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(Not) kayaking around Corsica


Trip: 9 May – 5 June 2018

Work wasn’t going well so we thought – great! good opportunity to be able to go on a longer kayak trip – but didn’t want it to cost too much. Corsica is the nearest Mediterranean Island to Bangor … and at ~ 1000 km around seemed feasible. Oddly it was difficult to find anyone who’d been sea kayaking in Corsica and we wondered if there was something we were missing. But after reading up on weather conditions, looking at maps and online searches for campsites and sifting through what we could find youtube it didn’t look too bad. So we made a plan:

  • Drive with kayaks to Corsica

  • Circumnavigation of ~ 1000 km should take 30 days paddling

  • Go early enough to get cheaper prices, fewer people and less HOT

  • Take car and walking kit and see what happens

Getting there

After a leisurely drive down, visiting family en route, we took Corsica Ferries from Savona (in Italy) to Bastia (Corsica) – this is the shortest crossing and had a special offer so was also the cheapest. Late night sailings are good as leaving late and arriving early next morning gives a good night’s sleep and plenty of time to get established on Corsica on the first day. Trip down went smoothly – stopped in Kent at my brothers’ and camped in Dijon so took 3 days to get from Bangor to Corsica.

It was pouring with rain in Bastia. Corsican’s are so tough! – as the streets turned into shin deep rivers one old lady just strode across the road and didn’t even flinch when the water went over the top of her wellies. The weather forecast for the next couple of days is good so we shopped and drove north to Marine de Sisco. There is a public car park right onto the beach and a campsite under olive and cork oak trees a few hundred metres up the hill. Arranged to leave the car at the campsite until we got back – they were used to this but usually for cyclists.

Marine de Sisco to Barcaggio beach = 26 km

Took all morning to get sorted out, but finally left the car parked at the campsite, had lunch on beach and finally set off at 2 pm. Easy paddling in good weather with landscape becoming wilder up onto the north coast of Cap Corse. This is all a nature reserve with a very pretty coast and footpath. There is no campsite on Cap Corse so we stopped and bivvied on the Barcaggio beach opposite a lighthouse. We tried just using sleeping bags in the dunes but there were too many biting insects – so ended up putting up tent in the middle of the night. The next morning we saw that there was a road just a km further west which had several parked campervans so we could probably camped there.

Barcaggio to Giottani = 24 km

Calm but cloudy in the morning but it got windier the further west we got. Turning the corner at between Cappo Grosso (topped by a military semaphore station) and Capo di Blanco was the crux, with big waves under cliffs. Once heading south again it was a bit easier and since we were on holiday we weren’t in a hurry and thought to explore some of the villages. So pulled into pretty harbour at Port de Centauri and had ice cream on the harbour slipway. Heading out again, the wind and waves had picked up but OK. What we hadn’t realised was that without any tides and lots of wind driven waves the beaches were very steep with dumping waves. So rather than being a gentle run up onto the beach at Marine de Scala where we stopped for lunch we got dumped. Bryan managed fine with some help from some walkers on the beach to get his boat out of the surf. But I got picked up by a vicious wave and got slung into bay at what looked like 30 miles an hour. Clipped the rocks with the bow, got tumbled into the surf and put a 10 cm split in the bow. Bunged a load of epoxy into split, covered with denzo tape and topped off with red gaffer tape bandage which held for the rest of the trip!

Left after lunch a bit more wary of the surf and beaches! Our target for the day was a campsite near St Florent which was still another 20+ km. However, the wind was picking up and approaching F6 with a storm coming in. The next bay was Giottani and as we came around the headland it was full of surf. Thankfully a rubble breakwater hid a small harbour with an entrance parallel with the beach and waves, so with relief we bongoed in. The harbour was full of people pulling boats out of the water and putting extra ropes on everything… the harbour master came over and with many gestures and some broken English said we should stay put, as there was a big storm coming in. He directed us to an area beyond we the houses with a few trees where we could camp. We used our wheels to get my boat over but unfortunately the cradle didn’t fit Bry’s boat very well and it shifted on the stones and took a chip out of the gel coat. So, his boat ended up with a red gaffer tape plaster as well. We hid from the storm in the beach restaurant and checked the forecast which now said it was going to blow for the next four days. Two days in and we had already come to the decision that we were going to struggle to make it round as it didn’t look as if the weather was going to settle for at least the next week.

