x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

On the Tour de France trail: a journey through Corsica by bike

Amateur cyclist, Tamara Thiessen, negiotiates Corsica's rugged terrain on a cycling holiday that takes in stages of this year's Tour de France.

On top of the world: the village and the calanques of Unesco World Heritage site Piana are among the cycling-friendly locations on the Tour de France route that traces around Corsica's gruelling but beautiful terrain. Marc Dozier / Hemis / Corbis
On top of the world: the village and the calanques of Unesco World Heritage site Piana are among the cycling-friendly locations on the Tour de France route that traces around Corsica's gruelling but beautiful terrain. Marc Dozier / Hemis / Corbis

"Corsica is a biking paradise, but it is very tough physically," warns Corsica Outdoor, a local sports association.

We get an immediate taste of this on a 69-kilometre thigh-thundering ride from Ajaccio to Piana. After a falsely reassuring and rather gentle cross-country slog for the first few kilometres, it soon becomes obvious that Corsica is the perfect terrain for professional cyclists.

As we trace the route of the third stage of the Tour de France along the west coast, we rise hundreds of metres on single hills before tumbling back down the other side, and teeter on cliffhanging drops over the Mediterranean, often with no barrier between us and the sea. After a final roller-coaster ride of gruelling hills, the reward comes near sunset as we peddle our way past the ancient Greek coastal settlement of Cargese, and on through the Unesco-listed Calanques de Piana. Sandwiching the narrow coastal road, the 300-metre high red granite cliffs are sculptured into a series of incredible shapes and forms: beautiful, bizarre, grotesque and gigantesque, human, animal and monster-like. Right now they are bathed in pinky orange light, and casting their tooth-edged shadows over the water.

Just 12 hours before, we were breakfasting on pain au chocolat and adrenalin-firing espresso near the market of Ajaccio, seated alongside a colossal statue of the Emperor Napoleon in Roman garb. The so-called "petit Corse" and "avenger of Corsica" was born in the capital in 1769. Springing from noble Tuscan origins, his actual name was Nabulione Buonaparte.

North of the Bay of Ajaccio lies our real avenger - the jaw-droppingly jagged Corsican coastline.

The lushest, greenest, most mountainous and naturally diverse of the Mediterranean islands, Corsica's nickname is "Ile de Beauté". At 8,681 square kilometres, it's the fourth largest island in the Mediterranean after Sicily, Sardinia and Cyprus, but unlike them, it is still wild and watery and largely cement-free. Corsica is also periodically plagued by separatist strife - a battle for greater autonomy waged by several militant nationalist groups since the 1970s. The dangers for tourists are said to be minimal. "You will be warmly welcomed, and not with gunshots," assures my Routard travel guide.

"The terrorism is never targeted at tourists, but at symbolic targets." The targets are mainly central government and tax offices, and occasionally French government officials. The violent acts are attributed to a militant minority; surveys show that more than 85 per cent of Corsicans want to remain with France.

A few years ago, I struggled my way around the convoluted, crinkle-cut west coast on a stomach-heaving bus trip from Ajaccio to the famous World Heritage sites around the Gulf of Porto. Now, incredibly, I am returning to attempt the same journey by bike. My stomach may be spared but my legs most certainly will not. For my eyes, it is sure to be a week-long feast.

Since Albert Camus wrote in the 1930s of "the insupportable beauty of the landscapes, so pure," nature-loving tourists have headed there with their snorkels and beach-towels, backpacks and hiking boots - and more recently bikes.

The next day we start our descent from Piana towards the Golf of Porto. The World Heritage site is somewhat blemished by the carelessly built hotels and car parks around its marina and landmark Genovese watchtower - keeping one's eyes on the paint box blue ocean views is the best bet. The views sweep through the rocky masses and scrublands of the Scandola peninsula to the north, and mast-splashed Gulf of Girolata. Silhouettes of bays and hillsides we will circumnavigate over the coming week are rippled to the horizon.

Along with the cliffs and sea grottos of Bonifacio in southern Corsica, where The Guns of Navarone was filmed, the Piana-Porto area is the biggest drawcard for tourists - 70 per cent come in July and August. Outside these months, we learn, it is quite easy to have bits of the island to yourself, including the smaller roads.

We press on past the quadrangular stone watchtower - built in the 16th century to keep a lookout for pirates, and head inland. After another 5km of extreme exertion (for us mere cycling mortals, at least), we arrive in the village of Ota, whose large stonewalled houses and crumbling church tower are perched among the mountains of central Corsica. The only sign of life is coming from the bar of Chez Félix, where a small lively crowd of mostly men is drinking and eating couscous and paella.

