Checking into the gorgeous Hotel La Villa in Calvi just as the storm broke up and the sun came out, we immediately relaxed and rediscovered our island mojo. The view from the hotel’s terrace, with a sculptured infinity pond overlooking the bay and town below, was breathtaking. That afternoon, we moseyed around the town, walking its pedestrian street lined with shops selling charcuterie and gelato, exploring the historic citadel guarding the entrance to the bay, and strolling along the quay, lined with restaurants serving pizza, mussels, and gelato. Like St. Florent, and as the Corsican town closest to the French mainland, Calvi’s pier had dose of the Riviera, with multiple megayachts on display, and we enjoyed guessing who they belonged to and what was happening inside.
Perched just a 10 minute walk above town, La Villa is also a good starting point for the steep walk up to Notre Dame de la Sierra, a small church with a stunning panorama over the entire bay and the rugged mountains of the Balagne, the name given to this region of northwestern Corsica. And, from there it’s just a long walk or short drive to the peninsula jutting north to the lighthouse at Punta Revellata, where you’ll find sea cliffs, crashing waves and great sunset views back toward Calvi and the mountainous interior.
I also used Calvi as a base from which to explore two of Corsica’s most impressive natural features — the seaside cliffs around the Gulf of Porto and Monte Cinto, the island’s highest peak, topping out close to 9,000 feet above sea level. The long and windy drive south from Calvi to Porto required consistent concentration, but the payoff was huge. For starters, on a hike to the tiny town of Girolata (only reachable by boat or foot), I was treated to amazing views of the Scandola Reserve, a protected headland area of pink sea cliffs plunging down to the sea. Later, after driving past the small town of Porto, I parked alongside the road among Les Calanques (the cliffs), and hiked up above the road on an ancient footpath. Here, as the sun fell low in the western sky, the rock towers glowed orange above the deep blue sea far below – it was literally impossible to take a bad photography under these conditions and with these views.
Before leaving the magical island, I decided that the most complete perspective on the place could only be had from its highest point. With that goal in mind, I set off early from Calvi and drove up into the remote Asco Valley, climbing higher along a narrow road to its end point at the Haut Asco ski station. The area is popular with hikers, and is typically where GR20 hikers spend the 3rd night of their 2-week trip. But, instead of following the main trail, I set off following red splotches of paint on the rocks, marking the route to Monte Cinto. Soon the “trail” crossed a stream and became nothing more than a “route” requiring class 3 rock scrambling using all four limbs and frequent backtracking to find the next paint marker. The route climbed extremely steeply out of the valley, and soon I was well above treeline gazing up at towering rock pinnacles that mark the roof of the island. After hours of careful route-finding and negotiating steep rock made slick by ice and snow on the shadowed north side of the mountain (yes, it gets cold up there), I finally crested the ridge and broke out into the sunlight, with huge views across the island to the south. After another hour of up and down climbing, I reached the summit cross and exchanged photo-taking responsibilities with a Basque couple who were proudly displaying their flag atop Monte Cinto.
From the summit, I could clearly make out the shape of the island, and its amazing diversity came into sharp relief. To the north, I saw turquoise waters, white sand beaches, and the town of Calvi, where that evening I would be enjoying a bottle of wine by the seaside. To the west, I saw the rugged Gulf of Porto, with its cliffs and lighthouse promontories, and further south, the Gulf of Ajaccio where we had started our trip. In the interior, I saw valley after steep-sided valley, bounded by jagged peaks with white granite reflecting the sunlight like a mirror, shining in the midday light. And to the east I saw the spine of the Cap Corse pointing confidently toward to the north, showing the way toward the island’s past, towards Genoa, toward the homeland of the builders of the 500 year-old towers that grace the island’s rugged coastline. The Genoese clearly liked what they found here enough to fight to keep it, as did the Pisans, and then the French. If the view from this high vantage point was any indication, I would have fought to keep it too.