Words and Pictures John Walsh
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In July, after more than 100 years, the secret finally got out. The biggest cycling event in the world finally visited one of the best cycling destinations in the world. The Tour de France swept through Corsica for the first time in its history for the opening three stages, to celebrate the race’s 100th edition.
The heli-cams followed the riders speeding alongside golden beaches and twisting through the beautiful Corsican landscape. The Tour took in some Corsican highlights, but on a recent holiday to the island, I went for some rides with David Hall from cycling holiday company Saddle Skedaddle. David has guided over 20 tours on the island, and he let me in on some amazing routes the Tour cameras missed.
A ride a day for a year
Pressed for his favourite day’s riding on the island, David picked a 50-mile stretch from Calvi to Piana, combining the best section of the Tour de France route but at a much more leisurely pace, with a relatively unknown, sublime coastal section. Leaving Calvi, hugging the coastline, the route is little used by traffic. It rises and falls gently, weaving its way across creeks that cascade down into the Mediterranean sea. This route sometimes feels like it has been hand-made for cyclists. The surface is a little ‘interesting’ in places; the Tour de France chose an inland route at this point, so this section did not benefit from fresh tarmac.
Persevering with this route, despite the road surface, will reward you with stunning coastal views, and that sound you can hear is more likely a cacophony of crickets than the cracking of carbon frames. The section just north of Porto produces a postcard-worthy bend-a-minute as the road twists and turns, clinging improbably to the cliffs high above the sea.
After descending into Porto, a secluded sandy bay well endowed with restaurants serving delicious Corsican lunches, the road climbs through the Calanche to Piana.
A dog’s life
We are back in Tour de France territory now, and the outstanding World Heritage-listed limestone rock formations of Les Calanches de Piana are a major tourist draw on the island. The landscape has been tormented by nature, with unusual patterns of erosion sculpting hundreds of weird and wonderful shapes. With a little imagination, you can see the Tête du Chien dog’s head, witches and devils. Legend has it a maiden refused the devil’s advances, so he had her turned to stone so she would have to peer across the ravine at him for the rest of her life.
My tip would be to enjoy a leisurely lunch in Porto before visiting the Calanche in late afternoon. Even the devil looks serene bathed in the evening light among the vivid orange and pink rock masses and pinnacles. By this time, the tourist hordes have gone home and it’s worth a well-earned Pietra (the local chestnut beer) or two at the lone bar tucked in among the rock formations which proffers a peerless panorama of the rocks against the backdrop of the lapping shores of the Med 400 metres below. After a few drinks, you might make a new interpretation of some of the rock formations!
Pedalling into Piana, I was ready to nominate this ride as a contender for the title of the most stunning coastal cycle route in the world.
L’Ile de Beauté
Beautiful is a word that is easily bandied about when describing holiday destinations, but the geographical diversity and unique sensory-overload experienced on a visit to Corsica justifies its official title as Island of Beauty (L’Ile de Beauté).
A surprising Corsican stimulant is its distinctive smell, and thankfully I’m not just talking about the ubiquitous goat. The smell emanates from the maquis, a modestly sized yet dense aromatic scrub that blankets large parts of the island. Maquis contains a heady concoction of local herbs — thyme, marjoram, basil, fennel and rosemary scents waft over you in warm waves as you pedal along. It’s not unusual for the distinctive aromas to come back at dinner time, as the same herbs are used in cooking local lamb, veal and the quintessentially Corsican wild boar stew.
Tucked away at the northern end of the island, David takes me round the Cap Corse, Corsica’s forgotten ‘thumb’ sticking out above Bastia. This area boasts a remarkably quiet and under-visited coastline where the only cyclists you are likely to see are locals ‘in the know’.
Until the road was built around the Cap Corse (40km long, 15km across) in the late 19th century, the area was completely cut off from the rest of the island. The Cap is divided by the mountainous Serra ridge which gives this ride a split personality. The east coast offers a vibrant array of wildflowers and quiet fishing
villages, before rising up to 300m and crossing the peninsular to the western ‘corniche’ road, which hugs the coastline high above the Mediterranean sea.
