We first heard about MGOC Travel/Travel Destination’s proposal to extend their foreign MG tours to include Corsica and Norway when we met Richard Webb and Andrew Melley at MGOC’s National Meeting at Brands Hatch in May 2003. Whilst their plans were only embryonic at the time we registered our interest there and then. From that chance meeting our holiday plans for the next two years were cast. In 2004 we joined Richard Webb and Jonathan Kimber on their trip to Norway, 2005 was to be and was Corsica. Andrew Melley and Richard Monk would accompany the party.
The journey to and from Corsica was going to consume at least five days of the holiday. Therefore we intended to treat and enjoy the drive as an integral part of it. The outward journey would be scenic and challenging, the return journey easy and straight forward.
Having checked the car from stem to stern to put right all the little niggles but on the basis that ‘if it aint broke don’t fix it’, packed the boot with all the bits and pieces that might be absolutely essential in the event of a break down, on the 15th June we headed for the ferry at Portsmouth to meet up with old friends made during the MGOC Espana and MGOC Norway trips, together with others we get to know equally as well during the next twelve days.
Being the Wednesday before the Le Mans weekend the port was heaving with all sorts of four wheeled exotica making its way to La Sarthe together with their drivers and passengers. The ferry was going to be packed. Unfortunately not only was it packed but late, over an hour and a half late. Consequently, it was half past mid night before we reached our cabin. And just to rub in the lateness of the hour, the captain announced that despite the late departure the ship would arrive on time at 7:15 am – French time. That meant currently it was actually 1:30 am.
Knowing from previous experience that time is precious in the mornings of arrival aboard ferries, we pressed our trusty travel kettle into action the next morning, breakfasted in the cabin on coffee and pre prepared marmalade bagels (how the other half live) and arrived back on the car deck in some semblance of order and decorum. With minimal formalities we joined the Le Havre’s building rush hour traffic.
All was going well as we followed the ‘Toutes Directions’ signs out of Le Havre until we had to make one of those instant decisions in life, a fork in the road. The tour itinerary said, follow the A13 to Paris/Evereux/Caen, our Michelin map, said take the N15, at least our Navman GPS agreed with this last, unfortunately the road sign listed non of these. In a rash moment we took the A15 – wrong. I believe it’s a French Ministry of Transport conspiracy, they wait until Mr Michelin has published his latest maps and then they go round changing all the road numbers. Still, we weren’t the only ones to make this mistake. We passed a stationary Ferrari whose occupants’ heads were buried in a map. Then they passed us whilst we were similarly engrossed. We repeated these manoeuvres several times during the next ten or so miles by which time we were exchanging friendly gestures. Eventually we spotted a sign that included a road we recognised on our map. This eventually lead to the old Seine river crossing at Pont-de-Tancarville. At least the toll for the crossing was 2 Euros cheaper than the prescribed one! We pressed on and finally rejoined the route set out in the itinerary just north of Evereaux.
As we said we took along our portable satellite navigation gizmo so that at least when we became lost we would know where we were lost (?) It soon became obvious that the maps stored in its memory were not completely up to date as a quick glance at the screed whilst we were on a new bit of dual carriageway indicated we traveling at 80 miles an hour cross country through a field. Shortly afterwards the unit’s lady announcer suggested we ‘make a ‘U’ turn when safe to do so’ The screen indicated we were now traveling in a cul-de-sac at similar speeds. She repeated her suggestion moments later but this time with slightly more urgency in her voice as we sped towards the dead end…….
We continued on in ever increasing temperatures until the outskirts of Orleans where we made a comfort break, bought lunch, a slab of pork and egg pie that included bits of chicken, pâté, etc. from the deli counter and fill up with petrol at one of the out of town hypermarkets. Having completed the challenge of negotiating Orleans’ traffic and successfully found the prescribed road for our onward journey we stopped for lunch by the roadside. And so continued the day until we reached the Hotel Mercure on the outskirts of Moulins late in the afternoon some 290 miles after setting out from Le Havre.
