Subscribe

Subscribe to The Search Enter Your Email

Twitter

Links

LISTEN TO MY MUSIC!

What's Your Delicious?

I want to know what you think is Delicious! Send me an email and tell me what amazing food experience I'm missing out on.

CLICK HERE TO EMAIL CHEF ELISABETH

Search

Entries in Corte (2)

Monday
Nov152010

The Gourmet Side of Corsica and Some Amazing Corsican Beverages

This is my fourth and final post about the extraordinary island of Corsica. I hope you have enjoyed reading about this wonderful place as much as I have enjoyed writing about it. I know I will return to this island someday. I just hope I don't have to wait too long!

I started off talking about Corsica's natural beauty. Then there was the glorious Specialty Food Scene (check out this cool website offering awesome Corsican specialty food products you can order online). In my most recent post, I talked about the cuisine of Corsica and some of the yummy meals we enjoyed in inland Corsica and on the coast. Now I'm wrapping up this series by talking about the more "gourmet" side of Corsican cuisine.

Chocolate Sphere with Coconut Ice Cream and Poached Mango Much of Corsica's cuisine is hearty comfort-food or simple grilled meat or fishes. The flavor of the food is bold and striking and fantastic. And everything we had was always expertly prepared. But, as in all places, there is a difference between the world of comfort food and the world of haute cuisine. It turns out Corsican cuisine happily and deliciously exists in both arenas. During our stay on the island, we enjoyed some very refined, sophisticated meals that elevated Corsican cuisine to the next level.

Filet Mignon of Veal with Macaroni Gratin at L'Antigu L'Antigu is in the heart of the old city of Porto Vecchio. It is an elegant restaurant with a giant open window that runs along the length of the room and offers a great view of the port below. The food is a perfect example of the French-Italian fusion that defines all Corsican cuisine.

Homemade Linguine with Barely cooked Shrimp and Pesto at L'Antigu To start, we shared an eggplant Mille Feuille, or napoleon. The dish was French in name, and the delicate layers of eggplant, tomato sauce and goat cheese lived up to the Mille Feuille title. But it was really Italian in flavor, tasting much like a delicious eggplant parmesan. Matt's dish of Filet Mignon du Veal, on the other hand, was a tender, seared medallion of veal with a veal stock reduction sauce, accompanied by a cheesy and yummy macaroni gratin. Very French. My dish took us back to Italy with fresh linguine tossed with barely cooked shrimp in a light and buttery pesto sauce. It was a seamless and delicious blend of French and Italian cuisine. An excellent meal.

Charming Main Square in Corte lined with bars, restaurants and shops In the inland city of Corte we had a great dinner at Le 24, a sort of upscale, modern Corsican restaurant. Corte is the former capital of Corsica and it is a beautiful place, surrounded by granite hills and mountains. There are charming cobblestone streets, an old church with a bell and watchtower, colorful houses with terra-cotta roofs and a striking Citadel perched above. Corte is tucked away in the mountains and it seems like a million miles from the touristy town of Porto, where we had stayed the day before. This feels like a real city, independent and proud, like the "real" Corsica. We loved Corte right away.

Main street in Corte. You can see the surrounding mountains in the distance And we loved our dinner at Le 24. We began with a "Petit Claufoutis de Morelles." The dish arrived in a mini cast iron crockpot, a luscious sort of scrambled egg custard chock full of big earthy morel mushrooms. It was a satisfying and comforting dish.

Earthy Custard with Morel Mushrooms at Le 24 For our main course Matt got the Filet Mignon du Porc: thin slices of seared pork tenderloin with baby yukon gold potatoes and a delectable pan sauce.

Matt's tasty Filet Mignon du Porc at Le 24 I got the Filet du Bouef. It arrived, much to my surprise, topped with a giant piece of seared foie gras. There was no mention of foie gras on the menu. And the steak itself was sitting in a rich foie gras sauce! It was very decadent. Earthy, honest food with sophisticated but familiar flavors. Delicious.

My filet mignon dripping with Foie Gras at Le 24 Another great restaurant was in the magical city of Bonifacio on our last night in Corsica. When we arrived at L'Archivolto, there was a line outside the door. A very good sign. There was an outdoor seating area that was roped off to prevent people from wandering in off the street. It was the first time I felt my New York instincts kick in while on this trip. I was anxious. I found myself eagerly peering into the restaurant, waiting for some indication that someone was about to get up. An empty plate…a napkin on the table…a signal to the waiter for a check. When a table finally opened up, someone tried to walk in and cut in front of us. I snappily told them we were here first. I'm sure they had no idea what I was saying. But my tone was clear. Don't mess with a hungry New Yorker.

