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Monday
Nov082010

THE TERROIR OF CORSICA and CORSICAN SPECIALTY FOODS

Delicious charcuterie and cheese at the Farmer's Market in Ajaccio I talked about the extraordinary beauty of the island of Corsica in my previous post. There is no shortage of natural wonders here, from the gorgeous beaches on the coast to the fragrant Maquis-covered mountains of inland Corsica. Experiencing the natural beauty of Corsica is enough of a reason to travel to the island.

But Corsica has so much more to offer. Lounging on the beach, basking in the sun after a tranquil swim, you may think you are in the Caribbean. But when you are sitting at a beach restaurant with your toes buried in the sand, and you order a Calzone filled with a barely poached egg, prosciutto and mozzarella cheese along side a glass of delicate Rose wine produced by a nearby vineyard, it dawns on you. You are in an island sandwiched between FRANCE and ITALY. This is the two greatest cuisines in the world, existing in culinary harmony.

The inner glory of Matt's Prosciutto, Mozzarella and fried egg Calzone at Tamaricciu restaurant The really cool thing is, you're not eating French food and you're not eating Italian food, though elements of both cuisines can be found in many of the dishes you encounter. You are eating Corsican food made almost exclusively with local Corsican ingredients. This is food you cannot eat anywhere else but in Corsica. And you can taste the difference.

Roaming Corsican pigs lounging by the side of the road. Not a care in the world. The French have a special name for locally produced food: "Terroir." The concept of "terroir" has two meanings. The first is literal; it is essentially a reference to the land, the climate, the region where a particular food is grown. But there is a deeper, more complex meaning to the word. It is also a description of the unique, almost indescribable quality and taste of food that is grown in a particular place.

Garden in back of restaurant A Mandria between Corte and Porto Vecchio It is not only the physical land and region where a certain food is grown that makes it taste different. As Anne Willan writes in the Introduction to her cookbook "The Country Cooking of France":
"Terroir isn't merely rainfall, mineral content and angles of exposure to sunlight…Terroir is our cultural and historical link to the land, the expression of the land itself and of the people who live there. To the French…it is an emotionally charged term, for it is food that tells a story."


Picture Perfect Corsican Peaches at the Farmer's Market in Ajaccio The notion of Terroir is what makes dining in Corsica so special. There is a passionate devotion to all things local. So what you eat, and drink, directly connects you to the land that surrounds you. Each bite of delicious lasagna, or prosciutto, or a briny langoustine, each sip of earthy red wine or clear sweet Corsican sparkling water, embodies the essence of Corsica’s land and it’s history. The food has a taste and a quality that you will not experience anywhere else you go in the world.

And each bite tells a story. You think of the sea you just swam in, or the mountain you just crossed, or the pigs you just saw walking down the road. You smell the heady herbs of the Maquis, feel the cool ocean breeze, remember the icy clear waters of the rock pools you swam in earlier that day. Every meal you have in Corsica is a dining experience that somehow involves all your senses at once. And as a result every meal is special. And very delicious.

Fluffy, sugar coated Beignets filled with aged Brocciu cheese at Boulangerie Galeani in Ajaccio CORSICAN SPECIALITY FOODS

The image of the Moor's Head becomes very familiar while you are in Corsica When you are in Corsica you will see the image of the Moor’s Head everywhere you go. The Moor’s Head is the national symbol of the island. It is not only the emblem on the Corsican flag, but also appears on the packaging of all locally made products.

Inside an excellent wine, charcuterie and kitchen supply shop in Bonifacio When you see the Moor’s Head, you know you what you are purchasing was made in Corsica. And this is important. Because when you try the delicious Corsican Charcuterie, Cheese and Honey you’re going to want to make sure you get the real thing.

