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Entries in Porto (2)

Friday
Nov122010

The Joys of Corsican Cuisine

In my previous post, I talked about the Terroir of Corsica and the honey, cheese and meats that contribute to Corsica's wonderful and sophisticated specialty food scene. Now it's time to get into the cooking and cuisine of Corsica, and talk about the many, many meals we enjoyed while on the island.

Life changing Lasagna at A Tramula restaurant in Evisa Corsican food is a seamless blend of French and Italian cuisine. It is Italian in style, with menus dominated by pizzas, pastas and tomato-based dishes. But it is often heavily French in flavor, rich, meaty, earthy and buttery. The food is fragrant and assertive with the use of the powerful herbs of the Maquis (click here to read my previous post about the Maquis). The flavor of the Maquis is in fact one of the defining characteristics of Corsican food. Its taste lingers in sauces, and sausages, in pasta dishes, cheeses and in the honey.

Perfect example of Corsican's French and Italian roots at the farmer's market in Ajaccio. On one side, pizza, on the other, Croque Monsieur There is an emphasis on hearty stews and braised meat dishes, wild boar being among the most famous. Pork in Corsica is particularly delicious as almost all of the piggies are either free range or genuinely wild. Corsica is also famous for it's chestnuts, and many products are made with chestnut flour, including polenta and beignets.

Our first taste of classic Corsican food came on our first night in Ajaccio. We went to a restaurant called U Pampasgiolu located on a quiet side street close to the port. Tables were set up in a sort of large alleyway which made for a very cool dining atmosphere. Matt and I both got the same dish. It was essentially a tasting menu but it arrived all at once, served on a large wooden "planche". There were 7 different dishes ranging from cheese to veal stew. The waiter told us the correct order in which to eat everything and we dug in.

A massive tasting platter of traditional Corsican dishes at U Pamapasgiolu First off, a yummy beefy, hearty soup filled with potatoes, carrots, onions and celery. Then there was a ham, brocciu cheese, spinach and wild mint tart that we felt tasted a bit like toothpaste. Not our favorite part of the assortment. But the other dishes were fantastic. Braised eggplant in tomato sauce stuffed with breadcrumbs and ham, veal stew seasoned heavily with herbs and a burst of sharp vinegar alongside creamy garlicky polenta. Then a charcuterie plate with salami, a thick sliced prosciutto and a gamey wild boar. This was our first taste of Corsican charcuterie and in my journal I noted that the meat was the "gamiest, smokiest, most delicious 'meat leather' we had ever tasted." Finally, there was a Manchego-esque cheese served with a thick fig jam. It was a major meal. Delicious and enormous. And an amazing introduction to the world of Corsican food.

Savoring the last sips of excellent red wine in the charming outdoor seating area of U Pampasgiolu We had another great meal on the road from Corte to Porto Vecchio at A Mandria, a huge restaurant with a large outdoor garden and patio. We arrived and were led to the outside where a family of about 20 were happily eating at a long banquet-style table.View of the outdoor garden and seating area behind the restaurant A Mandria The menu was extensive and, as usual, only in French and Corsican. So we had no idea what to order. Surprisingly, the waiter spoke English and he insisted that I get one of the specials of the house: an assorted meat platter with chestnut polenta, twice baked potato and braised beans in tomato sauce. I obeyed. Matt, on the other hand, opted for a lighter option, an omelette that must have been made with at least 8 eggs, filled with tangy aged Brocciu cheese and also served with a twice baked potato and braised beans.

Matt's massive Brocciu filled omelette at A Mandria My plate arrived. It was enormous. 3 different cuts of thick, grilled bacon-esque pork slabs, blood sausage, the stuffed potato, a hunk of Brocciu and the polenta. It was a meat bonanza. The bacon was really smoky, having been grilled right on the gigantic wood burning grill at the back of the garden. The rind was right on there, which added for a nice crunch with each bite. The sausage was juicy and impeccably seasoned. The beans, creamy and comforting.

My artery-clogging pork festival plate at A Mandria It was a ton of food. I finished about 1/4 of the plate before I conceded and let the bees have their way with it. (click here to read my earlier post about the meat-loving, ever present, occasionally pesky, but harmless Corsican bees)

Matt's omelette was lovely, light and fluffy and streaked with the crumbly cheese. And I should mention that, as expected, the bees had no interest whatsoever in Matt's boring old vegetarian omelette. But my pork? They came from miles around. I'm telling you, these bees love their piggy.

