on the peninsula between the Straits of Bonifacio and Sardinia
to the south and the harbor to the north, so from the ramparts of
the citadel you look down to magnificent views in both directions.
In the upper city, inside the citadel, some of the narrow streets
just allow a car (or the little tourist "train") to pass,
but most are mere passageways where you can extend your arms and
touch both sides, and often include stairs. The entries into the
houses feature very steep narrow stairways, some of which are almost
ladders -- no space to waste! In the lower town, around the harbor,
many of the houses extend partly into the rock, then are built up
2 or 3 stories above the half-cave bottom floor. This makes them
cool, providing relief from the summer heat in this airconditioning-less
neighboring boat in the calanque was English and there was a French/English
couple 2 boats away. Dinner one night was aboard the English neighbors'
boat (we had had everybody over for drinks earlier): bream and sea
bass, grilled on the barbie, with potato salad, string beans with
almonds in butter (made by Andi), and of course plenty of French
wine. The fish were speared by the young British guy of the Brit/French
couple, wearing face mask but no flippers. Rob was so impressed
that he went into town later and bought a spear gun.
morning, Rob went for a walk along the cliffs, from the citadel
to the lighthouse a couple of miles away. The path was fundamentally
flat, though it did have a few dips and rises. Most of the way,
it went right along the edge of the cliff, and he could look straight
down at the sea, 100 meters or so below. The views were spectacular,
with the crystal clear water below showing green sandy patches,
brown rocks, and deep blue holes. Coming back, the old town of Bonifacio
lay ahead and below, perched on its limestone cliff. Magnificent!
next anecdote requires a little introduction. We'd been reading
an anthology of 19th-Century stories (in French) about Corsican
bandits and vendettas (these are closely linked because after avenging
some wrong, the murderer commonly escaped into the maquis and became
a bandit). There were a couple hundred of these bandits around in
the 1850's, all supported by their relatives, to whom they were
heroes. These are romanticized tales, of course (some of the authors
are Flaubert, Daudet, Merimee, and de Maupassant) and, regardless
of the author, all the bandits are described as being darkened from
the sun, tall, slim, barefoot, with black hair and piercing black
eyes. When Rob was returning along the path through the maquis to
Bonifacio, he came across a man washing his feet in a stream of
water from a spigot on the side of a stone building. The man was
darkened from the sun, tall, slim, barefoot, with black hair and
piercing black eyes. He had with him only a small purse, but Rob
thought he could see the form of a stylet (stiletto or switchblade
-- very common in the Corsican stores) outlined through the cloth.
The man stepped aside to let Rob wet his cap, and when Rob asked
him if the water was potable, he assured him it was; in fact, he
said, it was the same water as in the town. So Rob filled his water
bottle from the spigot. As Rob reiterated his thanks, the "bandit"
asked him if he believed that the water was good. Rob assured him
that, indeed, he believed it. He had the feeling that the bandit
might have been fishing for an insult that he could avenge with
the stylet; but Rob refused to take the bait.