There’s an old Michel Jonasz song I’m very fond of, in which he tells of visiting an off-season resort with his parents and sister. The place sounds like a seaside town in Normandy. The family have no money but they’re content to walk up and down in front of the grand hotels, watching the freighters disappear over the horizon, licking their “glaces à l’eau”. The song catches the poignancy of low season: penny-pinching, occasional shivering, odd, left-behind characters, and the unaccountable happiness.
I felt something similar in Corsica last January, having come over from Leghorn, Italy, for a week. In Bastia, the main northern port of the island, on a Sunday of winter sunshine – no, it was rain ... no, sunshine – well, on a day of weather which, if it didn’t suit you, you had only to wait 20 minutes for it to change, I bought a newspaper and ventured to the Place Saint Nicholas. It was just warm enough for people to be filling up the sidewalk cafes, whose phalanxes of cane chairs stretched far into the square.
The longer the sun shone the more chairs filled up with the bourgeois sipping their café-crèmes, and I joined them. Out in the middle of the square, around the empty bandstand with its filigree ironwork, crowds of children on wheeled conveyances raced wildly. You could see the accidents taking shape: the distracted moppets tooling straight for each other, the mums at their tables doing rough calculations and then, dashing out, too late, to prevent the inevitable collision. But a few tears were a natural part of this Sunday morning scene, which could have happened 50 years ago, or might (with luck) happen 50 years hence.
The Place Saint Nicholas, with its pollarded plane trees and tall, shuttered windows, seems to belong to eternity: it is flanked on one side by a row of stately old houses whose roof cornices meet in a row, maintaining uniformity, while on the opposite side shines the Ligurian Sea.
With the initial aim of letting mute things – streets, facades, interiors – tell me more, I wander towards the market square, the Place du Marché. En route, I discover two mysterious and evocative churches, which have no side aisles but are lined instead with carved wooden panelling interrupted at intervals by glazed shrines or chapels.
These buildings are not exactly churches, I learn, but oratories maintained by two confraternities, those of Saint Roch and the Immaculate Conception, whose members, known for their eerie, hooded processions, have long played an active, charitable role on the island. One shrine, in the oratory dedicated to the Virgin, holds a fine baroque Christ in wood, displayed against a good 15th century panel depicting a scene from the Passion.
Further along, I peep into the vast Eglise de Saint-Jean Baptiste, whose lofty nave is emphasised by rows of tall Corinthian pilasters. This church overlooks the Place du Marché, a perfectly proportioned square disputed at this hour by farmers and little boys playing soccer. Even in January the stalls are burdened with fruit and vegetables, sheep’s and goat’s milk cheeses, not to mention sausages, hams and flatbread slathered with melted cheese. I consider buying a saucisson of wild boar for a friend keen on cuisine, but getting a whiff of its pungent aroma I opt for a more conventional pork salami.
The general aspect of this walk, along with a conversation I initiate with the dramatically rotund sausage lady, who touts her charcuterie in Corsican (a language similar to some Tuscan dialects) while I reply in Italian, might suggest that I am in a Tuscan province that has somehow detached itself from the mainland. Ethnographically speaking – with respect to language, food, religion, and architecture – Bastia resembles the main city of some Tuscan province, but despite the family similarity the Corsicans have a separate history and identity. The sausage lady laments that so few Corsicans under 20 can speak the national language, though it is taught in schools and has a small literature of some distinction.
The following day I take the tiny, narrow-gauge train for Corte, an old town high in the island’s interior. The train, which has only two carriages, begins by hugging the coast and stopping at almost every village along a coastal plain strewn with warehouses, automobile graveyards, vineyards, orchards, stands of dwarf palms. After Casamozza it turns inland and begins to climb, snaking through an increasingly rugged landscape, so that soon steep knolls loom up and peel abruptly away.
As the little engine twists along slopes and hangs over gorges, a bony panorama heaves into view, with mists boiling over the rocky outcrops and shafts of sunlight illuminating distant villages. The train sighs valiantly, gasps for breath like an elderly hiker and, as it chugs forward, towering meadows dotted with sheep swing by then wheel off to the rear.
The railway stations are almost deserted at this time of year, tidy single blocks like a toy train set. At length, a succession of blue and white planes rises in the distance, as if one were looking at an enormous pop-up book filled with endless mountains and torrents.
