The Wild Crags and Sweet Smells of Corsica

Hiking the splendid shoreline and mountains of this French Mediterranean isle is not for the timid walker

Anyone planning a walking tour would do well to be sure that you and your guide agree on the definition of "walk."

Walk can mean a long stroll along a stunning Mediterranean coastline, past 12th-century churches and 15th-century watchtowers; flowering thyme, rosemary, and lavender; heron, cormorants, rare sea birds, and flocks of gamboling lambs.

It can also mean staring up at a wall of granite, groping for finger holds in the rock and footholds in the snow, and imagining what it is going to be like to try to get back down this rock face once the sun sets behind the mountains and the trail ices up.

On Day 1 of our Corsican walking tour, we hiked the newly restored sentier du douanier, once used by customs officials to walk the shoreline between the towns of Macinaggio and Centuri on Cape Corse, the northern tip of this French Mediterranean island. Hiking trails don't get more perfect.

Our goal on Day 2 had been a mountain lake above the Restonica valley, near Cortes, the historical capital.

Napoleon's mother managed the same trail only weeks before giving birth to the future emperor of the French. But that had been in June, after the snow melt, and perhaps the mountain wasn't as steep in 1769.

"This will be no problem!" our guide called down to us from about 30 unlikely feet higher up on the rocks. "We'll just use that chain to pull ourselves over the top." Georges Damianos was a skilled and knowledgeable mountain guide, and a splendid companion on the trail. When he drove us back to the Bastia airport, he walked us to our gate and kissed us both on both cheeks.

But there was no way we were making it to that chain, let alone over the peak to the lake. And what was so great about that lake, after all? Lakes are flat. They have water in them, maybe ice. We'd seen lakes before. We'd give this one a pass.

If Georges was disappointed, he did not show it. He found us a place out of the wind, and set out a picnic lunch of dense Corsican bread and cheese, oranges, tomatoes, and wild boar pt.

He didn't mention Napoleon's mother. Nor did he comment on the fact that hikers in sneakers with small children appeared to have made it to the lake and back the same day we did. ("It was a bit delicate," said one hiker. "Actually, it was very delicate.")

The guidebook we found in our mountain refuge that night offered this commentary on our trail: "If you aren't used to doing a bit of rock climbing, be content to do a shorter loop or use ropes. At the beginning of the season, the trail is more difficult. An ice ax and crampons are also useful."

To those of us who take the elevator for any more than four flights up, a helicopter would also have been useful, or perhaps just a postcard of the lake.

By Day 3, Georges had adjusted his plans to our sense of what it means to hike (e.g: "Walk upright on two feet" - no ice picks, crampons, ropes, chains, hands up or leaps off.) He walked us through an old-growth forest to the plateau just beneath the summit of Mt. San Petrone, near the town of Morosaglia, birthplace of the great Corsican patriot Pascal Paoli.

Off to the right of the trail, the mountain vistas were stunning, but they could barely compete with the images of blue-gray beech trees against a backdrop of moss-covered granite and schist. The twisting limbs in this forest look like anything but trees, especially when fingers of mist and fog moved through the forest in the afternoon.

Tiny daisies and Corsican violets (one of hundreds of species unique to this island) carpeted the plateau.

Corsica is a good place for a guide. The trails, like the roads, are marked for those who have lived along these steep mountain valleys for centuries - that is, they are barely marked at all. Moreover, hikers share the trails (and the roads) with tough little long-fleeced sheep, free-ranging cattle, wild boar, and feral pigs, all of whom have their own paths that can look very much like a hiking trail when shadows lengthen into dusk.

"Sometimes hikers follow a wild boar trail by mistake, and get lost in the woods. They see lights down below in the valley and head off in that direction, but run into a cliff or get tangled up in the maquis. Then they're really lost," says Georges.

If you're not lost, the maquis - a dense undergrowth of myrtle, arbutus, broom, and richly scented shrubs - can be one of the best reasons to see Corsica on foot. Expatriate Corsicans often say that what they miss most about their homeland is the sweet smell of the maquis. Walking through it, you notice not one scent but many in succession, from rosemary to the dark, spicy scents of ground-hugging immortelles.

