I was thinking about not writing a Corsican column this year. After all, I didn’t write one last year (I was in the United States instead, but I reserved the description of that trip for ink, it shall never appear via electrons, which means you’d have to shell out money for it. Sorry). I thought that this year, I would write about Sardinia instead, since our path to Corsica led through its big Italian brother of an island.
For the ancients, Sardinia was much more important than Corsica. Corsica was a wild, untamed place with steep, inaccessible mountains and vicious, barbarian inhabitants, whereas Sardinia was infinitely civilized, with cities like Turris Lybissonis and Feronia, and was in fact one of the central points of contention leading to the second Punic war (Hannibal, elephants, one of the major turning points in Western history and if you didn’t know all that you should go back and study it all again, not only because it’s important, not only because I’m a Punic war nerd, but because it’s really, really interesting. But I digress). Sardinia, therefore, was a place worth paying attention to, whereas Corsica was just too wild to be worthwhile.
What this means today, though, is that Sardinia has suffered endless generations of sheep. Never underestimate the power of sheep. Sheep eat anything, and anything they do happen to leave behind will be handled by their cousins the goats. As such, Sardinia was stripped to its barren rock by hordes of wooly PacMen while Corsica was spared such a fate, as wild boar are less prone to wreaking widespread havoc than are sheep (there are sheep in Corsica—they produce most of the cheese—but their numbers have always been limited). Today, therefore, Sardinia is a great place when it comes to coastlines, as those barren rocks do tend to end in steep cliffs fronting the blue, blue Mediterranean, but the interior sucks. Furthermore, there’s only one major bit of Sardinia that has any mountains to speak of; the rest is devoid of summits. Corsica, as already established in these dispatches many times, is all green and it reaches up to the sky in rosy granite fingers while plunging into the depths in verdant cloaks of vegetation. We tried Sardinia; we bathed there, we drove through its (largely industrialized and relatively charmless) villages, we gandered at its admittedly impressive rocky coastline and then embarked happily at Santa Teresa Gallura to take the one-hour ferry ride to the already expounded-upon city of Bonifacio, which soon rose from the summer sea haze in all its calcite glory, perched upon cliffs of white, beckoning all those who were weary of the sheep-shorn rocks on the other side of the straights. We quickly realized that to our biased eyes, Corsica was infinitely nicer than Sardinia, which left me with a dilemma . . . what would I write about this time? After all, Corsica is only 3,351 square miles, roughly one third the size of Vermont (I believe I’ve already commented on the American tendency to create units of measure that are fractions of states), and there’s only so much that can be written about it in a column such as this.
It was then that it struck me that I’ve never actually written about Cavo. This is the hameau in which we have a house (a hameau is an extension of a village; a bud, if you will). As hameaux go, there’s really not much to write about, because Cavo consists only of a few houses, but a fair chunk of it actually belongs to my wife’s family, and once I recognized the pitiful failure of Sardinia to live up to its potential, I thought I’d get right down to the roots of it and simply write about our little swath of maquis.
In case you’ve never read my other Corsican columns, the maquis is the Corsican underbrush; the sweet-smelling, utterly impenetrable thicket of green that covers the Island’s mountainous interior all the way down to the blue, blue sea (yes, the same one as in Sardinia, but in Corsica the sea is bluer. I swear.) The maquis is made up of innumerable types of plants, most of which are sharp in one way or another—this, coupled with their density, is what makes it impossible to pass through the maquis.
Corsica boasts over two thousand species of plants, well over one hundred of which are unique to the island. All of them smell good and many of them bear flowers at different points in time. Something is always in bloom in Corsica, whether it be myrte, digitale, thyme, arbusiers, ciste, or some other pretty, pointy thing. One thing you won’t find in Corsica, unless it is carefully and very artificially maintained, is grass. I do know of a couple of lawns that surround expensive villas with fastidious owners, but a lawn in Corsica looks as natural as a bridal gown at a punk concert. Those rare patches of land that are not covered with the maquis tend to be largely brown, with tall sprigs of fennel growing in patches. The fennel can and should be picked and chewed as you walk by.
