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Andrew Smyth explores the first of the Mediterranean’s three largest islands. To follow Sardinina and Sicily.

Corsica island of contrastsCorsica is a place that relishes contradictions. It’s French, but closer to Italy. It’s fiercely independent, yet utterly reliant upon economic support from the mainland. In the winter its mountains are covered in snow, while in the summer it has coastal deserts where rain is almost unknown. The main body of the island is little bigger than Devon, yet it retains its own language and the narrow 20-mile-long peninsula to its north, appears as a finger raised at the rest of its Mediterranean neighbours. With a challenge like that, how could we resist? Corsica is the Mediterranean’s third largest island, yet there can be few places where such contrasts can be found in so compact an area. The bleak dark cliffs of Cap Corse to the north lead down to the white limestone fjord of Bonifacio in the south. The Edwardian frontages of the Ajaccio boulevards on the southwest contrast with the gritty commercial city of Bastia on the northeast. Every few miles the coastline seems to change character, and even the weather can vary wildly from one place to the next. There can be fresh winds on the west coast, gales on either end of the island at Cap Corse and Bonifacio, while the east coast enjoys a gentle breeze. What more could you ask of a compact summer cruising area?

For many boats coming from the mainland, the passage across to Corsica is France’s equivalent of the well-worn run from the south coast to the Channel Islands but, with time in hand, we decided instead to ‘coast hop’ around the Gulf of Genoa, and then on down Italy’s north western shores. Here, the Ligurian sea is more sheltered from the fiercest effects of the French northwest mistral, which actually bends as it heads into the Mediterranean, arriving further south in Corsica and Sardinia as a westerly or even south-westerly wind. Our departure from French waters was marked by a rare sighting of a whale, which was proceeding languidly eastwards. It appeared to ignore us completely until I circled to get a closer look. Apparently irritated by this attention, it raised its massive tail high into the air, and slipped silently into the depths, leaving behind barely a ripple. A truly magnificent sight.

Corsica island of contrastsThe next few days were spent visiting the incompa- rable coast around Portofino. Camogli, just to the north of the Portofino Regional Park, is a gem of a resort, and after Portofino itself, the inaccessible fishing villages of the Cinque Terre, between Sestri Levanti and La Spezia, must represent the finest of Italy’s coastline. Our hopping-off point to Corsica was Viareggio, home to some of the most famous boat building names, and worth visiting if only to see the incredible superyachts under construction in its extensive ship yards. Our crossing turned out to be an uneventful motor sail, and we broke it by stopping overnight at Capraia, a delightful island with a single hilltop village and a diminutive port at its foot.

Windward Yachting

Corsica island of contrastsWe were due to meet my wife’s mother, Rosamind, who was flying into Bastia, the island’s capital, where a quarter of the island’s population live and work. We found space for Callisto on a pontoon in the Vieux Port, surrounded by a horseshoe of steep buildings threatening to topple onto us. The migration of people to the suburbs has left the centre of the town rather shabby and run-down which, fortunately, is just how I like it. The new marina of Port Toga is useful only for refuelling. After walking around the narrow streets, we spent the rest of the morning stocking up on Corsican specialities at the nearby market. Evidence of a thousand years of warfare exists throughout Corsica; Bastia itself was extensively bombed during the war by the Americans, and seems never to have fully recovered its heart. Over the years the island has been successively invaded and occupied by just about every Mediterranean power, from the Romans, the Saracens (now adopted, for some obscure reason, as the island’s symbol), Pisans, Aragonese, Genoans and finally, many locals would insist, by the French. Signs of the independence movement are everywhere, with French place names painted out and replaced by Corsican – a language still widely spoken.

Corsica island of contrastsTo the south of Bastia, the land becomes flat, with miles of sandy lagoons offering no shelter and little of interest before the resort of Porto Vecchio near the Bonifacio Straights. We decided instead to go north around the island and then cruise down the west coast reputed to be one of the most dramatic in the Mediterranean.

Corsica island of contrastsHaving got Rosamind safely on board she is not as steady as she once was we stopped briefly at Erbalunga, a pretty little place frequented by people from Bastia, and a sort of Corsican St Ives. We anchored off the ruins of a 15th Century tower on a rocky outcrop and took the dinghy into the village’s tiny harbour. The houses surrounding it drop down to the water’s edge and behind them, is a string of tiny piazzas, with cafés, galleries, and surprisingly expensive restaurants. From Erbulunga, the next main port of St Florent is barely six miles away if you happen to be a crow. For us it was more like 35 miles, first up to Cap Corse and then back down the other side. On the way we popped into Macinaggio, Sunsail’s Corsican base and a huge, if sleepy harbour out of all proportion to the size of the village.