Woman making fresh beignets outside a bakery in the town of Corte HONEY Corsican honey is very unusual. There is a particular type of bee that can only be found in Corsica, and this leads to a variety of uniquely flavored honey. Corsican honey is, in fact, the only honey in France to be granted AOC status. You may have seen the AOC, or “Appellation of Controlled Origin,” label on fancy French wines or cheeses. It is basically a way to guarantee a product comes from a certain area, as well as to preserve traditional production methods that have been passed from generation to generation. Thus, if you see the label "AOC" on a bottle of Bourdeaux, you know that the grapes are from the town of Bourdeaux, France and that the methods of producing the wine are the same methods that have been used for hundreds of years. You know you are getting an authentic product.

Celebrating Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, with the traditional Apples and Honey. The unique Corsican honey makes this a very special New Year! The fact that Corsican honey is designated AOC is significant. It means that the French government has determined that the unique qualities of the honey can be found in no place but Corsica, and that the traditions of harvesting and producing this honey are invaluable and must be officially preserved.

And if you tasted Corsican honey, you would agree that this is a product that needs to be protected and treasured. Corsican honey is absolutely wild tasting. It certainly does not taste like any honey that I have ever had. There are a number of different kinds of honey and the type is determined by where the bee hive is located. Honey from bees that live at a high altitude taste different from those that live closer to the coast, because the type of flower that the bees pollinate varies based on the location. There is a honey that is made from the chestnut tree, a honey that is made from the flowers of the maquis in winter, and a honey that is made from the flowers of the maquis in spring. Each one has a distinct and intense flavor, both sweet and herbaceous and very complex. The taste lingers and blossoms in your mouth. It's like you are tasting the very essence of "bee." It's pretty mind-blowing.

A group of Corsican bees innocently dining on a piece of silky Prosciutto fat during our meal at the Sperone golf club Speaking of bees...when you go to Corsica, at least to the areas of Corsica that we were in, it's pretty obvious that honey is a big thing here. Because bees are EVERYWHERE. And I'm not exaggerating. Bees quickly become a major part of your day-time Corsica dining experience. At every meal they will hover around your plate and even sometimes eat your food. And there is nothing you can do about it.

But I don't want to scare you. The truth is, the bees are totally harmless as long as you don't try and mess with them. In fact it's pretty enlightening to be in such constant and close proximity to bees and learn not to fear them. Corsicans are so used to bees that at restaurants the waiters instruct you to make a bee offering: Put a small piece of food on a bread plate and place it at the side of your table. The bees will be delighted--and they will, for the most part, stay away from your meal.

Interestingly, Corsican bees (as one waitress told us) love Prosciutto, eggs and Chicken above all else. They are gourmet bees. This fact was proven to us again and again during our Corsican dining experiences. We actually couldn't believe how right this waitress really was.

My delicious vegetarian pizza at Tamaricciu restaurant on the beach at Palombaggia We sat down to lunch at Tamaricciu, located on the beach of Palombaggia. The food here was great. Especially because we were sitting about 30 feet from the water on one of the most beautiful beaches we had ever seen, drinking Rose wine and enjoying the cool breeze. It was glorious.

Anyway, Matt, as he so often does, ordered the better of our two dishes. My vegetarian pizza was delicious with fresh artichokes, red peppers and mushrooms and expertly done chewy and crisp crust. But Matt's Calzone, filled with prosciutto, gooey mozzarella cheese and a delicately poached egg was transcendent. It arrived like a giant calzone football, golden brown and charred in just the right places. When he broke into it the egg oozed out over the plate exposing the smoky prosciutto and cheese treasures that lay within.

A Perfect calzone at Tamaricciu on the beach of Palombaggia And that's when the bees descended. I was sitting right next to Matt, munching on my pizza and drinking my wine. The bees couldn't care less about my peppers. Not a single one even approached my plate. But to my left Matt was fully sharing his Calzone with 3 or 4 bees. Really, I don't blame them. The Calzone was that good. But they were all over that plate, little legs dancing around the sticky egg, mouths tearing off (bees rip off food with their mouths, it's crazy) pieces of prosciutto and flying away with them, only to return for more a few minutes later.

