Porto Vecchio, Corsica


It’s a mad scramble to get to the ferry on time as traffic is stalled dead on the autostrada for miles whilst the Italian council workers (bless) are trimming a tiny nature strip. We screech onboard with 10 minutes spare, and in the somnolent, airless ferry our adrenalin drops and we cross the Mediterranean, near comatose. We shake ourselves awake in Bastia and head down to Porto Vecchio. The countryside is rather nondescript for the first part of the journey but even so you can tell that this isn’t Kansas anymore. It has a bizarre atmosphere, part tropical island, part rural France, part via industria and something all its own. The latter part of the drive is through marshy coast and, in the dusk, glimpses of darkening ocean.

We reach the low slung silhouette of Casadelmar two hours later. It is designed to within an inch of its white, purple and crimson life – conscious of every detail, including, I suspect, its guests, although the staff are remarkably friendly for a design hotel. Feeling a little out of place in our jeans, we decide to eat in the restaurant as it’s late. Despite its starched linen, table spotlights and high backed chairs, the staff are relaxed and friendly, and the menu has captured me in an instant. I am hard pressed to find a better meal I have had in recent memory. A primary-coloured amuse geule of raw white fish arrives with a dab each of red pepper jam and home made mustard. This simple combination was oddly sensational. This was followed by fregola (traditional Sardinian “big couscous”) with earthy ceps and butter-soft foie gras – rich, soupy, earthy and incredibly flavoursome, with the surprise aniseed note of tarragon. I try and ease off by having fish – Saint Pierre, a lovely firm white fish pan fried with “autumn fruits” which turn out to be creamy chestnuts and forest mushrooms. Again sensational but by now I am filling fast. I can’t pass up dessert, but restrict myself to the glaces. Our charming waiter chooses for me and I have red fruits, lemon and melon – all so redolent of their respective fruits. A tiny glass of late summer precedes dessert: apricot granita, floral and refreshing. Coffee arrives with a selection of homemade chocolate biscuits and tuiles with black pepper.

We roll down the Escher-style corridor to our room which is a neat, boxy Cassina showroom with lovely views over the glamour pool to the inlet beyond.

The next day we get up late and have a breakfast of buttery just-warm pastries, and some silky yoghurt set in little terracotta jars. Then we drive the Palombaggia road to Bonifacio. The coast at Palombaggia looks beautiful, red rocks, bent conifers and azure sea, but it is extremely windy. We move on to Bonifacio, tiny but so imposing on the pointed edge of its clifftop peninsula. The wind is ferocious, snapping and biting and we watch from the ramparts, holding our breath, as the tiny boats are tossed about in the swell trying the reach the safety of the harbour. Violent weather for a violent country – Corsica has a colourful past of pirates, and the changing vicissitudes brought about by trade and siege over the centuries. Keepsakes include hand forged Corsican switchblades engraved with the word “vendetta”.

Leaving BonIfacio, we seek out the prehistoric stone monoliths of Cauria. The southern coast is breathtaking, remarkably similar to parts of Australia. It reminds me of a mix of Wilson’s Promontory, the Grampians, Kangaroo Island and the Limestone Coast. We take the winding road through gorse and rampant blackcurrant bushes to the Menhirs of Palaggio. We have to walk about half an hour down little dirt pathways, way into the scrub, with granite outcroppings all about. When we finally reach them, they instil a deep awe. 4000 years old, they are rough, and sun-warmed and real. The alignments run due north-south, and whilst some have been propped upright (I suspect in recent times), the others lie like so many broken teeth, with blackberry scrambling over them. There are few tourists there and I find it an incredibly moving experience without being able to explain why. The Caurian monoliths are not far away and we reach them at about 6pm, when the sun is starting to set and that wonderful warm light is all about. A thunderstorm is moving in, and the air is charged with electricity. The first set of alignments is nothing very special, but you can clearly see naïve faces carved into the stone. By the time we reach Renaggiu, the second and oldest site at 6000 years old, we are nearly alone. There they stand, ancient stones in a sunlit olive grove on a rocky plateau, mountains behind and the wind whistling all about. The site is clearly frequented by cattle, and this, together with the lack of tourists leads not to an atmosphere of neglect, but of belonging. I really want to find out more about the monoliths – the history, geology and anthropology will no doubt be fascinating but the stones themselves, impenetrable in their lichen cloaks, have an undeniable pull even knowing so little about them. We drive home, and although our camera is out of battery, I know they are imprinted on my mind.

We get back to Casadelmar, noting the contrast between ancient and modern. We have loved every moment on this wild and beautiful island and our last meal takes on a certain solemnity. It consists of a fantastic ricotta ravioli with mushroom foam, followed by a thick “soup” of lentils creamed with vanilla, its unctuousness punctuated with crisp fried scampi. Main course is a fork-droppingly good prawn lasagnette, gratineed in a deeply savoury bisque. I manage to squeeze in a selection of regional sheep’s cheeses with fig marmalade. Chef Davide Bisetto deserves his two Michelin stars, and more.

Corsica – home to warriors, pirates, emperors… and (culinary) magicians.