Roughly 6,000 years ago, someone crawled through a narrow passageway, stood inside a kind of big niche among massive slabs of granite that had formed an impromptu geological pyramid, looked out over the great sprawling bay beneath him and the low mountains on the other side, and decided that a god lived here.
What the person’s name was, what the god’s name was, in what language these thoughts were expressed … no one knows. The person was a member of the Torre civilization, a Bronze Age people who left traces across the Western Mediterranean and then either disappeared or turned into some more literary civilization that then forgot their roots. One thing is certain: the Torre people shared at least one attribute with me … they loved Corsica.
Yes, it’s summer again and it’s time for my annual Corsican dispatch. Last year I evoked Odysseus, and this year we’ll go back farther still to the mysterious builders of the Torre. The obvious place to start is in Torre itself, a village from which they may have gotten their name. (Note: This seems like a spooky kind of “we don’t know why they called themselves …” kind of thing, but it’s not that—we don’t actually know what they called themselves, and I assume there’s no mystery as to why archaeologists call them the Torre people; it’s just that I can’t figure it out. I’ve seen conflicting reports, some saying they are named after the town and others saying the town is named after them, and if any of you would like to inform me which is true then this particular archaeological mystery would be easily solved. But I digress.)
The town is situated just north of Porto Vecchio. (You must go to dinner one night—or many nights—in Porto Vecchio. Go down to the rue de la Porte Genoise and check out one of the restaurants that have been built into the old ramparts and that overlook the bay.) The town of Torre is hardly worthy of the word “town.” It consists of maybe eight houses, only three or four of which seem to be inhabited. They are all old, in the way that a big old rock is old. I should mention that, though I have been to Torre many times, I have never actually seen anything alive there except a big black dog. It’s always the same big black dog, for that matter. It is a very Corsican dog, which means that it doesn’t move around much. In fact, pretty much the only reason I’m sure it’s alive is that I’ve seen it several times in the last few years and it hasn’t rotted any. I also think it once opened an eye and looked at me, but I may be mistaken.
Anyway, you don’t want to go to Torre to see the village itself. What you want to do is go up and see this extraordinary place of Bronze Age worship, this natural temple to Apollo or Baal or whomever the Torres worshipped, which consists of a jumble of enormous granite slabs, two of which managed to form a kind of shelter and the whole of which looks out over the bay of Porto Vecchio.
One would imagine that such an important and physically striking sight would be well marked with all kinds of signs saying “This way to the really important archaeological sight,” but no such luck. A few years ago there was one little sign, but someone tore it down, and now you just have to kind of know about it, especially since the townspeople (assuming they really exist and that the big black dog doesn’t do these things on his own) put up a “No entry” sign on the road so that you can’t even drive into the town anymore but have to park in the middle of the tiny road that leads up to it, then hoof your way up to the top. Once you get there, this is what you do: bear left, then walk between the inhabited house on your left and the apparently uninhabited house on your right, pass the sleeping black dog, and you’ll see a rusty metal gate. Go around this and on your right you’ll see a path going up with brambles and things only slightly barring your way. Push through them, climb some crude stone stairs (which may or may not be natural; I’ve never worked that out), and you’ll reach a kind of passageway/cave-type thing on your left. Walk through there and you’ll suddenly find yourself in this granite enclosure with a precipitous drop in front of you and the Mediterranean spread out far below. You will immediately feel the urge to worship a heathen god.
On top of all this is a dolmen, a stone structure in which Neolithic people in Europe buried their dead … or at least the most important of their dead. You need only exit the shrine and climb a little further up to examine this and its eerie chambers.
Near Torre is the town of Arraghju, where the Torre civilization built what can really only be described as a castle, or at least a fortress. It is known as “the Castle of Arraghju” and it is far better marked than is the site of Torre. In Arraghju, there really are a lot of signs marking the way, and at the bottom of the trail leading up to the structure (it is high above the town) there is even a little café-type thing where you can buy ice cream and sandwiches and beer (among other liquids … incidentally, Corsicans make a beer out of chestnuts, a traditional island staple, which I can’t stand but which may tickle your fancy).
The hike up the mountain to the castle is not as easy as one might expect for a place that has a café at the bottom. Bring lots of water and wear good shoes. When last I went up, I passed a family that included a number of young children, all wearing flip-flops, and they did not seem to be having a fun vacation experience. For that matter, years ago I climbed up to Arraghju with a 2-year-old who simply couldn’t handle it and whom I had to carry on my shoulders. Neither did I have a fun vacation experience that day.
In the end, though, you will arrive at the castle and you will be impressed. Really. I mean, the structure is seriously old and yet it is clearly a formidable defensive redoubt. It was built entirely out of rocks piled on top of each other—ranging from small to very large 1-ton rocks. However, for a jumble of rocks, it has a clear structure. There is a big gateway as the only entrance, formed by topping the rock walls with a few very large flat rocks. The outside wall of the circular castle is topped by what was obviously a guard walk and in one area in particular you can climb a stairway into a kind of guardroom: by standing in it you can just see over the top of the wall, allowing you to hurl nastiness down on any assailants, with minimal exposure of your own vulnerable bits. True, it’s not Château Gaillard or Krak des Chevalliers (ah, I should write about them one day), but then they aren’t 6,000 years old.
Something happens when you stand in places like that. You look around and wonder—what wars took place here? What sort of men were these, and who were their assailants? Did they believe their deeds would go down in history? Would they be disappointed if they knew they have not? Who were the gods they worshipped in their shrine and who was the chieftain they buried in the dolmen? You can sit on a mountain in the sun and look at the sea and wonder about these kinds of things in Corsica. Pondering is better in the sun.