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Europe Part 17 – Corsica

‘There is a sunrise and a sunset every day and you can choose to be there for it. You can put yourself in the way of beauty’ – Cheryl Strayed

Sunset at Camping La Morsetta, Corsica, Canon 5d2, 16-35L

Of all the places I have been to in my life, there are two  that stand head and shoulders above all others for scenery. One is the West Coast of Ireland and the other is Corsica. Of all the 30,000 miles I have ridden in the last two years, there are two places that stand head and shoulders above all others for riding. One is the West Coast of Ireland and the other is Corsica.

Corsica is a jaw dropping island. With a developed Eastern coast and an almost completely unspoilt Western coast it was the jewel in the crown of the whole trip. I really cannot recommend it highly enough. Do yourself a favour, after finishing reading this blog go and and book a trip there.

Northern Coast road, Canon 5d2, 16-35L

Getting off the ferry was a nervous experience. There were six bikes on the ferry – mine and five Austrian riders who were on a week’s blast around Northern Italy and Corsica. The six of us stood for half an hour as everyone else disembarked. As we stood at the edge of one of the ramps that looked down to the exit, I looked at the floor after slipping in my boots. The five Austrian guys were doing the same. Metal deck, covered in water and oil. In effect, a skidpad. I was nervous and by the looks on their faces, so were they. We were held up even more as the last lorry to depart had become stuck in the exit – its wheels spinning slowly on the oily metal. Below decks was filling up with the smell of diesel as he revved more and more to try and get traction. It took over 20 minutes to get that lorry moving and the solution was to stuff lots of cloth sacks under the wheels. Cleaning the damned decks might have been a better idea.

The six of us kitted up and were held at the top of one ramp by my knot tying friend. He would only allow one bike down at a time because of the risk. I was at the back of the group so had a good chance to watch how the others did it – I don’t mind admitting to being nervous and very focussed on what was going on with the bikes in front of me. The first guys went down, back ends slipping on the ramp. These were experienced riders, far more experienced than me and they were struggling to get down the ramp. Just the two of us left. He looked back at me, nodded and then set off down the ramp. On a really heavy K1600 (which he had told me had picked up a few days earlier) the ramp was horrendous. Back end kicked completely out, bike went sideways, brake lights came on and it was all over for him and his trip.

As I sat there looking at the ramp and the deckhand, I figured that I just had to go for it but not as slow as the previous guy. The deckhand waved me on, I hit the throttle and went down at a reasonable speed figuring that if I was going to come off then might as well do it in style. No slips, down the ramp, sharp right turn and out into the light. Then a huge exhale as I felt the sweat running down my neck, partly from the heat but mainly from the tension.

Rocks, Northern Coast Road, Canon 5d2, 16-35L

Bastia is quite a large city and it took me a good 20 minutes to get out of the main streets. GPS told me to take a right and almost immediately I was on a minor road, covered in gravel which was ascending rapidly. The road became ever more narrow with steep slopes on either side and after a few miles, it opened out and there I was half way up the side of a valley on a single lane road. An almost vertical slope to my right and a drop of serval hundred metres immediately to my left. The other side of the valley was about half a mile across from me and I could see the road snaking around the edges like a horseshoe.

This was the first time I started to ‘see’ Corsica. I remember pulling over and sitting on the edge of the drop and thinking that this was way beyond anything I thought it would be. Although I didn’t know it at this point, the next few hours of riding would be where I would really bond with the bike and cut my teeth. Following the coast road led me close to the ocean, past sunburnt outcrops of yellowed rocks with the deep blue sea and sky serving as a backdrop. Temperatures were considerably higher at 26 degrees and the sun was fierce. I was sweating for the first time in the gear and had to open all the vents but it was manageable without being too uncomfortable.

The road follows the coast for a short distance and then cuts across the island onto faster roads which are still entwined with the hills of Northern Corsica. With rocky outcrops, flashes of green and yellow where hardy shrubs hung on for every drop of water and an almost empty road, I made good progress despite numerous stops to take it all in. The warmth, the different scenery and the dry air gave me that holiday feeling – like the moment you step off the plane on some island and everything is different. Great feeling.

Monument to those lost at sea, Calvi, Canon 5d2, 16-35L

I arrived in Calvi late in the afternoon and took a wrong turn, got totally confused, turned back and ended up 5 miles back down the road. My GPS wasn’t picking up the road I needed to go on to get to the campsite and I was still some 20 miles away. Feeling tiredness beginning to kick in, I headed into Calvi and pulled over outside a row of shops. Before I was even off the bike, the Gendarmerie were at my side. Pulling off my helmet, wiping my brow and squinting into the sun I was greeted by a supermodel in a police uniform. She spoke in French, I had no clue. Muttering ‘Anglais’ and with an apologetic shrug she of course switched to English and told me I couldn’t park there. After a brief explanation, she laughed and told me that the road I needed was just a mile away but it was in very poor condition and advised me to be extra careful, especially on a bike. As an aside, the road is shown on google maps but it won’t allow you to plot a route down it.

