5 Days in Southern Corsica: Bavella, Porto Vecchio, Bonifacio & Sarténe October 2-6, 2016
October 2 Sunday: Bavella – Porto Vecchio
After seeing my friends off at 6am, I went back to bed for another hour. When the first sun ray came through the window around 7am, I got up and rushed out with my camera to watch sunrise. The Aiguilles, the Col of Bavella and mountains surrounding Bavella lit up by the soft morning light are most beautiful and enchanting.
I spent the next two hours at the pass which was hidden in mist when I reached it the day before. Now I could see the statue of Madonna, the magnificent pine trees, stunning mountain ranges and some traditional stone houses scattering neatly along the winding roads. A retired local lady told me that the locals here would not sell their houses to foreigners.
I had my best breakfast of this trip at 9am with hot croissant, orange juice and coffee in the cafe. After packing, I spent the morning on reading and writing my travel notes.
The taxi ordered by Kay and Hugh arrived shortly after midday. The driver told us that Tour de Corse was taking place that day and the ending point was Porto Vecchio which is about 50km on the coast. The road is winding with countless hair-pin turns descending over 1200m in altitude. Though the driver was not driving recklessly, he drove fast despite the sharp turns. Kay almost got sick and we were all relieved to arrived in our destination an hour and a half later!
The driver took me to a budget hotel near the bus station by the port. I gave him €20 as tips as Kay had already pre-paid €180 for the ride. I had a simple but decent room for €50. Once I had dropped my luggage, the driver took us to the port area as my friends would take boat to Toulon that evening. We had lunch at a restaurant opposite the port and watched the racing cars, drivers and their supporting teams around us.
I invited Kay and Hugh for lunch as they had kindly given me a lift. The food was surprisingly good and we had beer and a bottle of rosé. A great day with nice companions and festive atmosphere.
After saying good-bye to my new friends, I spent a couple hours strolling around the old town above the port which skyline as usual is dominated by a church. I bought 200g of local ham and sausage for dinner. I was tired as I had not been sleeping well in dormitory for the past two weeks. I was not surprised that I slept from 9pm to 6am.
October 3 Monday: Porto Vecchio – Bonifacio
There are two buses departing for Bonifacio in off-season (8am and 1pm). My plan was to leave the suitcase in the hotel in Porto Vecchio, go to Bonifacio with a backpack for two nights, return to Porto Vecchio and take a bus to Bastia on October 5, visit Cape Corse on October 6 and depart for Livorno by ferry and then by train to Rome on October 7.
The bus to Bonifacio was late by 20 minutes. The 28km-journey takes less than 30 minutes. I checked in the Best Western Roy d’Aragon right by the port and bus terminal.
Bonifacio located directly on the Mediterranean Sea is separated from Sardinia by the Strait of Bonifacio. It boasts two historic sites of importance: an ancient cave shelter of Araguina-Sennola where Lady of Bonifacio was found and a chambered tomb of Vasculacciu. The citadel first built in 9th century and expanded over the centuries is most imposing: it stands at the cliff-tops about 70m above the sea and appears to overhang it. Its fjord-like harbour is photogenic.
The hotel check-in time is 3pm. So I took a boat trip (€35) to the Lavezzi Archipelago, a nature reserve at 10:30am. The weather was excellent and I had fabulous views of Bonifacio, the citadel perching on the white lime-chalk cliffs and the stunning coastline. The boat was packed with some 90 passengers. All got off at Lavezzi which has well-marked walking trails to the cemetery, lighthouse and several beaches.
The group of islands is formed with volcanic rocks of all sizes and shapes with a few large beaches and numerous picturesque coves. There are few man-made structures including a lighthouse, a church and cemetery and a stone house. I spent most of the time exploring the island on foot.
The colours of the sea is beautiful in all shades of turquoise and emerald. I however did not find many colourful fish while snorkelling.
I planned to see the lighthouse which is close to the pier before leaving. The boat arrived at 2pm and I saw many people queuing up. I was keen to take the 2:30pm boat and dared not wander off to the lighthouse. I was right: the boat left at 2:15pm as soon as it was full. I missed the lighthouse. But it’s not a big deal.
On the way back, we sailed past Cavello, another group of small private islands which reminds me of Mystic Island for the rich and famous in the Caribbean. The captain also showed us two enormous and impressive grottos before returning to the pier.
I checked in and took a shower before visiting the citadel. I had to climb a few flights of staircases and passed the la Chapelle San Rocu (1528) before reaching the citadel. I entered through the impressive Genoese Gate(1598) and found myself at a small but animated Place d’Armes. I wandered aimlessly through the old town which has a distinct Italian atmosphere and reminds me of Genoa with similar narrow alleys and buildings of three to five stories. I am glad I have visited Genoa and the rich Genoese noble families such as Doria had a strong presence here.