Giottani to Giottani

Giottani is very small and not really the best place to hang out for a few days so we needed to get the car. There may have been buses but we were due west of where we’d started and it only looked like ~15 km over the mountains and looked like a pleasant walk. It was a very nice walk, full of wild flowers and views, but nine hours later we were very glad to get a lift back to Marine de Sisco! We had a shower, left a few euro for the car parking and drove back to the tent and boats in the dark, dodging wild boar on windy, narrow roads.

Sitting it out in St Florent & Calvi

We spent the next couple of days camped in St Florent in the wind and rain. Our tent is old and leaky so were very grateful to Roger for lending us his tarp’ which we rigged as a secondary flysheet to keep us dry. Not a lot to do in St Florent but since Bry managed to break a filling we did spend a few hours at the dentist. Amazing service – a new filling within a couple of hours and only cost 40 euros (it is worth getting your blue NHS card), though the dentist had no English at all, so a little scary! Did think about maybe doing a section of the GR20 walking route since we now weren’t going to be kayaking every day. But the few times we could see through the clouds it was obvious that it was snowing up high and we hadn’t brought ice axes. Oh well stick with kayaking! Rather than carry on from where we stopped we thought it might be best to move onto the ‘best’ bits of the west coast from Calvi to Ajaccio.

After a couple of nights in Tettola we moved on to Calvi. There are lots of campsites even a couple on the beach in Calvi but we wanted to keep out of the wind and found a great little campsite in the suburbs, walking distance from the centre of town and 5 mins from the beach. Besides planning and shopping for a 6 day trip while we waited for the weather to settle we looked around Ile Rousse, Calvi and a few of the outlying villages. It was all very quiet as it was still the very start of the summer season and the wind was cold.

Calvi to Galeria = 32 km

The next morning we were just about the first on the beach and after the back and forth of dropping boats on beach and car at campsite we paddled off heading south. Just round the castle is the bay where Nelson lost his eye, the guidebook says there is a bullet-ridden commemorative plaque there but we couldn’t find it (or his eye). Beyond the bay the white cliffs and lighthouse on La Revellata comes into view. La Revellata is a finger of white cliffs that sticks out into the sea and as expected the left-over swell from the last few days piled up going around it so only got a glimpse of the lighthouse.

The map showed a firing range extending out into the bay. Corsica is the home of the French Foreign Legion and they were busy taking pot shots out to sea. So we took a straight line across the bay keeping to the outside of the few fishing boats to keep out of range and pushed onto the headlands and cliffs beyond. At L’Argentella we landed at some ruins for lunch on the steepest beach I’ve ever encountered. The place was very quiet and a bit creepy but the presence of a ride-on-lawn mower moving around indicated that it was actually a beach-side campsite getting ready for the season and was probably open. Getting back off the beach was fun – it was made up of pea gravel and was a ramp of red ball-bearings - so perfect for seal launching!

Onwards was the national park and another headland. It was now afternoon and the westerly wind picked up which combined with the swell meant we just had to hang on rather than paddle into Galeria. The small harbour was at the right hand side of the village and was full of dive boats, the national park office and a couple of cafés. No sign of the campsite which turned out to be 100 m or so back into the village under the trees. Too far to drag the boats so we left them on the harbour under the CCTV padlocked to a post. The dive boats had all their kits hanging on the boats untended so we thought our kit would be OK overnight. The campsite was very French, with 1950’s amenities and lots of spooky caravans all wrapped up in tarpaulins for the winter. Here we met the first of the long-distance walkers on the Mer e Monti Nord which is a ten day trail from Calenzana to Cargese and is the land version of the route we were paddling.

Galeria to Girolata = 27 km

This was our day going around the headlands of the Scandola Nature Reserve. This is the centre of the National Park and a very strict and well-patrolled nature reserve. It is very popular with divers and sightseers of all types and so the main sights buzz with lots of boats – many of whom zoom in, screech to a halt for a few photos and zoom off again. Felt a bit sorry for the dolphin and her baby we encountered who seemed very shy of boats.

Knowing that landing within Scandola was not allowed expected to eat our lunch on the water. Before we could get settled with our butties a patrol boat turned up and reiterated that landing was not allowed but then seeing we were in kayaks directed us to a small beach with rocks large enough to land on and said we could stop there as long we stayed on the rocks. In the end it was easier to just stay rafted up for lunch.

