Last year we went on a Naturetrek holiday to Corsica – an 8 day two centre birdwatching and botanical tour by minibus with walking involved and we were told that as there were two minibuses it was possible to opt out of difficult walks and either stay around the hotel or do an easier walk; in reality this wasn’t always possible due to the logistics. I suggested the holiday to my husband as I’d never been to Corsica before and he is really keen on all manner of plants and also butterflies; I thought I’d be able to spend some time sketching while everyone else looked for birds and plants. The holiday was well organised, the leaders were experts in birds and/or botany, friendly and helpful. One of the hotels was very good, however the weather was extremely cold and wet and in retrospect I wished we hadn’t booked for such an early trip (end of April/beginning of May). We’d been advised to take warm walking gear and lots of layers plus waterproofs and obviously walking boots, but even with the right clothing I was still cold some of the time.
We flew to Bastia and when we arrived the weather was glorious – blue skies and sea – and the drive from the airport to our first hotel took us through some interesting landscapes. We stopped for a drink and basked in the sun with a beer while our two leaders went to the nearby shop to buy food for a couple of picnics as they’d heard that the village shop in Evisa was currently closed. We had our first picnic on the coast overlooking the Bay of Galeria and while our leaders prepared the picnic we wandered around looking for wildflowers and taking photographs of the coastline. Each day we had a good picnic lunch consisting of cold meats, cheese, bread, salads and fruit, water and wine. We’d all been instructed to take with us plates, knife and fork, a mug and water bottle. When the weather was too wet to picnic our tour leaders came up trumps and took us to a restaurant on a beach instead. Evening meals were taken in the hotels where we stayed.
After a long drive we arrived at The Hotel Aitone in Evisa, high in the mountains, for our first stay. Rooms were simply furnished and giving us the key to our room the proprietor tapped the side of his nose, winked, and said `superior room`; we assumed this was because we had a balcony with a view of the mountains (spectacular) but it was too cold to sit outside, and overlooking the swimming pool (not so spectacular as it was closed so early in the year!). Not everyone agreed with me but I liked the dinners at this hotel. We had a set 3 course meal each evening and I liked the fact that we had traditional Corsican food – soups, boar stew with polenta, river trout, herb omelettes, salads, chestnut pudding. Next day we walked down an old trail into the Spelunca Gorge. Unfortunately several of the more mature ladies in the group (including me) found the downhill walk over slippery boulders rather difficult so it took a lot longer than it should have, with some falling over more than once., luckily without any serious injuries. Eventually we reached the bottom where we sat on rocks in the sun and ate our picnic by the lovely river, after which we walked over a Roman bridge and up the other side of the gorge back to one of our minibuses that had been left there by our leaders. The slower of us were ferried in the minibus to the village of Ota, where we sat at a cafe with drinks while waiting for the fitter walkers to arrive. Another day was spent looking for Corsican Nuthatch and we did see some, although the weather by then was very wet. However, we saw many wild boar by the roads in the forest here.
Our second hotel was in the Restonica Valley near Corte, the old capital of Corsica. As it was raining so hard when we arrived the hotel allowed us to have our lunchtime picnic in the dining room, after which we went to have a look at Corte, which in places was shabby and crumbling, but very picturesque. We saw some statue menhirs in the Archaeological Museum and had a look round the Musee de la Corse, which we enjoyed even though there were no translations into English. We then climbed to the top of the Citadel for magnificent views of the surrounding countryside. The rest of the group were driven back to the hotel but we opted to stay for a bit longer and then made our own way back – a quick and easy walk. The Hotel les Jardins de la Glaciere was far more luxurious than the first hotel; with the river running alongside the garden it would be a lovely spot in the summer. Our evening meals were taken at the nearby Restaurant Le Refuge in Hotel Arena; I think it was owned by the same peope as our hotel and it was close enough to walk to. The food there was very good although more international in style. Breakfasts in the hotel were wonderful with a huge choice. I don’t think this hotel is always used by Naturetrek as the following tour group was due to stay in a different hotel in a different village. The highlight from this hotel was a walk up the Restonica Gorge culminating in a climb to a lake on the mountain where snow still lay. Only half the group did this walk while the rest of us looked for orchids lower down and we did see some lovely specimens. Another day we went to the coast in the hope of seeing a few more birds, which we did, and later that day were lucky to see lines of buzzards heading north.
Each evening we met up before dinner to log and share what we had seen that day in the way of birds, plants, insects etc. These results are then put in the write-up of the trip later in the year; really interesting for the really keen birdwatchers and plant geeks but I am not in that category although we did go to every one of the sessions.
I liked what I saw of Corsica – the Restonica valley was very good, breathtaking snow-capped mountain peaks (when we weren’t actually up in the clouds), swathes of asphodels growing on the hillsides, the maquis (not scented in the cold weather), holm oak forests, the Roman remains in the museum at Aleria, spectacular gorges, (soggy) sandy beaches and magical wetlands. I loved the railway especially looking down on the train weaving its way in and out of tunnels looking just like a model railway layout with an Eiffel designed railway bridge crossing a gorge. We saw a lot of wild boar and strange looking cows, wild flower meadows, orchids and much more – just a shame about the weather while we were there.
What I liked most about the Naturetrek tour was sharing the experiences with people who have the same interests as us, from different parts of the UK and walks of life; some of them were really interesting to talk to. I would go on another holiday with Naturetrek but would be careful to choose one with easier walking and somewhere with more chance of some dry, warmer weather. There’s a good reason why Corsica is one of the greenest islands in the Mediterranean – it gets a lot of rain and snow in winter – unfortunately for us it was still wintry in the first week of May!