My father-in-law’s mother was named Diane Erbalunga. Erbalunga is a very unusual name for a Corsican, and doubly so for a Corsican hailing from the south of the island. Erbalunga is, in fact, the name of a village in the very north of the island.
My father-in-law once explained to me the reason for this unusual moniker. One of his ancestors had gone into hiding (a common thing in Corsica) and had left the south to go underground in the north, in the village of Erbalunga. After a few years he was overcome with homesickness, especially since northern Corsicans were so different from normal people—i.e., southern Corsicans. He therefore decided to return. Still on the lam, he couldn’t very well use his own name (the respectable Pietri), so he adopted the name of the town in which he had hidden. This was a great disguise, since no one would ever expect a southern Corsican to take a northern Corsican name. So did he go undiscovered until his dying day (except to the entire population of southern Corsica, who knew damn well who he was but would never spill the fagioli).
The details of the story had remained somewhat fuzzy for me, but one thing I did know was that the town itself was rumored to be magnificent. I had also seen pictures of it, since it graces many a Corsican postcard. Thus, this year’s Corsican dispatch concerns the storied town of Erbalunga.
I should point out that not only is Erbalunga in northern Corsica, it is situated on that little nub of a peninsula that sticks out of Corsica on its northern tip, and that adds so much to the island’s distinctive shape: Cap Corse. And it’s true that the culture on Cap Corse is very different from that on the rest of the island. For one thing, they fish there.
It would surprise many to learn that, on the whole, Corsicans don’t fish much. Or, at least, traditionally they didn’t fish much. For that matter, they were never too hot on boats as a whole. In fact, for most of their history, Corsicans didn’t even like the idea of the shore. The shore was the home of roughly two gazillion malaria-bearing mosquitoes and was a favorite pillaging destination for Moorish pirates (hence, ironically, the Moor’s head on the Corsican flag). Except for the major cities (Bastia, Ajaccio, Calvi, Bonifacio, and Porto Vecchio), the population traditionally spent the summers up in the mountains and would only come down to the shore during the winter, with their animals (cows and goats, mostly). This is why so many Corsican villages actually have a strange kind of dual-village arrangement, with the main village perched on some mountain deep in the interior and a kind of secondary village of lesser importance down by the coast. Of course, these days the secondary villages have become far more important, since they are popular tourist destinations. (The U.S. Army took care of the malaria in 1944, when they doused everything with DDT: no more malaria—or birds, for that matter.)
Anyway, the one exception to this rule was on Cap Corse, where many of the villages came right down to the sea and where people have always fished. One of these fishing villages is Erbalunga.
There’s only one road that leads to Erbalunga. It’s the coast road that goes up from Bastia toward the tip of Cap Corse, and it’s one of the most stunning roads you’ll ever find. The village bursts into sight as you swing around one of the innumerable curves: there’s a stretch of brilliant blue sea and a series of ancient houses that seem to be wading out into the water like a group of stone bathers, led by a round Genoese tower perched on a pile of rock.
The town is bordered on three sides by the sea. You approach it from the fourth side, on foot. (No cars are allowed in the town center.) You are greeted by a grand old house that seems abandoned, fronting a small square. The house has one balcony on the front. It seems inevitable that at least once (at least once) some lovelorn and swarthy young Corsican man stood under that balcony and pleaded his case to a dark-haired beauty above. I’d like to think so, anyway. (Although it’s quite possible that this used to be the town hall, in which case I assume that no one ever dared sing a love song to the mayor.) To the right of this building, a narrow passageway winds between low houses down to the water, a shallow stair every few feet, an archway overhead from time to time. Once you reach the water, you can explore the rocks on its edge and appreciate how they continue in patterns under the surface as far out as you can see.
Back in the town’s center, other passages with other archways can eventually carry you roaming past cats and drying laundry to the tower at the town’s end. This is one of Corsica’s network of 150 watchtowers, which were built by the Genoese in the 16th century to help warn of attacks by the aforementioned Moorish pirates. The tower is crumbling, but somehow this only adds to its charm. Wasps tend to the flowers growing out of the cracks in the stone.
The third side of the village holds the tiny fishing port, where small boats bob around behind a low breakwater, and where seabirds perch on posts.
Erbalunga seems like a great place to hide out for a few years. Upon returning to my father-in-law’s house in the south of the island, I asked again about his ancestor. It turns out it was his own grandfather, and it wasn’t some dark murderous issue—he had simply wanted to avoid the trenches of the First World War. He was a deserter.
“He didn’t kill anybody?”
“No. You must be thinking of ‘the Turk.’”
“Who’s ‘the Turk’?”
“He was a distant cousin. He shot a continental [note that Corsicans consider anyone who is not from Corsica a ‘continental’] about 30 years ago, then went into hiding for a while. For a few days he even slept in the room where you sleep when you’re here.”
Which was news to me. “He wasn’t really Turkish, was he?”
“Of course not. We called him that because … well, I don’t remember, but he shot some lawyer from Lyon because he was looking at his daughter. He was acquitted.”
“Doesn’t seem like circumstances for acquittal.”
“Well, he ran a nudist colony, after all, and the lawyer kept ogling his naked daughter. The Turk told him to stay away, said that if he came back he’d kill him.”
“And he came back.”
“Right. So the Turk killed him. When a Corsican tells you that he’ll kill you if you do something, it’s usually best to believe him. Especially the Turk. He was mean. I remember he had a dog. I used to like that dog. One day, no more dog. ‘He was bothering me,’ the Turk said, ‘so I shot him.’”
“Mean. He gave himself up after a few weeks and was tried and acquitted. I mean, for killing the lawyer, not the dog. Self-defense, they said. But the Turk never hid in Erbalunga. Probably never went there at all.”
Which is a shame for the Turk, but probably not such a bad thing for Erbalunga.