After a welcoming speech by Richard and Andrew the rest of the evening was spent eating the set meal the hotel had prepared for us, remarkable for having gizzards on
The following morning dawned bright and sunny for the second leg of our journey. Whilst of only 180 miles distance it promised to be a more challenging drive than the previous day’s efforts as we would traverse the eastern slopes of the Central Massive. And so it was, especially south of Thiers where the road follows the river Dore as it flows through a deep wooded valley and where we stopped for lunch in the picturesque village of Olliergues. The day continued with long winding climbs followed by equally long winding descents until we reached our second destination in by now sweltering temperatures, the Ibis Hotel just out of the centre of the pretty town of Aubenas. With temperatures reaching critical we found the hotel after expending most of our knowledge of the French language asking for directions. Once again we dined on a set menu of local traditional fare in the hotel and spent the rest of the evening recounting the days events. With the prospect of a 250 mile drive the following day most retired at a respectable hour.
The day for the final leg of our journey south promised to be even hotter. Having carried out rudimentary checks on the car’s vital fluids and found nothing wanting, with just a little difficulty in finding our way to the outskirts of Aubenas we pressed on. Once we had passed through Privas we descended into the fertile valley of the river Rhone. Having crossed the river at Le Pouzin we took advantage of wide flat roads that followed the lower reaches of the river Drome before it enters the Rhone to press on. Eventually our progress was slowed as we commenced our climb into the Southern French Alps whilst still following the Drome. At midday we passed through a particularly rocky outcrop and found ourselves at a shady picnic area where the river had been dammed and formed a natural swimming pool. Here we stopped for lunch.
Refreshed, we continued up and down wooded mountain valleys until we entered the valley of the river Var that heralded our decent from the mountains into Nice and our first sight of the Mediterranean. We found our hotel, the Hotel Sea Side Park on our second attempt aided by Andrew who jumped out in front us as we approached the entrance to the hotel unknowingly.
A meal had been arranged for the company in a nearby pizzeria. At 7:30pm we duly formed an orderly if noisy crocodile behind Richard and Andrew for the ten minute walk, or so we were told, through the wooded fringes of the main road to the venue. Some twenty minutes later we finally arrived. The itinerary promised a buffet meal, however we were ushered to set places and a salad and cold meat dish was promptly served. Not knowing what was to follow all the bread rolls were quickly demolished. We were asked what meat we would prefer for the next course. Sharon and I chose the beef and were presented with two large steaks with all the trimmings. Boy were we stuffed by the end of the meal. The walk back to the hotel was particularly welcome to help the digestion. Just to make sure, we checked the drainage ditch at the end of the wooded bit just in case any of our party, suitably refreshed with the evenings liquid refreshments, had succumbed to the sudden depression.
Next morning disaster nearly struck. The drive to port at Nice where we were to embark the ferry to Corsica was supposed to be a straight forward 10 mile drive along the coastal Promenade des Anglais that leads straight to the port entrance. Already delayed by an enforced late breakfast Sharon and I found that the promenade had been closed to allow the cycling leg of a triathlon event to take place. Consequently we were forced into Nice’s maze of one way streets and others blocked by extensive road works. We didn’t actually get lost but had to travel far enough through the centre of Nice to pass the point where the promenade had been closed before returning to the coast road. We must have made three or four attempts but each time we returned to the promenade the direction in which we wanted to travel remained closed.
Time passed and we resigned ourselves to the fact that we would miss the ferry. We also reminded ourselves that we hadn’t been issued with tickets due to difficulties in this regard last year. A phone conversation with Andrew revealed the ferry hadn’t left just then and in any event he would await our arrival. Eventually, good fortune shined and we found the port and also found Andrew on the concourse who thrust our tickets through our open window. Apparently we were not the last, two cars were still missing. We had just parked the car and were preparing to take the stairs to the upper decks when the remaining cars arrived in convoy to much applause. Our thanks went to the Captain for delaying departure for 35 minutes on our behalf. Ironically the last people to board were the ones that came last year.
