Years after exile from his native island, Napoleon said, "I would recognize Corsica, blindfolded, by her scent alone."
As soon as I stepped off the plane, I knew what Napoleon meant, for I was awash in a wild, sweet fragrance, the ether of longing and regret.
That scent is nothing more than the aroma of the "maquis," the thorny, impenetrable brush found all over Corsica below 2,500 feet. Botanically, the maquis is a tangle of shrubby trees such as juniper and holm oak, myrtle and box, mastic and arbutus; of flowers such as broom and dwarf laurel, asphodel and cyclamen; of perfumed herbs that include sweetbrier and rosemary, lavender and thyme.
The maquis also stands for the thorny and impenetrable spirit of the Corsicans themselves. For centuries, pirates (the original corsairs), outlaws and revolutionaries took refuge in obscure hollows among the brush. These hide-outs were never betrayed by locals, no matter how black the crimes of the men who laid low. The vendetta was invented in Corsica, and the Corsican mafia is in its own way fully as powerful as its Sicilian counterpart.
During World War II, the maquis became the name and emblem %% of the French resistance; to "prendre le maquis" meant to go underground, to fight as a guerrilla. So fiercely did its citizens resist the Nazis that on Oct. 4, 1943, Corsica became the first French territory liberated from German occupation.
Nowadays, each July and August, the island is still overrun by foreigners -- French, German and British "pintuzos" (Corsican slang for tourists). During those months there are six holiday-makers for every citizen. But from September through October, and again from late March till the end of June, Corsica remains resolutely off-season, while the place is paradoxically at its best, with warm days and cool nights, unhurried hours in timeless villages, solitary strolls on seacoasts and mountain paths.
A 50-by-100-mile island in the Mediterranean, straight south of Genoa and straight west of Rome, Corsica seems at first to mimic other European settings. The names of the towns -- Bonifacio, Propriano, Bastia -- look Italian. The trackless white-sand beaches could belong to the Greek isles. On the Spanish Costa Brava you might find these craggy orange headlands calving into the blue sea. And the knife-edged cliffs leaning over alpine meadows slashed with streams seem straight out of Switzerland.
The people, however, are a mixture of French, Italian, Arabs and indigenes whose roots are lost in prehistory. The language has more affinity with medieval Tuscan than with any tongue now spoken.
Corsica today amounts to an alternative Riviera, only half as expensive as the spas of the French and Italian coasts. Here it is still possible to camp where you like, a freedom long since denied most Europeans. Here you may still walk a pine-nee
dled trail to an empty beach, where the whole day long no other wanderers intrude on your thoughts. And here, in reticent towns whose foundations were raised in Roman times, the lives of fishermen and farmers still overrule the posturings of tourism.
Americans know surprisingly little about the Isle of Beauty, as Corsica has been called for centuries. During a week of crisscrossing the island by rental car last October, a happy seven days of dining in seaside cafes, hiking sinuous canyons and pondering strange ancient monuments, I saw not a single other American.
Waiters and hotel-keepers present a facade of friendliness, but Corsicans are a hard people to get to know. You do not walk up to old men sitting on door stoops and take their pictures. Insular in both senses of the word, Corsicans resent everything Parisian. The City of Light signifies to them only two centuries of French paternalism. Nor have the Corsicans forgotten the Nazis, some of whose grandchildren frolic on their shores.
One breezy night at a cafe in Saint-Florent, I watched the proprietor interact with a group of Teutons. They wanted to dine outside, where the tables had not been set. "No, no," said the owner politely, "you'll get cold." "Don't be silly, we're used to it," demanded one of the group, speaking bad French. The proprietor gave in, but I heard him mutter, the weight of history in his words, "Moi, je connais ces allemands" ("I know these Germans").
For more than two millenniums, Corsicans have fought for freedom not only from the Germans, but also against a succession of foreign oppressors -- Romans, Pisans, Genoese, French and even British. James Boswell, Dr. Johnson's biographer, made a pilgrimage to Corsica in 1765 to pay homage to the great champion of independence, Pascal Paoli, whom Voltaire and Rousseau also admired. But Paoli's brave campaign failed, and for the last two-and-a-quarter centuries -- save for two years of British occupation and one year of the Nazis -- Corsica has "belonged" to France.
The campaign for independence thrives today among leftists and students, whose angry graffiti you see spray-painted all over the island. The FLNC and the ANC, the two chief movements, blazon their acronyms next to the classic symbol of nationhood, a stylized map of the island -- triangle topped with handle -- that also resembles a butcher's cleaver. "Lingua corsa obligatoria," demands one motto, and "Camping sauvage basta" another ("Enough of Europeans camping wherever they like").
Yet as an American, I was greeted with old-fashioned civility wherever I went, and I felt more welcome on the Isle of Beauty than I have on visits to west Texas or down-east Maine. Each night I slept in a different town: brown and stately Bastia, fortress of the Genoese tyranny; secretive Porto, whose bay looks through a granite gun sight toward the ocean of the Hesperides; landlocked Corte, ancient capital of Corsica; Propriano, where French nymphs swim in the bay at sunset; and astounding Bonifacio, on the southern tip of the island, crowded atop a giant pedestal of overhanging limestone that crumbles away, inches each year, under the wear of waves and wind.
In fact, they name the winds in Corsica. On my fourth day there, the sirocco came in hard and hot from the south, graying the heavens with sand blown all the way from the Sahara. A day later, the world was colored afresh, as the cleansing libeccio winds poured east from Gibraltar. That night, as I sat in a bar in Propriano, a violent lightning storm knocked out the power. Bereft of candles, the bartender made bonfires of matchbooks in ashtrays, and the place assumed the festive abandon of a pagan camp.
