Saturday, 31 October 2009

Halloween in Corsica

Halloween is my favourite holiday and I am always disappointed that they don’t make much of an effort in Corsica, but amazingly Halloween has only been celebrated in France since 1982. It’d be great to see people decorating their houses and kids out trick or treating, but there was only one monster child in evidence...

It was in Corsica that I bought my most exciting decorations; creepy pumpkin lights, a cardboard mummy and a life-size Dracula that looked so much like Franck, that people in the office used to start speaking to it without realising!

They’d better watch out next year as I’ve already planned my decorations for 2010 (above) so this should be enough to get them into the ‘spirit’ of the thing - pardon the pun. If we hang that in the trees where we live, we’ll need a defibrillator on hand for the old folks!

Ile Rousse

When I first came to Corsica many years ago, I fell in love with a little studio in the heart of Ile Rousse, so this bustling little town has held a special place in my heart ever since.

I was ‘oop north to visit some friends in one of the Balagne villages, so I decided to take the opportunity to stay overnight. At this time of year the parking opposite the café des Platanes is normally free, but I noticed the barriers were still down so I headed out towards the port where there are a couple of free car parks behind the 'Mairie' (town hall).

One of the greatest pleasures for me is simply wandering through the streets amongst the huge sun bleached Italianate style buildings, and I have nearly been run down on more than one occasion whilst paying more attention to the balconies than the cars!

I also like the shops here. OK, so they are a bit touristy, but mixed in amongst the postcards and ‘Corsica’ souvenirs, you can find some real gems like the little shop selling Moroccan style lamps, incense and ceramics, and the artisans who transform olive wood and various other natural resources.

Years before, I’d eaten a delicious meal at the Osteria so I set off to try to track it down. I vaguely remembered it was in one of the back streets so I headed up through the maze of alleyways and eventually stumbled across it by chance. Sadly, it was all closed up so I had to assume that they were no longer offering their delicious authentic dishes.

These days, the most popular restaurants seem to be down near the ancient market place, but the temptation from the market is always too strong; fragrant clementines, cheeses so strong you won’t feel your tongue for a week, locally cured meats, fruit and veg, fresh fish, and plump olives – delicious!!

I wandered across the main street where the huge church is surrounded by mauve bouganvillia, dainty blue flowers and a peach coloured hibiscus that reminded me of Caribbean climes – not difficult when the sun is beating down and there is hardly a cloud in the sky.

So what’s the downside? Well, the beach is perhaps not as picturesque as the ones in the south, but the sea is amazing – virtually every shade of blue from pale turquoise through to dark indigo, so that more than makes up for it in my book.

If you take the time, Ile Rousse is also full of hidden gems. There is the huge ships anchor tucked away just off the promenade, the bronze statue of Ondine, Madonna and child, other statues here and there, and of course, the bust of Pascal Paoli ‘Babbu di a Patria’ surrounded by palm trees.

So after a spot of sightseeing, the only thing left to do was to grab a hot chocolate at the Café des Platanes while I watched the world go by.

Visit to the Moulin d’Eau

This week seems to have been a week of food related incidents and visits to properties for sale, and I was really looking forward to todays visit to an old converted watermill.

Corsica seems to attract interesting people who always have little projects on the go, and S & P are no exception – they like to ‘save’ houses! When they bought the mill it was little more than a shell, but looking at it today it’s hard to believe it’s the same place.

They took me on a tour of the whole place including the mill room which still has most of the original mill machinery. It was fascinating to see how the mill would have worked and follow each step of the process through the building, but for me the greatest discovery was the tiny saint settled into a niche above the mill stones.

Like all trades, the millers in Corsica have their saints, but these differ from region to region - there were at least two in the Wikipedia list Sue sent me afterwards, but then it is Wikipedia! We speculated as to who it could be, but it has been so many years since this mill actually worked, that we doubted there would be anyone left who could tell us for sure.

It was another gorgeous day so we sat on the terrace to eat our home-made leek and potato soup with herbs from the garden and warm seeded bread, but it was over coffee that I learnt how dangerous renovations can be. Apparently one of the old men from the village took a shine to S when they moved in, so when his doctor told him he should get more exercise for his heart, he decided that the walk from his house in the village down to chat to S was just about the right distance for his constitutional. Sadly (for him), the sight of her operating the cement mixer through his binoculars(!) was just too much for him and he popped his clogs, but it sounds like at least he went with a smile on his face!

I’ve seen quite a few converted properties in this area from mills to bergeries and they have all been lovely, but this one is definitely my favourite. What’s nice is that they managed to strike what I think is the perfect balance between restoring the historic features of the building, and adding all the modern home comforts that have turned the mill into my dream home!

Sadly, I don’t have enough pennies in my piggy bank for this one, but should I ever win the lottery...

Forêt de Vizzavona

Every time I drive through the Vizzavona Forest, I think to myself ‘this is the prettiest time of year’ and then a couple of months later when the seasons have changed and I drive through again, I think ‘no, this is the best time’ and so it goes on!

