Thursday, 15 October 2009

Lavezzi islands

I know what you’re thinking ‘A boat trip to the Lavezzi islands in October – you must be mad!’, but I’ve wanted to visit for ages and we’ve had such a glorious autumn that I decided to take a chance.

Being the slick travel professionals that we are, we actually had no idea what we’d signed up for! I’d seen ‘Lavezzi’ on the poster and that was good enough for me, but we were welcomed on board with coffee and brioche, and soon found ourselves skirting the coastline in brilliant sunshine, visiting all the little creeks and beaches along the way.

Normally, the boat stops along the way for an ‘arrêt baignade’ so that people can swim in the beautiful turquoise waters, but as it can be chilly at this time of year, we only slowed as we passed the best known spots such as Palombaggia, Santa Guilia and Rondinara so that we could take photos, before heading south again.

It was only just after 9am but already the sun was beating down with hardly a cloud in the sky so I had to remind myself that it’s actually mid October! Soon the coastline started to change from the deep red russet rocks of the Porto Vecchio area to the white limestone cliffs typical of Bonifacio. I checked the little map on the back of the leaflet we’d been given and realised that we’d be passing in front of the Domaine de Sperone where we have a number of apartments.

Sperone golf course was designed by Robert Trent Jones Snr. in 1990 and includes one of the most beautiful Par 5s in the world according to Golf Magazine. The course overlooks the Bonifacio Strait and the tiny islands of Cavallo and Lavezzi, and we were treated to the sight of a golf buggy nearly careering off into the sea!

Next came the impressive cliffs, that have been eroded over centuries to the point that bits occasionally drop off! I’ve seen this coastline from the land when we walked to the Gouvernail and lighthouse back in the spring, but I think it’s even more impressive from the sea.

We continued on past the houses of the Haute ville that somehow manage to cling onto the edge. The last house fell into the sea here sometime during the 1970’s and by the looks of things, it might not be too long until the next one goes! The guy on the boat told us that people here don’t worry too much about housework because leave it long enough and everything will get ‘washed’. Slightly ominous I thought.

We had a bit of extra time as we hadn’t had a swimming stop, so as Lavezzi are just a hop, skip and a jump from Bonifacio, our boat turned into the port to give us a good view of the Citadel and little creeks.

Without further ado, it was on to Lavezzi, and I was really excited.

My first view was of the Memorial to those who died in the shipwreck off the coast here on Valentines day in 1855. Apparently all 750 officers and passengers perished, and having seen how rugged the coastline is here and how shallow the waters, I can now appreciate the need for so many lighthouses.

My first glimpse of the beach was fabulous – the colours were amazing; vibrant turquoise blue water, golden sands, soft sage coloured maquis and huge granite boulders – what more could I ask for!

Of course it wasn’t long before the lads started showing off and doing somersaults and back flips from the top of the boat into the warm water.

We quickly discovered that we’d also unwittingly signed up for lunch on board too – yum! We started with fish soup (not as good as Le Capitaine’s) followed by a variety of tasty fishes and potatoes and some refreshing rosé.

Some of the passengers were obviously more keen on filling their faces than enjoying the glorious sunshine...

The sea at Lavezzi is very shallow so it’s ideal for swimming even at this time of year, but for those who don’t fancy the swim to the shore, there is a zodiac that ferries people to the beach. The sun was beating down but we wanted to spend the few hours we had exploring the island rather than soaking up the sun on the sand.

Our first stop was one of cemetaries for those who died during the shipwreck of the Frigate Sémilante in 1855. It was strange to find that there are two cemetaries; one for officers, and one for the passengers who were all mariners themselves, but I guess it’s a sign of the times that the officers were elevated above the others even in death.

We continued on following the trails that criss-cross the island, heading towards the lighthouse. We came across so many little creeks and beaches that every turn of the head turned into a photo opportunity.

We could see a baby seagull bobbing gently in the water so we were worried it was injured, but it flew off whilst I was trying to take photos of the fishes, so thank goodness we didn’t have to make an RSPB rescue!

The coastline is so varied here, that one minute you’re looking at deserted sweeps of sand, and the next minute rocks as far as the eye can see, but both are equally beautiful. The maquis is full of wild vegetables; carrots, leeks, asparagus and herbs as well as medicinal plants so it was fascinating to find out all about them. The Lavezzi Islands are a superb example of why Corsica should be protected for future generations.

We headed on up past the jetty for the shuttle boat from Bonifacio and I was amazed to see people dressed like they were going for a day out in Nice. Leather jackets and court shoes rather than practical walking shoes or swim stuff wouldn't be my first choice but it takes all sorts I guess!!

The lighthouse was like something from a picture book. Red and white striped on one side with the name of the islands painted in HUGE letters on the other – just in case we were in any doubt as to where we were. It is cordoned off, but in true French style, we simply climbed over the fence to take a better look.

We explored a bit and found an old ‘nasse’ (traditional wooden lobster pot) made with blackberry wood. Apparently, this wood is particularly resistant to the sea water and when it breaks, makes points which deter the escape of the lobsters. They are worth a lot of money and look really attractive in the garden, but unfortunately it was nearly as tall as me so there was no chance of fitting it into the rucksack for the journey home.

All too soon, it was time to make our way back to the boat. We took a different route back via the main jetty which is now closed for the season. In the summer, more than 5000 people a day arrive on Lavezzi which seems enormous – perhaps too enormous – when you consider the size of the island.

We wandered along the beach towards the meeting point and waited for the zodiac to take us back on board where we were greeted by coffee, canistrelli and fruits. We made the mistake of sending Serge to collect our gouté and he returned with pockets full of grapes, oranges and biscuits so we felt obliged to share them with our fellow passengers.

There was a beautiful sailing boat waiting to take our place as we set sail again for the mainland and we guessed he'd be staying the night. What a beautiful sight to wake up to in the morning. However, I was glad that our vessel was larger and more stable looking as the wind was getting up a bit.

Our return route took us past the island of Cavallo. This is essentially a large rock in the sea and when the town of Bonifacio was short of cash, they sold it to the Italians who turned it into a millionaires playgroud - d’oh! That said, most of the properties are basically ugly blots on the landscape and for that sort of cash, I’d want a few less neighbours.

From here it’s a straight route across the open sea to Porto Vecchio. Unfortunately, between the two points a storm of apocalyptic proportions was brewing...

It was then that I remembered how much I dislike boats and was equally grateful that I’d taken my seasickness tablets. Lightning, rain, howling wind – it was like something out of the film ‘The Perfect Storm’ and I was seriously concerned, especially when we came across a deserted boat being thrashed about by the waves. Eerie.

The good thing about storms in Corsica is that they are generally over as quickly as they start, and by the time we were back at the port, there was a magnificent rainbow right across the town that seemed to be pointing at the SNCM boat blocked by the strike – perhaps that’s a good omen.

What a fabulous day and definitely a trip to do outside of July & August when you can appreciate the place almost undisturbed.

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