As anywhere in the Mediterranean the sounds of cicadas are everywhere. Inland, the wealth of Corsica's birdlife is evident. But the most distinct sound right now is made by the frogs. Their croaking and quacking is astonishingly loud, like a flock of ghost ducks on any patch of swampy land. They shut up if you come close, but glare up at you without bothering to hide, resuming their noisy conversation as soon as you walk away.
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The main reason for stopping at Porto Pollo was access to the extraordinary site at Filitosa. You can take a taxi there and back (30EU) easily, as (surprise!) there is no transport. Porto Pollo itself is quite sweet, though almost 100% a tourist resort. It has a spectacular beach. The village is thought to be named after the Corsican Porto Priddu, or 'ruined town' as it has been destroyed so many times in the centuries of war that have overcome the island.
Filitosa is a site that was first inhabited about 6500 years ago, by Neolithic villagers who lived in caves and rock shelters, and ate what they could pick, fish or hunt. Their remains, in pottery, spear heads and the foundations of some of their shelters are still there. It is the megalithic era about 3500 years before Christ, and the Bronze age around 1800 BC, however, that have made Filitosa famous.
In the late Neolithic, the inhabitants of the village, which stands on a granite outcrop above a well-stocked river which irrigates good farmland, began making menhirs. These started as simple upright slabs of stone, with little adornment, hewn from the abundant surrounding rocks. But in the Bronze Age, Corsica, almost uniquely, started turning its menhirs into anthropomorphic carvings. The statues gained faces, helmets, shapes and arms. They bear swords and daggers, drape cloaks from their shoulders, have definable and distinct expressions. These things are big: see the picture of one with Pip in the album. Made by chipping granite with stone.
After some 500 or 600 years, the statue-menhirs were torn down, and used in the building of torri, or towers. These round structures, which give the Toreen people their name, were probably used for some religious cult, but it's not known what. There are three of them at Filitosa, and it was in their walls that the wealth of statue menhirs were discovered - in the 1950's. They had lain undisturbed for over 3000 years.
The statue-menhirs are as inexplicable as the great stone carvings of Rapa Nui (Easter Island). Here is a poor culture: despite the local wealth of resources, Corsica has always been made poorer by its insularity. It has primitive technology, but has learnt about stone. The people trade, certainly as far as Sardinia, as obsidian (unavailable on Corsica) has been used on this site for 1000 years. Accustomed to weave and spin, effective farmers, but with no metals, they start to make these sophisticated and demanding items. Nobody really knows why.
One of the theories is that they were representations of the invading Toreens, distinguished by their helmets and metal weapons. By making these statues and placing them around the village, they appropriate their strength. Then, when the invasion was complete, the Toreens took them down and de-powered them by using them for building material. One of the problems with this story is that so little is known about the Toreens anyway. Where did they come from? And why? One story is that they were driven west by Ramses III of Egypt. But no-one is sure.
It seems a lot of work, to make images of people you've killed, though we recalled the theory of cannibals that eating your enemy gives you their strength. Perhaps they worshipped these helmeted newcomers. Or intermarried with the. We just don't know.
We are left with these mysterious faces, staring from the rocks after thousands of years first of glorification, then ritual destruction followed by oblivion and neglect. They scowl out at us, urgent in their unknown story, still potent and moving, witnessing the passing of time.
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As you might have gathered, we've been a bit exasperated by the difficulty of independent travel in Corsica for people without a car. Given the number of people moving about, hiking and so on, it's very hard work.
It has been made much worse by the partial closure of the railway system. This futuristic machine, lolling in a siding in Ajaccio, is the reason. According to our chatty informant, in the queue for this morning's ride, the Chemin de Fer de Corse (CFC) bought this machine last year. It doesn't really fit the rails. Worse still, in using it they seriously damaged the track. We didn't really get how, but it seemed to have to do with the clearance of the carriage underneath.
So they are doing all this work on the track, with the consequent service upheavals, in order to make it possible to run the old rolling stock. The new one apparently will require two years work, and cost a mint, so nobody knows if it will happen!
The interim timetable expires next week, on 3 July, but we haven't seen the new one. Here's hoping it's a significant improvement on the current arrangements. Then the transport planners of Corsica could focus on integrating buses and trains and providing information (any info would be an improvement) on the bus network around the island!
In the meantime, the services are patchy and complicated, and correspondingly underused. And this lovely train sits there. We're slightly surprised that the relevant officials' heads aren't spiked on the front as trophies for the travelling public to admire.
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On Tuesday we had a quiet day looking around Ajaccio, buying nice charcuterie in the daily market and enjoying the sunshine. We didn't do any of the historical sites in the town: after Rome, plus all the museum visiting of last summer, we're enjoying the hikes and natural sights of the islands this year!