Outside L'Archivolto, where I nervously wait for our table We scored a great seat right outside. I glanced at the people who had tried to elbow their way into the table we had so patiently waited for, standing there behind the rope. Maybe I smirked at them a little.

Anyway, now that we were seated I could relax and focus on the task at hand. It was clear from the moment we sat down that this was a serious place. The plates coming out of the kitchen looked amazing, not only delicious food, but wonderful presentation. The menu and wine list were both outstanding and we could tell right away that this was a real "foodie" restaurant.

Excellent Tomato Tarte Tatin at L'Archivolto Our first course was a tomato tarte tatin which was so delicious that I have tried to reproduce it ever since, without success. The gently roasted tomato sat on a flaky round of puff pastry, topped with a mixture of scallions and fresh herbs bathed in olive oil. To the side there was a salad of baby greens and fennel flowers in a lemon vinaigrette.

The flavors were fresh and clean allowing the natural sweetness of the tomato and the buttery goodness of the pastry to shine through. The salad tasted as if it had just been picked straight from the garden, practically bursting with freshness. Each element of the dish was perfectly executed and it was as fine an appetizer as you would find in any New York City restaurant. We were very impressed.

Matt's amazing Goat Cheese and Eggplant Lasagna at L'Archivolto For the main course, one of the dishes on the menu was a goat cheese and eggplant lasagna. Matt could not resist. The taste of the lasagna we had in Evisa still lingered in our minds. We wanted more! And if the tomato tarte tatin was any indication of the quality of this restaurant, it promised to be a damn good lasagna. It was.

Corsican eggplant is particularly delicious. It is very tender, sweet, almost creamy. We had many dishes featuring eggplant while in Corsica but this was perhaps the best. Layers of homemade pasta alternating with delicate disks of fried eggplant and dense, fabulous goat cheese. Tomato sauce was used sparingly, just enough to bring the dish together without overpowering the other ingredients. A generous layer of grated parmesan cheese topped it off, along with some shredded basil and olive oil. It was a delectable lasagna. Different from the one we had in Evisa, but just as fantastic.

Awesome spaghetti with herbs, breadcrumbs and bottarga at L'Archivolto It was hard to compare anything to the wonder that was Matt's lasagna. But my dish came pretty close. Spaghetti with a generous portion of shaved bottarga (dried tuna roe), roasted almond slivers, breadcrumbs, lemon juice and an assortment of fresh herbs. It was a simple dish, but packed with so many different flavors and textures. It was crunchy, salty and briny with a burst of citrus freshness from the lemon juice. I loved every bite.

The evening before we went to L'Archivolto, we made the mistake of going to the restaurant Stella D'Oro. It was our only bad meal of the trip. The restaurant was stuffy and old fashioned and the food was boring and uninspired. I was pretty upset after that dinner--a whole meal wasted! But L'Archivolto made up for that meal, and then some. It is a must go to if you visit Bonifacio.

Outside the outstanding restaurant Le Troubadour in Porto Vecchio Our most "gourmet" meal was at the restaurant Le Troubadour, back in the town of Porto Vecchio. Le Troubadour is off the beaten path a bit. You have to wander outside the loud, busy central streets of Porto Vecchio's Citadel to a more quiet area just beyond. At first glance the restaurant is a bit off putting. The downstairs is a modern room, almost all white and shiny, brightly lit with televisions and uncomfortable looking seats. We almost walked away. But then Matt spotted a greenhouse on the second floor, jutting off the side of the restaurant. It was decorated with pretty lights and we saw tables full of happy people dining. It looked intimate and inviting. We decided to take a chance.

We feel right at home in the cozy upstairs dining room of Le Troubadour We were led up a flight of rickety wooden stairs into a completely different universe. While the downstairs was cold and uninviting, the upstairs was like walking into a charming farmhouse. Attractive copper pots hung from iron racks on the ceiling. Wooden tables and benches complimented the textured whitewashed walls. The greenhouse was off to the left looking just as lovely as it had from the outside. There was an air of tasteful elegance that made us feel instantly at home. This was gonna be good.

Perfect and refreshing Kir Royale's at Le Troubadour For our aperitif, the waiter offered us a Kir Royale flavored with black currant. We sipped on our drinks and began to peruse the menu.

