Whoever devised the aphorism 'between a rock and a hard place' must have driven around Corsica. This magic island, just to the north of Sardinia and west of Italy, has its rocky feet in the water and its hinterland of rugged peaks in turbulent cloud. Edging the island is a narrow ribbon of road which literally cuts through pinnacles of rosy granite. To one side are soaring cliffs, to the other, dreadful drops to the Prussian-blue waters embracing this extraordinary island. It is wise, indeed, always to drive in a clockwise direction around Corsica - this way you keep the cliffs on your side of the road and the precipitous fall-off to the sea to others.
It's a journey well worth making. Corsica's azure seas and talcum powder beaches are mere introductions to her splendours. Her snaggle-tooth granite mountains are the highest in the Mediterranean and at nearly 3,000 metres are often snow-capped, even in summer. The high valleys shelter great forests of chestnut and cork trees, while down below the air is scented by the maquis, a dense undergrowth of myrtle, lavender, honeysuckle, cyclamen and wild mint. So heady is the all-pervading perfume of the maquis that Napoleon, Corsica's best-known son, announced that he would "recognise Corsica with my eyes closed, simply by its perfume".
We started our jaunt in Ajaccio, Corsica's capital, having flown from Marseilles but you can travel also from both Marseilles or Nice by overnight ferry.
Ajaccio itself is not the most thrilling of cities, although there is a decent corniche edged by spectacular beaches, a huge necropolis whose tombs have sea views and some their own walled gardens, and a few crumbling watchtowers, built in the 13th century by Corsica's ancient enemies, the Genoese.
After driving among what seemed to be the island's Bondidiscos, take-away food shops and a nightclub promising "sea, sex and sun", we arrived at Le Maquis in Porticcio, a blissful hotel with its own beach, fine dining terrace, pools and cool whitewashed and wood-beamed bedrooms. From here we explored the inland, travelling past cliff-hanging villages and pretty vineyards and along the corkscrew roads to the spectacular Prunelli gorge at the base of an awesome mountain range.
Another heat-filled day we drove the 140 kilometres to Bonifacio (3½ hours that required every bit of British phlegm we could muster - the locals drive like Latin lunatics), where the pretty port, filled with rich kids' yachts, is dominated by the great stone citadel and high village. Eighty per cent of Bonifacio's people live on the edge of the sheer cliffs of the High Village, best viewed from the sea on the many tourist boats which ply from the port. Here, you'll see spectacular grottos, sheltered coves of emerald waters and salt-white sands. You'll yearn to have your own boat so you can potter at will. In nearby Porto Vecchio 17 miles (27 kilometres from Bonifacio) we succumbed, organising an inflatable raft to take ourselves off on a picnic to a cove inaccessible by road. All went merry as a marriage bell - delicious picnic, superb swimming and the beach to ourselves - until the return journey, when the outboard packed up. We spent a blister-raising hour paddling until a kindly German in a dead-smart motor yacht took us under tow back to the sybaritic comforts of Porto Vecchio's Grand Hotel de Cala Rossa Hotel.
At SUNSET you sit on the balcony of your room watching the world turn to RED as the dying sun turns the Calanches to fire.
You find yourselves in boats a lot in Corsica, for so inhospitable is the interior, and so tummy lurching the coastal road, and so beautiful the vistas from the sea, it becomes almost obligatory to hire a boat each day of your journey. This we did at Porto, the companion village to Piana where one goes to see Les Calanches - a coast of orange and rose granite which is one of the world's most spectacular sights. Pick a hotel with heart-stopping views of Les Calanches. At sunset you sit on the balcony of your room watching a world turn to red as the dying sun turns the Calanches to fire.
From Piana we gathered enough courage to face once more the roads and moved on to Calvi. Through the centuries, Calvi has been fought over, besieged, destroyed, rebuilt a dozen times, and has emerged as a busy port with endless seaside cafes, a looming citadel, until just eight years ago the headquarters of the French Foreign Legion, and some of the best seafood in the world.
Here, we stayed at Hotel Magnolia, basic, not luxurious at all but with comfortable bedrooms and a gated, green-filled courtyard where you eat your breakfast. However, it has to be the noisiest hotel in the world, situated as it is above the bustling port and a grand square full of cafes and music. (Remember to shut your double-glazed windows.)
Corsica has a bloody history, suffers from a type of cultural amnesia - it is not big on art galleries, music or drama - and there is little you will want to buy there. On the other hand its dramatic landscape is the stuff of dreams, its wild forests test the imagination, and everywhere the sea performs a litany of its own. It's easy to believe the tales of vengeance and romance, recounted in the wind-washed villages and in the cafes where gossip is the island's lifeblood. It's a verbal history and lucky is the traveller who is asked to share it.
Go for the 'to hell with it' independent attitude of the locals, the rugged, hostile landscape and the ever-present enchantment of its tideless seas.
Words: Jill Mullens. Photos: Frank Mullens 3/4/10