Bees enjoying bits of Matt's Calzone At one point a bee landed on our bottle of water and it's legs left egg yolk behind on the glass. That attracted even more bees, who now hovered around our egg-marked water bottle. One time a bee floated over to my pizza, inspected a piece of artichoke with disdain and then drifted back over to dine on a lone piece of pork.

Bees on our bottle of water I'm not going to lie and say this was not annoying. There were moments when I just wanted to eat in peace without the company of the bees. But, like I said, they are not there to hurt you and they never do. And you gotta respect the fact that they love their prosciutto and sweet drippy egg yolk. After all, who doesn't?

CHEESE

Mouthwatering assortment of Cheese at U Stazzu in Ajaccio Corsican honey goes very well alongside a nice piece of Corsican cheese. Corsica produces a lot of wonderful cheese, primarily from sheep and goat's milk. But most famous of them all, and the only one with AOC status, is the soft, ricotta-like Brocciu cheese.

Aged Brocciu cheese for sale at the Farmer's Market in Ajaccio. Note the symbol of the Moor's Head on the packaging Brocciu is considered the national cheese of Corsica. It is produced from November through May and it is best eaten fresh, within 48 hours of production. Brocciu can also be aged for several months, transforming it from a soft, mild and creamy cheese to a more crumbly and tangy one. Brocciu is used in many Corsican dishes, from savory ones such as an omelette or pasta to sweet desserts like a filling for sugar dusted beignets or the base for a refreshing ice cream. You are guaranteed to see it on most Corsican menus in one form or another. We were not in Corsica during Brocciu season, so we tried the aged version. Which was delicious. But apparently it is nothing compared to the fresh product. In one blog post I found on Corsica, the blogger writes that the fresh cheese is so good that: "I’d actually go so far as to say that you shouldn’t visit Corsica any other time of year than during Brocciu season." Oh well. I guess we'll just have to go back sometime.

CHARCUTERIE

Meats hanging in a window in Bonifacio. You don't have to go too far in Corsica to come across some enticing meats hanging around. Where there is cheese, there is charcuterie. And the abundance of free range pigs and wild boar on the island guarantees top notch cured meats. The pig's diet consists of acorns, chestnuts, wild berries and the herbs of the maquis, giving the a meat a distinct flavor.

You really get to know your food here--the pigs on the side of the road are so tame and used to people that you can walk right up and pet them Corsican charcuterie is dense and smoky and pungent. Unlike, for example, an Italian prosicutto, which you might describe as mild, sweet and delicate, Corsican charcuterie tends to knock you off your feet with it's bold and assertive flavor and texture. Try the Figatelli (liver sausages) and the Prosciutto-like Prizutto for a good example of these really fantastic and unusual pork delights.

We stumbled across this Farmer's market as we were leaving Ajaccio. Good thing. It was awesome. Everywhere you go in Corsica, there's bound to be salamis and hams hanging around somewhere. In Ajaccio (pronounced a-ja-chio), the capital city of Corsica and the birthplace of Napoleon Bonaparte, we stumbled across a great farmer's market. There was an enormous selection of beautiful produce, fresh breads and cheeses. Many of the stands were selling excellent looking charcuterie. I had to try some. After a few minutes of browsing we settled on one stand with an enticing array of thin, almost black, wrinkled blood sausages and thick salamis with dark slightly molded rinds.

Vendor with lots of character at one of the stands in the Ajaccio Farmer's market The owner of this stand was a man wearing a red bandana around his neck and a black Indiana Jones-style hat. He was smiling and talking loudly and slicing off pieces of a giant ham leg to hand to passerby’s.

When we ordered a small portion of prosciutto and blood sausage (or, rather, pointed to them, since he didn't speak much English), the man asked if we were Canadian. We said we were from New York City. He then proceeded to take a gun out of his pants, laughing all the while, wave it around for a second and then place it on a piece of wax paper along with a slice of ham. He laughed some more and gave us our packages. We had no idea what the fire arm display was all about. It was very strange. But it didn’t bother us. That sausage tasted great.

