Corsica, a travel treasure wrapped in misconception

 Corsica, A Hidden Travel Treasure Wrapped in Misconception
                        by Jacqueline Swartz

“Corsica, that’s in Sicily, isn’t it?”
Not true, but my well-traveled friend’s mistake is typical. Few North Americans know much about Corsica and most have strong misconceptions about this Mediterranean island that is much closer to Sardinia than to Marseille. Corsica, first of all, is a part of France as much as Nice is.  It is not a colony. Here are some other common misconceptions that I too -  at least partly - shared until I visited the place.

1. It’s mostly mountains, and the coastline is rocky. It has dramatic vistas but nature here is austere.
Totally false. No Mediterranean island is as gorgeous, lush and varied.  On the thousand kilometre coastline are secluded rocky coves and white sandy beaches with the most alluring colors of the Mediterranean - turquoise, cobalt and translucent emerald green.

Some of the best beaches are on the half hour drive from the Southern port of Bonifacio to the island’s ultra chic village of Porto Vecchio, a magnet for French movie stars. But people swim in the clear waters around ports like Ajaccio, the regional capital..

There are farms, orchards, citrus and olive groves, each producing essential parts of the robust local cuisine. There is a town named for chestnut trees, and their fruit is made into everything fromd chestnut creme brulee to food for free range pigs. The early Greeks and Romans planted vineyards, and today there are  Appellations Controllees and wine tasting.

Magisterially towering above everything are the mountains -  100 km of them, with 117 peaks over 2,000 meters high.  Just as astounding are the houses vertically implanted into the walls of mountains and hilltop villages that were once accessible only by donkey. The mountains come in striking varieties.  Along the west coast are the Calenches, burnt orange coloured rocks that seem sculpted by a divine hand. You can see them close up because they impose themselves on each side of the narrow, winding roads.   In the centre of the island, near Corte, the former capital,  are pine forests, mountain lakes and rivers, along with waterfalls and natural gorges.

At the Hotel Colonna, facing the Restonica Gorge, rooms look out on the rushing river; at the restaurant next door, you eat local trout. 

The island’s limestone and granite peaks have  shaped the very soul of Corsicans. They lived in theses mountain fortresses for hundreds of years because it was too dangerous to live by the sea.

2. It’s a a violent place, of bandits and separatist terrorists.
 Bandits, no. Not even the pickpockets who prey on tourists in so many parts of Europe. Crime is very low. Separatism, which started in the l970's, is pretty much dead. What people want is a recognition of their culture and language. So  why are bombs aimed at real estate offices that sell land to foreigners?  The bomb throwers  - no one knows who they are - send messages claiming their motive is to keep Corsica for the Corsicans, but most people say there’s more to it than that.. There is big money and mafia-style power grabs. Most of the time, the bombed property is empty of people.

“There are rackets and protection money, yet we live in a laid back environment,”, says Tamara Antonini, a tour guide and singer of traditional Corsican music. “The old idealistic revolutionaries retired decades ago; now they’re involved in culture, things like teaching traditional songs, or the crafts mov
ement”, she explains. We are sitting outdoors in a cliffside cafĂ©  in the tiny hilltop village of Pigna. Restored 40 years ago, it has become a center for musicians from around the Mediterranean. They come for the music festivals and some use the recording studio. Pigna is a showcase for Corsican culture, including the traditional polyphonic music, said to be linked to Gregorian Chants and Eastern Orthodox cantorial music. In this minuscule mountaintop village, with its stone steps and blue shutters,  stores sell crafts and artisanal food products like olive oil and preserves. The place is a  cultural reserve, just as half of the island is a protected nature reserve.

3. The people are stubborn and suspicious. Certainly, if you encounter only hotel clerks and waiters anywhere, you’re going to find some who are rude. But talk to the people, and you'll find wit and  a certain sophistication. Many have traveled, especially to “le continent”, as they call mainland France.

 “We are basically Mediterranean”, says Tamara Antonini. “We are not Italians but we feel close to them. We are an island with a complicated history”. No kidding. After being attacked by one regional power after another - the Romans, the Carthaginians, the Goths, then pulled into the Byzantine Empire, Corsica was raided by the Moors for hundreds of years. A five hundred year rule by the Genoese started in 1284 and continued until the island  was given to the French in 1769, the very year Napoleon was born. In towns like Bonifacio and Bastia, the local bilingual tourist office will most likely point you to the citadel - many were built as protection from invaders. And along the coast, are a series of Genoese watch towers.

