Friday, 8 April
Extinct civilisations are following me. Or I'm following them. First, the ancient people of Stonehenge at the British Museum exhibition, now those of Filitosa.
We stopped there while visiting friends in Corsica last week. Isabelle, who is half Corsican, and her husband Riel, invited us for a few days at her family’s house near Ajaccio. Neither of us had ever been to what is called l'Île de Beauté. What a perfect getaway.
Filitosa, about an hour south of Ajaccio, was first settled around 6000BC (2000 years before Stonehenge). The menhirs and the old stone walls of its rudimentary shelters were re-discovered in 1946 and subsequently excavated.
The site was a highlight of our trip. Tucked into a green river valley, it is a peaceful, lush place, and you can understand why Neolithic humans chose to make a home here. Unlike Stonehenge, this settlement - after various invasions and repopulations - didn't peter out until the Middle Ages.
Corsica is a small island with a long, complicated history. It has been occupied and fought over by Italians, Spaniards and French, with even the British sticking their land-grabbing nose in at times. The Republics of Pisa and Genoa ruled for long periods, and the island feels very Italian, though France ultimately took control around 1800, just before Napoleon Bonaparte, born in Ajaccio, took the mainland by storm, declared himself emperor and instituted administrative, legal and educational reforms that are still integral to the French system today. Corsicans in general are known for their strong, rebellious spirit, and independence movements have always been a feature of political life. In fact, violent protests were taking place the day we arrived, following the death in prison of Yvan Colonna, un indépendantiste convicted of murdering a civil servant in 1998.
Not surprisingly, fortifications abound. Every promontory has its tower and many towns their citadels, most dramatically in Bonifacio, where the burg is built right into the stone.
Also not surprising because geographically, Corsica is a mass of granite erupting from the sea.
It means natural resources are scarce and the soil is poor. The island lives primarily from tourists, 2.5 million of whom descend on a resident population of 350,000 during the summer months. Mainlanders often say that Corsica is great but the people "difficult." According to Isabelle, Corsicans have a different take: "We're very nice, until July 14th." Our experience substantiates their claim.
Most holiday makers go to the beaches, and a lot of the coastline has been blighted by modern construction. But drive inland and the rough terrain is undisturbed and magnificent. Thanks to unusually cold, wet weather, we got our only close-up glimpse of snow in over a year.
Isabelle and Riel took us for walks near their house...
...and on a tour of Ajaccio, with its Italianate 19th century faded charm...
...and Napoleon's ubiquitous legacy.
I visited his childhood home, saw the steps of the church on which he is reputed to have been born.
We had delicious meals and drank good Corsican wine. It was great being with friends.
But getting away? The internet connection on the island is far too good (a lot better than in the Perche!). News and photos of more slaughter and devastation in Ukraine came through loud and clear. As did the release of a UN report saying it’s now or never, if we want to save the planet. There were alarming updates on the French elections, the first round of which is this Sunday. Marine Le Pen, one of the extreme right-wing candidates, creeps closer to possible victory every day.
Just after we visited Filitosa, David started feeling unwell. A bad cold, we thought, after he tested negative for Covid. Still, the worry lingered and sure enough when we got back yesterday evening he tested positive (infected, I should add, not during travels to Corsica but at a small Parisian dinner the previous Saturday). The pandemic is once again on a rampage and has finally come home.
Go where you may in the year 2022, it’s hard to get our fragility, if not our downright extinction, far from the mind.