Friday, May 29, 2009

Ajaccio, Corsica

Friends: Not once in the 107-year history of the Tour de France has the race ventured to Corsica, even though it has been a part of France since 1769, and lays just 100 miles off its coast in the Mediterranean. It is a four-and-a-half hour ferry trip from Nice.

Its rugged and spectacular mountainous terrain is a big tourist attraction and would make for some sensational racing. And Corsica is the birthplace of Napoleon. His grandiose tomb in Paris resides just across the Seine from where the Tour finishes on the Champs Elysees. A Tour dedicated to Napoleon could go from his birthplace to his final resting place and include many of his battlegrounds in between. It would be a natural. But The Tour has avoided Corsica, fearful of being being disrupted by the Corsican separatists wishing to bring attention to their cause. They still set off bombs and deface the French of the bilingual road signs, leaving the Corsican. The Corsican mafia too has its finger in much of what goes on in Corsica.

Yvon spent twelve days bicycling Corsica a few years ago. It was his third visit to the island, but he was so fed up by the meddling of the separatists and the mafia he vowed never to return. After just seeing the portrayal of the Corsica mob in my favorite film at Cannes, "A Prophet," I was a bit leery myself of what awaited me. But I have felt no intimations of unrest or danger in the four days I've spent here so far. The only hassle has been the defaced road signs, sometimes making it confusing which way to go. Otherwise, it seems like a tourist's paradise. And the tourists do come.

The roads are full of cars and motor homes and motorcycles from all over Europe and France. At first glance all the French license plates look the same, bright yellow with a row of eight numbers in sets of two. But the last two numbers indicate the department the car is from. There are 97 departments in all, including two in Corsica. I was seeing such a variety, my curiosity inspired me to jot down all the different department numbers I saw as I ate lunch one day. I came up with 42 different departments in less than an hour. If I had an easy way to check them off as I bicycled along, I'm sure I would have had the remaining 55 by dinner time.

One of the reasons I was drawn to Corsica is that I had never seen a Corsican license plate in my previous five years of bicycling all over France. Only 260,000 people live on this 100-mile long island, and few venture with their cars to the mainland. The Corsica department number is unique. It used to be the number 20, but in 1975 the island was divided into two departments, North and South. That is something else that doesn't sit well with Yvon and many others, as it means double the number of government offices for Corsica, even though the population numbers don't demand it. Rather than letting one half of the island maintain the 20 number with the other given a number in the 90s, the island's two departments were designated as 2A and 2B on their license plates, the only departments in France with a letter in them.

The 2B looks very much like 28, so there is a chance I might have seen one over the years, but probably not since I hadn't noticed a 2A. So far I have not seen a 28 here, at least that I know of. If Yvon were along he would be able to tell me the name of each department and its number and the region in France it is located. They are mostly in alphabetical order, helping somewhat to memorize them. The only ones I have committed to memory are those around Paris (75, 78, 91, 93, 94, and 95), as the Parisian drivers are notoriously bad. I have been warned to be on the alert for them and brace myself for some reckless driving and obnoxious behaviour if I should spot one.

Corsica is also a touring bicyclist's mecca. I have seen a handful every day, mostly French in male/female pairs. When a guy pulling a Bob trailer with a yellow Bob flag afurl passed me along the road, I thought I had seen my first American, until he greeted me with a "Bonjour Monsieur." An American wouldn't likely know enough to include the "Monsieur." The cycling with all its climbing is fairly demanding, but all the cyclists seem to be having a swell time. There are many campgrounds and fabulous beaches. Even though the island is only 100 miles long, it is nearly 300 miles of road with all the climbing and the ins and outs of the rugged coastline. The coastal views rival those of anywhere in the world--Big Sur, the Cape Peninsula of South Africa, the fjords of Norway. One bay is so stunning, surrounded by a cliff side road that climbs over 1,000 feet around it up into a pine forest, it is a UNESCO World Heritage site. I am continually uttering a spontaneous "Wow" when I come around a bend or cross a rise and look at another stunningly beautiful coastal view.

Corsica is the fourth largest of the Mediterranean islands after Sicily, Sardinia and Cyprus and by far the most mountainous. There are mountains high enough for there to still to be snow on their peaks. It is a good training grounds for me. It will be a short hop to Sardinia. If I didn't have time restraints, I'd be tempted to squeeze in a visit to Africa, as Sardinia is actually closer to Africa than Italy.

Later, George

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