Typical view in Corsica, Canon 5d2, 16-35L

I found the road and it’s a tale of two halves. I ended up riding it 4 times during my brief stay on Corsica because it is just so wonderfully stunning. Probably the most fun I had on the bike in all the 16,000 miles of the trip. The first half of the road leads West from Calvi and is asphalt in good condition. It’s fast and super twisty with the sea on your right and towering slopes on your left. Bend after bend after bend following the low sea wall for several miles – grin inducing stuff because of great visibility and the fact that the bike is always tipped over with only seconds in between bends. Lots of bikes on that road for obvious reasons. With the sun, the mountains, the bends and a glowing sun it is idyllic.

When you get past the halfway point, the asphalt falls away to be replaced by either broken tarmac or hard pack with gravel. There is nothing out there at all for several miles – just this broken road leading through stunning scenery. You can’t avoid potholes as the road is so broken. The first time I rode it was an amazing experience with the bike crashing through the holes and me fighting to find a path that wouldn’t lead me into the undergrowth. After a few miles I started to question whether I was still on the right path. No traffic, no signs, nothing. Just as I was about to stop and get some bearings I saw the sign for the campsite – just 3 miles to go. So much fun those last 3 miles, twisty, gravelly, hard work but brilliant. As I pulled in at the campsite, my clutch lever fell off. I think I was still jiggling about even after I got off the bike. This was probably my first ever real experience of ‘off road’ riding even though it was technically a road. Loved it.

I checked in and because it was low season, I could pitch wherever I wanted. I said how fantastic the road was from Calvi – I’m not sure the receptionist agreed with me given the look on her face. Riding slowly around the site I picked a pitch right by the sea, why not? Tent went up, unpacked the panniers and then re-attached the clutch and checked the bike over. No damage, all good. Gave her a pat on the left hand fairing, turned round to take in the view – mountains covered in forest behind me, sea in front of me. ‘That’ll do’ I thought as I collapsed into my chair.

Camping La Morsetta is a fantastic place – very remote, very quiet and a place of sheer beauty. The campsite is reasonably small and has a small shop and bar area which are back towards the main road. Showers and toilets were really good even though I think I had picked the farthest place possible to camp from them. It was still low season and so there were few people there – mostly people in camper vans from Germany and Holland. who kept themselves to themselves. I grabbed a couple of beers in the bar, a pizza and had a long chat to the bar staff about the local area and they recommended some routes for the bike. It was about 9pm and I could feel myself sinking further and further into the chair in the bar and my eyes closing for ever longer periods as I ‘rested’ them. 2 hours sleep, a hangover, a ferry and an 18 hour day had taken its toll but I felt remarkably relaxed.  As I turned off the light in the tent and fought with the sleeping bag I realised just how dark it was – I couldn’t even see my hand in front of my face.. I gave up with the bag, unzipped it and fell asleep to the sound of the waves lapping on the shoreline.

Everywhere you look, Canon 5d2,70-300L

The sun rises behind the mountains and gradually illuminates the campsite minute by minute. I’d woken early and despite two cups of coffee, the tolls of the previous day were winning. A more gentle day today – I’d enjoyed that final stretch of road so much that I planned to ride it again, head into Calvi and have a gander and find somewhere to buy provisions. I grabbed a croissant and coffee from the bar, sat a while on the veranda and watched the world wake up. Croissants….I just don’t get them. There are three things that eating a croissant achieves. Firstly, you are eating a mouthful of air. Secondly, you feel more hungry than before you ate the croissant. Thirdly, there are an inexplicable number of small crumbs that manage to cover you, the table and  a radius of 10m around you after eating the croissant. I swear they disintegrate as you lift them from the plate, the pieces floating on the breeze to everywhere but your mouth and you’re left shovelling the wind into your ultimately disappointed stomach.

Panniers off, tool bag strapped onto the pillion seat, off we go. Just as much fun as the day before bumping over that rough road and leaning into the twists next to the sea wall. I pulled into Calvi with a feeling of complete exhilaration. Riding round this small coastal town was tricky since ‘no parking’ signs were everywhere. I ended up on the harbour front on a narrow cobbled path lined by bars and restaurants and pulled in by 2 mopeds that had been casually abandoned. No idea if it was permissible to park there and given my experience with supermodel cop, I waved to the the guys in the bar who gave the thumbs up.

