Corsica – The Scented Isle

An entry to our 2019 Writing Competition, Nancy Priest travelled on our 'Corsica – The Scented Isle' tour.

Fifteen years ago, I said I would return to Corsica. At the time, I was sitting in the little train that climbs ever upward into the mountains and the Vizzavona Forest. The smell of the maquis was drifting in through the open windows of the carriage and I was being lulled to sleep by the train’s rattle and clack and the unrelenting August heat. I wished for the freshness of spring when the snow still lay thick on the mountain tops and the maquis bloomed and birdsong drifted through the forest. In early May this year, I returned.

The Corsican spring had been long and cold. Snow is falling as we drive higher into the mountains towards Evisa. The road twists and turns as the minibus winds its way for mile upon mile between the dense trees. We are welcomed at the Hotel Aitone with simply-furnished accommodation and a substantial dinner. Later, in my room, I open the window and the heavy wooden shutters to breathe in the cold night air. Jupiter shines brightly to the south above silhouetted mountain tops. I fall asleep listening to Scops Owls calling. They call all night. My dreams are filled with them.

Two days later, we visit the Spelunca Gorge – a deep cleft between granite cliffs thick with trees and the scent of sun-warmed maquis. Wild pigs and cattle do not venture here so the maquis is undisturbed apart from the rootling of Wild Boar. We walk along a mule trail girded with flowering hellebore and allium, then stop for a picnic by an ancient packhorse bridge where two rivers meet. It is a beautiful place.

Tyrrhenian Wall Lizards skitter over the warm rocks where we sit for lunch. They come very close, pause, lift a leg with elbow crooked, foot poised, toes splayed, heart beating beneath reptilian skin. There are butterflies, too, in patches of sunlight – Corsican Speckled Wood, Orange-tip, Corsican Tortoiseshell, Small White.

The sound of tumbling water is everywhere as it falls over sun-bleached rock into turquoise and glass-green pools. Light patterns shimmy across the river’s surface and stripe the underwater cluster of stones. It is mesmerising. I take off my boots and socks and immerse my feet. The water is ice-melt cold so I lift my feet in and out of the pool, in and out. A Grey Wagtail momentarily lands on a boulder a little downstream and bobs, too. Circular shadows cast by the feet of pond skaters slowly shift over the river bed, each one magnified to the size of a peach. I hear the electric zrik zrik of a dipper amongst the rush of falling water and look up expecting to see it flying low over the river – but it has already gone.

Back along the gorge, we find the first Illyrian Sea Daffodil of the trip that’s in flower. It’s tucked against the outer side of the low parapet that separates the path from the steep drop down to the river. I climb over the wall to smell it. Its scent is lily-like, yet sweeter.

The village of Ota sits high above the Spelunca Gorge – a tight clutch of houses stepping up the hillside, stone walls and ochre pan-tile roofs amongst the green of tree and shrub. We stop for a drink at Café Felice and sit out on the balcony. The view westward to the granite pinnacles of the Calanche is stunning. I sit in the shade, a gentle mountain breeze stirs the air. Above the peaks, small thin clouds slowly form and dissipate and form again. The red geranium flowers along the edge of the balcony glow against the blue of the sky.

On the way back to Evisa, there are wild pigs wandering across the twist and turn of the road – some black, some spotted, young, old, one with a limp, and all heedless to traffic. Further on, two young bulls are fighting and blocking our way. Heads down, they lock horns, skull against skull, pushing against each other with all their bovine might. It is a well-matched, stationary tussle. Now and then, there is a slight shift one way, then a slight shift back the other. They are strung across the road in their strange, violent, brow-to-brow dance. We wait to pass. There is bellowing. Other cattle wander to the scene. The minibus manages to inch past as the two animals momentarily push to one side of the road. There is more bellowing. As we drive away, a family of goats wanders out from the trees.

It is only the evening of my third day on Corsica and already I have learned that this island is one of the world’s special places. I am so glad I came back.

Read more about our 'Corsica – The Scented Isle' holiday.