Sunday, 5 November 2017

Corsica V: Mountains, and a bonus

Our last day in Corsica was spent crossing the island, winding up one side of the central mountains, and winding down the other.  And regretting not having far more time there, for the whole country but specifically for the several beautiful gorges with long hiking trails.  The trails were fairly old - some of the recent upgrades were done by the Romans.  This bridge near Ota wasn't quite that old, but was an amazing piece of stone work, a slender arch less that two feet thick spanning a large river, and strong enough to support countless mule trains over the centuries.
The higher mountains had forests of pines, other conifers and some deciduous trees showing fall colours, with soaring granite cliffs behind them.  They looked like Yosemite or other parts of the US southwest.  Right near treeline were some huge, weather-beaten Corsican black pines that I had to add to my sketch collection of Really Big Trees of the World.
Overnight at an olive farm surrounded by grapefruit orchards near Bastia, then back home.  I didn't get any drawing done while negotiating the metropolis of Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris, but I did get this one quick sketch in of our IcelandAir landing in Reykjavik - huge storm waves on the North Atlantic, the dark coastal rocks and green tundra.  About as far as you could get from the sunny turquoise Mediterranean in a few hours' flight...

Friday, 3 November 2017

Corsica IV: Piana and the Calanches

Back to the coast, we stayed a couple nights in an elegant hotel from the early twentieth century.  Les Roches Rouges in Piana was the place to be in the 1920's, but was abandoned for several decades.  It is now being resurrected, and has an appealing decayed art deco Jazz Age vibe - it is a pretty fine place to be in this century too.
Like most places in coastal Corsica, there's a beach.  No aggressive cows here, but there was a large herd of goats to navigate by on the winding road from Piana.  And - unusual in our experience on Corsica - there were other people on the beach.  Nine of them, to be precise (I counted).  One of the 16th-century anti-pirate guard towers dominates a rock outcrop in the background.
A main attraction in the area is the Calanches, a range of jagged red mountains eroded into fantastical shapes.  We climbed way up into the alpine, seeing only one other person - a Corsican hunter who pointed out the best trails, speaking in Corsu, which is a surprisingly understandable medieval form of Italian with some French thrown in.  We did a bit of scrambling up some small peaks, where the eroded stone made ridiculously easy hand- and foot-holds.  I sat on top of one outcrop and drew the rock formations, one of which looked either like a French aristocrat or mating cows, depending on your point-of-view.

Wednesday, 1 November 2017

Corsica III: Hill towns

Along with the coastal fishing villages, Corsica is also covered in a scattering of hill towns.  A few hundred people cluster together in a dense ancient settlement, largely surrounded by forest.  In Pigna, the thing to be is a luthier, although potters, music-box-makers and other artists and craftspeople are popular choices too.  There is also at least one good cook, as our al fresco lunch featuring wild mushrooms showed.
The lower hillslopes also have vineyards, including about 20 small family wineries in the Patrimonio region.  We did a quick tour one afternoon, then had a picnic of wine, cheese and bread on the pier in St. Florent.

We spent one night in one of the higher towns, Speluncato, which wraps itself around a rocky outcrop, surrounded by bigger mountains.  It was a cool autumn late afternoon when we got up the long, winding and narrow road to the town, with the clouds hanging on the nearby peaks.  Kids were playing "spy" in the piazza, complete with walkie-talkies, and were delighted that a foreigner showed up and engaged in clearly suspicious behaviour involving a notebook and something cleverly designed to look like a watercolour kit and brushes.

The next morning was brilliantly sunny, perfect for hanging out in all the little nooks and crannies in the centuries-old laneways.  It's a pretty quiet place - passersby were two cats, and one old dog who also thought I was suspicious, until he decided that he was more sleepy than suspicious and had a nap at my feet.

Monday, 30 October 2017

Corsica II: Cinturi and St Florent

The drive across Cap Corse and down the west coast is slow - not just because of the narrow winding roads, but because you want to stop at every picturesque village and beautiful undeveloped hillside or coast.  Which is to say, everywhere.  The fishing port of Cinturi was one stop on the way, where we lingered long enough for a quick sketch of the boats in the harbour, and the actual Cinturi, a hillside village, way above it.  This is a common set-up - the main village far above the port.  We wondered why - pirates?
St Florent is a bigger town, popular with the yachting set (one harbourside restaurant cleverly offered delivery to your boat), but very quiet in the still-perfect days of early autumn.  The main event in town is the 5 o'clock gathering of older men to play bocce/petanque/boules in the tree-lined piazza dedicated to the purpose.  The same thing happens at the same time in every settlement with a male population of 4 or more throughout Corsica.
The area also has large nature reserves and beautiful swimming beaches.  I tried a quick paint-only sketch of the outrageous colours in one bay - not very successful, and not helped much by the addition of some water-soluble blue ink.  I blame a long hike in the sun, plus lack of practice.  There must be some kind of Canada Council grant I could get to work on my sketching of remote Mediterranean beaches...