The hameau of Cavo is about twenty kilometers north of Porto Vecchio along the coast. The family house is up a long, barely-paved road that leads off of the main road in Cavo (main in that there are about ten other houses placed well back from it). The whole hameau used to be simply a collection of stone shelters in which people would sleep when they brought the livestock down from the mountains in the winter (as is the case with most villages in Corsica, there is a more established mountain incarnation, doubled by a small spot by the sea, corresponding to the summer and winter pastures. St. Lucie de Porto Vecchio, and by extension, Cavo, is attached to the mountain village of Zonza, which is of course a beautiful place as well). The house is built upon a hill, with a clear view all around; to the west are the mountains that climb up to the interior and to the east is the sea, about a kilometer away.
In reality, there are two houses on the top of the hill, right next to each other. My wife’s family’s house is actually an extension of the original, which was itself built so long ago that no one really remembers (when you ask the older folk, they start going into long explanations about how, maybe, François might know since his grandfather’s mother was married to a Muzzi who had that house in Zonza, you know, the one near the church, and it might be his great-grandfather’s brother who redid the roof in . . . these reminiscences almost always end with a suggestion of hiking across the island to talk to a distant descendant of one or another ancestor whom you did already meet (“you remember, he was at your wedding”) in order to find the answer to a question that seems far more important to the person you asked than it does to you). The second house was built by “the Uncle” when he married Josephine, since his sister (my wife’s father’s mother . . . there will be a quiz later, so take notes) still owned the original.
A brief aside: when I first came to Corsica with my wife we were not yet married, and we stayed for a couple of weeks in this house with “The Uncle” and aunt Josephine living just next door. They terrified me. For one thing, they were very old, very venerable, and difficult to understand. The Uncle spoke essentially no French (the Corsican language is actually a dialect of Italian, but it might as well be a dialect of Ukranian for all I can understand it) and Josephine’s French was so heavily accented that it was almost worse, since the Uncle didn’t expect you to understand, but she did. The day of our arrival, my wife (girlfriend at the time) said we had to go visit with her uncle and aunt. We went up to their terrace (visiting is an ancient rite in Corsica and as in many Mediterranean cultures, it takes place unannounced, outside, on a terrace, and with something cold to drink) and sat down to talk. The Uncle didn’t talk much, and when he did it was only Josephine who could understand anyway, and Josephine’s conversation was pretty much limited to the weather, but she had these eyes that would have penetrated the skull of a rhinoceros and send it staggering to a psychiatrist’s couch. Within a few minutes, my charming companion declared that she had to go and unpack or something, but that I could stay. I watched in horror as she walked across to the other house. All that time I could feel Josephine’s gaze burning a hole in the side of my skull. I tried to make small talk, but could only squeak. I was the first American they had seen since 1945, and I tried to tell them how beautiful I found Corsica, but Josephine was uninterested. She really had nothing to compare it to and undoubtedly never realized that the rest of the planet was less esthetically blessed. I kept expecting her to ask why I was living in sin with her great-niece, but thankfully, we didn’t get around to that topic. It was probably the most trying half hour I have ever spent. When I finally determined that enough time had passed not to seem impolite and therefore cause an ever-lasting feud between us (and therefore between the entire extended family clans on either respective side for generations to come) I got up and left on shaking knees.
To this day, my wife maintains that it simply hadn’t occurred to her that I would have been uncomfortable.
The Aunt and The Uncle are long gone, and the other house is occupied by far less fearsome members of the extended family, with whom we often stop by for a cold drink and a pleasant chat. After stopping by for just such a chat recently, I set off with my older son to explore the land around the house.