The next stop, Girolata, was an odd place – it was originally a place people brought sheep for summer grazing by boat and there is no road to it. But is now a tourist trap for people coming in by boat. There are apparently more jetties than houses served by a row of bars and small shops and a couple of fancy restaurants. Half way along the front is a café with a number of wooden cabins and allow camping mostly to people on the Mer e Monti Nord trail. The distance from the landing to the gate was all of 5 m – just the width of the track running along the beach.

Girolata to Porto = 27 km

We were beginning to get the hang of early starts - when the sea is calm and finishing by early afternoon to avoid the onshore wind that build up through the day and can get quite strong by mid afternoon. So we set off onto a glass sea and dazzling morning light. We spent most of the paddle following an osprey from crag to crag. We arrived in Porto at lunch time which was just as well as it wasn’t clear from the sea where to land and where the municipal campsite which was advertised as 500 m from the sea. The old harbour under the castle was full of rocks and far from the town so we passed on that. The capitainerie was busy and felt very exposed to leave kayaks while we looked for campsite, so we kept paddling inland up into the river as far we could and tied the boats to some trees. The campsite was 15 mins dusty walk up the road from the river so too far to drag the boats. After wandering around looking for a closer alternative and other places to leave boats it seemed that the river where the boats were well hidden was the best option. We unloaded and padlocked the boats together, set up camp, got some ice creams, dodged the pelotons of professional cyclists doing hill training and watched the sunset.

Porto to Portu du Leccia = 17 km

We had a choice between a long or short leg for today. Chose to take it easy and poke in and out of every cove and cave and wild camp since we were now out of the national park. The beach we chose was covered in a thick layer of leaf mulch from Posidonia oceanica. This is a plant that grows in the sea across the Med but nowhere as abundant or as shallow as in Corsica. The piles of leaves weren’t as smelly or buggy as I thought they’d be and made a very comfortable mattress. All along the strand were clusters of felted strands of plant material that looked like an invasion of tennis balls or ‘tribbles’. The afternoon stayed still and was the hottest we’d had so far faded into a spectacular sunset.

Portu du Leccia to Golfu di Liscia = 40 km

The next day started grey, brooded all morning and broke as a torrential downpour in the afternoon. Thankfully we were heading back to civilisation – well at least in sight of villages, roads and bridges. Breakfast stop was to pull into harbour and climb up the hill to Cargese which has a face off between the Greek orthodox and catholic churches. The story was that 600 Greek refugees arrived by boat fleeing the Ottomans. They were given somewhere to live but having worked hard and done well had their village burned down by the Corsicans apparently in a fit of jealously. The homeless Greeks appealed to the invading French (led by Napoleon who was actually from Corsica) and were given Cargese (nothing changes). The story is painted as friezes inside the church. We also stopped for coffee/chocolate and croissants and it had already started drizzling. The next section stayed dry but the clouds came down so just kept on and reached the campsite beach in good time. Unfortunately, campsites aren’t well signposted from the sea and it took several attempts to find it. Including one where Bry in full kayak gear dripping seawater and sand through the lobby of 5* holiday complex – who didn’t know of the campsite which turned out to be just next door. The campsite, when we found it was about 30 m from the top of the beach so no problem carrying the kayaks up once they were empty. We just got the tent pitched as it started raining – so Roger’s tarp went on over the top again. It then poured for at least three hours and so we rigged the spare groundsheet up as a shelter and sat in the shrinking dry patch in out wet gear as there was no way of staying dry. The German couple next door were intrigued by the kayaks and offered beers and a chance to share their tarp which was better pitched than ours.

The next leg was going to be long and exposed and we were WET so took a day off to dry out. We went for a walk around the nearby village but it was a bit sad as it was still all closed up and very quiet.