The harbour at Calvi is very pleasant and very relaxing. It was two hours before I even moved from the bar where I had parked my bike – some water and coffee and just watched the world go by. The barman was brilliant, allowing me to store my kit behind the bar while I went for a wander and letting me plug in my battery charger for the helmet camera. Calvi is what it is, a small harbour town in a stunning location. I wandered aimlessly for an hour, bought some provisions, had an ice cream and tried to straighten out the knots that had appeared in my shoulders and back. I rode back to camp along the same road, faster than before, tipping the bike in more, grinning more. Over the rough stuff, sliding on the gravel and generally bouncing around like a jackhammer.
Porridge with Sardines, iPhone

Now, I like to think i am a reasonably good cook. Armed with couscous, tomatoes, pepper, sardines and some cured sausage and a bottle of the local red I was all set for a culinary delight while watching the sunset. I pulled out a pannier for a makeshift surface, chopped it all up and threw it in my pan. If you’re struggling to picture this in your minds eye then imagine an episode of MasterChef where they are given random ingredients and 30 minutes. To my surprise, mixing random carbohydrates with random proteins and coloured stuff (peppers, tomatoes, 5 a day and all that) does not a tasty meal make. I doubt that slimy porridge with sardines and sausage will be dished up by Michelle Roux any time soon but I am open to offers from Heston Blumenthal if he reads this. Still, filled me up.

All I had to do now was open the wine and head for the beach but I didn’t have a corkscrew and so I wandered over to a family and asked for help. He pulls out a corkscrew and opens it up and she stands there grinning at me. Odd. He asks about the bike, I tell him about the roads and the trip. She’s still grinning. I figure she either thinks its funny I haven’t got a corkscrew or is unhinged. Beating a hasty retreat, I head back to the tent and call in on my ‘neighbours’ who had kindly lent me a hammer to bash the tent pegs in. He answers the door of his van a pair of white 1970’s Y-fronts and so fixing him firmly in the eye, I ask him if he would like a glass of the local vino. He nods and says give us a few moments.  So I’m sat there, pair of shorts, sweaty top, sandals and my ‘neighbours’ appear. I had to do a double take, he had dressed in slacks, shirt and done his hair. She had donned what appeared to be a ballgown with full make up. Here I was at a campsite in the middle of nowhere and I felt under-dressed. Utterly bizarre.

We passed pleasantries before I headed off to clean the pots and take a shower. The grinning lady was already there and so I nodded and smiled. She grinned again. What the hell is wrong with this woman I thought as I chose a sink at the furthest point away from her. She finished cleaning her pots, grinned again at me and disappeared back to her tent. Shaking my head I wandered into the shower block, dropped my toiletries bag down on the sink top and looked in the mirror. My chin was covered in smears of tomato sauce with one particularly long smear leading up my chin line. The grinning now made sense. It’s quite a sinking feeling to realise that of the three women that had smiled at me in the last 24 hours, one had been smiling at my post sleep dribble, one was grinning because I looked like a 5 year old left alone with pasta sauce and the other was a police woman. Still, I reasoned, their loss.

With the sun going down, a cheeky bottle of red and a clean chin, I headed for the beach. I’m not sure what it is about the human psyche that you decide that you CAN walk across a shale beach in sandals without getting any inside. Tightening the straps up didn’t stop the stones getting in. It did however make the blood vessels in my feet bulge and go purple. As I ‘oohed’ and ‘ached’ across the stones I made slow progress, stopping every 5 metres to remove a stone that had found its way to the most sensitive part of my sole. Taking my sandals off did little to help and so, after a paddle, I retreated to the edge of the shale, sat down and poured a glass of red. Well, when I say glass I mean a camping mug.

It’s quite easy to become detached from the trials of real life when you are doing something like this trip. I did wonder if holidays are more for forgetting about home than seeing somewhere new. Maybe both but certainly a hefty does of the former for most I guess. A couple walked past me as I was sipping. A younger woman, hair loosely pulled up into a bun and an elderly gent, probably her father. They were talking quietly and didn’t look over at me as they slowly walked past.

She sat down, he stood over her and there were long gaps of silence as both stared out to the sea. She looked up occasionally, he listened. She had her hands on her head, relaxing them for the occasional gesture skyward before bowing her head and wrapping her arms around her knees. His arms occasionally stretched out with his palms facing upward, turning to her he said nothing, lowered his arms slowly before he looked out to sea again. He had no words. I’m pretty sure that there weren’t any.

They walked back past me and as they did so I whispered ‘it’s going to be ok’. No idea really why i did that, it just happened. Maybe because I have been both of those people on the beach.

One of the great things about camping is that when the sun goes down, it’s game over. It’s a very natural way to be, you rise with the sun and you close your eyes when the sun goes down. Feels right to me. What doesn’t feel right is being woken up by a car/burglar alarm in the early hours. I laid there for a while hearing this regular monotonous ‘woo, woo, woo’. I drifted off again and then woke again. I couldn’t work out why it hadn’t stopped or been turned off. Eventually it stopped . I found out the next morning it was a local bird that makes these burglar alarm type calls during the night. Nature is an amazing thing…most of the time.

