2p.m Saturday 23rd of April I said good bye to Bonneville and began my trip south. Intending to return to New Zealand in June a bronzed beauty, I thought the south of France would be the best place to be. So, of course, the further south I head, the darker and more threatening it becomes.
I arrived in a cold and drizzly Bastia at 7a.m on Sunday morning after a very long ferry crossing. From this point on things all got rather interesting. A lack of cheap accommodation in Corsica meant I had to look outside the box. Enter: Maison Saint Hyacinthe, a convent 7km into the mountains outside of Bastia.
Not wanting to intrude on the nuns too early on Easter Sunday, I camped myself on a bench in la Place Saint Nicholas to observe the Sunday morning rituals. A flea market was being set up at one end of the square and a cycle race at the other. Old men in cloth caps and plaid shirts shuffled past me, making comments about the weather; I did have my sunglasses perched optimistically on my head.
I eventually caught a taxi out of Bastia and up the hill to the convent. Pippa had arrived late the night before to a rather angry head nun but we were glad to see that we had each arrived safe and on the right side of the Island. While filling in the accommodation forms, the Chaplain spoke to us in Polish. Our home for the next two nights was to be a Polish convent in the mountains of Corsica.
We began the walk two kilometres down the hill to the nearest bus stop. We missed the bus but instead picked up a dog which liked to chase cars and snap at their wheels. The dog followed us for the remaining five kilometres into the town centre of Bastia despite our efforts to lose it. We even asked two police officers what they would recommend, only to be laughed at and told we could keep him as a travel companion. We lost the dog only by sneaking into a café to eat ice cream for lunch.
The rest of the afternoon we spent walking around the port and citadel areas of Bastia. For our first proper meal in days we decided to treat ourselves to a restaurant by the harbour. For the very reasonable price of €18 we had an entrée, main and dessert. We had mussels and whole baked fish: there is just something about eating fish when you can see the fishing boats bobbing calmly in the port.
The next morning the nun was appalled when we told her that we had walked all the way to Bastia. She said we must faire du stop, or hitchhike… After a feeble attempt we decided we just couldn’t bring ourselves to do this. We had resigned ourselves to another 7km walk when a car pulled over and offered us a lift. We jumped in, only to be confronted by a lovely set of gold teeth. With childhood memories of Denis the Menace and stranger danger school lessons running through my head, we made it to the centre of Bastia. Only to take a bus straight back in the direction we had come from to a little seaside village called Erbalunga on the Cap Corse coast.
In an isolated Corsican village on a sedentary Easter Monday, we hit a low. After a very expensive phone call to New Zealand I discovered I had about €2 to my name. Not even enough to afford a hot chocolate when the rain set in for the afternoon. We walked the 2km hill back up to the nunnery in the rain, occasionally catching each others eye and laughing at the hilarity of our current situation.
The next day we left the convent heading to Calvi on the other side of the Island. On our one carriage train that seemed about as old as the Island itself, and later a bus, we wound through the Corsican Mountains. I was pleased to see we seemed to be heading towards the sun. We passed by fields of olive trees, big green nets hanging underneath the trees. The highest mountains still had white peaks while others were a brilliant red. We saw the pine trees that I only associate with Mediterranean climates, their very trunks seeming to exude heat.
Once in Calvi, lunch, bathrooms and accommodation were our top priorities, in that order. After finding a hotel for the night we were free to explore Calvi: the citadel, the beach and the supermarket for a €10 dinner. The next morning we planned to leave Calvi quite early for Ajaccio. Once again, finances proved to be inhibiting as Pippa’s card declined buying the train tickets. We headed to the beach to lie on golden sand and watch the surf: the best place to decide our next move.
We eventually made it on a bus bound for Ajaccio, though of course we couldn’t expect the journey to pass smoothly. The public transport system in Corsica reflects the Island life perfectly. There is really only one major line throughout the Island which services all the big towns. Unless you would like to do a whole tour, you must make several transport changes. A man directs all the passengers where to stand in the dusty car park and then you must wait (and hope) for the connection.
Less than 30 minutes from Ajaccio our train began to slow and puff rather violently. Pippa commented how funny it would be if it broke down, stuck in the middle of the mountains. Our train chugged to a noisy halt, the drivers jumped onto the track, hammers and other tools in hand, while the carriage filled with smoke. We waited and waited and the cold, damp dark began to descend. The train rolled back to the last station where, again, we waited and waited.
A bus arrived to take us to Ajaccio but our night was not over yet. Money issues are not a recent development in our lives: we have become quite accustomed to eating baguette for lunch and dinner on some days, scrimping for train tickets and finding cheap accommodation. Alors, enter: Couch Surfing. In front of the closed Ajaccio train station we waited until 10.30, with each passing minute thinking our luck had finally run out and wondering what we were going to do stranded in Ajaccio late at night.
Mr. Couch Surfer eventually showed up, energy drink in hand. We piled into his little car and began to drive out of Ajaccio… He explained that his house had become almost a hostel for couch surfers in the recent months, with at least one couch surfer every night for over a month. We made quick introductions, discussed Tolkien and Lord of the Rings and then very nearly passed out with exhaustion.
The next morning we rose early and walked another 35 minutes into Ajaccio town centre. Morning bank balance check revealed that we were now in the money, from rags to riches overnight. We spent the morning wandering around Ajaccio, enjoying the sun, the markets and the palm trees. In the afternoon we found a beach and swam in the Mediterranean! The water was clear blue, the sand golden and there were sail boats just off shore.
Late that night, after a lovely meal in a harbour side restaurant we took a taxi back up to Mr. Couch Surfer’s house. The driver got slightly confused and we were dropped off about 100 metres down the road. It was dark and there was no footpath, just steep rock rising up from the road. We took off running and every time a car passed we threw ourselves against the rock. Another night on Mr. Couch Surfer’s couch. Another early start, ready for our ferry back to mainland France at 8.15a.m. As a parting gesture from Corsica the heavens opened and it poured.
A series of unexpected events in Corsica, but despite all that happened, I loved the rustic charm of this Island. At times though, this “rustic charm” was just plan ol’ run down. I loved the diverse and interesting terrain. And I loved the Corsican people: polite, friendly and always keen for a chat.