 During WWII, the Corsicans fought bravely, and their island was the first part of France to be liberated from the Nazis.. The maquis, the tough but fragrant underbrush of broom, lavender and myrtle that covers half the island became the name for the French resistance.

Today, I wonder if  perhaps  the 750 years of French and Italian influence accounts for some of the innate style and good taste that  I see everywhere. There’s the food - fresh fish and vegetables, prosciutto and other cured ham products, goat and sheep cheese. It’s country cuisine that combines  French and Italian techniques. And there’s the way women dress - not so different from St. Tropez or Capri. Advised to bring only sensible clothes,  I felt the need to spice up my suitcase with a little shopping.  In the major towns of Ajaccio, Bastia and Porto Vecchio, I found stylish Italian clothes and  French boutiques, from Sonia Rykiel to Etam.

4. Most people speak Corsican, a form of Italian.
 Not any more. The Corsican language was all but wiped out by the French government.  In l991 the France did an about face, and now Corsican is taught in the schools.  Everyone speaks good French but there’s not a lot of English on the island; not surprisingly,  most of the  tourists are from France and Italy.

 5. Napoleon is the favorite son. Yes and no. He’s the island’s superstar, its eternal claim to fame, and his home, which is now a museum, draws crowds of  Bonaparte worshipers to the capital city, Ajaccio. But ask about the founding father of Corsica and you’re likely to hear the name Pasquale Paoli.  Unlike Napoleon, who was happy to see Corsica become part of  France, Paoli tried to liberate the island and give it a constitution. In l755, he made Corte the capital. Corsica fought successfully  against Genoa until 1769, when it was defeated and  handed over to the French.  Paoli went into exile in London, where he received a pension from George III.  In January of 1794, encouraged by Paoli,  Britain, led by Lord Nelson attacked and occupied part of the island, but this lasted little more than a year.

There is one thing people say about Corsica that is very much the truth: driving means navigating  a dizzying series of hairpin turns. It’s not that the roads are bad - it’s just that they curve and curve. Like elsewhere in Europe, you either pass or get passed. Still, it’s a small price to pay for an unspoiled Mediterranean island,  underdiscovered by North Americans. 

There is one thing people say about Corsica that is very much the truth: driving means navigating  a dizzying series of hairpin turns. It’s not that the roads are bad - it’s just that they curve and curve. Like elsewhere in Europe, you either pass or get passed. Still, it’s a small price to pay for an unspoiled Mediterranean island,  underdiscovered by North Americans. 


Boston Uncommon

BOSTON UNCOMMON: Combining Hipness with History

Taking a water taxi for a dreamy  ride from a waterfront hotel to Boston’s Institute of Contemporary Art is like a screenshot of what Boston is about these days. The historic 17th century waterfront is marked with Massachusetts’ seafaring history.  There’s the picturesque harbour  where yachts anchor, sailboats dot the water, and shabby neighbourhoods are reborn in what the Boston Globe calls “the newest, cooolest, and most vibrating part of the city”. (Check out the arts and music festivals and other activities at

The ten-minute water taxi drops visitors off at The Institute of Contemporary Art,  the first new museum building to be built in Boston in a century.  In its old location downtown, the 75 year-old museum was the first to introduce US audiences to Georges Braque, Edvard Munch and Roy Lichtenstein. The striking new building, which seems to hover above the water, has become a career booster for contemporary artists as well as a venue for exhibits and concerts. Outside is a great place for lingering and boat watching.
Near the ICA, in what was a rundown area called Fort Point, low-rise, wide-windowed industrial buildings, some with ungentrified artists’ lofts, are sprouting one new restaurant after another Menton, an upscale French eatery, was a pioneer, and it opened only in 2010.  Leases are being signed for a 5,5000 square foot restaurant by  Mario Batali.
 Bees Knees Supply Company ( the neighbourhood a much needed market, which includes a cheese shop, charcuterie, chocolate maker, and two cafes. Currently, the buzz goes,

Next door, on 12 Farnsworth Street, is  Flour Bakery, which draws lunchtime crowds as much for their sandwiches and salads as for the pastries. You order at the desk, your name is called and you sit at one of the long tables.
Of course, the quickest lunch would be at one of Boston’s food trucks, which keep growing in number. There are now over 50, serving everything from vegan Asian (Momgoose), Middle Eastern (Chubby Chick pea), seafood (Lobsta Love)  to cookies (Cookie Monstah). (to find the food trucks, go to