The Cap Corse’s 300m climb is remarkably modest compared to the dragon-tooth-shaped profiles of the island’s rugged interior. If arriving by plane on a clear day, you would be forgiven for thinking the pilot had taken a wrong turn as you look down at the towering peaks such as Monte Cinto (2,706m) that remain snow-capped into July.
A proud nation
During our rides, we come across signs and rocks daubed in graffiti with the initials FLNC. David explains these are slogans for the Front de Liberation Nationale de Corse, a nationalist movement comprising disaffected militants who want independence from France. Corsicans are fiercely proud of their unique island and identity. This is reflected in the distinctive Genoese-based language they speak.
Most settlements have two place names; the Corsican name looks almost Italian, while many of the French names are crossed-out or riddled with bullet holes, shot by wild boar hunters. One theory behind the choice of the Moor’s Head as the island’s emblem is that it represents the vanquishing oppressors and the ability to confront destiny. Tourists won’t encounter problems, though; the islanders merely shout “bon route” as you pedal away from your coffee stop!
David’s final ride takes us into the rural hinterland where you feel like the only tourist. I am left wondering where all of Corsica’s 2.5 million visitors are. It turns out they have more sense than to ride the Col de Veggio (1,471m), the highest paved road on Corsica — not even the Tour pros rode over here! However, after a steep-ish start out of Porto, where the gradient is gentle and manageable, we are only briefly interrupted as the local honey producer moves his bees across our route.
The climb through the Spinluca gorge is incredibly dramatic yet manageable and enjoyable. We stop at the top of the gorge in the village of Evissa (a little quieter than its Spanish namesake) to fill up from the fountain with delicious fresh mountain spring water. Most Corsican villages offer plentiful opportunities to fill your bottle, as springs were the epicentre of ancient village life and are now a welcome sight for thirsty cyclists.
The climb continues through ancient forest to the top, which affords great views of the granite peaks of Haute Corse. Before descending, David warns me to watch out for pinecones and pigs. The pine cones I manage easily, the pigs with a little more drama. A free-roaming beast without a care wandered out in front of me on a corner. If he made a squeal, it was drowned out by the screech of my brakes as I narrowly averted being made into charcuterie.
Now I understand why the Tour stuck mainly to the coast.
As well as being blessed with dramatic landscapes and improbably precarious roads, the heady combination of rich history, distinctive cuisine and passionate people make Corsica a truly memorable touring destination and an equally great holiday location where you can pick from a great menu of day rides.
As I drained the last of my Pietra and the sun set, I reflected on Corsica’s secret having been revealed. It was not a feeling of regret, since there is plenty for everyone — so much variety to explore, with every day of riding on this beautiful isle exceeding itself.
I was left wondering if the Tour de France will wait another 100 years before coming back — on this evidence, I doubt it.
Fly: To Ajaccio on the east coast or Bastia in the north-west direct from the UK with EasyJet or via Paris with Air France. If you have a week spare for some cycle touring, why not fly into Bastia and out of Ajaccio, taking in the dramatic coastal route of ‘E Callanche’?
Sail: For a more relaxed journey, why not fly to Nice, then take the ferry www.corsicaferries.fr. You could then take an onward boat to Sardinia or Tuscany for your own ‘Grand Tour’ of the Med.
Train: There is so much riding in Corsica you can literally cycle from the airport door and be in tranquillity in 5km, but if you would like an easier route into the mountains, check out the charming ‘Micheline’ train which runs between Bastia and Ajacco via Corte, taking you through stunning scenery www.corsicabus.org
In Piana, look no further than Les Roches Rouges (www.lesrochesrouges.com), a grand old hotel recently restored to its turn-of-the-20th-century charm. It oozes class and elegance at affordable prices. Restaurant and rooms are classically French and are heaven for weary cyclists. My top tip is to head through the lobby (via the bar on the way, of course) to the balcony for an unrivalled infinity view of the Calanche you have just ridden though, against the backdrop of the Mediterranean sparkling below.