The Road To St. Florent & Etc.


Tuesday, November 2, 2010

We are still in Calvi, and the sun is shining!  We are are off to St. Florent, a charming port on the North West side of Corsica.  It’s one of those places where you can’t get there from here.  As the crow flies, it’s probably around forty-five miles.  The way the road twists and turns it feels like two hundred.  It takes us and hour and three-quarters.  There’s a good road from Calvi to L’isle Rousse and then north for another twenty miles or so after you take a left turn onto D81.  You go through the Desert des Agrigates.

We never found out what “Agrigates” means.  “Maybe it’s the name of the area?” was one of the responses.  We thought it might have been named for some type of vegetation.  It doesn’t seem to be named after any person or legend, so there it is.  Just a desert.

But what a desert!  It’s not your sandy flat or rolling place.  It’s high mountains topped by peaks, shawled with fringes of fog, looking down on range after range of hard grey rock covered with brush and scrub.  It’s shades of bright green everywhere, over, teasing playful, under and around the rocks.  We take samples from places along the road to try and find out what the names of the bushes are.  No one really knows.  “It’s Maquis.”  Is the answer.  Huh?  It’s got different leaves, colors, some with berries.   No really cares either.  It’s all Maquis.  The term is a catch-all for the wild growths on the cliffs.

We found tiny yellow flowers like miniature daisies.  Miniscule lavender flowers with bases like elfin pine cones spring out in the middle of dense brush.  We thought they might be a kissing cousin of lavender but no, there’s no scent and again, the same answer – “Maquis” and a shrug of the shoulders.

The desert has its own very special fragrance.  We stood by the road to inhale and try to explain the wonderful and complex scent.  Was it honeysuckle? Lavender?  Something like holly?  It is a mélange, sweet, fresh and heady at the same time.

I remembered going into a perfume store or department store and saying to a salesperson “I want that one, that fragrance I just smelled as I walked by.”

The response has always been, “Sorry, but that’s a combination of all the samples blending.  May I show you…”  I’ve always been disappointed when I couldn’t have just that special blend.

But the Maquis doesn’t disappoint.  Just as you think you can say it smells like…whatever…another essence floats by and gives it a different dimension.  It’s disturbing in a way, you feel like an idiot, standing outside your car sniffing.  At one stop the air seemed to be filled with honey.  Honeysuckle?  In the middle of the mountains in November?   It was so distinct we were sure we could find it.   After sniffing up and down I found a fragile vine with almost microscopic white flowers and sharp thorns twined around a bush with small leaves like holly.  That vine provided the sweet undercurrent of the Maquis scent. We took a sample back to the residences.  Again, no one knew what it was called but they agreed, its fragrance was unmistakable.

Melinda was fascinated with a berry bush of red and orange globes the size of small marbles. On close inspection they were globes with soft spikes like tiny porcupines.  The inside skin was pale golden-orange and the spikes were bright red or a vivid orange.  While no one seemed to know the name, they were positive that if you ate too many of them you were in for a forceful intestinal event.  It seemed to be a rather universal childhood learning experience.

The last two samples we brought back were bushes also, one with berries so small they were like large grains of caviar.  The plant had fern-like branches of leaves.  Our last sample had what looks like roses the size of a large nutmeg clove.  It had a very distinct and pleasant odor like an herb mélange mixed with a bit of eucalyptus.  I couldn’t begin to imagine the diversity of plants that make up the Maquis.  We spent a few minutes noodling around and managed an assortment of completely different  samples.  I wish I knew more about botany, it would be fascinating to just study this small corner of the world.

The ride was at times frightening winding around narrow roads while hanging off the sides of mountains with no bottom in sight.  At least there was almost no traffic since it was off-season.  I drive slow and keep my eye on the road, and, since I am French in name only, I don’t mind if anyone passes me.

There’s a special quirk of culture that seems to assail all French, male or female, whatever age.  They cannot possibly allow anyone to be in front of them on the road.  I had to explain to Melinda.  “It doesn’t matter how fast or slow I’m going, or how winding the road is, they will pass me even on a blind corner.”

“What’s with that?” Melinda asked.  “Is it intolerable to have someone in front of them?”

“You got it.  There’s no way a French driver can permit anyone in front of them.  Watch.  You won’t believe it.  Even my husband was like that when he drove in France.  When we were in the States, it was another thing and he didn’t care.”  At first she laughed at me.

And then, sure enough, we’d be on a road in rain and heavy fog and whoever was behind HAD to pass us, able to see ahead or not.  I’ve had a lot of experience with this quirk.  Whenever possible, if someone is behind me, I pull over to the side and let them go by.  I think the French government should give me a citation for all the lives I’ve saved in their country.

I also have an ulterior motive.  Most of the drivers don’t really seem to know how close to pass and when to cut over in front.  We came very near to losing our front bumper a couple of times and might have if I didn’t slow down and let them get in front.

