On The Lamm in Corsica…
Le 19e Festival du Vent
My dear friend Melinda Bates and I have been touring Corsica and the South of France. Currently we are in Corsica for two weeks.
I planned the trip originally for researching a novel I’ve been working on that takes place in Corsica. The idea was to scout locations so the descriptions would be believable. Soooo, the first day at the office of the “Residences” for the apartment I rented, I asked one of the owners, Jerome, where in Corsica would be the best place to disappear and no one would ever find you. I thought it was a perfectly reasonable question, but he looked at me oddly. Perhaps my question wasn’t clearly phrased. I tried again. “If you were going to hide somewhere on the Island where no one would be likely to find you, ever, where would you go?”
“Are you hiding out from the authorities?” he finally asked with a great deal of trepidation. He moved back a bit from me as if I were about to attack him. Now I’m five foot five and a bit and he’s well over six feet and looks pretty muscular. Could he have feared the pinch of the stiletto that most Corsican ladies of yore carried hidden in their belts?
Melinda came to my rescue. “No, not at all. She’s writing a book and need this information for her story.”
Jerome exhaled with obvious relief. It didn’t seem that it was hard for him to imagine two American ladies of a certain age going on the lamm from the authorities into the wilds of Corsica, or perhaps planning a caper that might call for them to hide out. Hmmmm. I’m still not sure what that says about him, the Corsican mentality, the reputation of American or Corsican ladies, or the Corsican image of America. This will require more thought.
I think he’s gotten over it, but I did notice that for the last several days he’s sent his very soigné mother to deal with us when necessary. She takes the whole thing in stride.
Tuesday, Melinda and I went to the Festival of the Wind in Calvi. It’s a collection of white peaked tents like you would imagine knights having at a jousting tournament. There were even a few colored streamers here and there. It had a good crowd considering it was off season and a weekday. It was in the middle of the fall school vacation so there were a lot of nice things for kids to do. The center area had a large pool with sailboats to sail and someone who seemed to be organizing races.
The idea of the event was ecological in bent. Booths proclaimed new methods of harnessing the power of the wind, alternate energy sources, even information and discussion on the disappearance of the bees. Recyclables were in evidence, projects were proposed to lessen everyone’s carbon imprint. We wandered around and looked at colorful kites, beautifully hand-crafter shoes in soft leathers with flowers and charming designs. We had designs on the shoes too until we saw the prices. Whoof! Not for Americans with the descending dollar. But there was a lipstick red pair of low boots that was really spectacular…
Another booth had a display of clothes. Think tee-shirts, windbreakers, zip sweatshirts. The prices translated into more than a hundred dollars for a zip sweatshirt. We walked on by.
There were a lot of booths with food, most of it fried dough things that were cold and indigestible but might have been wonderful had they been warm. I thought of the Feast of San Gennaro in Little Italy in New York City with zeppoli, sort of doughnut –like things fried in front of you by dropping them in a drum of hot oil, scooped out, dumped in paper bags with an over-generous amount of powdered sugar. The whole concoction was then shaken vigorously and was supposed to be eaten while still at least warm. Cold, they became indigestible belly burners…like the ones at the Festival du Vent.
We sat at one of the many tables provided to eat our semi-comestibles and I went to get some liquid to float the whole mess south. I recalled the theme of the Festival was to encourage people not to smoke and to keep the air clean and breathable. The woman who took my money was sitting with a cigarette hanging out of her mouth and puffing smoke in my face as she handed me change. Huhhhh? Yuck!
The flyer for the Festival had a whole front page on trying to convince people to not dump their cigarette butts on the nature, in the street, on beaches and so forth. I found it idiotically hypocritical to have the people working at the affair smoking and blowing it at all the supporters. Actually, maybe it was negative affirmations. It sure worked on me. I wanted to get as far away from the smoke as possible. So, we took a table at the front of the eating area and found we were just where coffee cans had been provided for ashtrays and all the workers in their tee-shirts from the event stood there and smoked.
As an ex-smoker who took ten years to quit, and yes, I did, I understand how hard it is to give up smoking. But look at it this way ladies, you can breathe better, not get such horrible wrinkles around your mouth, improve your circulation and chance of not having a heart attack, smell much nicer, and not be like licking an ashtray if someone might possibly want to kiss you. I’m just sayin’….