Golfu di Liscia to Ajaccio = 42 km

Early start next day with some wind and residual swell. Made good progress around several headlands including Capo de Feno and its intact Genoese tower. Headlands were fine but the bays got more and more of a pain as the wind created some surfy waves which kept pushing us in not quite the direction we wanted to go. On the last headland it was straight on and lots of clapotis. All of this was a bit worrying as we needed to get inside the Iles Sanguinaires which has a bit of a fearsome write up in the yachting guide. Thankfully, when we got there the waves lined up with the gap and we just surfed through in bright sunshine with lots of tourists taking photos of us. Would have been embarrassing if we’d fallen in! Having got into the calm behind the headland there was a café and tourist stop. So we had lunch, an ice cream and went for a walk to see the islands from the headland. But the paddle wasn’t over yet – we still had 15 km to go. We set off in a gentle following breeze … which strengthened and picked up waves all the way to Ajaccio. By the time we arrived at the outskirts of the town we were getting tired and having to work quite hard to keep ahead of the waves. Very glad to finally pull into the old harbour. We’d booked an AirBnB in the town and needed somewhere to leave the boats and our paddling gear. As I’d hoped, the people at the Capitainaire were very helpful and found us a secure place to leave the boats for a couple of days. They were not familiar with 5m+ long sea kayaks and the space was very tight. We then wandered off through the town with just enough for the night and next day. The AirBnB belonged to a very friendly doctor who sailed and he said the afternoon westerlies were a big feature of Ajaccio and he had a painting of it after Hokusai on the wall.

Ajaccio to Ajaccio

Next morning we got the train along with a load of German tourists back to Calvi. This is a single track through the mountains and has several stations on the GR20 and some amazing bridges and tunnels. In Calvi we got off at the same station we started from which made a very satisfying round trip. The beaches at Calvi were already beginning to fill with sunbeds and the car left at the Calvi campsite was already dusty and it was obviously ‘summer’ there already. It took about three hours to drive back to Ajaccio in good time to pick up boats before the Capitainaire closed and we put up the tent in the Ajaccio campsite.

This marked the end of our main kayak trip – after this we swapped kayaks for walking boots.

Iles Cerbicales (Ile du Toro!) = 19 km

Before leaving we thought to do a short trip on the east coast just to get a taste of the other side of the island. The east coast is pretty straight so we picked out a short trip out and round the Iles Cerbicales just south of Porto-Vecchio. The guide said these were a nature reserve and famous for birds so sounded like a good trip. The forecast was for wind starting at midday so we went for a very early start - on the water by 6 am … but we didn’t have any packing to do so cheating a bit. One of the advantages of leaving early is that you can park as close to the beach as you want. Beautiful, sunny day and quickly arrived at the furthest south of the islands only… there was another island further south which didn’t seem to be on the map… so maybe we were on the middle island and that’s the last one? The day feels too short, so we decide to head out to it – but after half an hour later it still doesn’t seem to be any bigger and wasn’t it supposed to be 300 m??? Obviously something has gone wrong but it’s not too intimidating yet and there’s a destination just there so keep going to find the island is a rocky stack with a fishing boat out where the wind is blowing. Not a place to hang around so head straight back to the middle of the three islands close inshore. Once there dug out the spectacles and checked map – ah.. there is the Ile du Toro… about 5 km out – well beyond the 2 km limit and in the middle of a firing range. Lucky no-one saw us other than the fishing boat at Ile du Toro which didn’t seem interested. The Iles Cerbicales were pretty enough but there really are more birds and a greater variety of species on just about any stack off Anglesey.

Back on land, it was still morning with people drifting onto the beach and the water flat calm and transparent – very different from just a few km out.

Logistics

Two restrictions in Corsica:

  • Lots of regulations for sea kayaking in France – main one is to stay within 2 km of coast – we weren’t expecting to need to be more than 2 km out and usually were well within this.

  • No wild camping allowed – but we did some extensive searching and found plenty of campsites close to beach and quiet beaches outside National Parks were OK for a bivvy and we got a friendly welcome to camp away from houses when we really needed it.

Timing: with hindsight we were 10 days too early and it was still winter, however, it was really nice being there in spring with everything green, flowering and with snow on the hills. Places were quiet and we had no problem getting in everywhere but by high season you’d probably need to book places in the small campsites on the long distance trails.

Transport: Corsica is small but public transport access to the coast is very limited. Our trip from Calvi to Ajaccio worked really well because there is a train and road so it is feasible to do the trip there and back in a day. There are ferries from France to both Calvi and Ajaccio.

Available campsite – we used the ones in orange

What was really surprising was that in over a month we spent on the island we saw no other sea kayakers even though Corsica (especially Scandola area) is a superb destination.

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