Of course, I had explored it many times before, and he had explored it as much as had I, but this was literary research, which is a very different thing (in that I took a pen and some paper). The house sits on two hectares (about five acres) of land, most of which is covered in maquis. This is a fire hazard. The maquis can get very dry, the air can get very hot and the wind can blow with great strength. All this together makes for some spectacular forest fires, which ravage the island with sad frequency. Living on a hill in the middle of two hectares of maquis is a dangerous prospect in these conditions, so a number of measures are taken to lessen the risk. First, a local man with a tractor comes by every year to “démaquiser” the land nearest to the house. This consists of dragging a plow-like thing behind his tractor and tearing up the plants (nature quickly replaces these with new plants . . . the maquis is resistant . . . but it is not as thick). Measure number two consists of allowing the butcher in St. Lucie to let his cows run free here during the winter. The cows appreciate the gesture and in return they eat some of the maquis (note that if it hadn’t been plowed up first, they wouldn’t have much luck, since all those pointy bits are the result of a long arms race between plants and cows).
This means you can walk around on a fair part of the land, which wouldn’t be possible if it were left in its natural state (read the preceding comments incorporating the word “impenetrable”). We set off toward the frog pond. This is a natural spring about ten minute’s walk from the house. It had served as the property’s source of water before the town put in water pipes in the early 1960’s. Since then, the water was allowed to pool and then run off toward the sea, the pool serving as a breeding ground for frogs, who add their song to that of the cicadas at night.
We didn’t manage to get to the frog pond, since the last time the man came by with his tractor he didn’t go that far, and the maquis had already definitively reclaimed that part of the island. We did find a tortoise though, which tried to escape with surprising speed. I managed to grab it before it disappeared into the thorns and we took it back to the house to show it to everyone else.
Hermann’s Tortoises, which live on Corsica, Sardinia, and the coastal areas of Italy and France, are endangered. The Corsican variety isn’t quite different enough to be its own species, but it’s close. They are interesting and very pretty animals and we run across one every couple of years or so. This particular one was young, about the size of a baby’s head, and after a few minutes of being carried around it came out of its shell, so to speak, and seemed to enjoy the sensation of flight. I say it seemed to enjoy it simply because it stuck its head out—as my son pointed out, tortoises have a limited variety of facial expressions (in fact, they have only one: bored).
Our family was pleased to see the tortoise and my wife immediately told us to put the poor creature back where we found it, so we headed back toward the pond to set it free. As we lowered it its little legs started wiggling and when it hit the ground it took off like a rocket (OK, a very slow rocket) into the thorns, leaving us with the insects.
I’m not big on insects, but Corsican insects are just beautiful. Even the sharp ones are nice: strange multicolored wasps with waists as slender as . . . wasps; big black hornets that look like angry flying pebbles; and of course zillions of bees. Since something is always in bloom in Corsica, the insects never rest. Nor do those enormous moths that look like hummingbirds with antennae and, of course, the butterflies.
Corsica is a lepidopterist’s nirvana. Nabokov (who was among the foremost amateur lepidopterists of his time) even wrote about it. The butterflies are unimaginably beautiful, and if I knew anything about butterflies I could tell you what some of them are, but there are over fifteen hundred species on the island and I know nothing about them at all, except that I never see them anywhere else. They are flakes of color carried by the wind. Some spots are graced with clouds of them.
My son and I trekked through the butterflies, sprigs of fennel in our mouths, toward the hills that rise steeply to the West. There was a constant buzzing in our ears from the other insects as birds swept by at knee-height trying to catch them. We visited the nearby grove of cork trees (Corsica is the source of a lot of the cork that holds in French wine) as well as the big fig tree in the little valley to the North. We generally come to Corsica in July, when there are slightly fewer tourists, but the one disadvantage is that the figs aren’t ripe yet. There’s nothing better than to reach up and pick a ripe fig off a tree then eat it. The thorns did their best to hold on to us as we wandered, but you develop a kind of stoic insensitivity to them as long as you know when to admit defeat and turn around . . . which we eventually did, leaving the mountains behind us and heading toward the sea, and thus the house, where a salad of sweet onions and fat tomatoes awaited us, and where kind a kind woman would pick the burrs off our butts and berate us for being so immature while making sure that we had, in fact, set the tortoise free.