Our late arrival couldn’t have upset the Captain too much as we were invited up onto the bridge of the modern hydrofoil ferry to marvel at all the modern steering and navigational aids. Gone were all the brass instruments and spoked ship’s wheel to be replaced with control levers that wouldn’t be out of place in your average home spun computer game and an impressive array of monitors. He explained that once the course, speed, etc. had been set the on board computers took care of the rest.
As the four hour crossing progressed a spout from a whale was spotted as it surfaced along with a school of porpoise that followed the ferry for a few minutes. Two thirds into the crossing we got our first sight of Corsica rising from the sea in the haze. A chocolate doughnut and coffee later we arrived in the port of Ajaccio and prepared to disembark.
We disembarked almost directly into Ajaccio’s teaming traffic for the final 30 mile leg across the peninsular to the hotel Castel de’ Orcino in the Golf de la Liscia that was to be our base for the next six nights. That final 30 miles proved to be a perfect taster of Corsican roads with firstly sweeping bends, then steep climbs rising to 1500 feet before descending around hair pin bend after hair pin bend back to sea level and the Golf de la Liscia. A final left turn into a lane, passed a long sweeping beach, two diving schools and some luxury villas and we arrived at our Corsican destination. And finally, finally we parked the cars in the shade under the numerous trees in the grounds of the hotel.
The Castel de’ Orcino proved to be a modest but comfortable hotel on two floors built in three blocks set at jaunty angles to one another in true Corsican style. The rooms either overlooked well kept gardens and the hills beyond or the swimming pool, sun deck and the Golf de la Liscia. We had been allocated a first floor overlooking the bay. The views from the balcony were nothing less than stunning. It also came with air conditioning, fridge and a safe – perfect.
Having settled in the room the next thing was to check out the pool. This was located at the bottom of terraced gardens with a semi circular Jacuzzi set at half terrace level above the pool. Filtered water flowed into the Jacuzzi and was then allowed to overflow into the pool below forming a gentle waterfall. Even in the late afternoon it was still very hot. Having spent the last three days cooped up in the car and suffering the traumas trying to find the ferry that morning, lolling about in the cool waters was just bliss.
Our arrangements with the hotel were half board. Therefore at 7:30pm we assembled in the bar for pre dinner drinks, and on this occasion a complimentary glass of Corsican dessert wine, before taking our places at tables set alfresco on the terrace above the pool. And apart from the complimentary glass of wine this is virtually how we were to spend the next six evenings.
Whilst we had been provided with an itinerary for each day we were actually free to fill them as we pleased. As the circular route of 85 miles for the first day promised spectacular views and forests complete with natural swimming pools we decided to give it a go. So after an alfresco breakfast we set off.
At first the road followed the coastline until Cargese where it turned inland and climbed through cultivated hills, etc. Having passed through Piana the road returned to the coast and hugged the sides of the 300 meter high les Calanche cliffs and rocky outcrops that are included in UNESCO’s list of the worlds common heritage sites. The cliffs appear to consist of soft red sand sculpted into intricate shapes by the weather but apparently they are red granite. The road at this point was difficult enough but made more so by coach loads of tourists who were more pre-occupied with capturing the perfect Kodak moment than to be concerned about their own safety.
At Porto we stopped and shopped for postcards and souvenirs before returning to the car and the mountain road to Evisia. As the road steepened and the bends became ever more tortuous our progress slowed being confined to second and third gears we came upon our first wild pig trotting by the roadside completely oblivious to traffic or anything else. Next there was, ‘oh look there’s a goat’, two bends later we were totally surrounded and up to the door handles in the long haired beasts and forced to a stop. Sitting at car seat level it was impossible not to make direct eye contact with the one with a magnificent pair of horns that was just inches away on the other side of the door. What was he thinking? Perhaps, ‘this is the fifth one of these I’ve seen this morning but at least it’s got a roof’, or maybe, ‘another one where the driver hasn’t got a steering wheel’. Anyway he finally lost interest and wondered off and the others followed.