Later, we went to one of the concerts advertised in the flyer given out at the entrance. The price on the flyer was ten Euros. Okay, that’s about fifteen US dollars. When we went to buy the tickets, they were suddenly twenty Euros. When we asked, the woman shrugged her shoulders in a typical Gaelic manner and said that was the amount printed on the ticket. We said “non merci” and left. Thirty dollars was more than we had any intention of paying for a sixty minute concert.
We went back to our little apartment and tried to heat up the beignets as our dessert. Not so great.
I am still in search of the wonderful food of Corsica. I admit to spectacular moules on my birthday and we have found some very nice wines. The pizza I had for lunch after our cuisine debacle at the Festival was overpriced and less than acceptable for an island that has been shifted back and forth between France and Italy for generations.
That’s not to say we have not eaten well. We have, but it’s been at home in our Corsican kitchen where we stuffed ourselves with cheese, pate, salads, roast chicken and pork, mostly of our own making with the added delight of fresh fruits and wonderful fresh breads. Melinda has now agreed not to buy four croissants and four pan au chocolate at a time. We will have them just on Sunday as a treat. It’s a way to ease off her addiction to them. We won’t talk about mine here… Okay, it comes in a cup in the morning and we use French heavy cream with it. I don’t know if it’s the water or the Carte Noire that I use with abandon, but the coffee always seems to taste better here.
Wednesday we drove through the mountains to visit small towns. There are beautiful villages clinging to the cliffs. Houses are all shadings of beige or ochre with an occasional pink tone thrown in for good measure. Roofs are lichen spotted red tile and the general color for the ubiquitous wooden shutters are various hues of blue. Melinda fell in love with the blue of Pigna which she has just described for me as a soft blue with a little lavender in it. Other villages have tended more towards a blue-green.
Each village has it’s own breathtaking view of the valleys or mountains or ocean below. There are some that perch on the more northern face of the mountains and other that face full south or west to catch the sun. The way up to those villages before accessible roads and cars must have daunted all but the most determined invaders. Not only is the going steep, but it’s through dense foliage where every branch could hide a Corsican with a gun or a knife. Oddly, it didn’t seem to deter the various invaders from the Phoenicians, Etruscans, Venetians, Genovese, French, Sardinians, the unknown Toreens, Carthaginians, and Greeks to the Saracens.
Thursday we tooled across the Island to visit the museums at both Corte and Aléria. Corte is reputed to be the bastion of the Corsican revolutionary movement. The museum is on the side of a hill at the foot of a soaring Citadel looking out over the valley below. Melinda braved the 100 steps up to the ramparts of the Citadel while I lounged below nursing a sore hip. Little did I know…
The museum seemed to be primarily devoted to agriculture and anthropology in Corsica through the centuries. They also devoted a fair bit of space to the Corsican Brotherhood with a general disclaimer that the information was given not as an indication of a bias on the part of the museum but to inform the public as to movements within the culture of the island. They phrased it with more diplomacy in French but you get the point – no endorsement, just information.
Since we were more interested in archeology and early man sites, we moved quickly on to Aléria. Well, that is, as quickly as you can move on very good two lane roads that wind around sharp curves. Once we reached the flat plain below Corte the going was much faster and we arrived at the museum and ancient Roman site in plenty of time to noodle around.
The museum was interesting for its large assortment of Etruscan and Roman ceramics and glassware. It was filled with small burial artifacts and pottery mostly dating from the fifth through third century before Christ. In large supply were vases, bowls and plates in the typical Etruscan black designs. Dionysus was obviously a favorite of the invaders as he was found in a myriad of poses including masturbation. Those Romans…
After wandering around for a while in the upstairs rooms where the collection was kept, Melinda leaned over to me and whispered “This reminds me of the dinner party scene in ‘La Cage Aux
Folles’ where the fiancé’s family comes to dinner and the mother remarks something like, ‘Oh, look at the boys playing leap-frog.’”
It was remarkable to see twenty-five hundred year old tiny and intricate glass vases, pins of bronze, bowls and urns that survived with their beauty intact. There was a plate that caught our interest of a man walking with his dog. Things seemed to come in pairs or sets as there were many items with the same or similar designs. I am now going to have to research what it means to pass a rod or staff, what do men with tails represent in mythology and what is the symbol of the owl?
After leaving the building housing the rooms of the museum, we set out to find the Roman ruins, all part of the museum. Guess what? No directions. There is a dirt path at the side of the square in front of the museum. Melinda decides it has to be the right way to go as it’s the only way. Star navigator as she is, voilá, it is the right way. There are people coming along the opposite direction and they tell us, “yes, the Roman ruins are there” as they point ahead on the path.