I’d planned to leave in plenty of time to have crossed the forest before it got dark, but I’d got carried away gossiping with Juliet so by the time I got to the Col de Vizzavona, night was falling. The forest and the mountains in silhouette were just as dramatic as during the day and I soon found myself tramping about in the woods taking photos in a linen skirt and sandals – not ideal!

It wasn’t until the mist started rolling across the road that I realised that the setting had the making of a scene from ‘The Blair Witch Project’. When I glanced up and saw that the moon was full (wrongly as it turned out), I was back in the car with the doors locked in a heartbeat!

Wednesday, 28 October 2009

Campomoro - the price of a corner of paradise

If I hadn’t managed to find my ideal job in travel, an Estate Agency would have been my second choice, so when Guillaume suggested that we visit a villa in Campomoro this morning, I jumped at the chance.

The house we were visiting this morning was in the Domaine de la Tour, the quiet residential area beyond the village, dominated by the huge Genoese tower. We are occasionally contacted by people looking for houses to buy in Corsica so although this one was way out of my price range, it would still give me a good reason to be nosy!

We drove through the village, peaceful at this time of year except for the huge digger in the middle of the road and the workmen digging it up! Luckily a quick call to a ‘copain’ and nice man in a 4x4 came to ferry us up the hill. Within minutes of arriving, I’d discovered a kindred spirit in the current owner, fallen in love with the garden and made a new friend.

The house itself was nice, but position was fabulous and I have never seen such an amazing view over the bay.

I also loved the little space at the back that they had turned into an office-cum-art room where all their various shells, and craft beads and baubles were neatly arranged in rows according to colour – these were clearly people after my own heart (perhaps with a touch of OCD thrown in!).

We had a good poke around and a nice chat with the owners before making our way back down to the village. I was surprised to see quite a few families out and about, but then it is half term so I suppose it’s not really that surprising after all, especially given the beautiful weather.

Campomoro has such a gently shelving beach that the water is warm enough to swim even at the end of November – bliss on a stick. If only I had a spare £845k...

October sunset over the Valinco Gulf

After another glorious day of sunshine, we decided on a brisk stroll along the Chemin des Plages to work up an appetite before dinner. The sunset over the sea was one of the best I have seen for weeks, and the Mountains of Martini behind where we live took on an amazing reddish purple colour.

I got back just a few minutes too late to take the sunset in all its glory, but it was still pretty impressive. Shame my neighbours shrubs got in the way really!

Orange & Rosemary Chicken

When I brushed past the rosemary bushes in the garden on my way out this morning, the smell was so heavenly that I knew I had my inspiration for tonight’s dinner! I’m not keen on lamb – the obvious choice – but I do love strong citrus flavours, and rosemary goes so well with oranges...

For 2 people;
- The equivalent of 1 medium chicken breast per person, diced
- Half a small onion
- Rosemary sprigs
- 2 oranges
- 1 shot glass of Cap Corse (a local aperitif) or red Martini
- Splash of olive oil
- Splash of lemon juice

Peel the oranges and segment one of them, removing all the skin and white pith. With the other, remove a couple of segments and put to one side, then juice the remaining flesh. Heat the olive oil, rosemary and a bit of orange rind in a pan and sear the chicken before adding the onions, orange segments from the first orange. Mix well then add the orange juice, lemon juice and Cap Corse or Martini. Cook over a high heat to reduce.

I served mine with rice to which I’d added small pieces of broccoli, a couple of chopped segments from the second orange and the leaves from the rosemary springs.

A tangy winter warmer - bon appétit!

Monday, 26 October 2009

Aullène & Chestnuts

I’ve only been to Aullène once before many years ago and I suspect it was on a fated trip to Zicavo after a very heavy night out involving a sink plunger, so I have been meaning to go back and explore ‘compos mentis’ for a while.

The Hotel de la Poste was founded in 1880 by one of the Lucchini family, and still remains in the same family today. The hotel has it’s own farm so you can always be assured of good quality local produce. I just liked the old fashioned hand written sign!

I stopped at the church in the centre and had a little wander, looking at all the old stone houses with their coloured shutters.

I hadn’t realised quite how sprawling the village is, and although I remembered it as just a little group of houses clustered round the church, there is actually an epicerie, tobacconist, souvenir shop, a couple of bars, an auberge and hotel as well as speciality shops including ‘sucrées et salées’ where you can get yummy beignets au brocciu (a type of ewes cheese fritters), and a butcher selling local charcuterie (cured meats).

The other attraction of Aullène is chestnuts. At this time of year, the road between Quenza and Petreto-Bicchisano (with Aullène in the middle), is lined with chestnuts that you can make into all sorts of delicious recipes, or just roast them – the smell is heavenly. Always prepared for every eventuality, I had a bag in the car so I decided to stop off and collect a few.

