Teetering above the north-west coast, the villages of the Balagne region in Corsica, France, have a grandstand view of white yachts, silver sands and luminous blue sea. I spent one day of my October trip driving between these settlements.
Red kites wheel above—this is bird of prey territory. Beyond forests of holm oak, chestnut and pine, the land rises into a shadowland of granite crags and pinnacles.
It’s a landscape made for stories. Legend says Christopher Columbus’s mother was born in Monticello’s ruined castle. Corbara has tales of Moorish pirates who kidnapped villagers to sell in North Africa’s slave markets.
Santa Reparata is a great coffee stop—the bar opposite the church has a spectacular lookout down on Ile Rousse from its back garden.
Then there’s Corsica’s oldest village, Sant’ Antonigno of the vaulted passageways…Lumio, site of a pagan sun-worshipping cult.
I stopped for a picnic lunch in Pigna—a hilltop village with blue-shuttered stone houses, cobbled streets and cats with a taste for Camembert. This is the nerve-center of the Balagne crafts trail: potters and artisans who make shepherds’ knives, stained glass works, music boxes and a special type of lute called the cetera.
Calenzana is another fascinating stop. Its inhabitants saw off German mercenaries by bombarding them with bee-hives. It’s also the start of the GR20, a hiking route across Corsica’s mountainous spine. My idea of a walk wasn’t so ambitious. I aimed to visit St. Restitude’s sarcophagus, but the gate to her chapel was locked.
One of Corsica’s female martyrs, St. Restitude suffered more ignominies than most. Apparently she was whipped with a pizzle (a bull’s penis), had her skin gouged with iron combs, was stoned, and then thrown into a fiery furnace. She survived both those torments and an attempted drowning, but not decapitation.
Most Balagne villages are within 15 miles of the coast. But the terrain and too many walkabouts meant I never saw even half of them. There are many more beside the ones I’ve mentioned.
Every turn of the ribbon-thin roads delivers another reason to stop. Here, the dazzling white rotunda of a tiny chapel. There, a farm selling honey and sheep’s cheese. Around the bend, a prehistoric standing stone…a roadside shrine…another ruined castle…an awesome coastal view.
Plus it’s a forager’s delight. Olive trees and even apricot trees grow wild beside the road. Like the hundreds of sweet chestnuts in spiky casings, mushrooms were everywhere. I’m sure I spotted some pale yellow (and expensive) chanterelles, but it’s wise to have a good fungi identification book before picking anything.
The Balagne’s only sizable settlements are on the coast: the citadel town of Calvi and Ile Rousse. The French Foreign Legion has a training base in Calvi, so don’t be surprised to see soldiers in white kepi caps.
Ile Rousse isn’t an island, but a pretty seaside town. It takes its name from red rocks jutting into the sea. People were sunbathing on its beach, and even venturing into the sea in late October.
One-bedroom apartments (35 square meters) in Ile Rousse can be found for around 120,000 euro ($160,000). That’s around 1,000 euro per square meter less than French Riviera prices. Same weather, but Corsica is wilder, prettier and completely unspoiled.
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