The island of Corsica, most famous as Napoleon’s birthplace, is a pile of mountains trying to plunge into the sea which sport neat little beaches at their feet, beaches crawling with half-naked Italian and French tourists on their summer holidays. Higher up, though, the mountains are criss-crossed with streams. These streams are the only parts of the mountains that actually do manage to get to the Mediterranean.
Increasingly, the streams are visited by people who spend their time either climbing up or sliding down them. Canyoning is becoming an acceptable leisure activity in Corsica, although the most interesting way to do it is to avoid the groups and the guides and simply find yourself a stream and attack it.
One such stream is the Fiumicelli, which flows into the Solenzara river near the Bavella pass. In order to reach it, you have to drive inland for about 1/2 hour from the east coast town of Solenzara (one of the least interesting towns in Corsica) along the D288 towards Bavella. While the D288 is currently being enlarged, in many stretches it retains its charming mule-path character, meaning that it is very difficult for one car to pass, let alone two, which sometimes leads to spirited negotiations about who has to brave 300-foot drops with no guardrails while driving in reverse to the nearest passing point. Driving with care is, needless to say, advisable.
After one such stretch, the road crosses the Fiumicelli on a tiny bridge in a hairpin left turn. This bridge is relatively new, the Fiumicelli having eaten the old one during a particularly violent but not uncommon spring flood eight or nine years ago (it should be noted that spring is not a good season to go canyoning in Corsica). The river can be reached by climbing down from the bridge on the near side, to the right. Jumping from the bridge is ill-advised, since the stream is a spine-shattering four inches deep at that point — sometimes six if the water is high. From there, the best direction is up.
One of the good things about canyoning is that you can’t actually get lost in the traditional sense of the word. You can go farther up the river than you planned, but aside from that, even the most addled hiker can usually manage to stay within sight of water. You can therefore enjoy the scenery and the river itself without messing with things like maps and compasses.
Corsican scenery is like no other scenery. Even while deep in the mountains, the sea is ever present, as though it has dissolved itself into the air. For that matter, Corsica is worth a visit even if only as a kind of breathing excursion. A particular kind of vegetation coats all those mountains, the French call it “The Maquis” and it consists of an assortment of thorny bushes dotted with wild pigs. The scent of these plants (minus that of the pigs) mixed with the sea air makes for an… interesting olfactory tonic. As for the views… the Fiumicelli runs through hulking boulders and scoops deep pools into the mountain itself. At one point, the river has formed a perfectly round, deep pool of about fifty feet in diameter with a waterfall pouring down one side. It’s as though Walt Disney designed it — minus the guffawing dogs and learned mice.
The hike consists of a bit of clambering (not-quite climbing) and a fair amount of swimming. In one or two places it is convenient, not to mention fun, to plunge into the river from the edge of a cliff (a few spots offer plunges of ten to twenty feet). The whole is framed by pine forests and distant vistas of towering rose-colored mountains.
After three or four hours, the river crosses a hiking path heading south. Theoretically, the path can be identified by looking for a sandy area to the left. This trail eventually reaches the road, after about thirty-five minutes. A walk of another two kilometers down the road will bring you back to your car. Or, for that matter, you can simply slide down the river the same way you went up, which when all is said and done is by far the most agreeable way to go, and which will probably be necessary anyway since it is virtually impossible to identify the correct sandy area and therefore find the hiking path. Alternately, hikers can simply sleep in the forest, which is illegal and is policed by the wild pigs. The pigs won’t hurt you, but it can be a traumatic experience to be awakened at 3:00 a.m. by a hairy snout snuffling around your head trying to find the source of that camembert odor which unfortunately is still on your breath. Believe me.
Corsica can be reached by air from either France or Italy. Air France, Air Litoral and Alitalia all have frequent flights from many major cities. It can also be reached by ship from Marseilles, Nice and Toulon, as well as from Genova and Livorno. Just about everyplace on the island is worth a stay, although the stretch from Bastia south to Solenzara is best avoided. While there is no public transportation to the Fiumicelli, hitch-hiking is easy in Corsica, especially during the tourist season. Note that while there is an independence movement on the Island that has a reputation for blowing things up, they have never yet blown up a tourist (they know who pays the bills). They have been known to put an anti-tank missile into the occasional RV if it is parked illegally, but never without politely evacuating the occupants first and explaining the philosophical rational for their actions (it would seem that people who vacation in RVs don’t spend enough money locally and they ruin the landscape if they park illegally). If you don’t plan on parking a three-ton truck on the flowers you’ll be fine. Much better to sleep under the stars with the pigs next to the burbling Fiumicelli.