I could hear them falling nearby but didn’t think anything of it until a big one fell and hit me so hard that it impaled itself onto the back on my hand. Those who have never been attacked by a chestnut may not know, but chestnuts are like cactus in that once you remove your hand, they leave some of their spines in. I picked out the biggest but it had managed to hit one of the veins in my hand, so with blood spurting all over the place, a quick visit to the pharmacy seemed in order.

Who would believe a chestnut could be so lethal! Thank goodness it didn't hit me on the head.

Alta Rocca Village Tour – La Corse Profond!

Today was one of those days that makes you glad to be alive; bright blue skies, fluffy white clouds and not even a breeze which made it feel much warmer than the actual temperature of 22 degrees. I didn’t fancy the beach so I decided to do a little tour of the villages of the Alta Rocca.

Being the slick travel professional that I am, I set off without looking at the map and quickly found myself at Viggianello heading towards Arbellara. I really wanted to go and scrutinise the beautiful old granite house next to the church, but the obligatory old lady outside was giving me the evil eye so hopping over the gate was out of the question (this time!).

Fozzano was next on my route. We often walk the track that leads from Baracci to Fozzano, but have never made it all the way up to the village as they don’t provide oxygen along the way! I have visited the village many times by road, but this time I was put off stopping by the herd of cows milling about. Worryingly, I saw more cows than people in Fozzano...

From here, the road winds up towards Santa Maria Figgianella, passing the odd bergerie and little stone building. I spotted one battered old roof that reminded me of the red tiled roofs of southern Tuscany. Who would believe it is nearly November.

The village of Santa Maria Figgianella itself is quite small. The road leading up to the village is just about wide enough for two cars, but at this time of year where they are doing roadworks, this can be a bit challenging. It’s worth the effort though as the village is really pretty, and during the season there is a little atelier (craftsman) you can visit.

Just below the village on a little promontory is the church and bell tower. In spring, it is surrounded by oleander bushes in all shades of pinks and reds. The church itself was closed, so I couldn’t visit inside.

What really surprised me was the silence. One of the houses in the centre of the village was being renovated, but even so the only sound I heard was my feet crunching along on the gravel. I suddenly found myself very conscious of the noise of my footfall and realised I was tiptoeing along!

I continued on heading in the direction of what I thought was Zonza, but very quickly realised wasn’t. I’d been so busy singing along to my 70’s disco anthems CD that I hadn’t realised that I was on completely the wrong road until I recognised the huge red rock formations and far reaching views of the Col de Siu.

From here I had the choice to turn round and re-trace my steps, but as most of the locals had stared at my right hand drive car like it was something from outer space, that didn’t really appeal, or continue along the same road in a circuit back to Baracci. Option B it is then.

So eventually I found myself on the D268 heading towards Sante Lucie de Tallano - hurrah! I was tempted to deviate and go down to the rock pools at Zoza to eat my picnic of Viande Grisson and Parmesan shavings with cornichons, but in the end I decided to stop at the little chapel after the convent and eat my lunch with a view over the village.

I settled myself on the stone bench outside the chapel to enjoy a chapter of Peter Mayle in the sunshine, but there was so much still to fit in, it was soon time to press on. I had the road nearly to myself which is one of the joys of Corsica at this time of the year. It also meant that I could swerve off at a moments notice to take a photo of Mela.

This is a village that I have often noticed as we pass by on our way to the mountains, but never had the time to stop or even take photos out of the car window. My main aim wasn’t far away now, and that was San Gavino di Carbini.

I’d visited the church many years ago and wanted to go back as the setting was so beautiful. I missed the first signpost for the ‘Eglise’ so had to turn round, and when I finally got there, I realised it wasn’t the church I’d remembered at all! The one I was thinking of Carbini not San Gavino di Carbini. Drats!!

It was worth another look anyway as San Gavino di Carbini is unusual in that the bell tower is completely separate from the church. I was quite disturbed to find that the mayor is a 'Don' - say no more! As it’s half term this week, there were quite a few kids running around and building forts in the next field so I was soon on my way to Zonza. I stopped for water from the source just before the village and the autumn colours were just amazing.

The sun was shining through the trees creating a dappled sunlight, and there was every colour from green through yellows to deep russet oranges. Zonza is a favourite haunt of ours on the way to the mountains, but today I drove straight through to Quenza where I stopped to take a photo of the castle that is actually a private house, albeit abandoned.

It was here that I was reminded again that this is really rural Corsica as a little old bloke of about 100 drove by on an ancient tractor. I wasn’t sure which one I was more concerned about making it to wherever they were going!

As I approached Serra di Scopomena I realised that I’d been here before with Patricia and Serge. We’d had a drink at the café before visiting the ancient water mill where we ate cherries from the tree next to the road and I made myself feel quite sick!

This is actually a much larger village than I’d realised, and felt very friendly which surprised me for some reason. Aullène was next, followed by Petreto Bicchisano which was another surprise. I have only ever seen this village from the main road before and the view over the rooftops to the dome of the church was gorgeous, but sadly no space to stop and take photos. This would be a beautiful spot at sunset – what a shame I was just a bit too early...