A poetic display of Gun and Ham. Ajaccio also has a very famous Charcuterie and cheese shop called U Stazzu. Outside the store there is a sign that says only 15 people can enter the tiny space at once. Inside, the smell of aged meats and stinky cheeses smacks you right in the face. It's meaty, moldy, smoky and spicy all at once.

Inside the U Stazzu in Ajaccio. A must go to when in the city. Baskets display huge salamis of varying sizes. Some of them cost over 50 Euros for a single thick link. A display of cheese at the back end of the space makes you weep and drool with hungry joy. There are jars of delicious looking pork terrines, sweet maquis flavored jams and almonds suspended in honey. This is the kind of specialty food shop where dreams come true. The kind of place that makes you want to move right to Ajaccio and never look back.

Close up of the astonishing Salami at U Stazzu. Some of these cost over 50 Euros. SEA URCHIN There is one Corsican delicacy which we did not have the opportunity to try, since its season is only from December through the end of March. And I was devastated. Because for me this delicacy is the greatest delicacy of all, the food I love more than any other: The briny, oceanic, creamy almost foie-gras like glory of the mighty Sea Urchin.

Some people feel sea urchin is an acquired taste. Matt often thinks it tastes like toilet. But those of us who are devoted sea urchin lovers know the profound delicious-ness of this spiny sea creature. And the fact that it is such a delicacy in Corsica was yet another reason why this was my new favorite place on earth. Apparently, when in season, the locals just pick them out of the water, take them to the shore and pop them open to enjoy alongside a glass of white wine and some crusty bread. HEAVEN. Now I have 2 reasons to go back: Fresh Brocciu cheese and Sea urchin. Springtime in Corsica? Sounds like a plan.

UP NEXT: THE JOYS OF CORSICAN CUISINE
Monday
Nov012010

Corsica: Undiscovered Paradise and Foodie Heaven

What: My honeymoon
Where: Corsica, France

Red-tinged Calanches in Scandola Marine Reserve This Search takes me (and my new husband, Matt) to the amazing island of Corsica, France. Corsica is roughly the size of Puerto Rico and has around 300,000 inhabitants. It is located in the Mediterranean Sea, very close to Sardinia, Italy and about an hour plane flight from Nice, France.

Despite it's relatively small size, Corsica is divided into many distinct, fascinating and gorgeous regions. We were not able to cover all of Corsica during our ten-day honeymoon but we covered a considerable amount, focusing mainly on the Coastal South-Southwest regions and Central Corsica.

Sun setting over the ocean in the city of Bonifacio Corsica has managed to remain, in a way, off the beaten path. The island has so much to offer, from shocking natural beauty to amazing food. But you don't see sprawling "Come to Corsica!" ads in the subway or a "Cuisine of Corsica" feature in Food and Wine. There are no major hotel chains (except 2 Club Med's), no McDonald's, no celebrity-chef owned restaurants. There are tourists, but they are mostly European. There are almost no Americans and almost no English is spoken anywhere.

Corsica is uniquely self-sufficient and independent. Virtually all products in Corsica--from the wine, to the cheese, to the bottled water, to the clothing and the music--are local and can be found nowhere else but on this island. It’s hard to convey just how pervasive this commitment to local products really is. But it is one of the main reasons why this island is so special and so unusual. You become totally immersed in all things Corsican. Your travel experience is shaped and defined by this sense of being in a place that is somehow isolated from the rest of the world.

Santa Giulia: One of many beautiful Corsican beaches Corsica is an island that cannot easily be defined. It’s French but also Italian. It’s terrain is the most mountainous in Europe, featuring one of the worlds most strenuous hikes, yet its coast is lined with beaches that rival any in the Caribbean. Its people are so fiercely nationalistic, so thoroughly proud to be Corsican, that it is utterly impossible not to know exactly where you are at every moment you spend on this magical island. You are not in France. You are not in Italy, or even Europe for that matter. You are in Kalliste, the term the ancient Greeks used for Corsica which simply means, “the most beautiful.”