Near Flour is Fort Point Channel. It’s part of the regeneration of Fort Point. And in typical Boston fashion, hipness is combined with history. In front of Children’s Museum, a delightful place of interactive play, is an artful coil of thick rope, to be used as a seat. It’s one of the 17 winners of a city design contest called  Street Seats - Re-imagining the Public Bench. The thick cord used for the seat is naturally in synch with the maritime setting.  Sitting on the rope seat, with the water below, what you see ahead is the  Tea Party Ships and Museum (, which is on the Congreess Street Bridge. It has live actors, interactive exhibits, and offers tours that end on a vintage ship docked at the Museum. Here you can throw over bales of tea as the Bostonians did in 1773 to protest British taxation. (The bales are attached to ropes so they don’t sink).

The Boston Tea Party Museum  is just one historical site among many, in this American Revolution epicentre that nevertheless remains the most British city in  the US -just look at the buildings, the names, and a certain sense of decorum, delightfully leavened with Irish wit..
throwing tea overboard

food truck
The Freedom Trail, ( covers 250 years of history in 2.5 miles and is marked by red lines on the sidewalk  It takes you to  Paul Revere’s house,  the 1798  golden domed Statehouse, the stone marking the grave of John Hancock, one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence. You can join a group with a costumed guide at the Boston Common Visitor’s Center, a great place for maps and information.

There are plenty of other tours, many, like the Irish Heritage Trail, are self-guided. Others include the Kennedy Tour, The Historic Pub Crawl and numerous culinary tours. If you’d like to see the sights sitting down, you can get an overview of Boston  by taking the Upper Deck Trolley Tours ( It’s a hop off and on tour, good for three consecutive days, that covers most of Boston’s must-see places.
One stop  is  the Museum of Fine Arts (, which has opened its  Art of the Americas wing, covering four floors and ranging from pre-Columbian and Mayan art through 1920's artists like Edward Hopper and ending in the l970's, with paintings by Frank Stella and Robert Motherwell. The museum also has the largest collection of Monet paintings outside of Paris.

Beacon Hill is on the tour, but why not just wander the brick streets at leisure. This forever-chic district, designated an historical landmark in l962, has one of the best “collections” of intact Victorian buildings in America.  It also has small shops, cafes and restaurants. One classic is the Beacon Hill Bistro, which serves creative farm to table cuisine. I had a roasted beet terrine with farmer’s cheese and mesculin leaves, local halibut in kombu broth with leeks, accompanied by a Gruner Veltliner wine from the Wachau region of Austria.

It’s just a walk from here to Back Bay, and Copley Square, marked by the Fairmont Copley Plaza, a century-old grand hotel where the Kennedys and other noted families had their celebrations. Today the hotel draws people to its Oak Long Bar and Kitchen, which is opulent yet casual and features hand-crafted cocktails and an extensive seafood menu.

For me, Boylston Street was the site of a find. Walking to my hotel, the large, cool moderne Revere, I was lured by a surprise: Nordstrom’s off-price,The Rack. It had just opened, taking the place of the much mourned Boston classic, Filene’s basement. So little time, so much to buy - yet it was well-organized and there were plenty of fitting rooms. Ca-ching.  I bought a long, casual summer dress that was perfect for that night’s restaurant, Toro, not expensive, super casual, and extraordinary. It’s in the newly hip South End, about a 25 minutes walk from my hotel.

Along the way, there was much to see. The Boston Common, the first public park in the US, dates from 1634. Today it’s green and planted with brilliant flowers, with fountains here and swan pedal-boats there, a real centre to this ultra-walkable city.. And if that weren’t enough, there are the Public Gardens bordering the other side of Charles Street. As we approached the South End, the neighborhood became more residential. There was a schoolyard, with people dancing salsa, a perfect prelude to the Tapas Restaurant.

Toro served up the best food I had in Boston. From the marinated oysters with grains of lovage and citrus, the tomato salad with fiddleheads, to the cauliflower with pine nuts and the  catalan stew of lobster, crab, cockles and romesco....I could see why the chef has been nominated for a James Beard award. And why Boston, with its hipness and history, is uncommon.