This was the first place we learned the concept of the "bee offering." We put a couple of pieces of my pork at the edge of the table. The bees went right to it. And while the occasional bee strayed over to my plate to inspect the remnants of a smoky piece of pork fat, most of them were happy to stick with what we had so generously set aside for them.Appease the bees: A generous pork offering for these meat-loving insects For dessert we had an amazing chestnut caramel flan and a much needed espresso. The waiter than made us taste 2 home-brewed liqueurs: one myrtle flavored (myrtle is a pungently flavored berry that grows among the maquis) and one chestnut flavored. Both were yummy, sweet and strong. We rolled away from the restaurant in a meat-induced haze.

Though I had meat coming out of my ears, I could not resist the silky chestnut caramel flan at A Mandria Myrtle and Chestnut Liqueur at a Mandria helped to revive me from a meaty black hole Perhaps our favorite meal was an unexpected stop in the tiny mountain village of Evisa. We drove through Evisa on our way to Corte, after leaving the town of Porto and enjoying a lovely hike in the Gorges de Spelunca. We had had a late breakfast and so we had planned to drive straight through Evisa to the Foret D'Antoine and then on to Corte (Click here to read my previous post about Corsica's natural beauty). But as usual, the drive took longer than expected and we arrived in Evisa around 1:30. Lunchtime.

View from the terrace of A Tramula in Evisa One of my guidebooks mentioned that there was a small family owned restaurant off the tiny main road in the town. We entered A Tramula and knew right away it was our kind of place. The restaurant itself is tiny, just one small room with a bar and a couple of tables. At one table in the corner a group of Corsican men sat drinking beer and bickering with one another. To the left of the bar was a kitchen, if you could call it a kitchen. It was basically just a closet with a grill, a little oven and a small four burner stove. But magical things were happening in that little kitchen closet.

We were escorted through the restaurant to a patio overlooking the beautiful Maquis covered mountains and the charming red-roofed Evisa houses. The air smelled sweet and clean. We sat down at our table with big smiles on our faces and ordered a half bottle of Rose.

Matt in Lasagna bliss on the terrace of A Tramula On the menu there was a special of the day. We didn't bother asking the waiter what it was because we would not have understood what he said anyway. So we just pointed to the words on the menu and ordered "deux."

It was not even 10 minutes later (service in Corsican restaurants tends to be amazingly fast) that we had before us a mouthwatering square of lasagna covered in tomato sauce, layered with some sort of soft and crumbly goat cheese and sprinkled with dried maquis herbs. We were speechless for a moment. It looked that good. And smelled that good.

Legendary lasagna at A Tramula We simultaneously brought our forks to the pasta and dug in. The lasagna was meltingly soft and tender. The pasta, cheese and sauce melded together in perfect harmony. Each bite was better than the next. The sauce was fresh, a little sweet, fragrant from the herbs. We sat there and ate in silence, slowly, carefully, as if the lasagna was a piece of art to be lovingly treasured. We looked up at each other occasionally, shaking our heads in amazement at the awesome-ness of this meal. We didn't need to speak because we knew what we were both thinking. Bite of lasagna. Sip of wine. The breeze of the cool mountain air, scent of the maquis drifting around us. Life doesn't get much better than this.

COASTAL CORSICAN CUSINE

Langoustine delight The food in Corsica's coastal towns does not differ drastically from the food that you find further inland, except for the obvious addition of excellent seafood. And almost every seafood based meal we had was eaten either right on the beach, or within sight of the sea, making everything taste that much better.

The Beach in the town of Cargese, where we had one of our favorite Coastal-Corsica meals All of the seafood we had in Corsica was impeccably fresh. But there was one type of seafood that was really outstanding: Shrimp and the mighty Langoustine.

I don't tend to think of shrimp as much of anything. I mean, I love it. But it doesn't have all that much flavor and there's nothing particularly special about it. Shrimp in Corsica, on the other hand, is a mind-opening experience. Every time I had shrimp, which was often, it arrived head and shell on, simply grilled or poached and drizzled with some olive oil and crunchy sea salt. To taste these shrimp is a revelation. They are so sweet and briny, so fresh. When you eat these shrimp it as is if you are tasting the little crustacean for the first time. As if you finally know what shrimp are supposed to taste like.

Dining outside at Sous La Tonnelle in Porto Vecchio At the restaurant Sous La Tonnelle in Porto Vecchio, I had one such enlightening shrimp meal. The restaurant is very pretty, located on a busy side street in the main part of the Citadel. As with most places we went to in Corsica, there was outdoor sidewalk seating. We always opted to sit outside when we could as the nighttime weather was a consistent balmy 75 degrees with a lovely cool breeze.