Further up the mountain road we stopped for our own Kodak, or in our case a digital moment,. to record the spectacular rugged scenery. Having let the car cool for a while and drank water whose temperature had risen under the sun on the tail gate to the extent it only needed the addition of a tea bag to make a passable cuppa we drove on to Evisia.
Having shared a traditional stone baked pizza that was big enough to satisfy both of us we returned to the car for the last leg to the walk in the forest and the natural swimming pool. With a little difficulty, the directions in the itinerary were shall we say, a little non specific, we found the venue complete with three more wild pigs who were taking advantage of the generosity of others also parked there. Unfortunately once you had given them a tit bit they became your friend for life and would then follow you to the ends of the earth.
The path into the forest and the swimming pool was, to us at least, not exactly clear and we took the wrong one. After some time and as we descended deeper into the valley away from the sound of falling water we began to realise our mistake. Having gone so far and being told that Evisia was but a short distance away we decided to return to the road that way rather than climb back the way we had come. Eventually we reached the village to emerge on the road just beyond the pizzeria where we had had lunch. We now had nearly a two mile walk back to the car. Refreshed by an ice lolly we pressed on in the heat of the day.
Once back at the car it was obvious where we had gone wrong. The car that had been parked in front of the sign to the pool had gone and the sign was now plain to see. Not to be defeated we headed in the direction of the sign and finally found the pool some twenty minutes later. The water was freezing to the extent our dip became no more than a paddle. Mission accomplished we returned to the car to follow the prescribed route back to the hotel. This proved to be much less challenging but ideal for some brisk MG motoring. On arrival we made a bee line for the pool for a quick dip before dinner.
After breakfast on day three, twenty eight of the cars left in convoy for the short drive to Sagone where we were to board a boat for a day trip to discover the Gulf de Porto that would allow us to view the cliffs at les Calanche, the UNESCO site, from the sea. Lunch would be at Girolata, only accessible from the sea. Having picked up a further contingent
of passengers at Cargese we were treated to the magnificence of the 300 meter high granite cliffs we only caught a glimpse of from the road to Porto. On the return to Sagone after lunch at Girolata and having been shown two occupied eagle’s nests we were given the opportunity to swim from the boat before completing the journey.
According to the itinerary day four was a free day, northing planned. We decided instead of turning left out of the hotel as we had done so far we would turn right and venture further along the bay before turning inland, climb over the headland and loop back to the main road from Ajaccio we originally drove in on. Once we had regained the main road, drive onto the vineyard we had seen signposted earlier.
As we ventured along the road having turned right out of the hotel it degenerated into a single track affair with not a particular good surface and lots of tight hair pins but the views over the Golf de la Liscia were well worth the effort.
Bearing in mind we would regain the main road at 1500 feet and we were starting out at sea level meant we would have to climb to these dizzy heights on little more than a cart track. And so we zig zagged back and forth as the narrow pot holed road clung to the hill side until we reached a ridge that took us back to the main road. From this vantage point we were able to watch two large birds of prey gliding gracefully on the hot air currents but also noted vast areas that had been devastated by fire.
Next stop, vineyard. Back on the main road, we descended back to sea level, drove passed the lane on the left that would take us back to the hotel and on a little further before turning inland under the sign advertising the vineyard Sari d’ Orcino some 11 kilometres further on. After the usual twists and turns we reached our destination. Although there wasn’t a tour of the wine making facilities available at the time what we could see was very modern and up to date. In the shop we, or at least I tasted samples of the wines produced by the vineyard and eventually came away with three bottles of rose’ and three bottles of red. We also bought jars of confiture de’ clemetine that was ‘sans preservative and sucre’ and fig and nut jam made locally at Evisia. Both have proved to be excellent at the breakfast table. After making our purchases we returned to the hotel and to the pool.