Some people who come to Corsica never get used to the harshness of the mountains and the landscapes, our guide said. Life was hard for shepherds and those trying to eke a living out of terraced slopes extending high up into the mountains. Today, the maquis has overgrown the terraces, which can still be made out from a distance or after one of the many fires that tear through the brush on hot or windy days.

We passed a cow and her calf foraging on an implausibly steep slope that seemed sure to send them both tumbling down the mountain. "These are Corsican cows," Georges reassured us. "A cow from Normandy would starve here in a day. No, in half a day," he added.

There is pride in those who have endured in this land. Over the centuries, waves of Corsicans have been driven off the island by politics or famine. Many young people still want to stay, though job prospects are remote.

"I worry about young Corsicans now," says Antoine Burchi, a shepherd who also worked as a cook and in the local asbestos factory before it closed down. "It was once all cultivated here, and now there is nothing. They want to stay, but they don't know what to do."

Officials hope a growth in tourism will create new opportunities here, but they want to avoid the concrete vacation complexes that have spoiled the Riviera coastline.

"We're realizing that people aren't just interested in idiot vacations where they just lie on a beach. They want to learn something about the area they're visiting," says Marie-Jos Luciani, who works with the tourism development agency of Cap Corse. The agency is establishing a network of local guides available to show tourists around historic and cultural sites.

Many visitors to Corsica settle into rented villas, hotels, or vacation colonies along the coast. In the 1970s, Corsican separatists began a campaign of bombing government offices, villas, and tourist complexes that continues today. Ms. Luciani admits that fear of bombs has kept tourists away but she and others note that the bombs are directed at buildings, not people.

Georges Buzzi, a Frenchman from Nice who has been vacationing in the same village in Corsica for more than 20 years, is not worried about bombs and needs no convincing about the beauties of Corsica. We met him fishing alongside the trail around Cap Corse. "I love to see the migrating birds. This is their last stop for food before crossing the Mediterranean," he says.

"I have also made good friends in this village. You just have to take the time to be with people and behave 'correctly' with them, and they will come to you," he added.

Tips for a Corsica Walking Tour

* The tourist season in Corsica is short but intense. You'll find it hard to book passage on a ferry during July and August. Many locals recommend visiting in the spring or autumn, when the heat is less intense. In the spring, you'll see wildflowers; in autumn, the forests turn red and gold.

* Use local guides. It is easy to get lost in the mountains of Corsica, and guides are also great sources of local lore and a good way to make contacts with locals. You can obtain guide information from the Corsica Regional Natural Park, 2, rue Major-Lambroschini, B.P. 417-20184 Ajaccio CEDEX 1, France. Tel: 011-33-04-95-51-79-10. Fax: 011-33-04-95-21-88-17.

* The usual hiking advice holds: Carry water. Wear sturdy shoes and loose, layered clothing. Along many of the trails are large loose rocks, and you'll welcome the support of sturdy hiking boots. The thorns and brambles in Corsica's maquis are tough on bare legs and thin pants.

* Think twice about driving. Mountain roads are narrow, and winding, and Corsicans drive them fast with no regard for the center strip. There are few road signs and guard rails, and you're as likely to run into a herd of sheep or a cow as another driver. Our guide tells us that many camping vans try these roads in the summer. It's hard to imagine that a camper could fit on most of the roads we saw. Have a tour agent arrange for a driver.

* Take your binoculars.

* Not many people speak English in the mountains. The effort of phrase-book French is appreciated and can be useful. You can also request an English-speaking guide.

Other useful addresses:

We worked with a Bastia-based organization "Objectif Nature." Director Louis Azara says he can arrange English-speaking guides. It would be hard to find anyone more enthusiastic about Corsica. Address: 3, Rue Notre Dame de Lourdes, 20200 Bastia. Tel: 011-33-04-95-32-54-34. Fax: 011-33-04-95-32-57-58.

Our guide, Georges Damianos, directs the Corsican mountain guides association, and can also recommend English-speaking guides. Address: Hameau d'orneto, 20233 Pietra Corbara. Tel: 011-33-04-95-35-22-01. (Don't tell him that he was recommended by the people who refused to climb to the mountain lake.)

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