Those Roman sure knew how to live! The hill they chose is far away from the malaria of the swamp where a river meets the sea. The view is of the valley below and the sea beyond. We wander around the excavations and can follow the signs to get the general layout of the place, the two temples, the forum, the shops and residences, cisterns and baths. It all seems in a small scale, but its hard to determine sizes correctly from mere foundations. Touching the stones, you can close your eyes and imagine people bustling around, the gossip, the intrigue and commerce of a far-flung Roman outpost.
As we made our way down the hill we saw that a bar on the side of the road to the parking is open and we go inside, greeted warmly by a tiny black and brown dog that looks like a cross between a Chihuahua and a Mini Pin. She snuggles up to Melinda for her magic fingers dog massage and decides it’s a good place to say. When Melinda stops she comes over to me but I’m obviously not near as good with tummy rubs as Melinda. Her name is Chlôé and the owner proudly tells us she goes hunting with him for wild boar, or sanglier. Melinda believes him, I think he’s pulling our leg, but that’s OK too. Chlôé is his baby and he gives her some sugar when she bats her long black lashes at him.
Another customer comes in fully dressed in red, grey and white leathers, well worn and obviously off his moto which is parked outside. He speaks English and tells us he had an American girlfriend from Tennessee. We hang out for a while and then have to leave to make sure we hit a market before they close. We need soap for the washing machine and bread.
The drive home is all right until it gets dark. The roads are narrow and wind up and down the mountains along the coast and French drivers MUST pass you. It is intolerable for any car to be in front of them so they climb up your butt put on their bright lights and hang there until you either pull over or they pass you on some hairpin curve. I breathe as sigh of relief as we finally get to L’isle Rousse and are within shooting distance of Calvi. Home ground…we made it.
There was a concert we had wanted to catch. It was part of the Festival du Vent at was at nine o’clock at the Cathédrale at the Citadelle in Calvi. We had no money so we found an ATM, got somecassh, ran into an Italian restaurant in the lower village where we had dinner – the first meal since breakfast so we were VERY hungry. After stuffing down dinner, we went to the Citadelle parking and then up the hill to the Cathédrale to see if we could still buy tickets to get in.
Now, I say “up the hill” in a very cavalier fashion. Let’s be honest. That means climb the bloody mountain because you can’t get up any other way unless you happen to live there. I’ve been driving all day, just ate a big dinner and now I’m rushing up the mountain on dark cobblestone steps and uneven walkways. There are no lights. None. I’ve visions of Corsican bandits leaping out of the shadows to mug us. We are alone and everyone else is at the damned concert, which has probably already started. Melinda, akin to a mountain goat, is up ahead while I puff and pant up the slippery cobblestones mentally calling her and the Corsicans who planned the city every name in every language I can speak. As I drag my sorry and exhausted butt up the final stairs to the Cathédrale I can hear the beautiful polyphonic music spill out. The group, Missaghju, has just begun, and Melinda has managed to wrangle two tickets for us to get in. I decide not to kill her after all, and actually, I left my stiletto at home. She pushes me into a seat at the back of the Cathédrale and eventually I stop puffing, the blood has stopped loudly running in my ears, the sweat has dried and the concert is eventually worth the run up the mountain. After all, I didn’t have a heart attack so all is well.
The concert is wrapped up in it’s last selections with one of the men singing “Ave Maria.” His flat and nasal beautiful Corsican sound fills the Cathédrale with no need for a microphone. The quatrefoil design of the building spills the sounds across the ceilings and down to the audience with a clarity not found in artificially enhanced sound. That alone was worth the run.
As we make our way back down the cobblestones, we are with the crowd from the concert. I hear grumbling in French, Italian and Corsican about the lack of lights and the damned slippery cobblestones. It’s good to not be alone in internal swearing.
As we head home I announce, “Tomorrow I’m not doing anything. I’m going to do some laundry at the apartment and give myself a pedicure. That’s it!”
On the weary final climb – the twenty steps to our apartment, Melinda says, “It was a twelve hour day, and I’d say we had the most culture possible in that time.”
Yep, I agree. And I’m really glad I didn’t do those hundred steps at the Citadelle of Corte.
So, here I sit in my PJs with my coffee, and I’m looking at the flyer for the Festival du Vent. I see there’s something called the “Eventi Verticali” at the Tour de Sel. I wonder what that’s all about?