Sous La Tonnelle is known for it's traditional Corsican food, (as so many restaurants proudly boast) but we were also right on the coast so seafood was prominent. I pretended to look through the menu but the truth was, as soon as I saw shrimp as a main course, I knew what I was going to order. From the very first time I’d eaten a Corsican shrimp I was hooked. At this point in our trip, if it was on a menu, I was going to order it.

Braised endive with crispy pancetta at Sous La Tonnelle We started with a delicious dish of braised endive swimming in a balsamic reduction and topped with delicate slices of crispy pancetta. The endive was so tender and buttery it almost disintegrated into the sauce when you cut into it. Flecks of the crispy smoky pancetta mingled with each bite, creating a yummy mix of saltiness, bitterness from the endive, and a sweet tang from the balsamic reduction. A great start to the meal.

For our main course, Matt got a seared duck breast that was smothered in sweet caramelized onions, creamy fingerling potatoes and a dense meaty port-sauce. It was great. Really scrumptious.

Simple and spectacular shrimp at Sous La Tonnelle But the shrimp. Oh the shrimp. My dish was so simple. 4 or 5 large shrimp, some rice with herbs and vegetables, a couple of roasted cherry tomatoes. But it was perfect. I could've eaten a hundred of them. Head meats and all. Corsica has managed to elevate a humble, ordinary shellfish to a whole new level.Don't miss a single bit of these delectable shrimp. Consume from head to tail! One of the reasons I was so impressed with the shrimp was because of the enormous difference between the Corsican version and the one we get here in the states. But let's not kid around here. The shrimp were amazing and mind blowing and all that. But when it all comes down to it, a shrimp will still be a shrimp. It will never be able to stand up to what I consider to be the grand-daddy of all Crustaceans: The Langoustine.

You've heard me go into great, gory detail about Langoustines before, in my post about Barcelona. If you've never had a langoustine, the flavor is basically a cross between a lobster and a shrimp. They are actually related to lobsters. Langoustines are big, about 6 inches or so long, with lanky claws that extend far beyond their bodies. Their shells are much harder than shrimp but much softer and easier to split than a lobster. The meat is sweet and delicate. I rarely see Langoustines on a menu in NYC but in Europe they are very popular. And in Corsica they are at their finest.

Soothing view on the terrace at the club house at Sperone golf Course During one lunch, I indulged in an absolute langoustine bonanza. Matt only had a couple. He just doesn't get it. I had at least a dozen, and I only stopped because I thought the waitress was giving me funny looks. But how could I hold back? It was a Langoustine BUFFET!

World's greatest Buffet? Langoustine galore We had just played a round of golf at one of the most beautiful golf courses in the world, a Robert Trent Jones Sr. designed course called Sperone. Sperone is astonishing. Beginning at the 10th hole, you see the Mediterranean in the distance. From there on, hole after hole, you are bombarded with one breathtaking view after the next.The 16th hole at Sperone is right on the water. It's Matt's happy place. Some of the holes appear to be right in the middle of the ocean. The water was a rainbow of gorgeous blues and greens, and it was so clear we could see straight down to the bottom. Sperone even has it’s own wonderful beach: Petit Du Sperone. It is a tiny stretch of sand surrounded by green hills. A great place to take a refreshing dip after a perfect round of golf.

Some of the nicest water we saw in Corsica was around the Sperone golf corse View of Petite Sperone beach. A small, quiet beach. You just walk right down from the golf course Sperone is a swanky, expensive course. And with every swanky course comes a swanky clubhouse to go with it. After our round we headed up to the clubhouse to grab a bite to eat. We were thinking a nice turkey club sandwich, some fries and a beer would be great. Instead we were greeted with an all you can eat gourmet buffet filled with delectable salads, cheeses, charcuterie, poached and smoked salmon, shrimp and a gigantic platter of glistening pink langoustine.

I was shocked. Langoustine are expensive, a luxury ingredient. And here they were, an endless supply at my fingertips. The buffet wasn't cheap. But for 35 Euros, unlimited access to not only langoustines but a host of other very high end ingredients made this a great deal. I grabbed a plate and began.

My Second Plate at Sperone Buffet: All Langoustines all the time Everything was great. There was curried shrimp, pasta salad with tuna and artichokes, avocado salad with fresh tomatoes, beet salad, endive salad, mozzarella salad with tomatoes and red onion. It went on and on. At first I loaded up my plate with a sampling of most of the dishes. But then I focused in on the main event, happily tearing apart one langoustine after the next. It was amazing.

We had another wonderful seafood meal in Porto at the restaurant La Mer. La Mer is a beautiful space with a large outdoor patio under a canopy of leafy trees. Strings of lights hang between the branches creating a magical secret-garden-esque atmosphere.