We did, though, want to see the turtle sanctuary some 17km inland from Ajaccio, known as A Cupulatta. We enquired at all the relevant places to be told that you can't get there by public transport. But the Rough Guide says take the train and walk, we said. Well, yes, people said, but it's quite a walk. 20 minutes, says the Rough Guide. We can do that. So we got the train (actually the replacement bus) to Carbuccia. The bus actually drops you on the main N193, so it's only about 5 minutes further to the sanctuary; from the station, it would be another 15 minutes. Let's be clear though: you can get to the sanctuary pretty easily by public transport. Getting back is quite another matter. The timetable may improve once the train is running again, but there are no stopping buses along this busy road (except on Tuesdays), so we had to wait four hours for the bus coming back from Corte to pick us up.
But we enjoyed the visit nonetheless. A Cupulatta has definite elements of the zoo, but is heavily committed to protecting and breeding endangered species. It is the biggest enterprise of its kind in Europe, and has a huge number of animals. We have made a photo albumof some of our many pictures, including one of the super-cute kittens, which are part of the campaign to keep mice under control.
Part of the time, we just wandered around going hey dude. If you don't know the reason, enjoy Finding Nemoall over again. But of course that's not the only story here.
There is something very sad about the giant turtles, their heads, some 1.5m above the ground, watching patiently from their small enclosures. It is not only the pathos of big animals denied their natural roaming space. These are an order of reptiles a quarter of a billion years old, pre-dating the dinosaurs, of enormous complexity and variety. Did you ever hear of the (extremely ugly) alligator tortoise, which uses a special pink tool in its mouth to lure fish to their death?
But the humanoid upstarts, just a few thousand years old, and most dangerous in the last 500, has brought whole species to extinction. With the smaller tortoises and terrapins (many of which are in fact endangered), there are many to be seen, and they take little notice of the spectators, even the spectacular leopard tortoises or the starry-shelled turtles with their startling displays. The giants from Aldebra (in the Seychelles) and the Galapagos look back into your eyes, know that they are watched, and exude an imposing, elephantine air of wisdom.
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The headland of Parata is marked by another tower; this one says it is one of 90 on the island. We feel like we've seen more than that already and we've only cruised about one-third of the coastline! It is easy to take the No. 5 bus from Place de Gaulle and get off at the end of the line to climb up to the tower and clamber around the headland. Poor Lucy drank half a bottle of water when she got to the top, and we were all glad of a drink in the café afterwards.
In settled weather, there's a glorious anchorage underneath this point, with clear water down to sand. It is, however, very open to the south.
The album for this post has a few more pictures of the archipelago. Note that the pass is right under the tower, inside the Ile de Porri, no between the first two islands out. Amazing alliums grow here and there are some wonderful rock striations too, caused by the interfolding of the two different, non-mixing magmas. The darker grey is diorite, while the white is a form of granite.
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Actually the subject is waste. (This is unusual for cruisers, any three of whom can spend hours discussing the heads, but that's for another time.)
Girolata is a tiny village, but in the high season, we were told, some 2000 people a day walk along or visit its beach. That's an enormous impact from hikers and sailors, which the village is working hard to manage. Part of their approach is to strongly encourage recycling and management of waste, including supplying all visiting boats with a compostable bag for their food waste! Presumably they also make money from the rubbish, and all power to them.
At the eastern end of the beach is a small rubbish area (pictured here) which has containers for oil (food only), compost (all other food remains), plastic, tins, paper and then whatever is left over. The site is superbly clean, and barely whiffy, even on a hot day. We've certainly smelt plenty worse. There is a big can crusher, and the bales of tins are already being squared away for removal and sale.
We were impressed by this waste site, one of the best we've seen. And with so much travelling, and Sarah's professional responsibilities for waste management, we've seen a few! Other rural areas with a big visitor footfall could learn from the approach here, for example in some of the NZ sites we camped in two years ago. It does need some labour to keep it so well, but a good arrangement for treatment and sale would help with the financial impact, if not actually make money.
If they can manage this in a village unreachable save by boat or foot and such a huge transient population, then there's not much excuse for the rest of us.
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The shortest route out of Girolata on foot is to the south, where an old track joins the road at the pass known as Brocca A Croix. The lower road is known as the Sentier de Guy le Facteur, the path of Guy, the postman. He was an ex-legionary who for many years delivered the post to the village, travelling this route on foot or by mule in all weathers. He became quite a celebrity in France, with a couple of documentaries made about him.
The path is a lovely trail, winding through mature maquis of holm oak and other trees which meet around you, occasionally opening up to show the sparkling water below. Or at least it was sparkling when we started. After about two hours it clouded over, started raining, and went on raining for the rest of the day. This at least kept us cool, not least as we had foolishly believed a 'sans precipitation' forecast, and had no waterproofs with us.