I walked from one end of the old town to the other end where I found the Cimetière Marin that has been described as the second most beautiful cemetery in the Mediterranean Sea, and the Escalier du Gouvernail. I paid €2,50 to see this tunnel with 168 steps built by cutting through the rock leading to a searchlight position commanding the strait and guarding entrance to the harbour. I had stunning views of the cliff from the balcony at the bottom of the tunnel. But I did not see Sardinia as it was a bit hazy.
The sun was setting. I hanged around to watch sunset before returning to the hotel. There are plenty of restaurants at the port. I had mussels for dinner. A great day!
October 4 Tuesday: Bonifacio
I had a lazy day and did not leave my room till 10am. The weather was great with blue sky and sunshine. I took two short hiking trails. In the morning, I followed the path on the western side of the harbour to the Feu de la Madonetta. It’s a pleasant walk and I had a nice set lunch shortly after 1pm.
In the afternoon, I returned to the old town and hired an audio guide for €5 from the tourist office. It makes the walk more interesting as I can better appreciate the history of the old town and the buildings. Rue Longue was once the main commercial and most inhabited street. Rue des 2 Empereurs is so named as both Charles V and Napoleon had lived on the same street.
The old town has several churches and many old buildings. L’Église Sainte-Marie-Majeure was built by Pisans starting the 12th century and l’Église Saint-Jean-Baptiste was built in 1785. La Maison des Podestats (starting 1270) and la Maison Doria (about 1320) are all remnants of the glorious Geonese era.
I bought a combined ticket for €5 to visit the Escalier di Roy d’Aragon and the Bastion de l’Étendard (Stronghold of the Standard). The former is a staircase with 187 steep steps cut into the cliff leading to a water source at the bottom of the cliff. The latter is an exceptional defense monument built and used by Genoese garrisons until 18th century. Near the exit is the ruin from the Pisano and Genoese period (12-13th century) which were discovered during archaeological excavations in the 70s.
After returning the audio guide to the tourist office at 5pm, I took the path above the cliff heading to Capo Pertusatu. After walking for 40 minutes, I saw a boat coming in from Sardinia and decided to return to the port to get information.
My Final Travel Plan
Bonifacio is only 11km from Sardinia. There are six daily ferries to Sta Teresa and the journey takes only an hour. It makes more sense to travel to Rome via Sardinia. I could continue with my plan to visit Sarténe before returning to Porto Vecchio on October 5 and return to Bonifacio and take the 11:30am ferry to Sta Teresa on October 6. People told me that there would be plenty of buses to Oblia where I had to board an overnight boat to Civitavecchia, the port of Rome. In this way, I could take a rest before the arrival of my friends from Hong Kong on October 8.
Once I was back in the hotel, I booked a ticket online on the 10:30pm boat from Oblia to Civitavecchia for under €40 without accommodation. I hoped to get a cabin/bed when I was on the boat.
October 5 Wedneday: Bonifacio – Sarténe – Filitosa – Propriano – Porto Vecchio
Sarténe, known for its granite buildings and architecture, is 30km from Bonifacio. I took the 7:10am bus and met Angie, an American-Chinese from San Francisco who is fluent in French. We ended up spending a wonderful day together. We arrived in the sleepy Sarténe around 8:15am and had hot chocolate in a cafe in Place de la Libération. Then we explored the tiny old town with one main narrow alley of stone houses. We met an elderly Swiss lady who had a group tour to Filitosa today. We asked how we could go there and she suggested us find a driver.
We visited the Church of Sainte Marie before walking uphill to find the Archaeology Museum. We had free admission together with free audio guide. The exhibits including some stone statutes from Filitosa with detailed information are fantastic.
We went to the tourist office to seek assistance in finding a driver. A young lady arranged a driver for three hours for €120 (i.e. €60 each). Angie then took me to Hotel des Roches which affords fantastic views over the valley and the sea. A two-course lunch together with half a bottle of rosé only cost €23 each!
We met our driver at a car park at 1:30pm. We were surprised to find an elegant and well-dressed French lady waiting for us with a minivan. We arrived at Filitosa around 2:15pm and were given 90 minutes to explore this archaeological site. The entrance fee is €7.
Filitosa is a megalithic site that was occupied from the end of the Neolithic era and the beginning of the Bronze Age to the Roman times in Corsica. The site was discovered in 1946 by the owner of the land. Systematic excavations began in 1954. The heads and pottery date earliest habitation to 3300BC. Around 1500BC, 2-3 metre menhirs were erected. One theory is that they were erected to ward off the Torréens. Anyway the Torréens subsequently built circular stone structures (torre) which might have been used as temples.
We strolled around the site leisurely and saw about 20 menhirs. I am impressed by the structure of the torre on a mount and the location of five menhirs at the foot of a grove with many enormous 2000-year-old olive trees next to the quarry atmospheric.
