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Corsica: the other island

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It seems that everybody and their metaphorical dog want to go to Sardinia.

For my tastes, the whole island is outrageously expensive. If you are a commercial yacht on charter, you will be charged a fee for each day you are in Sardinian waters. Port fees are eye-wateringly expensive, as is the cost of any food or drink.

When it comes down to it, although the waters are pretty and there a number of good anchorages, often the main reason people go to Sardinia is to “see or be seen” in one of the main marinas.

If you are more interested in real cruising, there is an alternative just a few miles north: Corsica. The west side of Corsica, whilst lacking in the supposed allure of Porto Rotondo or Porto Cervo, has many sheltered anchorages, several interesting old towns, and stunning scenery.

The western coast is much nicer than the east coast. In light winds or an easterly breeze, the choice of anchorages is almost unlimited. But if a west wind is blowing, the cruising and anchorages are not as good. (That’s when I go to the island of Elba, one of my favorite places.)

Still, the west coast of Corsica is where the best cruising is to be found.

First stop: St. Florent

If you are sailing from the Italian or French rivieras, a good landfall is in the Gulf of St. Florent in the northwest corner of the island. In the Baie de la Mortella, on the west side of the gulf, is a good anchorage. This is one of the few on this coast that is sheltered from a west wind.

St. Florent itself is a bustling little town with a plethora of bars and restaurants. There is a marina, which — at least in theory — can take boats up to 40m, although the depth inside the marina is 3m at best. (+33 495 37 1137; capitainerie.stflo@wanadoo.fr). In settled weather you can anchor close to the west of the marina and explore the town from there.

As you head south, there are plenty of anchorages from which to choose. The small town of Isle Rousse offers reasonable shelter from the west wind. There is a small marina and visiting boats are sometimes allowed to anchor stern-to the outside wall. The town relies heavily on tourism and there appear to be few people living there year round.

The first big town you come to on the west coast is Calvi, which is also one of my favorites.

There are visitor berths on the outside wall on the north side of the marina. Outside of July and August, you are likely to find a berth, but in the height of summer, you may find you have to anchor off the town. (+33 495 65 1513; port-calvi@wanadoo.fr).

If you go stern-to this wall, try to get a berth on the outer half. There are several large concrete blocks off the inshore half, and they seriously reduce the depth of water available.

Dominating the town is the citadel, which dates back to the 13th century. It is still used by the French Foreign Legion as a base and training center. For many years Calvi was part of the empire of Genoa. Indeed, one of the fiercest battles fought for the citadel was when it was attacked by the French fleet in the 16th century.

Calvi was handed to the French by treaty in the early 18th century, but it fell to the British in a daring attack by then-Capt., later Admiral, Nelson.

Nelson, commanding the HMS Agamemnon was sent to Corsica in 1794. He arrived off St. Florent in February and proceeded to attack the town and the fortifications. His first target was the Martello tower, the ruins of which still stand on the south side of the Gulf of St. Florent. 

Once St. Florent was taken, he sailed south to Calvi. This was going to be a much harder assignment. It was obvious to him that an attack on the citadel from the sea would most likely end in tears.

Instead of attacking, he sailed southward, and one can imagine the Gallic sigh of relief from the commander of the citadel as he saw the fleet pass. However, Nelson had another plan. He stopped to the south of the Revellata peninsula and landed troops in the tiny bay of Porto Agro. From there, they launched an overland attack on the citadel, rather catching the defending troops by surprise.

Four days into the siege, Nelson was standing in the ridge watching and directing the course of the assault. A cannon ball fired by the French hit a rock close to where he was standing, and it was here that Nelson famously lost his right eye. Despite this, he was able to capture Calvi.

A few years later Nelson was able to use the loss of his eye as an excuse, in the battle of Copenhagen, when he swore that because of his lack of an eye, he did not see the signal ordering him to retreat, and went on to win a major battle.

Had the cannon ball hit him, or indeed caused more injuries, then Nelson would not have been able to decisively defeat the French at Trafalgar, and I would probably be writing this article in French instead of English.

It is magical to me to wander the narrow, cobbled streets of the citadel and imagine how it was in the late 18th century. There is still a slightly ominous air about the place, as it is still a major base for the French Foreign Legion, that slightly mysterious body that seems to be part army and part secret society.

En route to Ajaccio

The next big town to the south is Ajaccio, but on the way are many anchorages. One of my favorites is the tiny village of Girolata. It is tucked into the northeast corner of a bay, beneath cliffs so steep that there is no road into the village. Everything and everybody must come by sea.

In the high season, during the day, it gets rather swamped by day-tripper boats. But outside of the season, or in early morning or late evening, it would be hard to find a more tranquil spot.