Sunset over the town of Porto I realize, as you read the following posts (this is the first of several Corsica related entries to come), that I may sound like I work for the Corsican tourism board. It's true I'm a little enthusiastic about this island. A tad obsessed maybe. But I have been lucky enough to travel a great deal throughout my life and I have visited many wonderful and extraordinary places. And I have never loved any of them as much as I loved Corsica.

Hopefully, these posts will inspire you to visit. If my writing doesn’t convince you, our pictures definitely will. I think everyone should put Corsica on their list of must-go to travel destinations. It's that awesome. I'm already planning my return trip…And as a famous Corsican proverb goes (In Corsican dialect):

Chi va e volta, bon' viaghju faci: He who leaves and then returns, had a good trip.


CORSICA: THE NATURAL BEAUTY

There is a reason why the Ancient Greeks called Corsica "Kalliste" or "most beautiful" and the French call Corsica "L'Ile De Beaute", or "Beautiful island." Corsica is gorgeous. And what's so cool about Corsica's beauty is the amazing variety of natural wonders it contains. There is an endless array of breathtaking scenery.

Typically narrow road on way from Porto to Corte Before I go into the many beautiful aspects of Corsica’s natural landscape, a quick word on driving here. Corsica is known for it's difficult driving conditions. Driving is stressful and you shouldn't underestimate how challenging it is. The roads are very narrow and they are often perched high above sheer drops and rocky cliffs. And Corsican drivers are fast and aggressive.

View of the Calanches on the dizzying road from Ajaccio to Porto That said, the only way you can fully explore Corsica is by renting a car (or hiring a driver). You cannot rely on the limited public transportation if you want to cover a lot of ground and really get to know the island. Yes, the drives are often terrifying. But as long as you are a good and confident driver you will be fine. And you will be rewarded with visually stunning, striking views of the terrain that you will only be able to experience from the road. That is, if you are brave enough to open your eyes!

COASTAL CORSICA

View of crystal clear water at beach at Asciaghju Corsican beaches are astonishing. Absolutely crystal clear, turquoise blue waters and pristine white sand. There are literally hundreds of beaches to visit and almost all of them are worth visiting. Some of them are completely isolated. Others (and most of the ones we went to) have lovely beach-side restaurants that also rent out beach chairs and umbrellas for the day. The water is so clear that you can snorkel right off the shore. Actually, the water is so clear that you can just walk right in, look down at your feet and see dozens of pretty fishes swimming all around you. I've spent a lot of time in the Caribbean (see my post on St. Croix), and these beaches are as Caribbean as they come.

View from our room at the Hotel Goeland in Porto Vecchio The swanky town of Porto Vecchio is a great place to stay if you want to explore some of Corsica's best beaches. The main town is located at the top of a steep hill within the walls of an ancient Citadel. Our hotel was down by the Port and every night we would hike up to the old city to enjoy some of the excellent restaurants and bars this small, charming place had to offer. During the day it was a quick drive from our hotel to the nearby beaches. We had a couple of favorites but top of the list was the beach of Palombaggia.

PALOMBAGGIA AND THE SURROUNDING BEACHES

Our first glimpse of the expansive beach of Palombaggia Palombaggia is possibly the most famous beach in Corsica and was voted one of the top 10 beaches in Europe. It's a pretty long beach, about 1 1/4 miles and it is gorgeous, surrounded by rolling green hills and palm trees.

Crystal clear blue waters as far as the eye can see The sand is soft and white and the water is a delicate blue-green and clear as glass. There are a number of beach-side restaurants where you can rent chairs with umbrellas. We picked one and settled in. We spent the whole day lying around, taking swims and snorkeling right off the beach. We had one of our favorite lunches at a trendy beach restaurant called Tamaricciu (more on this in a later post).

Lunch at Palombaggia: View from our table. Not bad. Palombaggia is the ideal beach and a must go to if you're in the area. Keep in mind that if you go during the high season (June-August), not only do prices in hotels double or even triple, but beaches--especially Palombaggia--can get VERY crowded. We went in September, considered the “shoulder” season, when the weather is still warm and summery but the crowds have died down. I think this is the best time to go and enjoy Corsica’s beaches without having to worry about fighting for a patch of sand to lay your towel on.

