Corsica: driving for pleasure

Cliffs, cattle and a refreshing absence of Clarkson: former Simpson Travel Corsica representative Mark Tanner recounts one of his favourite drives on the Île de Beauté.

Top Gear once did a show on the most scenic driving routes in Europe. For some inexplicable reason – Mr Clarkson’s famous disdain for the French perhaps? – they never visited Corsica. Big mistake.

For Corsica is a massive, sheer-sided lump of rock, fringed by spectacular beaches and crowned by almost 50 peaks over 2,000m. The roads in the interior cut through the mountains with an audacity that only the French can carry off. The extensive coastal corniche is part white-knuckle ride, part 60s Bond-film glamour. And along every route you encounter small, gravity-defying villages: sombre guardians of the past, mildly disdainful of those simply passing through.

Porto Vecchio to Corte

On my most recent visit to Corsica, I took the road north from Porto Vecchio and headed up the coastline towards Aléria, an unusually flat and straight stretch which only serves to heighten the drama to come. Beyond Aléria I turned towards Corte and the heart of the island. Almost immediately the scenery becomes more dramatic, the history more evident. I passed ancient bridges spanning deep gorges, and the tantalising remains of abandoned roads running parallel to the modern tarmac. The remarkably good road snakes onwards and upwards, revealing silvery streams, fragrant forests and the occasional distant snowy peak. Eventually – time takes on a different dimension here – I reached Corte. This brooding citadel is precariously perched on a rocky outcrop above the Tavignano valley, fiendishly tricky to reach by modern standards yet capital of this region and home to the University of Corsica. Nestled at the heart of the Corsican Parc Naturel, it’s also the start point for many spectacular hikes.

From the mountains to the sea

After a fortifying espresso, I continued north through a succession of vertiginous valleys dotted with granite hamlets. There are roadside barriers at the steepest drops, but I can’t help feeling they are more decorative than functional. Glorious views unfold at every turn till I reach the end of the last valley to see the sea glittering off the distant north coast. Here, the road divides: left towards Calvi with its smart shops and celebrated beaches, or right to St Florent and the mysterious ‘finger’ of Cap Corse.

Calacuccia and the Col de Vergio

My return journey led me back into the interior on the road to Calacuccia. This is a true alpine route for driving enthusiasts; well surfaced but steep and very windy. Hairpin bends and sheer drops are likely to provoke the occasional involuntary slam on imaginary brakes from your front seat passenger! After a while, the road starts to climb into the forest of Valdu-Niello and the air fills with the fresh, herby scent of pine. Summiting the Col de Vergio, the views are simply breathtaking, so I paused for a quick picnic. This is a popular hiking area and I wished I’d had the time to head off onto one of the trails heading off in various directions.

Returning to my trusty Renault Clio, I began the long descent to the coast. The road twists and turns here as much as everywhere else, but the biggest hazard on this stretch is the odd herd of cows in the middle of the road, oblivious to drivers and impossible to hurry. In fact, hurrying is not something you should even consider on these routes, as Corsican driving demands all your powers of concentration. Yet despite being at the wheel for around 4 hours, I didn’t feel tired. This is truly driving for fun: little traffic, amazing scenery and an exhilarating sense of discovery around every hairy bend. I’ve been fortunate to visit more than 50 different countries for business and pleasure, and not one offers a comparable experience to the Corsican roads. Mr Clarkson just doesn’t know what he’s missing.