The ambience of the bars and cafes is genial, although Corsican cuisine is undistinguished, except for such traditional farmer's fare as hard sausages, smoked pork in the form of "coppa" or "lonzu," and a dry goat cheese called "brocciu."
If the food seldom surpasses the ordinary, the island's architecture is spectacular. The rich and troubled history of Corsica is written in its buildings. From the four-and-a-half centuries of Genoese rule (1284-1729), the most formidable remains are the stern castles guarding such venerable towns as Bastia and Calvi. Even more striking, however, is the necklace of watchtowers that circles the coast. Built originally in response to the terrible depredations of Barbary pirates from Africa (in 1560, 6,000 Corsican slaves were hauled to Algiers), the towers were placed with exquisite care to ensure line-of-sight signaling from one craggy cape to the next.
Crumbling and derelict, 67 of the original 85 towers still stand, looming as high as 60 feet; some lie right beside the highway, while others take a tough push through the maquis to reach. On the Capo di Muro, I hiked to one of the finest of these towers. As a thunderstorm passed overhead, I hid in the maquis like an outlaw, for the tower was a perfect lightning-rod. After the storm, perhaps foolishly, I climbed a rusted iron staircase that barely clung to the vertical stone, entered the tower, and spiraled inside it to the roof. The view that greeted me commanded eight bays and a fleet of imagined Barbary ships.
For two centuries before the Genoese, Corsica was ruled by their great sea rivals, the Pisans. The most handsome Pisan memorials are a series of small Romanesque churches, scattered among somnolent villages built on perches of inland rock. I once spent three weeks in Spanish Catalonia on an obsessive quest for Romanesque churches. On that whole trip, I found no more beautiful example than the Trinity church at Aregno in northwest Corsica.
Built in the Pisan polychrome style, it has arcades and capitals crowded with monsters and damned souls, carved with the formal rigidity that renders the Romanesque nightmare so startling nine centuries after anonymous sculptors gave shape to its fever.
The most remarkable constructions in Corsica, however, are the prehistoric stone monuments found in the southwest quadrant of the island. These include dolmens (table-like structures of huge stones), menhirs (standing stones), and alignments (rows and columns of standing stones). They date from 3,500 to 1,000 B.C. Lost in the maquis, most of these monuments -- including the finest single site, an enigmatic complex called Filitosa -- were only rediscovered after 1950.
The eerie anthropomorphic menhirs at Filitosa, engraved with shallow human visages and long swords, were, along with the circular fortresses pierced by underground rooms at Cucuruzzu
and Alo Bisucce, the most stunning monuments that I viewed. We may never know what these structures mean, but they prove that 4,000 years ago, when Paris and London were nothing but marshland, Corsica stood as one of the centers of European civilization.
As I drove the relentlessly twist-ing roads, my arms grew weary at the wheel. Except for New Guinea, no land that I have traveled is more physically convoluted than Corsica. The place, however, is made for the hiker. Above 2,500 feet, the maquis gives out and the country opens up, with grassy heaths patchworked among forests of graceful pines.
Corsica is also one of the rockiest places in Europe. Most of the stone is granite, ranging in hue from purple through rose to ocher and yellow. In places -- especially on the west-coast cliffs called Los Calanche -- the rock has been tortured by erosion into a phantasmagoria of exotic shapes. These horns, knobs and holes -- called collectively by the Coriscan term "taffaoni" -- sing siren chants in the ears of rock climbers. I found myself squandering hour after hour on scrambling and bouldering among these prodigies of storm-torn granite.
From the cliffs overlooking the sea, I was drawn to the beaches. Although for some reason I have never learned how to swim, I performed some expert wading in the Golfe Valinco and the Golfe de Roccapina. Because so much of the coastline cannot be reached by road, Corsica lures serious yachtsmen from all over Europe, who cove-hop around the island, live on their boats in the harbors, and escape reality for weeks at a time.
At Roccapina I strolled on the mauve sand and watched the gulls wheel over the crashing waves. A trio of German hippies passed by, skipping stones; then the beach was mine again. It was mid-October. In Nice and Cannes, Antibes and Portofino, the hotels would be shuttering for winter, the beaches deserted but for elderly "pensionnaires" walking their dogs. Here, the sun was hot and the sea was tepid; in shorts and T-shirt, I reclined on the sand and gazed at a distant Genoese tower. A spirit of Corsican anarchy was upon me: There was nothing better in life, it urged, than to loll here for another hour or two, and perhaps to open a bottle of local red "patrimonio" wine.
Universal Press Syndicate
If you go . . .
Accommodations in Corsica range from lower-priced guest rooms and beds and breakfasts to luxury hotels and apartments.
"Gites ruraux," or fully furnished houses, are also available to rent, usually on a weekly basis. For more information, contact the Offices du Tourisme in Ajaccio, Corsica, 20000 Hotel de Ville BP 21; phone 011-33-95-21-4087.
Air France, Air Inter and Corse Mediterranee offer direct flights from Nice and Marseilles to Corsica. Depending on the carrier you choose, flights are available to the cities of Ajaccio, Bastia and Calvi. For those who prefer traveling by ferry, a trip can take between three and six hours -- depending on point of departure (Marseilles, Nice or Toulon) and arrival (Ile-Rousse, Ajaccio or Bastia).
For more information contact your travel agent or the French Government Tourist Office, 610 Fifth Ave., New York, N.Y. 10020; (212) 757-1125.