The itinerary for day five proposed a trip to the city of Ajaccio. Not being fans of cities we decided to do our own thing. Having studied the map we decided we’d try a slightly more ambitious route to the one we drove the day before the boat trip. We would retrace our steps along the road we had taken back from the natural swimming pool, carry on passed the pool, continue through the Foret de Aitone, over the Col de Vergio and press on down the other side to Corte returning on one of the main arterial roads back to the hotel. We also spotted thermal springs on the map located at Guagno les-Bains. These could be included via a short detour.
Our first stop was for yet another tank of petrol, then eventually we turned off the ‘main’ road towards Vico and Guagno les-Bains. The road we were now on proved to be even more of a challenge than the ones we had driven so far. We edged our way through Vico’s narrow streets drove at what seemed a snail’s pace up and down wooded valleys until eventually we arrived at Guagno les-Bains. We were disappointed to be informed by a long bearded man who must have been at least 250 years old that the thermal pools were ferme, closed. From the colour of the water in the pool of the Hotel des Thermes, a sought of deep pea green colour, they had been so for some time. Maybe our informant had been the last person to use them and pools were the secret of his long life. Disappointed, we returned to the car and decided to drive further up the valley to Guango to a view point also noted in the guide book but the road petered out before we got there and we were forced to make a ‘U’ turn in someone’s back yard. Still we had seen some of the heart of the island if nothing else.
We returned to the main road and continued to retrace our steps towards the natural swimming pool. One thing about driving a road in the opposite direction is that you see the scenery from a different perspective. From this direction you could see mountains in the distance with snow on their peeks, probably including mount Tozzo at 8,900 feet. All of which seemed a bit incongruous in the prevailing temperatures.
We continued our climb up through the Foret de Aitone, akin to forests we have seen in Canada, until we reached the crest at the Col De Vergio at 4,800 feet where we stopped for a break. At this altitude there was a wonderful cool breeze. The scenery looking both backwards down the valley we had just climbed and forward into the one we were about to descend was breathtaking.
The further we descended into the valley on our onward journey the further we traveled into the interior of the island and the more rocky and arid the scenery became, almost as though we had been transported into an Arizonan desert. Eventually we descended into green pasture and into Corte. After a refreshing ice cream we drove through the city and joined the N193 which is the main arterial road through the centre on Corsica. It may have been a main road but the scenery through which it passed was no less spectacular.
Day six was listed as another ‘free day’ and would be our last chance for some more serious exploration. Out came the map yet again. This time we would retrace our steps up the N193 before turning right for Tavera, climb 3,900 feet to the Col de Scalella, descend the other side to Bastelica, turn right to drive along the northern shores of lake Tolla and return to the hotel via Bastelicaccia and Ajaccio.
Our planned route for the day began to become more interesting as soon as we turned off the main road towards Tavera, The climb to the Col de Scalella commenced as soon as we entered the village. We found ourselves grinding through the village in first gear around steep blind hairpin corners. Once on the outskirts the climb continued, firstly lined with trees, and then just grass and rocky out crops clinging to the hill sides. No barriers here, just shear drops for several hundred feet straight off the side of the road. Probably the narrowest road we had traveled all week. At the top we pulled over to take in the views which our American friends would probably describe as ‘just awesome’. We were just a little disturbed to note that the sign denoting the top of the Col was riddled with shot gun pellets!
During our descent down the other side in the direction of Bastilica we ran into more of our curly horned long coated friends and wild pigs who just ignored our passing. On reaching the outskirts of the village we decided at least to drive through its centre which caused a bit of a stir as the GT gets a bit asthmatic when it gets hot and pops and bangs through the exhaust on a light throttle. And so it did as we drove through the narrow streets.