Along with sea urchin, there is one other ingredient that I can never resist when I see it on a menu: heirloom tomatoes. Maybe it's because I used to hate tomatoes that I am so passionate about them now. But I just can't get enough of them and when I see an heirloom tomato salad on a menu, chancing are I'm going to order it. Some heirloom tomato salads are better than others. But when it's done right, and when a chef knows how to coax the maximum sweetness and tomato-y-ness out of these beautiful fruits, it can be an example of simple perfection.

Heirloom tomato salad perfection at Le Troubadour This heirloom tomato salad was so wonderful. The tomatoes were juicy, almost bursting with ripeness. Tiny leaves of pungent basil and spicy arugula adorned the top. The tomatoes were dressed, just right, with a heavy dose of an excellent local extra virgin olive oil, lemon juice, sea salt and cracked black pepper. When we had eaten all of the tomatoes, we were delighted to find that the juices from the tomatoes and the olive oil had gathered at the bottom of the bowl, creating a perfect sauce to sop up with a piece of crusty sourdough bread. Simple and spectacular.

Matt's homemade Pappardelle with Braised Veal Ragu Then came the main course. Matt wisely went with one of the day's specials: Pappardelle with Braised Veal Ragout. This was as fine a pasta dish as you could find in any restaurant in Italy. Thick, chewy Pappardelle with an unbelievable ragout that was exploding with flavors. Rich, herbaceous, creamy, a little citrusy. Unreal. There was a heaping pile of pecorino cheese to top it off and more of that excellent local olive oil. Wow.

Fine dining doesn't get much better than my main course of Filet Mignon with Gnocchi at Le Troubadour But my dish was equally as delicious. A rare-seared piece of filet mignon wrapped in bacon drizzled with a meaty pan sauce. The beef was sitting on a bed of asparagus and delicately blanched haricot vert. The chef won major points for the presentation of the asparagus. Peeled at the bottom in what must've been an excrusiating task for some poor prep chef. But there was a really cool texture contrast between the peeled and un-peeled parts of asparagus that made it worth the effort. Accompanying the beef was a little cast iron dish of tender gnocchi bathing in that same salty beefy pan sauce that went with the beef. Awesome.

Painstakingly peeled asparagus at Le Troubadour. Worth the effort. For dessert, we ordered the chocolate and coconut "globe": a dark chocolate sphere containing a layer of light and airy coconut ice cream and poached mango, sitting on a disk of more dark chocolate. It was delish. And when you broke open the sphere, the inside looked exactly like a Cadbury Cream Egg.

Does this not look exactly like a Cadbury cream egg? At the end of the meal, Matt told the waiter that I was a caterer in New York City. The waiter insisted on telling the chef and bringing him out to meet me. We were shocked when head chef Julian Diaz walked out of the kitchen. He was only 28 years old! His cooking reflects an amazing complexity and depth that you would expect from a chef twice his age. Chef Diaz told us he was born in Marseilles and that he trained alongside the head chef of one of the top, Michelin starred, restaurants in Corsica, Casa Del Mar. He also worked as a chef in Bolivia, London and Iraq.

Photo op with Head Chef Julian Diaz He was shy and humble. Matt and I gushed over the meal. To our surprise, Chef Diaz seemed almost shocked that people from New York City would be so blown away by his cooking.

Because Corsica is so insular and seemingly isolated from the rest of the world, it may seem like this restaurant in a relatively small town on a relatively small island could never be compared to a restaurant in New York. But that couldn't be farther from the truth. Le Troubedour, and Chef Julian Diaz, could easily stand up to many of New York's finest. And if you look at the larger picture, the current world-wide trend of sourcing out local and seasonal ingredients puts Corsica at the forefront of today's foodie scene. In fact, in many ways, Corsica's food culture is the ultimate example of the local food movement. This is foodie paradise. And Le Troubedour is only one excellent showcase of just how good Corsican cuisine can be.

THE BEVERAGES OF CORSICA

Inside the magical La Vielle Cave in Corte It may seem strange to dedicate a whole section to beverages. But the drinks here are just that good! And we were surprised to find that Corsica's commitment to serving local products extended beyond just food and speciality food products. When you are on this island, you will drink local Corsican beverages almost exclusively.

