isIt takes some time to record the impacts of bullets that decorate each panel along the main road coming out of Ajaccio, the capital of Corsica. Maybe it’s the distracting octogenarian dragging wildly in his dumped Renault van, or the lack of sleep thanks to Toulon’s night ferry, but as we climb high into the country’s central mountain range, it becomes impossible to ignore ubiquitous and disfigured panels. Maybe I shouldn’t have been surprised, given Corsica’s surprisingly violent (surprisingly recent) past.
This year my wife Tess and I decide to avoid the airports, put the car away and hit the road for our vacation. Flightless vacations are booming in popularity. Growing awareness of the fragility of the Earth combined with the pandemic’s influence on global travel has prompted vacationers to turn to road and rail networks, and since 2020, the World Sustainable Tourism Council has noted a marked evolution “towards” slow “journeys by car and by train”.
Traveling by car also means that the dog can come. Corsica is the closest, warmest and most affordable option, so we take the Eurotunnel to Calais and drive the car south for our crossing from Toulon to Ajaccio.
Choosing to drive rather than fly reduces the carbon footprint of a vacation, but there are other benefits to taking the slow road. The trip is part of the adventure, we see more of France and – for the first time in 18 months – we are master of our destiny; it is extremely restorative.
We spend the night in Nuits-Saint-Georges, in Burgundy. Some of the world’s most famous wines are made within acres of this small town amid steep hills covered with ripening vines. At the modest Hôtel-Bar de l’Étoile, we enjoy a cold beer, a bottle of Château de Premeaux just down the street and a fantastic bœuf bourguignon.
The next day we push south, the temperature rises as our latitude decreases and traffic increases as we bypass Lyon, Orange and into the more arid landscape of Provence. The scent of pine resin, baked asphalt and salt air greeted our arrival in the Mediterranean, before our overnight ferry from Toulon to Ajaccio.
Our ultimate destination is Cap Corse, the 25-mile finger-shaped promontory that plunges north into the Ligurian Sea at the top of the island. The trip to Ajaccio is an introduction to Corsican driving, a flamboyant mix of French and Italian influences. In Corte, a nasty accident on the same tarmac strip that saw the fatal incident of Henri Toivonen in a rally in 1986 during the Tour de Corse caused a huge traffic jam. The Toivonen crash became one of the most famous (and mysterious) in motorsport and ultimately contributed to the high-speed class B finish of the rally.
We make a detour via Saint-Florent to avoid the worst traffic jams. It is an old fishing port with an imposing citadel and floods of tourists. This is wine country, and at Domaine Bazzarini we buy five liters of rosé from a gas pump for € 12.50. It’s rustic and delicious.
Cap Corse is just around the corner, so with difficulty we stop to admire our rosé and head to the small fishing port of Marine de Scalo, below the village of Pino, where we have an Airbnb for the fortnight . Like much of Corsica, Cap Corse looks old, and despite the beautiful scenery, there is an ancient presence in this rugged and dramatic country that looks menacing, gloomy and even wild. Bullet holes reappear in the signage.
The unique history of Corsica has created fertile ground for violence based on an ancient code of honor, and the campaigns of vendetta and banditry that have plagued the island for centuries have resulted. The vendettas, which cost the lives of tens of thousands of Corsicans, were largely managed by the French government in the mid-19th century, but the last bandit, a murderer named Muzarettu, died in 1952. After a lifetime gone to hide in justice in the bush, the fragrant bush of Corsica, he quietly slipped into one of the many Franciscan monasteries on the island, made peace with God and died of a cancer of the face, the only opponent he failed to distance.
Cap Corse has something for everyone, and most places are within a 45-minute drive. A car is essential to get around (the island’s scenic railway does not extend beyond Bastia), and you will need cash everywhere.
Centuri, a small fishing port, is full of seafood restaurants around a small port (we had lunch at Langoustier). Foodies may prefer The Michelin-starred Pirate to Erbalunga. In the same village is the charming and old Castel Brando hotel, which we accidentally discovered while seeking refuge from a huge dog who had started his own vendetta against ours.
The spectacular coastline offers unlimited swimming spots, but our favorite was the small pebble beach at Marine de Scalo. Facing west, this lovely spot takes full advantage of the incandescent evening light and is framed by a dilapidated convent, a slowly collapsing Genoese watchtower, and a sprinkling of gray stone dwellings. These severe buildings are typical of Corsican architecture and seem to come out of the rock from which they are built. The small harbor bar (Buvette U Paradu) serves local chestnut beer, meats and cheeses, and most evenings the owner plays the guitar and sings as the sun sets over the horizon.
Not for the timid, the D80 coastal road that cuts the west coast of Cap Corse offers stunning views and a steep drop to the sea. The family mausoleums that dot the countryside are beautiful, and you will have to stop frequently at the roadside stalls and shops selling traditional Corsican cheese (brocciu) and honey. The latter, born from macquis nectar but classified into six variants, depending on the time of its manufacture and with what, particularly deserves to stop and part with its money.
In mid-September, our fortnight is over. Our Airbnb’s plane tree leaves have turned from green to orange, and from rustling in the sea breeze to clicking and clicking as they harden and die. Our return trip begins with a 4am ferry from Bastia to Nice, docking in the early afternoon. The night option of our outbound route is best, the best experienced boat in an unconscious state. We spend the night in Saint-Raphaël, west of Nice, and swim off the rocks in the evening sun, mindful of an autumn chill as we watch the superyachts ascend the coast towards Monaco, already mourning our vacation so that they are nearing their end. We enjoy a last dinner of steak and grilled sea bream, before an early night in preparation for the return trip.
The road to the north offers the chance to say a long goodbye to the holidays. We don’t miss the abrupt and disorienting end of an airplane trip. Reinvigorated by the salty and rugged landscape of Corsica and the privilege of discovering France at our own pace by traversing the country at our own pace, it seems that the slow lane is the best route.
London to Eurotunnel, Folkestone crossing to Calais from £ 91 one way
Calais to Nuits-Saints-Georges 360 miles, 5:30
Nuits-Saints-Georges To stay: Vign’Appart (vignappart.com), from € 99, central apartments accepting pets
Manger Hôtel-Bar de l’Étoile (hotel-restaurant-letoile.com), or pizza at I Bravi Ragazzi
Nuits-Saints-Georges to Toulon 338 miles, 5h20
Toulon to Ajaccio Night ferry (corsica-ferries.co.uk), from € 97.98 one way, pet-friendly cabins available
Ajaccio to Saint-Florent 96 miles, 2.50 hours
Saint-Florent Eat: Restaurant MaThy’S
Refuel at E Leclerc, one of the last supermarkets before Cap Corse. You will also need a stock of cash, as few restaurants and self-employed people in Cap Corse accept the cards.
Saint-Florent in Pino 27 miles, 1.17 hours
Pino Stay: Airbnbs and guesthouses from £ 51 per night. Eat: Buvette U Paradu (cash only, sandwich shop with seasonal opening and incredible sunset)
Pino to Bastia 27 miles, 1h
Bastia to Nice Car ferry, from € 83.87 one way, pet-friendly cabins available
Nice to Saint-Raphaël 44 miles, 1h15
Saint-Raphael Stay: Hotel Provençal (hotel-provencal.com) from € 64 per room only
Saint-Raphaël-London (via Eurotunnel) 830 miles, 2 p.m. Travel break with one night in Beaune or Dijon
Approximate carbon emissions from myclimate.org
In plug-in hybrid: 0.95 tonnes
Flights and comparable rental car: 1.4 tonnes