Corsica might be closer to Italy than France geographically, but it’s still France. And this year’s Tour de France is entirely on French territory for the first time since 1988. Usually there’s a bit of sneaking into Switzerland or the Grand Départ departs from somewhere that doesn’t give its name to the world’s most celebrated cycling race. But this year, the Tour de France is 100 so it’s French from start to finish, starting in Corsica on June 29th.
The Island of Corsica is delighted, overwhelmed and just about beside itself with excitement at the honour of hosting the first three stages of the 100th Tour de France. Because Corsica is cycling mad. And come June 29th you can bet, every Corsican will be ready to stand in baking sun patiently waiting for the ‘thrill of a lifetime’ 10 seconds it takes the entire tour to hare past in a blur of Lycra, dust and sponsorship freebies.
Much as we like cycling and we love Corsica, we don’t honestly see this summer being the one we finally achieve iron thighs, superhuman stamina and the knack of simultaneous peeing and pedalling. But that’s not going to stop us doing our own tribute to the Tour de France 2013 and the island where it all begins.
Corsican cycling and testing terrain are inseparable: like Bradley Wiggins and black socks you just can’t have one without the other. Whether you’re a touring type or you’ve got the road in your blood, take it easy – Corsica’s called ‘the island of 10,000 bends’, it’s admired for an Alpine landscape (that’s devastating climbs) and it’s in the Mediterranean so hot, often.
Here it is then – cycling or not or just a bit – our very own version of the first 3 stages of 2013’s Tour de France at a nice, undemanding pace with lots of resting, snacking, scenery, beaches, bars and general holiday larking about.
Stage 1. Porto Vecchio to Bastia
Palombaggia – sramses177
212km along Corsica’s east coast makes this one of the longest stages in the entire 2013 Tour de France. We’re going to assume you don’t have stage wins, leader’s jerseys and bunch sprints on your mind so you won’t mind being distracted by Corsica’s famously beautiful, white sands and clear blue seas. If you like your beaches untouristy and endless, the east coast ticks those boxes. Our favourites are in and around Moriani in the south east, Palombaggia to the north and Solenzara somewhere in the middle. Corsica is very popular with French visitors in August, but even then you can still find quiet beaches.
Typical Corsican towns and villages like a bit of teetering on cliff tops and hillsides.
Bonifacio - polanri
Visit Bonifacio on the island’s southernmost tip for typical, eye wateringly precarious perching, gorgeous old townhouses and churches, the charming skinny fishing harbour and Palombaggia Bay (for ‘fact checkers’: we know Bonifacio isn’t strictly part of the Tour de France’s 1st stage but the Peloton Excursion follows the cliffs at Bonifacio and takes in Palombaggia Bay and you should too).
Bastia - Dany Tolenga
Bastia in the north east is one of Corsica’s most stunning ports. It’s lively, historic, doesn’t stint on lots of lovely cliffs and views and shouldn’t be missed at sunset under any circumstance.
And if you can’t resist a spot of smart, elegant Corsican-style resort action, visit Moriani.
It’s not just cyclists who’re crazy for Corsica, it’s a bit of a passion for walkers too – and sailors and swimmers and climbers. Pine forests, sweet chestnut forests, cliff tops, river valleys, bays, beaches, towns and villages make for active holidays all along the island’s east coast. And wherever you go, breathe deep. The aromatic, shrubby ground cover that’s everywhere on Corsica smells wonderful. It’s called Maquis and legend has it that Napoleon in exile claimed he could smell it from Elba.
Corsica takes eating very seriously too. Lunch is a sacred ritual and it doesn’t matter if your heart’s set on seafood and salad or a rich wild boar casserole, protocol says you sit down and relax with some good wine and lively company. Island specialities – not just on the east coast – are fresh river trout (Corsican rivers are immaculately pure and clean), oysters, sea bream, wild boar, olives, Brocciu cheese, charcuterie and chestnut flour beignet (stuffed sweet or savoury doughnuts).
If the first stage of our Tribute Tour tired you out, rest up, we’re off through the mountains next!
Stage 2. Bastia to Ajaccio
Corsican mountains are spectacular, sculpted, sometimes forbidding, occasionally snow-capped and always plentiful. This is challenging cycling territory with some routes compared to Chamonix, Cols of all shapes and sizes, nauseating bends and oxygen tank climbs – not for the faint-hearted but we’re thinking if you’re up for serious cycling in Corsica you probably already know the deal.
Less ambitious riders can pick and choose easier routes and if you like your bike even a little you should; the views are truly magnificent, there are glorious rivers and lakes to cool you down and mountain towns and villages make perfect pit stops.
Climbing, rock climbing, hiking, ridge walking, canoeing and even skiing also go on in these here hills. But don’t be ashamed to just drive. The Tour de France Stage 2. route follows Corsica’s mountain spine and careful drivers are welcome to fall in love with some of Europe’s most spectacular scenery.
The highlight of the mountains for us has to be Corte, the island’s ancient capital and possibly the most precariously impossible city you’ll ever see. For sheer drama, spy out the Citadel of Corte on a soaring and very wobbly looking perch (it’s been here for centuries so we don’t think it’s going anywhere). Stroll about the city’s winding streets and alleys. And don’t miss the glass tomb of St. Theophile de Corte (oh how we love a mummified saint).
Neatly enough, Stage 2. ends in Ajaccio, Corsica’s current capital city, on the islands lively and popular west coast.
Stage 3. Ajaccio to Calvi
Ajaccio – JeanbaptiseM
Ajaccio is an elegant, very Mediterranean city built around a sweeping bay. If you like your villas red-roofed and sober, your squares fine and lined with palm trees and your harbours colourful, Ajaccio’s the place for you.
Corsica’s west coast is famous for terrifying mountain roads dropping sheer to the sea but they’re worth every life-flashing-before-you moment. Natural stacks and arches punctuate the bluest of blue seas. Forests and mountains surround organically lovely towns and villages. Birds of prey lazily wheel in huge, clear skies. And adaptable sheep and goats trip around all over – nothing scares these hardy beasts.
Piana – ben7va
The village of Piana marks the start of World Heritage Corsica and along with the isolated seaside village of Giralota is beautiful and slightly strange – but in a good way.
The Tour de France riders are hopping the overnight ferry from Calvi to mainland France, but we suggest you don’t.
Calvi – Kjunstorm
Calvi is remarkable and if the city was the only one you saw on Corsica you’d be happy. There are historic monuments, churches, museums and galleries to explore. The magnificent citadel (Corsica likes a citadel). And some of the island’s best, safest and most sheltered beaches.
So, while The Tour takes off in the pursuit of gruelling cycling and hopefully some glory, there are still hundreds of kilometres of Corsica you haven’t covered yet, so get to it.
Makes you wonder why Napoleon ever left really – apart from the insane ambition and power hungry madness obviously.
Featured image by velodenz.