First off, there's the nonalcoholic drinks. I know it may be crazy to say this, but even Corsican water is distinct and outstanding. Orezza, the local sparkling water, is bottled in Corsica and sourced from an ancient spring. It tastes clean and fresh and really very different from other mainstream sparkling waters. The still water, Zilia, is equally as pure and clean, almost sweet, and comes from a spring located in the mountains. Corsica even produces it's own Cola: Corsica Cola, which tastes like a mix between Coke and Dr. Pepper.

Our favorite Corsican red wine, Oriu But we weren't just sipping on glasses of sparkling water. Corsica produces excellent wines, specializing in Rose, Red Wine and the sweet dessert wine, Muscato. While we were in Corsica, we only drank Corsican wine. In fact, the wine list of every restaurant we went to in Corsica only offered Corsican wine. And that was fine by us. The wines are sophisticated and complex and delicious. We sampled wines from vineyards all across the island, drinking crisp and refreshing Rose's during lunchtime, and deep, rich reds at night. Our favorite wine was called "Oriu" from a vineyard near Porto Vecchio.

Refreshing fruity Cap Corse We began every meal with the traditional Corsican aperitif, a fortified sweet wine called Cap Corse. Cap Corse is served over ice with a thin slice of lemon. It is a dark colored and intensely grape-y drink. We brought back a bottle with us and one friend said it tasted like a Fig Newton. It totally does. If you go to Corsica act like a local and order "Un Cap." The waiter will nod approvingly.

Ah, Pietra Corsica also produces whiskey, liqeuers flavored with local fruits and herbs, brandy, and an amazing beer called Pietra. Pietra is brewed with local chestnuts and malts. It is a lovely amber color, light enough to be very drinkable, but also rich in flavor and very well balanced. The Pietra website describes the beer as "Strong and delicate, solid and soft with a touch of bitterness…" I'd say that's accurate. What a great, great beer. I really miss Pietra.

To end this series of posts, I will share one of our most memorable experiences in Corsica. I think it sums up everything we love about this island.

Entering mysterious La Vielle Cave Before we left Corte to drive to Porto Vecchio we walked around the city a bit more. We did some shopping, bought an inviting baguette at a cute bakery and took a quick visit to the Citadel. As we made our way back to our hotel we just so happened to look down a small side street and catch a glimpse of an inviting and mysterious looking shop: La Vielle Cave.

Wine filled barrels at La Vielle Cave We immediately walked over. We went down a few stairs into a dark, musty, cave-like room. Bottles of wine lined the walls, along with bottles of unlabeled liqueurs and giant, unmarked barrels. On the far end of the room hams and salamis hung from the ceiling. There was a strange looking contraption that looked like some sort of home-made distillation machine. In one corner a group of red faced, balding Corsican men sat around a bunch of overturned barrels now being used as tables. They were drinking wine and having a heated discussion about soccer (which later turned into an even more heated discussion about Corsican politics).

Distillery contraption at La Vielle Cave Upon entering, the owner beckoned us over to a barrel table and instructed us to sit down. We had only intended to look around but within seconds he had produced two wine glasses and filled them to the brim with a pretty pink Rose. He looked at us and smiled. Another few seconds went by and a shell-shaped aluminum ash tray was placed before us filled with thickly sliced salami.

Brimming glasses of excellent Rose wine at La Vielle Cave We sat back, taking in the bizarre and wonderful scene. We drank our Rose and it was magically refilled. One of the louder, more passionate of the Corsican men suddenly broke into a mournful song. Some of the other men raised their glasses and joined him, singing along in harmony. After a few minutes they returned to their argument. At one point a guy parked his Vespa outside the door of the shop and walked in carrying a tall empty water bottle. The owner took the bottle over to one of the barrels, filled it up with Rose wine and handed it back to the guy. Matt and I looked at each other in amazement. Was this place for real?

Salami on the house at La Vielle Cave We both would've happily stayed at La Vielle Cave for the rest of the day. But we had to get going. We asked the owner to recommend some wines and liquerrs for us to buy to take home. He insisted we try a couple to see what we liked. We did not refuse.

There is meat hanging everywhere at La Vielle Cave. What a happy place. We left with 3 bottles of wine, 1 bottle of Muscato and 2 bottles of liqueur. La Vielle Cave was probably the main reason we ended up paying a hefty overweight charge for our luggage on our return home. But it didn't matter. Because anytime I want to remember that magical place, and the magical island of Corsica, I just open up the golden honey and myrtle flavored home-made aperitif and I'm right back in that room, sitting by those barrels, sipping a glass of Rose, Corsican singing drifting through the air…

Au Revoir from Corsica!
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