The other thing I do is refuse to play “chicken.”  Very often you can be on a two lane road and look in horror at some maniac passing on the other side of the road.  That means he is in YOUR LANE!  Heading right towards you.  And at breakneck speed so he can get in front of the other car.  I pull over.  Too bad if he hits the car behind me, who often won’t give way.  They don’t seem to have been taught the amount of space needed to pass a car without crashing into someone coming in the other direction.  I’m not about to give them a negative lesson.  So far on this trip it’s happened twice…just not finished counting.

Back to St. Florent.  We arrive after winding through the desert, it was only nineteen miles, but it seemed a lot longer and took  us close to an hour.

St. Florent is snuggled in a protected harbor with mountains cradling it on three sides.  It was a Roman port and now is home to every kind of pleasure boat you can imagine.  A veritable maritime parking lot, and then some.  A row of restaurants fronts the harbor so patrons can sit and look at the pleasure boats.  Everything is very neat and clean, no smelly fishing boats in sight.   The restaurants face the bigger boats, there’s another area for the smaller open craft.  Melinda described it as a forest of sail boats with rigging jingling in the wind.

We stopped at one restaurant that seemed to have a bunch of people in it.  Always a good sign when off-season.  It’s nice to go someplace where you are sure the food has been turned…especially seafood.

The menu was a bit of a shock.  Melinda looked at it and turned to me.  “I would have liked the sole, but look at the price.”

I did.  Thirty Euros!  That translates to about forty-five dollars!!  For a plate with a fish, a bit of potato and a few veggies.  We Americans are REALLY broke and third world.  Now, this was a nice restaurant in a nice place, but it wasn’t Cannes or St. Tropez and it was very off season.  We had spotted a “Menu” of the day as we walked in and asked to see that.  Very nice and better price.  It was eighteen Euros for appetizer, main course and dessert.  There were two different Menus; one with Corsican specialties and one “Menu Degustation” or a “sampler” to taste.  We took the Degustation and it was wonderful.  We started with Soup de Poissons, or fish soup.  This is a specialty of the South of France and is an event in itself.  A large tureen of thick and savory soup made from an assortment of Mediterranean fish appears on the table accompanied by a side dish with thin toasted baguette slices, garlic mayonnaise, a clove of garlic and grated Parmesan cheese.  The way to eat the soup is to rub the raw garlic on your toast, slather on the garlic mayonnaise and mound the cheese on top.  Place the toasts on the bowl and then ladle on the soup.  After the toasts sit for a minute or two they soak up the soup and the soup returns the favor by taking in the flavors of garlic, mayonnaise and cheese.  Dig in and enjoy!  Yummmm!

There is a downside to soup de poissons.  Don’t get anywhere near someone whose system is garlic-free.  There is so much garlic in the soup concoction that it comes out of your pores.  I once made the mistake of having a huge bowl of soup de posissons for lunch and then hugging my top buyer freshly arrived from London.  The response was “Alice, I’m glad to see you too, but you stink!  Give me a day to have some garlic in my system before you hug me.”

Melinda and I had no problem.  We both stank, and I’m sure our little car was filled with garlic fumes on the way home.  The lucky thing about garlic is, if you both eat it you can’t smell it on the other person.

After the soup, I have mussels again, this time with pasta and a savory Corsican sauce of herbs and a bit of oil.  I have no idea what it consisted of other than saffron but it was delicious.  Melinda had rascasse fillets, a small red fish, and we topped it off with chocolate mousse for her and an apple tart for me.  The only down side to our lunch was the obvious build-up of fog and clouds moving ominously towards us.  There was no way we wanted to do the zig-zag return trip in the rain and fog.  It was more than bad enough in the sun.

We got in the car and left, only to find the road clear and sunny on the way home.  We had a few minutes of sprinkles but that was it.

Melinda is the navigator and fact finder on the trip.  The most interesting one she found on this jaunt is apropos since it’s Election Day in the States.  Pascal Paoli was the leader of the 18th century revolution to free Corsica from their then current occupier, the Genoese.  Paoli wrote a Constitution fifty years before America and we copied many of our provisions from his document.  In 1755 Paoli became leader of Corsica and introduced a constitution that provided that every man over 25 had a vote. To this day, Paoli is considered the father of his country.

The one piece of information that seems to remain shrouded in legend is the actual origin of the Corsican flag.  It’s a white flag with a black Moorish head wearing a white bandana around it’s forehead.  Since we arrived, we’ve heard and read many different stories about how it became the symbol of Corsica. They range from scholarly dissertations on similarity with other symbols on flags to Saracen capture of a beautiful woman and her subsequent rescue from a fate worse than death in Spain.

The story we like best is the following:  It seems a Moorish pirate plagued the coastline with his raping, thievery and destruction.  His raids made the Corsicans wild with rage until they finally were able to capture him and behead him for his crimes.  The head is therefore a symbol of the Corsicans telling the world – “Don’t f**k with us!”  Sounded about right.

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