These vast declivities of rock and scrub vegetation (largely myrtle, to the naked eye) are exactly what’s meant by the word “maquis”. The maquis is a zone of vegetation characterised by shrubs, notably broom and wild fennel, and low trees, such as the holm oak and various dwarf pines. This terrain lends itself to raising sheep and the seasonal transhumance from low altitudes in winter to high ones in summer. The prevalence of livestock raising has led to the creation of many good sheep’s milk cheeses, or “pecorini”, such as those from the Niolu and Venachese regions, and also the “brocciu”, a delicious soft cheese sold all over the island.
That sheep would be happy in such topography is not surprising, but what amazed me was the cattle scattered across dizzying uplands of maquis, insouciantly chewing their cuds and switching their tails on what must have been an incline of at least 50 degrees. It was hard to imagine how they had climbed to where they were, or how they would shift their bovine frames back down into the valleys.
Corte is the symbolic centre of Corsican national identity and home to the island’s sole university and its historical and ethnographic museum, the Musée de la Corse. A pretty hill-town built on many levels, it is closely associated with the memory of Pascal Paoli, the great Corsican patriot who in 1755 – 20 years before the revolt of the American colonists – led a successful insurrection against Genoese rule, founded a constitutional democracy and created the University of Corte.
The island remained independent for 14 years, until General Paoli was defeated by the French, but by that time his experiment in social equality had been publicised throughout the Continent, Britain, and the American colonies: James Boswell visited the republic in 1765 and published his favourable Account of Corsica shortly before the French invasion.
The Musée de la Corse appeared to be largely devoted to Pascal Paoli and his friends and correspondents among the men of the Enlightenment, but the upper floors of the museum, which offer exhibits devoted to Corsica’s rustic traditions, remind one of how remarkable it was that such a peripheral and pastoral people should have opted so early for democracy.
I chose to climb the towering Citadel, gaining a magnificent view toward the chestnut-producing region of Castagniccia to the northeast and the cheese-producing Venaco to the south.
Soon, though, it grows dark. In Corte at dusk, as the streetlamps blink on and the wild bare branches of the pollard trees stand out against the deep blue sky, I stroll past dour facades with tall shuttered windows, admire a little square with a dashing statue of some notability and consider buying a hunk of chestnut bread from a bakery.
In a brasserie, grizzled gents play rummy, drink beer or the local rough wine. The same habitués hang out for hours – they probably meet there every evening. Finally, in a dark, crowded restaurant under a vault – probably a former cantina – I order terrine of fish and venison stew, and instantly acquire a reputation thanks to the unsolicited attentions of the proprietress. A family of three from the southern port of Ajaccio, a building contractor, his lawyer wife, and their conspicuously pretty daughter of about 18, invite me to their table. The contractor grills me amiably in his singsong Corsican French about my own background, then launches into a litany of complaints about the mistreatment of Corsica by the “continentals”, by which he means the Paris government. The daughter rolls her eyes – she has heard this many times.
The truth, however, is that what my expansive host from Ajaccio is telling me is just a more developed version of what everyone I have met has been saying since I arrived on this island.
I cannot respond intelligently to their resentment, but I am mesmerised by the chin thrusts, eyebrow leaps, and laughing eyes of my dinner companion. His good-humoured tirade has fairly silenced his wife, but when I turn to her and ask her opinion, she replies that despite her husband’s overly temperamental stance on this issue there is much to what he says.
Isn’t it odd, she asks me, that in the municipal courts of Ajaccio, where she works, there is only one Corsican magistrate? By the time dinner is over I seem to have acquired the popularity of the sympathetic listener and, as I leave, the proprietress accords me the “bise” – a kiss on both cheeks.
Back in Bastia, on a pleasant evening in the Vieux-Port, a sort of amphitheatre of old buildings and cafes overlooking a little marina, has become a hub of social activity. Vespas come and go; there’s a lot of air-kissing. But the conversations of those who gather on the waterfront and the clothes they wear, remind me that they’re virtually all connected to the tourist trade: this month they are busy remodeling kitchens, refitting shops and repairing boats.
In less than two months Corsica will be a very different island, and all the sweet pathos of off-season will have vanished until next autumn.
Dan Hofstadter is the author of ‘Falling Palace: A Romance of Naples’