Once out of the village we soon turned right to follow the northern bank of the river Prunelli. First the road followed the river as it ran through a narrow rocky gorge and then climbed steeply as the river entered the head of the artificial lake Tolla. Having passed through the village of Tolla we came upon a sign to the ‘barrier’, the hydro electric dam that formed the lake. A steep descent along a rutted road ensued until we reached the site of the dam whence another series of digital moments took place.
After a snack we climbed back to the main road and continued our descent to Bastelicaccia. As the descent continued the valley widened and became more fertile to become the Route de Vine. Finally we came upon the duel carriage way into Ajaccio.
As we were to leave for the mainland the next day the staff of the hotel were asked to join us after dinner so that we could offer our thanks for their efforts in looking after us. They responded by serving a complementary round of the local fire water apparently called the ‘drink of life’. It may have been more appropriate in the petrol tank as an octane boost!
Day seven on Corsica was the time to pack the cars and settle bar bills in readiness to catch the overnight ferry to Marseille. We were not due to leave for the ferry until late afternoon so there was plenty of time to take the last swim in the pool or catch the last rays of the sun on the sun beds.
With just a stop for another tank full of petrol we arrived at the docks before the appointed hour of 4:30pm to await embarkation. After a considerable wait in the heat of the afternoon we were allowed to board amid, for us anyway, considerable confusion. The overnight accommodation shall we say politely was basic. Those on deck six had the benefit of toilets within their cabins, and for those who were really lucky, they also had the benefit of a shower. For those on deck five, as Sharon and I had been allocated, in steerage, would have to make do with communal facilities and mixed showers. Our cabin came with two complimentary bottles of water, a basin and two towels the size of tea towels. At least these last should make the communal showers more interesting in the morning.
We didn’t fancy a full dinner being told there would be sandwiches, snacks, etc available at the bar. Unfortunately the only thing available at the bar was a small tin of Pringles. Being too late to join the others for dinner we had to make do with these.
Once underway it became apparent the fixtures and fittings in our cabin were more akin to the wobbly sets in the Julie Walters Comedy ‘Acorn Antiques’ as they gyrated in time with the engine’s vibrations. And so we spent the night.
In the morning we pressed our trusty travel kettle into action only to find the shaver point didn’t work. Ah, but there was a power point in the corridor just above head height presumably for cleaning equipment. Now they say a watched kettle never boils, well try holding one at chest height whilst greeting bemused fellow passengers ‘good morning’ as they passed. It did boil eventually and we breakfasted on coffee and biscuits.
Whilst the ferry may not have been exactly appropriate the night crossing to Marseille for the return journey was logistically right in that it provided nearly an additional day on Corsica and on reaching Marseille, provided direct access to motorways for the journey northwards.
Having disembarked we were faced with a straight forward three hundred mile drive to Moullins that avoided mountains, etc. This was achieved, for us at least, with just a break for coffee and a Danish, a tank of petrol, traffic congestion in Lyon and at the sign of the American for some proper food. The temperatures reached their zenith during the day for the whole holiday. Someone reported seeing 47 degrees centigrade (116F) recorded on a building in Lyon, so that by the time we reached our destination we were like wet rags. The pool at the hotel couldn’t have been more welcomed. It’s a shame the rooms weren’t air conditioned.
The following morning we left on the final 290 mile leg of our return to Le Havre and the ferry. The itinerary suggested a visit to Honfleur if there was time before boarding. Well, most did and many of us met up for a final meal together that brought the holiday to a fitting close.
If you see anyone in dark glasses wearing a black berry and a stripy ‘T’ shirt with a string of onions round his neck on a bicycle out side Halfords, W.H. Smiths or any other map retailer then he is probably a covert worker for you know who! Anyone for the Paris – Peking rally next year?