The circular route to Calvi and the track to Manso

My route for the next day was to ride South from the campsite, turn East to head into the mountains and loop back to Calvi and then ride that great road again. I took a wrong turn somewhere and ended up going deep into the mountains on a road that leads nowhere, which you can see on the map above. As it turned out, the ride to Manso was very very special. Narrow roads, the occasional house and village and scenery that was drawn straight from Lord of the Rings. Following the river and riding through lush green valleys into the heart of the mountain range was spectacular. When the road ended all I could see was the mountain range ahead (shown in the two photos below). I finished the ride on a steep gravel covered track which was blocked by a gate. There was a track beyond but the gate was locked and with various signs on the gate warning of death/imprisonment I reluctantly turned the bike round and headed back.

Track to Manso, Canon 5d2, 16-35L

Finding my way back to the ‘main’ roads, I rejoined the circular route and headed North for Calvi. These were good roads, smooth tarmac and with temperatures in the high 20’s I could push on and enjoy the bends that wove through the foothills. The photo below gives an idea of what you wide through on that stretch. As you climb and fall through the hills, the winds pick up and become very strong on crests. Not as strong as Zaragoza but enough to give you pause for thought when there is an oncoming HGV. Feeling ever more confident on the bike, I was overtaking and getting her tipped right into bends. Glorious stuff and very relaxing.

North bound road towards Calvi, Canon 5d2, 16-35L

Picking up provisions at Calvi for my next culinary adventure, I stuck the helmet cam on and prepared to video the ride down the broken road back to the campsite.What a ride. Just wow. No traffic at all as though karma had rewarded me for my comment on the beach the previous night. With some knowledge of the road, an awareness of the danger spots and a steady right hand, I gripped the tank with my knees, relaxed up on the bars and went for it. Eyes focussed, head forward and shifting my hips side to side to sway with the bends was exhilarating. The sea wall was a blur as it rushed past on my right, warm air rushed under my tinted visor and for the first time ever my fingers, feet and bum did exactly what they should all the way. Reaching the broken section, I slowed her down, grinned and did a mini punch of the air. I then did the same on the rough stuff, throwing the bike around, standing up when necessary but enjoying every minute. Pulling in at camp, I could feel the sweat running down my back. I didn’t even bother going to the tent, I dove straight into the bar for a celebratory beer.

The ferry to Sardinia wasn’t for 2 days but I had been warned that whilst the Eastern route to Bonifacio is just 164 miles, it is through the hills and I should allow up to 6-7 hours. As always, local advice is better than any web based time estimates.  I decided to make my way down the following day and then find a campsite close to Bonifacio, eliminating any stress of having to rush for the morning ferry.
If you look at the map above, it doesn’t look like much and it is good tarmac nearly all the way. To give you a better idea of the route though, see a close up below. The scenery is just spectacular, the road is spectacular. It’s a mentally challenging ride though, with so many bends and climbs you cannot lose concentration for a second. After 40 miles or so I was glad for the occasional straight bit of road for a rest!

164 miles of bends

It was a hot day meaning frequent stops to take on water and, to be quite honest, to allow my brain to cool down. I gave up trying to photograph, it would have taken me a year if I had tried to capture all the stunning scenery so I plugged the helmet cam into the battery at the roadside and videoed as much as I could. Hopefully by the end of the blog I will do a short video of the entire trip. The photo below shows the kinds of bends that you continually face – sharp switchbacks with limited visibility. I would love to ride it again. I doubt there is a road so twisty on the entire planet.

The views over the various bays, the red rock formations – far too much to list and no amount of words and photos can adequately describe that 164 glorious miles. A couple of shots below just to give a flavour. Corsica, just a very special place.

Views of Corsica, Canon 5d2, 16-35L

I found a campsite about 10 miles away from Bonifacio for 5 euros. It was very basic to say the least but it served its purpose. I ached all over that evening. Neck, back, bum, hands. Even my head ached from the amount of concentration needed. A good ache though if there can be such a thing.

I left camp early and arrived at the port in Bonifacio where I shared the ferry with a group of English guys on a weeks blast down from Manchester. Talking about divorce, bikes, Sardinia, Corsica and future plans, the short and smooth crossing went quickly. Just after lunch, we rolled out into Sardinia. Hotter still and just like my arrival in Corsica, I had no idea what to expect.

I have waxed lyrical about Corsica in this post and for good reason. It was the stand out place of the whole trip. Norway was amazing, the Pyrenees were amazing but Corsica was ‘super amazing’. If you like stunning scenery, remoteness, the road less travelled, then in all of Europe, this is the place. I’ll be back.

Just about to board for Sardinia, iPhone SE

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