This is the first time I’ve sat down to write since I returned from Corsica. The island is like that, it takes time to absorb all its beauty and mysteries.
I often think of the maquis. It certainly represents Corsica. My first reaction on driving through it was: “What’s that funny smell?” Something just out of reach but with a definite musky quality, a hint of berries, perhaps a lemony touch, an under layer of honeysuckle or jasmine, and a soupçon of acrid eucalyptus – almost but not quite. It’s indefinable. I thought that maquis was a certain plant and kept trying to identify it. Turns out it’s an ecosystem of a whole area, rather like a savannah, or the plains. Some horticulturist, me. My knowledge is limited to things like “tree,” “flower,” or “bush.”
The maquis is so representative of Corsica that Napoleon is reputed to have said when landing on Elba, “I can smell my home from here.”
After a bit of prodding and nudging, I found out the most representative and common plant of the maquis is the immortelle. It’s very small yellow flowers are dried in bunches for decoration and the myriad of other uses it’s put to. Oils distilled from its essence are reputed to have curative powers for everything from wrinkles to skin problems, bug bites, burns and most of the things we use the aloe plant for. Honey from the maquis is very dark, strong and rich. It bears the pungency of immortelle, and it’s a flavor that takes some getting used to.
Melinda, my travel mate, and I drove, windows wide open, through the maquis to get to and from St. Florent on a spectacular sunny day. We wanted to inhale the goodness of the air – a bit of salt as we neared the sea, a sun-on-the-mountain-rocks scent, and overlying everything, the maquis. We often stopped the car, got out and sniffed the foliage. Some places were sweet, others musky and then almost acidic. Pine enters into the mix in some places. Then there was a sweet overlay of something like jasmine Melinda said. This morning I walked outside my door in Mexico and saw a vine that looked similar with tiny white flowers, impossibly small and fragile. I sniffed it. Nothing. I realized I missed the maquis and was sad for a few moments. Corsica does that to you.
The national flag of Corsica is white with a black Moors head adorned by a white bandanna. Now the Corsicans aren’t Moorish and they aren’t black so it’s a bit odd. There are several stories about how it was chosen. They all include Moorish pirates and one even has a captured Corsican damsel spirited away by a dashing pirate who ends up beheaded for his trouble. Another story is similar but no damsel. Seems a captain of a band of Moorish pirates was going up and down the Corsican coast pillaging all the small villages, raping and capturing the women and making a through nuisance of themselves. The Corsicans got together and made sure that when the pirates next landed they were greeted by a band of angry men and not just an undefended village. The captain’s head ended up decorating the tip of a stake as a warning to all pirates that the Corsicans are not to be taken lightly. It’s alleged to be his head on the flag.
Located between France and Italy,Corsica has always been a great hopping off point with beautiful harbors, plenty of fresh water and sandy beaches. The coast boasts a plain that slopes inland to high mountains, streams and lakes, and gentle valleys. The mountains are inhospitable, granite in grey and oranges, steep and covered with prickly vegetation. The island is an obvious prize for anyone who could grab it. The first settlers of Corsica date back over ten thousand years. Settlements and early man sites date back eight thousand years to stone villages and “casteddu” or walled settlements on top of the mountains. The Phoenicians, Etruscans, Romans, Genoese, French, Venetians, British, Saracens and anyone else with a boat and a strong desire have tried to take over the island. Nelson lost an eye in a battle for Corsica. He was lucky it wasn’t the rest of his head with the way the Corsicans fight.
The French own the island now. The Corsicans are not at all pleased with them. Since being part of France, the Corsican separatist movement has never stopped. There is a mystical Corsican Brotherhood that is part religious, part political and works behind the guise of the Catholic Church to attain freedom. The FLNC is the overt political movement and its signs are everywhere. As a nod to Corsican culture, road and street signs, village names, directions, are in French on the top of the sign and Corsican on the bottom. The top references are then spray-painted or crossed out, frequently shot out, leaving the Corsican designation to remain. Corsican’s don’t give up easily. They keep their language within the families, and in the small towns. Grudgingly, they all speak French too.
So, the way I see it, the Moor’s head is a great symbol for Corsica. It certainly says loud and clear, “Don’t fuck with Corsica!”
As Americans, we were very nicely treated by everyone we met. We later found out that of the hundred and fifty thousand annual tourists that visit each year, only about six thousand are Americans. It was obvious we spoke accented French and were immediately asked if we were English. My white hair and blue eyes are a dead give-away. When we said we were Americans from California, the locals were very interested and wanted to know right away how Obama was doing. We were there just after the Congressional elections, and they asked if he was badly hurt by the results. When I asked one of the questioners why the interest, he came up with the old saw, “When America has a cold, Europe sneezes.” They all universally hated Bush and were relieved to have Obama in office.
In a way, the interest in America was surprising. Corsica is a small island, only about one hundred and fifty miles long by fifty miles wide. Families are the most important part of the Corsican culture, and the closeness of families is a value. It’s hard to get too far away in an area that small. Tiny villages cling precariously to the mountainsides. The streets are narrow and are two way with no possibility of having two cars side by side, so someone has to give way. Every journey up a mountain is a heart pounder in a small stick shift auto. Sometimes I was climbing in first gear and praying the car could make it. It wasn’t always a sure thing. I guess if you really wanted to get away you could just move to the next mountain.
Sitting at a table in a small village overlooking the mountain range in front to the ocean on the side is a truly spiritual experience. You realize that the fog wreathing the shoulders of the mountain is actually fog, not smog. It’s white. There is nothing to pollute the air. You can see for miles when the sun has burned off the morning fog. As you inhale, your lungs thank you. This is what it was like to breathe hundreds, perhaps thousands of years ago. No wonder the people of Corsica are so engaged with keeping their island pure. They have enough civilization. There is satellite television, high speed internet and cell phones everywhere. They don’t need high rise buildings crowding the beaches and holiday camps filling up the maquis with hikers.
One of the places in the world where evidence of Early Man is everywhere, Corsica is an island of menhirs and dolmens. Dolmens are large constructions made of several very large stones put together in the form of a building, thought to be used originally as ossuaries or bone vaults. The menhirs are carved stones representing gods, soldiers, protectors – no one knows. Their purpose is lost in time. Called “stantari” on the island, they are in alignments, all facing the same directions, no matter where located. Archeologists study them, but have no real idea of their purpose. Perhaps the menhirs might be protection because some of them bear representations of arms. I think Melinda has the right idea. She noted they were carved and placed in their lines at a time when man was occupied with survival. How to feed themselves and their families was their prime concern. She was astounded by the passion and time required to take these people from their fight to survive to make these arrays of figures, numbering in the thousands over the entire island. It says something very telling about the Corsican spirit.
The stantari stand guard on the island as they have for thousands of years. If you want to see the alignments you have to pay the price of trekking up mountains and through the maquis on heavily rutted dirt tracks. We went after the rains and forded huge deep puddles as well.
The stantari remain pure and sure in the respect accorded them. No idiots dare to carve or spray paint their initials on the stout stone surfaces. Lichen and fungus grow on the stones, but only the wind and rain have dared mar them. Over the centuries, t he Corsicans have moved some of the stantari in front of churches, civil buildings and town squares Perhaps it is their warning not to push at the Corsican spirit too much. The stantari are Corsican, and like the flag, represent the mentality of the island.