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Sunday, December 11, 2011

Relax and embrace the peace and perfect quiet

As our flight banked towards Bastia’s Poretta Airport, a surge of excitement hit us.

After holidays in Spain, Belgium, Italy and France, Canada, Argentina and Chile we were back in Corsica  - Kaliste (“the most beautiful”) to the Greeks  - for the fourth time in 11 years, unable to resist the charm that had captivated and entranced us so completely. After holidaying in past years in the Balagne, Lama and Propriano we were going to break new ground and stay near Porto-Vecchio in the south east corner of the island, in the sure and certain faith that dramatic mountains, white sanded beaches and spectacular scenery awaited.

This time we stayed in the Casa di L’Olivu half way between Bonifacio and Porto Vecchio and as we drove to our cottage - lost in the herb-scented maquis - we were at ease with the world and ready to embrace the peace and quiet, simplicity and splendour of this magical island. The owner– François Maestrati – was there to meet us, in his arms a welcoming and gigantic basket of fruit and vegetables from his own organic garden – the plumpest melons, tomatoes, courgettes, onions, aubergines and peppers which were to serve us well over the next week. Born and bred in the area, François proudly showed us around. The shuttered windows of the bergerie style property were hand made local carpenter copies of 19th century style, the beams were rescued from old barns and walls decorated in neutral shades giving the villa a warm and welcoming feel with comfort being a key theme. With spacious and safe grassy grounds surrounding the private and inviting pool and tiled barbecue area, this property is perfect for children to play and adults to relax.

In popped Alberti Salvi - a local farmer curious to see the new tenants but to tell us his home made ewe’s cheese – his tomme de brebis – was “the best on the island” and traditionally eaten with local red when very over ripe. “If only you had been here a month before, we could have spread the pungent cheese – maggots and all – onto a slice of bread and given you a real taste of Corsica” smiled Alberti. My wife, pale at the thought, was glad we had chosen September for our holiday.

As for local wine there was plenty of it as the Casa backed onto one of the island’s outstanding vineyards – the Clos Canarelli – whose reputation for red wine using the native nielluccia grape has rocketed in recent years. The quality and status of Corsican wine making has risen so much over the last 10 years that there is now a huge choice of premium wines to reward the island’s effort to do away with the cheap table variety and concentrate on finesse. The Clos is a devotee of biodynamic farming. Biodynamic winemakers claim to have noted stronger, clearer, more vibrant tastes, as well as wines that remain drinkable longer. Methods unique to the biodynamic approach include the use of fermented herbal and mineral preparations as compost additives and field sprays and the use of an astronomical sowing and planting calendar. The famous Hotel Crillon in Paris has the Clos Canerelli on its wine list as does one of the finest hotel/restaurants not only in Corsica and France but Europe.

The Grand Hotel Cala Rossa – a 30-minute drive away, is superb in its setting, amenities and cuisine. With its own stunning beach, patios and terraces, jetty and boats, boarded walkways and bars and restaurants overlooking the bay of Port Vecchio it is a paradise of fine living. It has been in the Canarelli family for 47 years, bought by meat trader Jean -Toussaint in 1963 and now run by he and his beautiful and charming daughter Hélène, once a jewellery designer but now the driving force behind the day to day running of the Cala Rossa. 41 exquisite rooms in a hotel served by 120 staff, the island’s best wine waiter – Patrick Fiaramonti - subdued musical entertainment in the evening, and exquisite outdoor or indoor dining rooms await you. Its Michelin star cuisine under the great Georges Billon is Corsican and classic. Try the menu saveurs which offer seven courses that fused the great natural scents and smells, colours and tastes of the maquis to meat and fish of incomparable freshness and quality. We had wild mushroom risotto, langouste with tarragon butter, wild sea bass, fillet of veal with wild herbs from the maquis, unpasteurised cheese, a pre-pudding and then a symphony of raspberry, all washed down by fine Grotte di Sole 2008 white from Patrimono and a Clos Canarelli 2005 red.

When you can eventually tear yourself away from Casa di L’Olivu, there is a wide choice of stunning beaches in the area whether you fancy visiting the famous golden sands of Palombaggia, Santa Giulia (both in Europe’s Top 20 beaches) and Rondinara or exploring the untouched coves near Bonifacio.

The highlight of any visit to Corsica is the dramatic climb via the road between Solenzara and Zonza up to the Col de Bavella to get a panoramic view of the craggy giant needles of the 4,000 feet high Aiguilles de Bavella and the sparkling sea beyond. Here you see walkers from all over the world on France’s most famous Grande Randonnée – the G20 – le grand GR - the north to south trekking trail of 170 kilometres - making their way through the wild granite peaks and towering crests along the spine of Corsica. Return to the coast via Zonza, the picture postcard village with the highest race track in Europe at nearly 3,500 feet and a centre for maquisard resistance against the Germans in World War II. Eat Corsican wild boar charcuterie in the Hôtel Aiglon, try their Muntenalla of mountain delicacies - gratin de verdure, chestnut flavoured polenta, grilled figatellu liver sausage and sweet chestnuts steeped in muscat - for a mere 18 euros and make your dizzy way down to the sun-splashed sea.

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