Ajaccio is the capital of Corsica and is a relatively large and bustling town. Although to me it lacks the charm of Calvi, it is a nice enough spot to visit. 

There are two marinas. The southern one, Port Tino Rossi, is the one to aim for. It claims to cope with yachts up to 60m, but I am not sure. There is certainly plenty of room for 40m yachts. (+33 495 512272; hail on Ch. 9)

There are ferries to Nice and Toulon from here and there is an airport not too far away with international flights.

Ajaccio was the birthplace of Admiral Nelson’s arch-enemy, Napoleon Bonaparte. Although he was born there, Napoleon did not spend too much of his life in Ajaccio. However, there is a large statue of him outside the town hall. It is quite funny, because the statue is wearing what look like the robes of a Roman Senator, and has a grumpy-looking expression on his face, as if he knows he looks like a fool in those robes.

The last reasonable-sized town on the west coast is Propriano, at the head of the Gulf of Valinco. There is a marina, but when we were there it was jammed full of smaller boats, and does not really appear to be able to cater to larger yachts. However, the anchorage off the town is good.

Propriano is a slightly odd place. The inhabitants are fiercely independent and not overly enamoured with their French “masters.” The town was leveled a couple of times by the Turks and the present town is only some hundred years old, so most of the buildings are all of a similar age and style. There is a good choice of restaurants on the waterfront, and reasonable shopping close by.

On the south side

As you turn onto the south coast, you are coming to one of the windiest places in the whole of the Mediterranean, the Strait of Bonifacio. It seems that it is always blowing a gale, either from the east or the west. If there is a Mistral blowing in the Gulf of Lyon, then treat the strait with a modicum of respect; it is common for winds of 50 knots or even more to howl through the Strait.

The town of Bonifacio is the proverbial jewel in the Corsican crown. The long, narrow, steep-sided natural harbor is well hidden behind the sheltering headland, on which the old town is perched. Yachts up to about 50m will berth stern-to on the south side of the harbor.

Bonifacio is very popular. To have any hope of a berth in July or August, you will have to book far ahead. (+33 495 731007; port-bonifacio@wanadoo.fr) Even booking ahead, you may find you have to use the services of an agent to secure a slip.

Although it is difficult to get a berth, it is worth persevering. Along the waterfront are many excellent restaurants, and indeed many visitors never venture up to the town itself. For me, to miss the town is to miss the reason for visiting Bonifacio. It is a bit of a climb up the steep road, or up the steps, but well worth the pain.

Narrow cobbled streets twist and turn, and the houses on the south side of the town cling precariously to the very edge of the steep cliff. The settlement dates back to at least 828, when Count Bonifacio built the first fortifications. However, long before that it was used by the Romans, and it is thought to be one of the ports visited by Odysseus in around 1190 BC. There is a lot of history in Bonifacio.

If you fancy a bit more exercise, having got to the town, then the walk along the cliff-tops to the signal station is fantastic. The views across to Sardinia, the jagged limestone cliffs and the wind sighing in the scrub bushes will be memories that stay with you a long time. If you go early in the morning, there is an amazing feeling of isolation. This is Mother Nature at her best.

On the east side

A few miles to the west of Bonifacio is the Baie de Figari. There is room for a couple of boats to anchor inside the bay, well sheltered from the east or west wind. The attraction here is that it is close to Figari airport, which has a good number of provincial flights. It can be a handy place to pick up or drop off guests.

In settled weather, the islands of Lavezzi and Cavallo to the east of Bonifacio are worth exploring. However, much of this area is now a national park, and access is restricted to many of the bays. It is best to check locally as to the latest rules.

If there is a Mistral blowing or forecast for the Gulf of Lyon, then the west coast of Corsica should be avoided. The east coast is not as nice, but will be much safer in a strong west wind.

There are a couple of towns on the east coast, with several anchorages between them, which are sheltered in an east wind. Bastia in the northeast of the island was the capital of the island until Napoleon decided to give that honor to Ajaccio.

There are two marinas, one to the north and one to the south of the town, but both are suitable only for smaller boats up to about 25m. There is an airport close to Bastia.

Further south, almost at the southern end of the island, is the Gulf of Porto Vecchio. The bay itself offers several anchorages and the marina at the head of the bay can take yachts up to 50m in length, but with a maximum draught of only a little over 3m. Like all the French marinas, they can be contacted on VHF Channel 9 or phone +33 495 701793.

For me, Corsica is much under-appreciated, and is well worth a visit. So long as you do not feel the need for overpriced nightclubs, discos and fancy hotels, then Corsica can offer something to please most people.

 

Capt. John Campbell has been a yacht captain for more than 25 years and a sailor all his life. He is currently in command of 38m M/Y Ligaya. Comments on this story are welcome at editorial@the-triton.com.

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