The route goes via the Anse de Tuara, which would be a possible anchorage in calm weather. The beach is pebbly sand, cut by a stream bed of sharp rocks awaiting the last of the snow melt. It meanders back into the hills amongst sheets of euphorbia and marsh grass (in the picture above). There is also an unpleasant amount of litter brought in by the prevailing winds, making this not the most inviting spot for a swim. We passed on.
There were pigs grazing as we went across the beach, who eyed us balefully and made sure Mum was always between us and the youngsters. Not that they were true wild boar of course; we'd not have crossed their path. We took the piglets' pictures anyway. It is common on Corsica to turn the pigs out to graze on the maquis. Because there are tax breaks for ownership but not for good husbandry this has the perverse effect of encouraging fire setting, to release grazing, which is a major contributor to the forest fires which plague Corsica every year.
This time we didn't encounter cattle grazing free, but the little spring, with its accompanying water trough, in the woods that lead up to the pass was an obvious favourite spot, judging by the droppings. We did see some of the traditional long horned beasts in the field near the beach.
The pass itself was a disappointment, being shrouded in clouds. It has one little café run by a very grumpy man who refuses to serve café au lait! We had some café and then ate our packed lunch as we walked back down to the Anse de Tuara.
On the way back we took the alternative route from the beach going over the top of the hill. This led us past some amazing red rocks and black cliffs, which left us relieved about the unlikelihood of earthquakes as we walked underneath. It also led us by the tiny cemetery of Ghjirolatu (the Corsican name). There were only three or four names on the gravestones, testimony to the tiny community It's well kept, with a lovely view. We took lots of pictures on this hike, and a few are in the relevant photo album.
We enjoyed the walk but found it to take 3.75 hours out and 3.15 hours back - a lot of walking. Our book suggested over three hours, but the man in the Capitainerie had assured me that it wasn't too far, just about an hour and a half. Yeah, right! Of course it stopped raining when we returned, and we had a lovely swim off the back of the boat.
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The headland just west of Elbu is the famous Pointe Palazzo, so called because the huge formations are said to resemble palaces. They are twisted and worn into fantastic shapes, which change their appearance as the light and shadows shift, and you also move to different perspectives. Around them wheel gulls and eagles, and, we're told, seals and dolphins play. (We didn't see dolphins, but Aquila did.)
Just beyond Palazzo is the tiny island of Gargalu. (The place marker which will take you to our location is 0.5m west of the island.) This is blessed with both a lighthouse and a tower. Soldiers and light keepers alike must have found this a remote and lonely outpost, vulnerable to forces far outside their control.
Gargalu has its tiny ilot cousin, just to the South. There is a narrow channel between these islands and the coast, and we saw a tripper boat come through it, but we wouldn't dream of taking a keel boat down there, Instead we went round the outside and south down the exposed western flank of Scandola, taking many pictures for the album referring to this post. The rocks are twisted and sharpened by water and wind, and bask in reds, bronze, greys and greens, changing continuously with the clouds and the sun.
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South of Galeria is the start of the UNESCO listed Scandola Nature Reserve. This magnificent area is largely closed to visitors, really only visitable by boat. And even that is limited, both by the very rocky coastline and increasing prohibitions on mooring, diving or fishing. The area is home to a very wide range of unique and endangered flora and fauna, and it has never been thickly inhabited, so all the prohibitions make sense.
Rather than take a direct line across the bay, we scouted out some of the extraordinary coves and rocks. Above is Baie d'Elbu in which anchoring is now only allowed in daylight hours. The pilot shows it as a possible spot, but as you can see, the entrance is formidable.
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Our friends on Aquila had caught us up in Calvi, after an enjoyable week with family on the Cinqueterre coast. We reinstated our tradition of sightseeing combined with gastronomy and hikes with a visit to Corte.
This town is pretty much in the centre of the island. It was, and remains, a centre of Corsican nationalism. There is plenty of graffiti on the subject on its walls, particularly around the University (the only one on Corsica). We went by train from Calvi, but there are lots of works on the line and quite a lot of the trip was by bus instead. Like all travel in France, it adds up in price, as return tickets were over 20EU each. But we saw a good chunk of the island, which is spectacularly beautiful.
Corte is centred around its citadel, which sits imposingly on a jutting granite peak. It is reminiscent of Rocamodor in France but without the pretty pointy towers. We ate an excellent lunch (fish soup, wild boar and so on) but passed on the rather expensive museum which is the only way to visit the citadel itself. Instead we walked the path of the ancient mule track into the valley of the Tavignano river, the route Napoleon's mother took when fleeing French forces while pregnant with the future Emperor. It's a pretty walk, though steep in the afternoon heat (hats off to Mme Bounoparte) , and apparently you can go on for another couple of hours to find bathing pools in the rocks. It sounded lovely - Braemar with hot water and scented maquis - but was further than we had time (or energy) to walk.
