03 October 2007

Of Corse We Are!

Evening in Canari

Centuries ago, the Corsicans, wary of piracy (other people’s, if not their own) and of invaders, founded most of their settlements high up in the craggy mountains that shoot straight up out of the sea. The villages were difficult to get to, and that was the point. Today, the pirates are mostly gone, and the invaders are more likely to be tourists than foreign armies. But the villages are still difficult to get to.

The mountainsides along the coast are very, very steep, and the roads are necessarily narrow and winding. In much of the country, major thoroughfares are barely wide enough for one car, yet they support two-way traffic. There’s little room to pull over, and sometimes you have to shift into reverse before the other guy can pass. (The right of way, I am told, belongs to the driver who is ascending.) It all sounds perfectly reasonable and well-planned, until you round a curve just as a delivery truck comes careening at you, honking his horn and cursing at you in Corsican so rapid and furious that even other Corsicans couldn’t understand him. Your choices are basically two: die in a head-on collision, or swerve and drop a couple thousand feet into the sea, and die there instead.

It is not such a bad place to die, as these things go, but you wouldn’t mind having more of a say in the matter.

To widen the road would require building some sort of cantilevered support structure for nearly every meter of the coastal road system. And building such a support structure would require tearing up great swaths of Corsican landscape. It is a beautiful country, and the Corsicans prefer to leave it unspoiled. And since the ability to navigate any road at top speeds is a Corsican birthright, it is only outsiders who are frightened.

I have been to Corsica twice now, and I have spent the better part of my driving time closing my eyes and shrieking like a little girl. This affords me a distinctive perspective, and that is why I begin with the roads.

But it is a beautiful coast. The Mediterranean is nowhere bluer than around Corsica, and centuries of volcanic activity produced a dazzling array of rock formations, in rich hues of red, green, black, grey or white that contrast with the blue of the sea. Along the western coast, the red rocks climb like steeples out of the water; in the north, boulders are pocked with immense concavities, most bigger than a man’s head and some as big as a Volkswagen, where gases bubbled and cooled in prehistory. Go inland, and you’ll find green forests nestled amid the mountaintops, where little hunting lodges shelter determined British hiking tourists.

The Corsicans are a proud people, and there’s a fervent separatist movement that expresses itself mainly in graffiti and a resentment of the tourists who represent a large part of the island’s economy. That the tourist trade might dry up, and thus that the island might be left to rely on its other trade, namely wool and cheese, after separating seems to have occurred to nobody. But it is easier to understand the Corsican language (a spite marriage of French and Italian) than to understand Corsican politics.

I came to Corsica primarily to attend the Festival du Chant Lyrique in Canari, at the northernmost tip of the island. A local man, Jacques Scaglia, having gone to work on “the continent” (which is what Corsicans call France), returned to the area in retirement. He’d dreamed of an opera career in his youth, and now he decided to start a music festival, in a beautiful but remote village that is attainable only by those damned roads. It would have been easier to start a skiing tournament in the Sahara, but Jacques was undaunted. Some might call him visionary, others might call him crazy, still others might simply call him Corsican. The Festival just completed its seventh season, and it is in most respects an immense success.

Jacques Scaglia, in the background but on the move;
in the foreground, his daughter Rita

It’s also a family affair. From what I can see, Jacques does approximately 95 percent of all the work himself: typing and printing and mailing and planning and fundraising and organizing and inviting and arranging and hiring and suggesting and cajoling and running around very, very fast. His wife Evaline does approximately 80 percent, including driving people to and from airports and guesthouses. Their five daughters contribute about 75 percent — each. I realize that this adds up to something greater than 100 percent, but the Scaglias’ level of activity defies conventional mathematics.

The Festival takes place in an old convent overlooking the sea. In good weather, the piano is installed in the cloister, which has excellent acoustics and a cheerfully casual ambiance. It’s easy to have fun, and when Gabriel Bacquier is conducting a master class there (as he does on alternating summers), he keeps the audience engaged and the singers relaxed. It’s a regular garden party. But the evenings at high altitude are chilly in late summer, and singers must protect their voices, so sometimes we move into the chapel, 501 years old now, with many of its original decorations and all of its original dust. The acoustics there are pretty good, too, but the ambiance is more solemn, and it’s not unusual to see the singers and audience stop to genuflect as they enter, in a way they don’t in most concert halls.

Bacquier and a prize-winning soubrette: Who’s the charmer?

This year, the Festival featured a singing competition, with some two dozen young artists vying for prizes in operatic and operetta rep. Bacquier’s master classes last year drew singers who were less advanced, in technique and career, than the crowd who converged in Canari this year. They came from as far as California and China. Several were truly impressive, and I didn’t envy the judges’ task in selecting winners. I’d have written down the names of the ones I liked best … but I wasn’t attending in a professional capacity this year, and I was trying to be discreet.

The principal beneficiary of the Festival is not a prize-winning singer, however, it’s the proprietor of the local restaurant, the Auberge du Clocher, named for the old bell tower that stands nearby. There aren’t many dining options in Canari, so at mealtimes you can be sure to find all the singers, the competition directors and judges, and much of the audience gathered at the Auberge’s tables. (You can also find Jacques Scaglia’s grandson, seven-year-old Ange Dolémieux, fast asleep: we never get to eat before his bedtime.) The food is excellent, with a focus on fresh seafood — they bring the catch of the day to the table and let you pick — but the menu is limited and the prices aren’t cheap. The conviviality is such that you don’t mind (much). Adjacent to the dining room is a bar with a television that distracted some of us during a rugby match. Typically for me, I wasn’t sure who was playing, but Gabriel Bacquier was disappointed with the results, and it took some cajoling to restore him to his usual expansive good humor.