At the adjoining walker's lodge (or "gîte d'etape"), we are blissfully alone, with three small, well-heated dormitories to choose from, and a large rustic kitchen, for US$26 (Dh95) each per night.

Later at Chez Marie, we tuck into some typical Corsican cuisine - a culinary and linguistic fusion of native and Italian flavours. Roasted game and meats are served with pulenta - as opposed to polenta. L'aziminu is the regional take on bouillabaisse, while cannelloni au brocciu is a dish made with the king of Corsican cheese - a fresh creamy fromage blanc made from goat's or lamb's milk.

The rustic Corsican cheeses, breads and biscuits make good road companions over the coming week. I develop a particular penchant for the canistrelli flavoured with aniseed, walnuts and coconut.

The next day, we cycle back to the coast with the still (in March) snow-capped peaks and deep river gorges of Corsica's mountainous interior in view.

On the infamously masochistic 55km ride between Porto and Galéria, I am lulled along by the smell of home - one of the most proliferate, introduced maritime species in Corsica is the eucalyptus, which exudes its perfume into the sea breeze and sunshine. The gradients and ascents we tackle in the first three days earn Corsica a mean reputation, whether you are biking or hiking it. All that beauty comes at a price. The meandering, often coast-hugging road on to Calvi offers copious scenic rewards with views over the sparkling azure Riviera Ligure di Ponente towards the French Riviera coast.

After Calvi, we dip inland and slowly slug our way back south, through the vast Parc Regional of Corsica, which swallows up nearly a third of the island. The route traces the old train line, past citadels and rustic villages, valleys and mountain saddles.

Despite many ups and downs, the going is ironically less tough on our mountain-fringed journey south from Corte to Ajaccio - we have a 1,160-metre ascent on our handlebars, compared with a cumulative, but nonetheless punishing, 2,600-metre climb from Ajaccio to Calvi.

Again, we find ourselves inadvertently prepping for the second stage of the Tour de France. On June 30, the squads will swoop the 154km from Bastia to Ajaccio - most likely in a couple of hours' breeze, compared with our three-day battle. (No doubt they will be spared the risk of cows wandering onto the road in the midst of adrenalin pumping descents.). All the way along our senses are enlivened by the colours and smells of the natural reserve's 2,835 species of flowers and plants - chestnut, pine and myrtle trees, and the ubiquitous maquis - in their spring glory. The maquis is to Corse what the gum tree is to Australia, or the tumbleweed to America. The thick carpeting of various shrubs and bushes camouflages 40 per cent of Corsica in its bottle green hues. In the past, many Corsican bandits took cover in its dense, impenetrable folds.

Even if the unrest caused by militant nationalist groups in Corsica has waned in recent years, the passionately independent streak of its citizens is still on show.

"Who was the most famous man in the world, and where did he come from?" bellows a local woman at a bus stop after our return to Ajaccio. "Vive Napoleon!" Her flash of fanatical autonomy softens suddenly to a smile.

You have to look much further than recent history to find the roots of the island's antagonism to French or any other outside powers. After several centuries of rule by the Republic of Genova, Corsica won independence in 1735. Within a few decades, the French helped steer it back to Genovese control, before annexing it themselves in 1790. These days, the island seems largely trouble free. Its innate, dare I say Italian-style farniente, expresses itself up through our stay, as strong as the coffee in my cup.

Far from cycling enthusiasts, we are just two Francophile travellers, magnetised by the landscapes of Corsica, and the idea of traversing them in a fun and fit way. In all, we sweat out some 350km in our 10-day biking adventure - an independently organised, coast and country circuit from Ajaccio to Ajaccio, most of it spent in both a natural paradise as well as physical hell.

If You Go

The flights Emirates (www.emirates.com) flies direct from Dubai to Nice in 6.5 hours from Dh3,705 return, including taxes. Air France (www.airfrance.ae) flies direct from Nice to Ajaccio, Corsica, in 45 minutes from Dh921, including taxes

The trip Visit www.routeyou.com for help planning an independent trip. Go to www.thenational.ae/travel for a list of local hotels and bike rentals

The tours For a fully accompanied tour, Macs Adventure is offering a seven-day, six-night Grand Départ Corsica: Roads of the Tour de France throughout 2013 (www.macsadventure.com; email: info@macsadventure.com)

 

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