Le Tour + Corsica

Please bear with my exuberance.  

Tomorrow is the grand départ of this year’s ever epic Tour de France, the 100th version of the event.  This year the riders — those that remain from the initial 198 – will course over 24 stages and 3,404 kilometers or a tad over 2,115 miles.  (I will discuss their bizarre calorie consumption in a subsequent post.)  Corse-du-Sud and Haute-Corse were the only two départements in France that had never before hosted the Tour.  That will change this year as the peloton courses from Porto-Vecchio to Bastia, and the next two stages afterwards will remain on the this magical island.   

La Corse, sometimes called L’Île de Beauté, has stunning palm fringed bays, daunting limestone cliffs, unspoiled beaches and intimate coves— nearby, Corsica’s landscapes open onto thickly shrubbed and flowered maquis—then the island rises up to the interior’s snow-capped alpine peaks, plunging ravines, rushing torrents, lofty pine forests, glacial mountain lakes, high pastures, and red roofed villages perchés. An idyllic venue where, on the same day, a brisk morning alpine hike amidst fragrant evergreens and gurgling streams can morph into a tranquil afternoon by the beach, awash in the shimmering Mediterranean.

A mystical mountain jutting from the sea.

The fiercely proud people of Corsica have endured a rather tumultuous past of invasion, occupation and also isolation. The Greeks had a brief foothold in Corsica with the foundation of Aleria in 566 BC until they were expelled by an alliance of the Etruscans and Carthaginians. In the 2nd century BC, it was taken over by the Roman Empire which had a profound influence, colonizing the entire coast, permeating inland and changing the indigenous language to Latin.

With the fall of Rome centuries later, the island passed through the hands of the Goths and Vandals until it assumed Byzantine rule in the the 5th century AD. After the Byzantine Empire’s collapse, Corsica found itself governed by the Moors and then by the Vatican. In 1282, it came under lengthy rule by the Doges of Genoa, with brief interruptions from Aragon and France, to whom the Mediterranean island was sold in 1768. Almost 500 years of Genoan reign along with the earlier Roman dominion has imparted a distinctly Italian flair to the island.

In the last several decades, Corsica’s relationship with the mainland has been uneasy and problematic at times. The early 1970′s saw the rise of a nationalist movement in a reaction to years of cultural indifference and economic neglect, and separatists still wage a violent struggle against the central government. Successive French administrations have been unwilling to offer meaningful regional autonomy, including official status for the Corsican language and recognition of the Corsicans as a distinct nationality. In an effort to diminish tensions, the central Parisian government has created an elected local assembly to give voice to Corsican regional aspirations.

Corsica’s cuisine is as divinely robust as its citizens—smoked hams from chestnut fed pigs, wild boar sausage, fresh herbs, rustic red and white beans and the local goat’s milk cheese, called brocciu, both fresh and aged. Animals are butchered nose to tail, so offal abounds. Cafés teem with locals quaffing red wine and eating artisanal bread spread with slabs of pâté de grives (thrush) and briny green Corsican olives. The flowers of the aromatic Mediterranean scrubland there offer bees with countless nectars, producing brush, arbutus and chestnut flower honey. And the isle is Europe’s main producer of clementines.

As an island region, seafood is naturally a central part of Corsican life: red mullet, pandora, red scorpionfish, sea bream, monkfish, rock lobster, spider crab and squillfish. There is also mullet roe, cured and dried to make boutargue, known as “Corsican caviar.”  The maquis fed young lambs (abbacchios) and goats (cabris) are superlative—tender and succulent from their free range mountainside habitat.

Try Corsica sometime — in the offseason.  If not, take a gander at NBCS.

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