The night drive from Bastia to Murato is not for the faint-hearted. It is an ear-popping, nerve-shredding pinball ride through the madly winding hilltop lanes of northern Corsica, where the white line in the middle of the road appears to serve purely for decorative purposes. At one heart-stopping point a young wild boar leaps out of the gorse and into our path to stare us down. His body language says: “It’s a hire car, pally. Even if you drive into me, you lose.” We wait, powerlessly. Eventually, bored, he swaggers off.
It’s not until the morning that the real beauty of this wild, remote region slowly starts to reveal itself. Slowly because it’s still not peak season (we’re here in late May) and the weather is intermittently overcast and also because we’re high – as in cloud level. A Murato local tells me the area’s nickname is ‘Nebbiu’ – literally ‘Mist’. We get tantalising glimpses of the lushness of the countryside from the terrace of our lovely self-catering apartment of A Mandria and occasionally a majestic red kite will materialise, suspended, all-seeing, on a thermal.
The pace here is wonderfully laid-back. In their literature, our hosts Corsican Places describe Corsica as “a very low stress destination”, and this may be the most fitting description of the island. In the morning, take a 10-minute wander down the road into the village, grab a freshly-baked baguette from the boulangerie, pick up fresh fruit and veg from the store next door and then pop into the neighbouring cafe for a system-kickstarting espresso before heading back to base.
There’s an enticing hot tub chez A Mandria which we will relax in later as we gaze at the neighbouring hills. But for these first couple of days the weather is against us, so it’s time to get our heads out of the clouds for a while.
The journey towards the northernmost tip of the isle, Cap Corse, provides delight after delight. You wind through breathtakingly beautiful villages like Oletta and Nonza, villages where time stands still, places which give the hidden jewels of Italy’s Amalfi coast more than a run for their money. We are pre-season, as I mentioned earlier, so both motorised and foot traffic seems light, and, if you can, take a moment to pull over and take a wander, soak up the architecture which in places seems to be as old as the hills it clings to.
Every bend in the road prompts a passenger request to slow down for a photo-opp; every scene is framed by a vividly colourful border of wild flowers, the green valleys stretch as far as the eye can see and in between there are medieval villages and hilltop watchtowers which once provided warnings of invaders.
Eventually we acclimatize ourselves to the splendour enough to stop stopping every few minutes and content ourselves with a slow drive towards lunch at the magical fishing village of Centuri-Port. It was difficult to find a parking space here (the road into the village was blocked by chairs when we arrived, and only scooters and motorbikes were getting through) and I can imagine this spot becoming extremely busy in high season, so be prepared to park a few hundred yards away and walk down – it’s a small sacrifice to make for the experience. There are several restaurants to choose from, all clustered around the tiny harbour. We chose La Macciotta, based on the fact that it appeared to be full of locals. My moules mariniere were delicious – plump and plentiful and swimming in creamy garlic sauce. My other half made short work of a platter of swordfish, tuna and shrimp.
The return journey to Murato was just as spell-binding. The early evening sun serving as a natural tour guide, spotlighting sights we had missed earlier; the remains of long-abandoned shepherd’s huts, an ancient church steeple, and more red kites, still slowly soaring around their domain.
A day trip to the coastal town of L’ile Rousse is also recommended. It’s another wonderful drive, this time travelling south-west, and you’re rewarded with a very straightforward landing, a car park literally a minute’s walk from the sandy beach, where many locals and visiting French tourists pitch up for a lazy day. It was our first day of ‘full sun’ – reaching around 26 degrees by lunchtime – so as we started to feel the burn we decamped to restaurant L’Escale, pointed out by our helpful rep. More moules – this time for both of us – and they were probably the best I’ve ever had. Again, lashings of cream and garlic and this time a side serving of frites to add a bit of crunch. The restaurant was absolutely packed by 1pm, so if you do go (and I would if I were you) get in there early. By 2pm it was almost deserted as the clientele headed back to the beach, an easy five-minute stroll away. A lovely way to spend the day.
Two days left of our stay in the north and we are woken each morning by blazing sunshine, so we opt for hot tub, paperbacks and serious sun-bathing. We’re liberal with the sun cream though, because we’re high here and the rays are unfiltered. We have now well and truly decompressed from London life as we loll in the tub, with our only companions a cooling breeze and the ever-present kites above.
A Mandria: https://www.corsica.co.uk/a-mandria
Corsican Places offers 7 nights self-catering from £699pp, including flights, car hire and welcome pack. Corsica.co.uk, 01489 866931.