Corsica

Corsica was always a mysterious place in my mind. Part of France but not fully embracing it, birth place of Napoleon, and possibly Columbus, it’s rugged landscape and isolated location have kept the culture very separate from the world. I wanted to see it, to witness this place apart.

Well, the landscapes are dramatic, and if you were to focus on remote areas and then, say, hike in the mountains I’m certain it would be a magnificent destination. Apart from that, though, it is now very definitely on the tourist trail and the roads are too narrow for their buses and the towns not fully up to dealing with the numbers.

Here, though, are some of the dramatic views.

A Tale of Two Canals

In mid-December we spent a night in Lalinde, a town on the Dordogne River east of Bergerac. As so often happens here in SW France, it turned out to be yet another charming medieval place, but this one has a canal that goes past it. The Lalinde  Canal is a mere 15 km in length and was built in the mid 1800s to by pass a particularly rocky section of the Dordogne River. Today, there isn’t a lot of boat traffic but there is a lovely, paved towpath beside it on which to walk or ride a bike. Even in the dead of winter the charm of it all can put a smile on your face.

About a week later, we loaded our bikes into the car and once again drove past Marmande about five km to cycle the Canal de Garonne towpath. This one was also built in the 19th century to join up with the 17th century Canal de Midi, completing the Canal de Deux Mers from the Mediterranean near Beziers and the Atlantic at Bordeaux. Once again, it was a glorious place to be, even in the dead of winter.

Along the Canals du Midi and du Garonne

I feel like I’ve been gushing with too much praise of our routes on this journey but I can’t help it. There really has been very little about which to complain and a lot that deserved glowing reports. Mostly we’ve taken it pretty easy and that pace continued along the Canal du Midi and the Canal du Garonne. This route is not really for the adventure seeker. It is, however, quintessential France with plane trees paralleling the canal, often closing in overhead to form a complete tunnel that shades the route. The Canal du Midi is a marvel of 17th century engineering that has grown in to feel much like a natural meandering river. The old tow path alongside is a bit rough in places but as long as there is no hurry, this becomes part of its charm. West of Toulouse, on the Canal du Garonne, the surface is paved. Campgrounds and hotels are plentiful and there is no question that, when you stop for a picnic lunch, passersby will shout, “Bon appetit Monsieur/Dame.” The whole experience oozes with charm.

Along the French Mediterranean

After renting a car and speeding across Italy, we cruised into France aboard Corsica Ferries, landing in Bastia on the island of Corsica. Charmed again by an old European town we stayed a couple of days longer than planned then took an overnight ferry to Toulon to begin our bike ride along the Mediterranean coast.

The French Highways Department has done this coastal bit right. The landscape is too rugged to expect separate, quiet roads to cycle on, but a wide shoulder on the road that is a sandy colour as opposed to the black surface of the main road, clearly indicates the bike lane to motorists. This is a stunning ride with lots of climbs through a dry landscape with views of the sea followed by descents into Riviera villages. Sanaray-sur-Mer was an unplanned overnight stop but its charm and its wooden boat festival made it irresistible.

After a few days we made another descent into Marseille and bike routes through the city took us right to the old port. Marseille has a reputation of being a pretty rough place and I don’t know it well enough to comment on that one way or the other. However, the newly restored Vieux Port area is stunning with views across the harbour to the Notre-Dame de la Garde Basilica which towers over the city from the opposite shore.