July - August 2003 Corsica
 
The 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.

We 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.

When 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 staying awake!

The 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.)

Despite 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!

A 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.

Our 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]

Rob asked him what's up with this guy, and he just said "C'est fou!" (He's crazy!) Anyway, no compressor there.

We 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.

Leaving 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...

Eventually 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.

Bonifacio 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.

Bonifacio 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 country.

Our 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.

Next 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!

Our 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.