Our driver returned to pick us up before 4pm and we were in Propriano by 4:15pm. I was surprised to the marina filled with beautiful yachts. The weather was great and we had wine while watching children feeding fish. We boarded the bus heading to Porto Vechhio shortly after 5:15pm (about 15minutes before the scheduled departure time). Angie had to switch to another bus for Bonifacio. I was back in Porto Vecchio (61km) shortly after 7pm. I was so tired that I missed dinner and went to bed before 9pm.
October 6 Thursday: Porto Vecchio – Bonifacio – Sta Teresa, Sardinia – Oblia – A Travel Day
I had a sound sleep and got up at 6am. Things went smoothly. The bus did not arrive till 8:40am. Anyway, I was back in Bonifacio shortly after 9am and the ferry would not be leaving till 11:30am. I therefore went to say good-bye to Angie who stayed in a room with a terrace in the Best Western Hotel. I had a coffee and a lovely time with fantastic views of the harbour and the citadel from the terrace.
I paid €24,75 for a ticket and the boat departed on time. The weather was bad with rain and strong wind. I landed in Sta Teresa before 12:30pm.
Corsica has been put on my list as it’s the birth place of Napoleon. My interest in the island grows after my recent hike in Réunion, another French island in the Indian Ocean. After having booked my October tour from Cairo to Khartoum with Dragoman, I see an opportunity to fit in a trip to Corsica in September.
Napoleon has brought me to Corsica. Out of the 21 nights I stayed on the island, I spent ten nights in its five largest cities – Ajaccio, Bastia, Calvi, Porto Vecchio and Bonifacio. The remaining 11 nights were spent in gîtes along the GR20 trail and the mountains. I took three day-trips and visited Sarténe, Filitosa, Praiano, the Lavazzi Archipelago and Scandola Reserve, a World Heritage Site.
I am glad that Corsica has not disappointed me. First, its landscape and seascape are stunning and awesome. If I have more time, I love to go around the whole island especially to Cape Corse and Porto.
Second, Corsica is rich in history and culture. I adore this French island with a distinct Italian feel owing to its history and its relationship with Italy. Its five largest cities all founded by the Pisans and Genoese, have their own identity, characteristics and charm with an Italian touch. Bonifacio is unique and is definitely my faourite.
Third, the 11-day hike from Calazanne to Bavella has been an extraordinary and unforgettable experience. I signed up for this trip at a spur of moment while on an Exodus trip in Madagascar in June. I am aware that the trek is graded at 6 meaning ‘challenging/tough’. I believe I am fairly tough, can walk 20-25km a day and have done several long distance hikes over 5000m.
It turns out that this hike is a doable but not an ideal one for me. First, I have knee problems. Steep and rugged rocky terrains are bad for my knees. I find a prolonged period of rock climbing requiring both strength and concentration not easy for my age. Second, I do not have strong legs and walk slowly. My friends are all young, fit and energetic. As expected, I was always lagging behind while others had to wait for me to catch up. Poor Simon had been most patient and always kept an eye on me to make sure I was not left behind. I felt guilty. Finally as I felt the pressure to walk as fast as I could, I dared not stop often to take the photos I wanted or enjoy the scenery.
While on the trek, I could not stop asking myself why I had joined it. I am not looking for challenges and GR20 has not really been on my list. Perhaps had I spent more time browsing through all the terrible remarks about the rocky and steep slopes, I would not have joined. After some soul searching, I believe I have taken on this ordeal owing to my ignorance, fascination about the island and its stunning landscape and an over-estimation of my physical ability. Anyway, with the support of the group and the leaders, Jo and Simon, I have reached the finishing line without mishap. According Mike’s GPS, I have walked 170km gaining 11,687m and losing 11,693m. As we have not followed the classic trail, we only covered 110km of GR20.
I have joined many hiking groups. But this group is special and most endearing. Jo is a wonderful leader and Simon has been my guarding angel. I am the oldest participant and my young friends are caring and jolly. Mike from the senior management of Exodus is passionate about his work and wants to come up with the best hiking routes for the participants.
The only thing that seems lacking is something intangible: I do not get a real feel about Napoleon and his early days in Ajaccio. His statutes are everywhere and his home is now a museum in Ajaccio. I have tried hard without success to picture the life of the rising star when he spent three months in 1793 in the house at No 7 on Rue des 2 Emperurer in Bonifacio. Anyway, I have learnt more about his Italian ancestry and how the sale of Corsica by the Genoese to France in 1768 had changed his destiny and how he had made history. He must be more than a legend and military genius. I should read more about his life later.
I had a most interesting time in Corsica and love to return one day. I have seen many of the top attractions but there is more to do and see. I may take on the less demanding but equally scenic ‘Mare a Mare’ (coast to coast) route if I am still fit enough. I like Jo who also takes hiking groups to Mont Blanc in the summer. She thinks I can take on the 14-day camping tour to Mont Blanc after my GR20 ordeal. Fantastic! I hope to see her again in Mont Blanc next summer.