Go to Palombaggia during the busy season and you risk seeing a lot of this kind of thing! It was hard for us not to go back to Palombaggia the next day, but there were so many other beaches to explore. I insisted we check out the beach of Santa Giulia, renowned for it's particularly "gin" clear blue waters and lovely setting. When we arrived it certainly was the warmest, calmest, clearest, most beautiful water I have ever seen. Unlike Palombaggia which is expansive and open, the hills surrounding Santa Giulia create a cove so that the beach feels very intimate and isolated.

Me walking down the beach at Asciaghju Matt however, felt that the beach smelled like raw sewage and he didn't want to stay. It's true there was an unpleasant odor that occasionally wafted through the air. I took a quick dip in the magnificent water and we left to find another spot. Luckily there is no shortage of beautiful beaches to choose from.

Playing kadima in the shallow waters of Asciaghju beach. We settled on the Plage de Punta Asciaghju. It was similar to Palombaggia but much smaller and less crowded. It was just as beautiful, with the same amazing water and sand. We spent another day lazing the hours away. For lunch we had a wonderful ham, cheese and tomato panini and french fries. We played kadima in the shallow waters while fish swam around our feet. The sun began to set as we finally pulled ourselves away to return to Porto Vecchio for dinner.

SCANDOLA

Sali boat squeezing under a rock in Scandola One of the the highlights of coastal Corsica's natural wonders is a stunning marine nature reserve called Scandola. You need to take a motor boat to get to Scandola and the most convenient place from which to leave is the little town of Porto.

View of the town of Porto from the top of the Genoese watchtoer Porto is a strange place. It is basically just a collection of hotels and restaurants with a port filled with dozens of companies offering excursions to Scandola. It's beautiful, nestled at the base of impressive mountains and right on the ocean. But there’s not much going on.

View of the Genoese watchtower in Porto. These watchtowers can be seen all over the island Porto was not our favorite place in Corsica. But it is an ideal base for exploring Scandola. We left the port at 9am aboard the Mare Nostrum. The boat first takes you past the red-tinged Calanches: bizarre, misshapen, dramatic rock formations formed by thousands of years of erosion. We first experienced the striking Calanches during our breathtaking drive from Ajaccio to Porto. At one point we even drove under and through the Calanches, so at times we were surrounded by a sort of natural and very beautiful rock tunnel.

View of the Calanches and the ocean beyond, on our drive from Ajaccio to Porto But now we were seeing the Calanches from a new perspective. As we sailed along, they loomed out of the deep blue waters of the Mediterranean looking like deranged sand castles.

Strange Calanches rising out of beautiful blue water at Scandola We were so busy taking pictures that it took us a while to notice the gaping marine caves and grottoes jutting out of the water all around us. To our surprise, our little boat took a turn and headed straight for one of the caves. We got closer and closer and before we knew it we were actually inside one.

Amazing blue Scandola water with grotto on the left. We are about to go in there! It seemed impossible. The walls were so close we could touch them. But somehow we squeezed in and then hovered for a moment. It was cool and quiet, with the soothing echo of gently splashing water against rock. The water beneath us was mesmerizing it was so clear and turquoise blue.

Approaching the entrance to one of the many grottoes we entered during our tour through Scandola Inside one of the Grottoes in Scandola. The walls are so close you can touch them! Looking out from within one of the marine caves. The mouth of the cave is the exact same shape as the island of Corsica. The tour through Scandola continued with more caves and grottoes and mini-mountains rising from the sea. We made a brief stop at the tiny isolated fishing village of Girolata. Girolata was once a thriving town but now has only 15 or so permanent inhabitants. It is almost hidden within the surrounding hills and seems to appear out of nowhere in the middle of the ocean. It is quiet and pretty and a little eerie as you walk around the abandoned paths.

