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CORSICA IS A RARITY, an oddity, its language as endangered as its Corsican red deer. It's been invaded and owned by nearly everyone, including Greeks, Arabs, Romans, Brits, Pisans, Genoese, and the French. It was independent for only 14 years, before being reclaimed by France in 1769, right before Napoleon was born there, which perhaps explains why the little tyrant was so pissed off. If you buy a house here now, the Corsicans may blow it up, as certain separatist groups have done in the past, just to show you how pleased they are about foreigners coming in. Their towns are in the mountains because they kept losing the ones by the sea.
But if you come only to hike, you've found the best-kept secret (from Americans anyway) in the Mediterranean, its most mountainous island, crisscrossed by trails that offer medieval stone villages set against pinnacles and chestnut groves. This is the Mediterranean I dream of, a summer island too fantastical to be real. How can that perfect white stone village exist right there, perched on that mountain?
People have been hiking here since the last ice age, almost 10,000 years ago. Today, the GR20 is the most famous trail, running the length of the island north to south for more than 100 miles. I opted for the 60-mile Mare a Mare Sud, a five- or six-day hike across the southern part of the island, and my thoughts were primarily on food.
My wife, Nancy, and I started in Porto-Vecchio, a medieval walled town on the southeast coast. It was the middle of June, perfect sunny skies. We'd bought new ultralight packs and felt very flashy, except, like a total rube, I'd weighed mine down with a laptop. On day one, this brought me almost to fisticuffs with a café owner because I focused more on my computer than on his food. We quickly made up and soon he poured us glasses of his own myrt, a local liqueur made from purple myrtle flowers gathered high on the mountain. It was the most intense histamine shock I've ever had, like breathing in all the pollen in the world, but I loved it. Nancy loved it, too, so the owner gave us a bottle for our hike, more glasses were poured, and it was a rollicking night. They may blow up your house, but Corsicans will also smother you in love.
We set off the next morning late and straight up a 3,000-foot mountain, carrying our bottle of myrt. So much for ultralight. Views of the sea going light blue into white sand, an open trail with white rock and evergreen forest. That odd Mediterranean feeling of remote physical beauty and the center of culture at the same time.
We stayed that night in our first gîte d'étape, a kind of bed-and-breakfast set up for backpackers (recommendations at corsica.forhikers.com/mare-mare-sud; from $50), in the mountain village of Cartalavonu. We ordered Aubergines de Madame Monti, an eggplant recipe that's been in the owner's family for at least 130 years. We had brought our tent and bags, but this was an error. It's not legal to camp anywhere along the trail, and campsites for tents are few and far between. Who would want to miss the gîtes and the meals anyway? The Europeans we met already knew these secrets. We had the largest packs on the trail.
The next day was a long, tough hike to Carbini, a tiny town on a hilltop with spectacular views, but that was only the first leg. Our afternoon leg was to Levie, which would've been an easy traverse along the hillside if you followed the road. But our trail dove straight down into a ravine, then straight back up. I consoled myself with thoughts of the Giovannali brotherhood back in Carbini, who had it worse. Building a lovely white stone church and bell tower and calling themselves "the Johns," they flipped the bird at the Pope, so he persecuted them. An early chapter in Corsican rebellion, the most recent being the design of these trails. You can almost hear the laughter from the towns.
The trail offered several more days of truly amazing calf burners, but we found consolation on day four at Le Ranch, in Sorbollano, a small bed-and-breakfast run by a French hottie who likes horses. Here we had our best meal of the vacation, prepared by her motherduck, in the lightest gravy, with stuffed courgettes (zucchini) and a fancy local dessert of cheese and strong liqueur fixed like whipped cream, with several fruit sauces and a small chestnut torte. At the end, salad with a special ritual for the small radishes, dipping each in a bit of salt, then devouring it with buttered bread. Wine throughout, of course. My first backpacking trip in which I was getting tipsy every night and gaining weight every day. My first backpacking trip, also, in which every day I saw a new medieval village, finding Zonza on day five as we traversed above cliffs or St. Lucie later that afternoon, clustered in tight rings on a hilltop below. When we arrived again at the shore, we continued traveling north along the west coast to Porto, with its red-rock cliffs and castle perched at the harbor entrance. We swam in the ancient sea and wondered how any of this was possible.