Lovely outdoor seating at La Mer We began our meal with a "Crumble de Nicoise." As usual, we had no idea what we were actually ordering, and as usual it did not matter. The crumble was some sort of mixed fish-tartare topped with, well, a crumble of breadcrumbs and herbs, sitting in a light curry tinged tomato sauce. It was an unusual and surprising dish that we loved.

Crumble de Nicoise at La Mer Though we were at a fish restaurant, Matt wasn't in the mood, having just spent the entire day on our boat ride through Scandola (click here to see my previous post on the marine nature reserve of Scandola). He'd had enough of the sea for the time being. So he got the Entrecote de Boeuf. And I gotta admit, it was awesome. A big, juicy piece of steak accompanied by a bernaise sauce that was so thick it could be mistaken for mashed potatoes. There were big roasted shallots, grilled cherry tomatoes and smoky grilled fingerling potatoes. There was also some sort of divine broccoli or spinach based puree that we couldn't quite identify. Fantastic.

Matt's Succulent Entrecote de Boeuf at La Mer I, on the other hand, was not messing around with meat. I knew that the fish at this restaurant came right from the waters we had been exploring earlier that day, and that meant I had to have it. I ordered the fish of the day which was sold by the gram. I don't actually know what kind of fish it was but it didn't matter.

It arrived whole, expertly charred on the outside, flaky, moist and delectable on the inside, drizzled with olive oil and lemon juice and sprinkled with crunchy sea salt. My sides included the same mystery puree Matt had, along with a sweet potato puree of sorts, a stewed tomato and raw, sweet fennel dressed with olive oil and wine soaked golden raisins. A stunning fish dish that I will never forget.

My whole delectable fish at La Mer My final, and perhaps fondest, coastal Corsican culinary memory takes us to a beach in the town of Cargese on our second day on the island. We left Ajaccio to drive to Porto. It was a gorgeous drive but it was our first experience with the narrow Corsican mountain roads and sheer drops into horrifying bottomless gorges. We were terrified. Well, at least, I was terrified. Matt didn't have time to be terrified as he squeezed past an oncoming truck speeding around a hairpin turn at 70 miles per hour. He was sweating. I was holding my breath. We were stressed out.

After about an hour and a half of driving, I reluctantly tore my eyes off the road and began to look through our guidebooks to get an idea of where we were and how close we were to Porto. We still had a considerable way to go. We were, however, near to the town of Cargese which apparently had a very nice beach. We had yet to experience a Corsican beach and we were in much need of a break from our little road trip. We entered the tiny town of Cargese and I told Matt to pull off at a fork in the road. The road, the guidebook said, would lead us down the the beach.

The welcoming beach at Cargese Soon we saw a line of parked cars. We turned a corner and there was a long expanse of white sand and a beautiful blue sea. Matt and I had no idea what to expect of Corsican beaches and we were pretty shocked to discover how Caribbean it looked and felt. We took about a thousand pictures of the clear water and the surrounding mountains.

Irresistibly charming beach restaurant on the sand at Cargese beach We walked down the beach and came to a little restaurant. It was love at first sight. Thatched roof, wooden bar, a floor of sand. The family who owned the place was sitting at a long table eating platters of seafood and drinking wine. We were so happy to not be driving, so happy to finally be on a beach relaxing and enjoying our honeymoon, so happy to have discovered this unexpected magical restaurant. It was paradise. We rented two chairs from the owners of the place and set up camp.

It's a good life on the beach at Cargese After we were sufficiently chilled out we took our first dip in the Corsican sea. It felt just as good as it looked. Then we made our way up to the restaurant for lunch.

Matt ordered a panini with ham, cheese and tomato. I don't know why, but sandwiches in Europe are always good. This one really hit the spot. I went a little bolder and got the dish I saw everyone eating when we had first walked in. It was a mixed seafood platter with shrimp, mussels, smoked salmon, calamari, octopus, crab, fresh mango, tomatoes and Bibb lettuce. It was tossed with a light lemony vinaigrette and that was it.

My wonderful Fruits de Mer Salad at the Cargese beach restaurant It was AWESOME. First of all, this was my first taste of Corsican shrimp. Like I said before, a revelation. The mussels were tiny and sweet and tender. Every single aspect of this dish was impeccably fresh and delightful. I'd never tasted seafood like this before and I knew right away that I was in for some serious seafood delights on this trip. Like all things in Corsica there is something in the air…something in the land…something in the sea that just makes everything taste different.

Up Next: The Gourmet Side of Corsica and Drinking in 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