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Corsica - emperor of islands; Expectations of excitement and mystery were realised when John Stacey visited the island of Corsica, one of the Mediterranean's best kept secrets.

Byline: John Stacey

Nothing quite prepares you for the arrival by sea at Corsica's most southern port.

Imagine the town of Dover with a citadel set atop the white cliffs looking for all the world as if it is to crash into the blue-ink sea.

And instead of Dame Vera Lynn think Napoleon, the island's most famous son, and you are beginning to get the picture of why Bonifacio is one of the Mediterranean's best-kept secrets.

For us, a party of nine people, the port became the entrance to an enjoyable holiday experience.

Protected by the sheer limestone cliffs, the perfect natural harbour and the magnificent haute ville seem untouched by the years and I idly imagined Napoleon sailing home to a hero's welcome.

It never happened of course. The Emperor later disowned the island and, anyway, he was born farther up the coast. But the country has made the most of its most famous son - one of the many caves that surround the port is said to have assumed the shape of Napoleon's hat.

My fellow holidaymakers and I were first-timers to the island, but had heard much enthusing back home from friends who had travelled there and there was anticipation that we were entering an exciting and slightly mysterious place. We were not disappointed.

I'd been fortunate enough to visit four Mediterranean islands in one summer, and Corsica was outstanding. The French also love it and can even be persuaded to leave their own precious mainland for a visit. The Corsicans, however, do not seem to give a tinker's damn whether you love or loathe it.

For a start, nothing is what it seems. Bullet holes riddled into French road signs soon make you aware that not everyone on the island is a happy lapin.

A few miles out of Bonifacio stands the blown-out shell of the aptly-named Amnesia nightclub, its once-futuristic architecture twisted and slashed and sitting strangely against the back-drop of green hills.

No one knows who planted the bomb, but luckily there is another nightclub elsewhere on the island to serve the newly-disaffected clientele.

All in all, you get the picture that this isn't your average holiday isle despite the numbers flocking to the island, which has a good range of hotels and self-catering options as well as the usual mixture of bars and restaurants, many serving local Corsican specialities.

The place reeks of history thanks in part to a racy past and, like the Irish, a love of a good story where facts aren't always the most important part of the yarn.

In fact the island is very reminiscent of Ireland and the Irish - craggy, rebellious and with a strong loathing of interfering mainlanders.

Take the vendetta, for example. Local legends make the most of the blood-filled feuds that originated on the island and sprang up between families over honour. They may have been about access to a chestnut tree (a local delicacy) or in one particularly bloody case, a donkey - but they are always about a sense of honour.

The women played no small part in fuelling these vendettas, sometimes taking their son to the murdered corpse of the father, pressing the boy's fingers into the wound and making a sign of the cross on the child's forehead. A bloody garment taken from the corpse was held by the victim's mother or wife and placed on a wall in the house until revenge had been satisfied.

Bandits, or brigands, are another of the traditions that have passed into legend, eking out a life on the scrubland, or maquis, especially if they are a bandit d'honneur - one who has satisfied a vendetta and been forced to flee, living off the land and the goodwill of the locals. A romanticised picture of a brigand even turns up on the country's flag.

Spreading out from the port there are a fantastic selection of beaches in the south around Bonifacio and Porto-Vecchio from where a third of the country's wine exports originate.

Islands seem to be at their best when they care little about aping the customs of their mainland cousins. In this respect, while Corsica may not be as cheap as its Greek or Spanish counterparts, it remains the living thing and the crowning glory of the Mediterranean.

Travel Facts

John Stacey travelled courtesy of Holiday Options, a firm specialising in holidays for discerning travellers. The firm has a wide range of properties on the island - seven nights' self-catering from pounds 375, half-board in a three-star hotel from pounds 679 per person. All include Stansted/Gatwick flights and transfers.

A boat trip around the caves of Bonifacio lasts around 50 minutes and at pounds 7 is spectacular.

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Enjoying the laid-back pace of Corsica - the place reeks of history thanks in part to a racy past and a love of a good story where facts aren't always the most important part of the yarn
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Title Annotation:Travel
Publication:The Birmingham Post (England)
Date:Nov 3, 2001
Words:819
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