P’tit déj: Pierrette and André Dolémieux at the Clocher

Corsican cuisine is hearty, with abundant influences from Italy and Provence, and thus very much to my taste. I’m especially fond of the local charcuterie, which includes figatelli, dry sausage made from pig’s liver; and — there’s no easy way to say this — another sausage made from donkey. I don’t know what part of the donkey. Does it matter? At dessert, there’s a wonderful cheesecake, fiadone, made with the local sheep’s milk cheese, brocciu.

There’s not a lot of level ground in Canari, and woe to the schoolkid who kicks a ball out of the playground: with very little to stop it, the ball will bounce straight downhill, through three tiny hamlets, and into the ocean, until it drops on a sea urchin that punctures and ruins it. All Europeans are soccer-mad, but in Canari the ability to block with accuracy is especially highly esteemed, because the school’s P.E. budget depends on it.

Much of the town’s acreage is given over to churches, graveyards, and tiny pastures, all within a stone’s throw of the convent. Last year, I observed that we lacked only a cat to round out a company of Brementown Musicians: Bacquier’s master classes were frequently interrupted by cries from a donkey, several roosters, and a couple of dogs. On breaks between songs, I sometimes went exploring the neighborhood.

The Romanesque church in Canari

Most interesting architecturally is the tiny, rough-hewn Romanesque church, perpetually locked and surrounded by wary cattle and their abundant dung. But the graveyards are fascinating, too, with crooked row upon row of “maisons des morts,” nine-foot-tall mausoleums that the Corsicans maintain with reverent pride. They make of a cemetery a kind of village within a village. I wonder whether the dead require such lavish accommodations, and whether they appreciate remaining so very close to all their neighbors not only all their lives but for all eternity.

For those still among the living, houses tend to be built uphill and downhill on several levels, and it’s not uncommon to run up or down a flight of stairs to go to the bathroom. The bigger houses are called “American,” because their builders went abroad (usually to South America) to seek their fortunes, then came home to construct the fanciest places they could. There’s an American mansion just west of Canari, and it looks like a big square fortress, with four turrets that recall the watchtowers that the Genovese built all along the Corsican coast centuries ago. We may presume the neighbors were impressed — and probably intimidated, too. I certainly am: I’ve never set foot near the place.

During both my visits to Corsica, I have stayed with Jacques’ daughter Rita and her husband, Pascal Dolémieux. I’d never met Rita before my first visit, and we didn’t see each other again until I returned to Canari. Yet I feel as if I’ve known her since college days: she is so outgoing that she skips the preliminaries and arrives directly at her destination, which is warmth and sharing and hilarity, a kind of friendship that is no less dear for its being so sudden. She is immense fun to be around — as is Pascal, though he was on assignment for much of the time I was in Canari this year, and we didn’t see as much of each other.

Le Château de ma Rita, la Gloire de mon Pascal

Both Rita and Pascal are professional photographers, and they determined that it would be possible to take advantage of recent technological advances: they could lead perfectly good careers without living in Paris. They bought a huge farmhouse, a mansion really, in the hamlet of Magna Suttana in Cap Corse, not far from Canari and Marinca, the town where Jacques and Evaline live. I say “not far,” but that’s as the crow flies: as the human drives, it’s a death-defying 30-minute ride. But — yes — very beautiful.

The mansion itself is huge, and with it come a number of outbuildings that I have been unable to count: I did try, this time. Impressed by the eighteenth-century elegance of the central structure, with its lofty, fresco-bedecked ceilings and patterned-tile floors, I declared that it’s not a house, it’s a château. It’s also a fixer-upper, and though Rita and Pascal had barely unpacked when they hosted me last year, they’ve performed wonders since then, all the more remarkable since the house is reached not by a street but by a winding, rocky dirt path. Pascal bought a sort of four-wheeled scooter to transport material (and, on occasion, his mother, Pierrette).

The Château’s driveway

From its windows and terraces, the Château commands several remarkable views of the pristine hillsides that slope down past another abandoned church, several vineyards, the town of Macinaggio, the islands of Elba and Capraia, and, in clear weather, the Ligurian coast of Italy. Look behind the Château and you’ll see a real château, as well as the hamlet of Magna Suprana and several energy-producing windmills. Look up, at night, and you’ll see more stars than you thought possible, as well as great flights of bats, most of whom reside by day in the Château, particularly in the belfry, which is a guest room. Last year I was advised to keep the windows open, so the bats could get in and out. They’re peaceable creatures, albeit smelly, and they do a terrific job of controlling the insect population. Just try not to be awake when they’re coming or going, and don’t leave your suitcase open, unless you want to bring the droppings home.

Rita and Pascal have thrown themselves into their new way of life with unbounded enthusiasm. Rita has discovered one of Cap Corse’s rare sandy beaches, and it’s an off day if she doesn’t get there; Pascal has made a point of getting to know all the best local vintners, and he’s taken up spear-fishing. Both of them seem genuinely to adore showing off the local marvels to their visitors: Rita and Pascal’s eyes fairly sparkle as they serve up an exotic dish or even a glass of water (drawn from the public fountain, fed by a mineral spring, just up the road), then point out another breathtaking view. “Just wait until you try this,” they seem to say. Young Ange has caught the spirit of the place. Ask him why he’s done a thing, and he’ll reply, “Because I’m Corsican!”

One view from the Château

It is small wonder that I’m seduced by this island: I have found such a wealth of flavors and sounds and images, and so many fascinating friends there. I feel a new sympathy for Napoleon, who in his exile on Elba could see Corsica but couldn’t return there. Unlike him, I shall go back.

Even if I have to drive there.