Sunday, 29 October 2017

Corsica I: Bastia and Cap Corse

For people used to BC Ferries, the ferry to Corsica was ... different.  Think restaurants with waiters, lounges with armchairs and brass fittings, reclining deck chairs, a pool.  It was a re-purposed cruise ship, so now I can check "Go on a cruise" off my bucket list (where it occupied one of the bottom-most positions).  We cruised past Capraia Isola, Island of Goatherdesses, on the way - one of several sparsely inhabited isolated Mediterranean Islands that very few people have ever heard of.
Bastia is a main town on Corsica, but still small.  We walked across half of it and back in the two and a half hours that the rental car agency was closed for lunch.  We toured the old town and had lunch in the plaza of the citadel, where this old palace had two clocks - an original sundial that was perfectly accurate (except not programmed to change to daylight savings time), and a more modern mechanical clock that was broken.
When we got the car - a fearsome Citroen Berlingo - we made our way towards the north end of Cap Corse, and were quickly winding along mostly undeveloped coast, with little villages above on the treed slopes, and almost no one on the roads.  And that's the way it would stay for our entire trip around the north half of the island - relentlessly curvy roads, large areas of wild maquis scrubland, forest and alpine, scattered ancient villages, and more pigs and goats than cars on the roads.  We hiked for over three hours around a nature reserve and several beaches the next morning, following the Sentier des Douaniers on the north end of the island, and saw precisely 0 other people.  This guard tower is one of a series that ring the island.  They were built to warn of pirate attacks, apparently the bane of Corsicans for several centuries.  The watchmen lit a fire on the tower when pirates sailed over the horizon, and the signal was taken up by adjacent towers, spreading the message around the whole island in a couple of hours.  It was the Twitter of its time.

Friday, 27 October 2017

Cinque Terre II, and Livorno

Hiking between the isolated villages is a main attraction in Cinque Terre.  With the steep terrain and a couple of trails closed because of landslides, some of the hikes are quite strenuous (= more than half a Grouse Grind, for Vancouverites).  But they give great views of the coast and the villages before you descend down to them.
The villages were once all about fishing.  I think there is still some of that, but now the boats mostly transfer train-weary tourists from one village to another, and serve as props for sketchers.
We were lucky enough to be there when there was a storm somewhere over the Mediterranean.  We had calm and sunny skies, but there were big waves breaking over the piers and the rocks at the base of the cliffs.  We went to Riomaggiore, the southern-most village, and had a glass of wine in a cafe right on the edge of the coastal cliffs with the crashing surf right below us.  We stayed to watch the sun set, then caught a train back to our village for dinner.
After our three days in Cinque Terre, we caught a train south to Livorno.  The city is trying to market itself as "The New Venice".  Indeed, it has canals - drawn here in the last 5 minutes of daylight - but the charm? - not quite there.  Still, we stayed in a funky witch-themed bed-and-breakfast full of modern art and ate at a fun cat-themed restaurant speaking hilariously terrible Italian to the owner who spoke hilariously poor English, so what more could we want in a quick overnight stay before our morning ferry to Corsica?

Thursday, 26 October 2017

Cinque Terre I: Vernazza

From Genoa, it was a simple train ride to Cinque Terre - TrenItalia doesn't have a problem with wet leaves, mainly because it is always dry and sunny.  Cinque Terre are a group of 5 old villages spaced along the Ligurian coast.  Because the area is so steep, roads are marginal and there is really no car traffic.  The villages are well served by a rail line - mostly underground in tunnels - but the best way to get between the villages is on the age-old footpaths.  We stayed in Vernazza, a beautiful village steeply arrayed around a perfect little harbour.  The buildings piled on top of each other up the hill offer many places to have a glass of wine and enjoy the view of the other side of town.  The shutters are all green, as specified by the Commissioner of Good Taste*.
The little caruggi (alleyways) here are narrower than in the big city, and much steeper.  Half of them are stairs, often winding around, and sometimes under, people's houses.  It gives that half-indoor / half-outdoor architecture that is so appealing as human habitat - and challenging for urban sketchers!
The church tower is easier to draw, especially when you're sitting on the wharf in the sun with a chocolate croissant.

The area is largely overrun by tourists, but you can time hikes and train trips to avoid most of them, and it is easy to find quiet places off the beaten trails.  Many of the tourists stay in nearby towns, so it is quieter in the piazza in the evening, when more locals come out for soccer games on the beach and discussions in the square.
* Oh yes, there really is a Commissioner of Good Taste.