View of the hidden town of Girolata from the sea Inside the town of Giroata looking out at the surrounding hills and port We returned to Porto after about 4 hours. The tour of Scandola was one of the most amazing experiences either of us had ever had. You just can’t believe how beautiful it is. If you come to Corsica, a visit to Scandola should be top on your list.

BONIFACIO AND ILES LAVEZZI

Houses of Bonifacio hanging over a cliff Another coastal highlight was the bizarre Iles Lavezzi, a tiny island chain that separates Corsica from Sardinia. To get to the Iles Lavezzi you take a boat from the extraordinary city of Bonifacio.

Sun set over the city of Bonifacio I can say without a doubt that Bonifacio is one of the top 10 coolest places I have ever been. It is a city built into and perched on top of striking limestone cliffs. It hovers over the sea at the Southern most tip of Corsica. The "haute ville", or the Upper City, is a labyrinth of narrow winding stone streets and medieval houses.

Limestone cliffs stretching along the coast of Bonifacio Walking around, you often forget that you are hovering precariously above the ocean. Then suddenly you turn a corner and you see you are surrounded by the enormous Mediterranean sea. Bonifacio has an almost Venetian feel to it. It is mysterious, ancient and magical.

Sunset over Bonifacio is a surreal experience. People gather at the Southern most part of the city to watch in awe The boat ride to Iles Lavezzi leaves from the port in Bonifacio. It is amazing to see Bonifacio from the water. You can really appreciate how unique and beautiful this city is.

View of the majestic city of Bonifacio from the water. Amazing We were a little surprised when our boat pulled into a tiny dock on an abandoned island in the middle of the sea. Our captain cheerfully announced we had arrived at Lavezzi.

The rocks and waters of the Iles Lavezzi It didn't seem real. The land was an expanse of dry tall grass and gigantic and unnaturally smooth boulders. It felt like we were at the ends of the earth. Or like we had just landed on Mars. There is nothing here and nobody lives here and it is very surreal.

The bizarre landscape of the Iles Lavezzi often looks like a barren wasteland We had a picnic on a smooth rock jutting out over the sea as ominous storm clouds began to roll in. We took an amazing swim in quiet blue-green waters among the alien boulders. There were no sounds but the howling wind and the crack of waves against rock. Occasionally a bird shrieked overhead.

Here I am standing under one of the many gigantic smooth rocks that dominate the Lavezzi landscape We were both a little dazed. The whole experience felt like a strange dream. When the boat came to take us back to Bonifacio we were happy to climb aboard and get back to reality. The water was rough and choppy as we headed back toward the city. The boat rose and fell in a continuous, nauseating rhythm as huge waves crashed onto the deck. We watched the Iles Lavezzi fade away into the mist that had settled with the coming storm.

View of Lavezzi as we pull away. Just a pile of rocks in the middle of the ocean We loved the time we spent on Corsica’s beaches and we will never forget our tour through Scandola or our experience on the Iles Lavezzi. But we knew there was more to see than what lay on the coast. The mountains loomed all around us, mysterious, both threatening and inviting. We wanted to see the other beautiful side of this island. And so we headed up and through the mountains, to explore inland Corsica.

Inland mountains surrounding a valley below INLAND CORSICA: THE HEART AND SOUL OF THE ISLAND

Heading Inland through the mountains You could easily stay on the coast, splashing around the warm shallow waters and basking in the sun. But this is only one part of the island’s immense beauty. When you drive into the mountains you discover that inland Corsica has a totally different character, look and feel. It is just as remarkable and stunning as the coast. And it is definitely worth a visit.

Gorges, hills and mountains dominate the landscape of inland corsica When you are in inland Corsica it's hard to believe that Caribbean-esque beaches lie somewhere thousands of feet below. Glorious mountain ranges, dramatic gorges and striking rock formations dominate the landscape. There are forests of towering pine trees with delicate cascading waterfalls and natural rock pools. As we drove along the narrow winding mountain roads each turn would expose another magnificent sweeping vista. In the distance we would see a charming town nestled in the side of a cliff or an expansive valley surrounded by towering mountains.