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Calvi itself is a sweet town but extremely touristy and expensive. Not much else seems to happen here. Of course it has an exciting history of military scraps - this is where Nelson lost his eye - and it is the HQ of a crack para regiment in the Foreign Legion. But today it is extremely peaceful.
It does have good provisioning at the supermarkets along with numerous shops selling Corsican specialities (also in the SuperU and cheaper there) and an expensive covered market selling allegedly local produce.
A highlight of our stay was to hear a band called Alba play in the cathedral in the citadel. They are part of a tradition of polyphonic singing in Corsica, which we had known nothing about. Groups, usually but not always all male, will sing in a variety of forms, unaccompanied or with violins, zithers, guitars. Alba also have a clarinet, a sax and very clever table-top organ, as well as a (female) percussionist.
Haunting, soaring music, sung in the dusky cathedral light, after which we walked out into the night air, astonished at the strength and muscle of the singing and the enduring Corsican pride.
The other find in Calvi was the Bibliotheque pout Tous, (in the picture) which is in a little sidestreet behind the eglise in the lower town. This little library also has a shelf-full of English books for sale at 2EU a time - a boon to any cruisers. The main staff member is a lovely woman who, with her husband, completed a seven year circumnavigation on their 16m yacht. We had a jolly time comparing notes on book swaps from Vanuatu, the Caribbean, the UK and the US.
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The area west of the gulf of St Florent is called the Desert des Agriates. The name means bread basket, and this region was so rich in wheat that the Genoese imposed a punitive fiscal regime to make sure extra cash wasn't financing insurrection. But too much farming and soil erosion, and many fires, have laid waste, and now this is a huge area of scrub maquis. Beautiful for walking, swimming and wildlife, and a loss of productive land.
We decided to explore by walking along the coast path. Not planning on a huge hike, we rowed ashore and left Bridget neatly anchored. Or we were arranging this when we saw a RIB full of blokes investigating Roaring Girl. Pip did some womanful rowing back for us to be greeted by the douanes (customs) wanting to inspect our papers. Usual drill: we're politely separated and asked the same questions (as far as language allows) and one man looks casually into all cabins. They check papers and then go. It's all polite but it's still men with guns tromping around our decks!.
So off we go again, and use a washed up buoy with 3m of chain as our base and a dual anchor onto the beach, leaving the dinghy comfortably afloat but out of easy temptation's reach.
After a while, we decided to keep going to Plage de la Lotu, which we had seen a ferry for from St Florent (and felt its wake) many times. There'll be a water source there, we thought, maybe even a café shack. Hundreds of folk go there every day.
We had a beautiful walk. The unique smell of Corsican maquis enveloped us, with giant fennel, the rich wild rosemary, creeping thyme all playing their part. There are several small streams to ford, many leading from small salt etangs, along the shores of which cattle graze, the long horned heads nodding for siesta. Astonishing white beaches, from big half-moons to tiny scraps of space, some deserted. Steep climbs with the shrubs above head-height, offering brief patches of shade. Glittering turquoise water in the beach shallows, ringed by deeper, darker sea where the weed and rocks flourish on the seabed.
In the photo album there are pictures of this hike, including the tiny Fornali Creek. This is shown as an anchorage but the boat permanently moored beneath the private residence on the headland severely diminishes the space
There is an old Genoese tower on this route (of course) at Baie de la Mortella. The Genoese successfully held it against Lord Hood when the British weighed in to support the independence struggle of Pasquale Paoli. Hood was so impressed that he ordered towers of similar design all over British territory, giving rise to the familiar round Martello towers of which so many were built on the British coast to defend against ... the Corsican Napoleon!
This one has very thick walls and a useful, flat stopping place. What it lacks is clear signage. If you ever do this walk, you go up from the tower - not down! We went down and had an exciting 40 minute scramble across the rocks. Neither of us are used to pushing our fingers into crannies and not breathing in case it spoils your balance. 40 minutes was enough, and then we gratefully rejoined the path.
It's still a little further to the plage, which is completely devoid of anything resembling fresh water or kiosks. By then we'd been walking for about 4.5 hours with a litre of water between us and were gasping. We took the first swim of the season off the beach: the cold snow run-off was just what we needed.
Fortunately, the ferry took us back to St Florent (despite our ticketless state: we did have money!). There we got a much needed bottle, and then hiked the last hour back to patient Bridget.
All in all we probably walked over 10 miles. Despite the water (and food) shortage we had an excellent time. We'd recommend the walk if you're in the area. There are also many good anchorages along here, though all more exposed than where we based ourselves. Lots of pictures in a new album about this hike.
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