Corsica island of contrastsCap Corse is unquestionably one of the great Capes of the Mediterranean. It has been carved out by millennia of raging seas and storms, and no one can pass it, even in the calmest weather, without feeling a prickle of fear. As we rounded it and headed south, we faced a strong south westerly wind, forecast to increase to a force 7 later, and it was a rough ride down to the bay of St Florent, which we remembered for its numerous little anchorages of sparkling milky-blue water. This time it was a mass of white horses. The old fishing village at the head of a bay is one of our favourite places in the Mediterranean – it’s like a miniature St Tropez and small enough to arrive a stranger in the morning and by the evening be sitting at a waterfront café as a local. It has the further advantage of being right next to the Patrimonio vineyards and a local shop will fill your empty wine bottles for just a few euros a litre. With a wonderful home-made ice cream parlour as well, there are few more agreeable places to wait for better weather!

Corsica island of contrastsThe strong winds the next day brought out Corsica’s firefighting planes, which are kept busy throughout the summer (in the south they even join forces with the Sardinian fire service.) We had only just noticed a faint puff of smoke on the hillside opposite when three planes arrived in formation. They flew low over us, warning away boats in the bay, and then operated a relay system scooping up and dropping the water over the burning scrubland. It’s a good idea not to go snorkeling when they’re around.

Corsica island of contrastsSt Florent becomes very crowded in high season, and operates a queuing system, with boats anchoring outside waiting to be called in, but it’s worth the wait. Two hundred years ago Nelson laid siege to the place for several months before he could overcome the firepower of the string of defensive towers which surround Corsica. He subsequently recommended these to the Admiralty who adopted the idea and placed Martello Towers along the UK coast.

Corsica island of contrastsWhile waiting for better weather, we hired a car and visited the remote villages inland. These appeared to exist in a time warp a feeling reinforced by the apparent newness of the perfectly preserved Pisan churches. St Michele in Murato is actually over seven hundred years old. After a couple more days doing nothing much, the wind dropped, making Corsica’s magnificent west coast finally within reach. Everything looked good as we left the bay, with only a residual swell, but as we rounded Punta di Curz on the edge of the Desert de Agriates, I realised that I had miscalculated. The wind started again from the SW and was now dead on the nose. This was not what I had promised Rosamind, though she took it very well and hung on grimly as we battered our way into the heavy sea. I kept close to the shore, trying to avoid the bigger swell further out, but it was slow going. The pilot book suggested that the nearest shelter was behind the slender peninsula of Ile Rousse, but when we finally reached it, boats were anchored so far out that it was clear that although it would be safe, it would not be comfortable, and I like anchorages to be comforting, not challenging.

Corsica island of contrastsRod Heikell has almost cornered the market for Mediterranean pilot books, but for Corsica we had the grandfather of cruising guides: Robin Brandon’s original Imray pilot, La Corse, which is an absolute masterpiece. From his chartlet I could see a little cove – Algajola – which looked promising. We entered the small bay gingerly, to find, as the sea died away, a tiny harbour completely protected from the prevailing winds and sea. We dropped the anchor close to the entrance and swung away gently. To find an unrecognised anchorage offering such protection is a rare event and one of the joys of cruising. We felt as though we’d discovered it for the first time and congratulated ourselves as we heard the VHF transmissions from a yacht seeking shelter in Calvi Bay just around the corner.

Corsica island of contrastsAfter a quiet and comfortable night, it was clear that the wind had finally abated. Although the swell remained, we were hopeful that it, too, would drop. That is until we heard the forecast with another warning of strong winds from the west. Robin Brandon warns of being caught out in a coast with little shelter, and I reluctantly decided that rather than linger as I had hoped, we had no choice but to head straight for Ajaccio, 40 miles further south. But while the weather lasted, I was determined to see everything I could. We left very early and put into Calvi bay just after dawn. It was a change to see it so quiet, although it was clear that it was bursting with boats – especially with the poor forecast. We went around the headland to see the anchorage I had first used on my first visit four years earlier. Porto Agro, the aptly named bay where, in 1794, Nelso