Driving on the road to Corte. Off in the very far distance a town appears in the side of a mountain Corsica offers a lot of amazing hikes. In fact, Corsica has one of the most famous hiking trails in the world, the GR-20, which takes 2 weeks to complete. Needless to say, we did not hike the GR-20. But we did take a couple of great moderate hike/walks.

The start of our hike into the Gorges de Spelunca The first was in the Gorges de Spelunca. After we left the town of Porto we headed inland toward the city of Corte. At one point, we paused in the middle of the road as a couple of Corsica's famous roaming pigs meandered across (there are thousands of roaming Corsican pigs and it is said that each every one of them belongs to someone).

An encounter with the Corsican roaming pig To get to the start of the hike, we drove down a rickety dirt path off the main highway and came to a small bridge where we parked our car. The hike is actually an old donkey trail used hundreds of years ago to transport goods across the difficult terrain.

Charming hike in the Gorges de Spelunca over an old donkey trail It was a beautiful walk through canopies of trees flanked by the expansive gorge and granite mountains. At the end of the hike is a cute footbridge and a series of natural rock pools. We took a brief, refreshing (and by refreshing, I mean freezing) swim in the pools and then returned to our car.

Footbridge extending over some natural rock pools where we took a chilly swim We continued up the mountain with a brief stop for lunch in the sleepy mountain town of Evisa. There's not much to see in Evisa but it's a lovely place and we had here one of the best meals of our trip (you can read about this meal in the upcoming Corsica food post).

Tiny road through the tiny town of Evisa From Evisa we drove on toward Corte but not without a stop at the Foret d'Aitone, a gorgeous forest with groves of tall, thin pine trees. The forest itself is beautiful but we were headed for the extensive series of natural rock pools we had read about in our guide books.

Pine trees of the Foret d'Aitone After a 15 minute walk we arrived at a glorious rock-pool playground. Cool, clear mountain water ran over smooth boulders forming waterfalls and dozens of deep pools. The water was cold but so clean and pure that it hardly mattered. The ocean water in Corsica is lovely and warm. But there is nothing like taking a dip in a chilly freshwater pool surrounded by graceful pine trees and waterfalls.

Series of natural pools lay within the pine trees of the Foret D'Aitone Taking a swim in the natural rock pools of the Foret D'Aitone There is one more very important aspect of Corsica's natural beauty: the Maquis. The Maquis dominates Corsica's landscape--and scent. They are wild bushes composed of a collection of herbs and fragrant flowers (including laurel, rosemary, thyme, sage, mint, lavender and myrtle.) The Maquis grows all over the island, covering mountains and valleys and lining the side of the roads. It perfumes the air everywhere you go.

A view of the Maquis covered hills of Corsica I found one blog post about Corsica that I thought perfectly described the Maquis:
All around the island I’d read stories about Corsica’s maquis, but the mixture of fragrances that greeted me when I arrived overwhelmed me. Corsica’s scented maquis reaches from the sea up to 3,000 feet…Even after one visit, if you put me on an airplane blindfolded and took me to Corsica, I would know with utter certainty that I stood in the maquis. Imagine standing on a fragrant hillside surrounded by eucalyptus, juniper, laurel, rosemary…heather, myrtle, sage, mint, thyme and lavender. Add to that more than a dozen aromatic flowers that grow only in Corsica and you’ll get an idea of the heady, clean aroma that infuses the island’s air.

Corsica is a nature lover's dream. The island contains a dizzying array of beautiful sights and natural wonders. But we did not come to Corsica just to visit beaches and see rock formations. We came to eat. And drink. And we did a lot of both. What we quickly learned was that the cuisine of Corsica is directly linked to the land that surrounded us. Almost everything we ate and drank was produced on the island, from seafood and meat, to fruits, vegetables and honey. And this close connection with the land, this total commitment to featuring local products, makes the food here unlike any you have had before. The taste of Corsican food, just like the unique smell of the Maquis, reminds you that when you are here, you can be nowhere else in the world.

Up Next: The Terroir of Corsica and Corsican Specialty Foods
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