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Holidays: CORSICA'S SO KYLIE DESIRABLE.

Byline: By CLIVE TULLY

I'M walking beneath overhanging branches of Corsican Pine, and suddenly I become aware of strange, alien-like cocoons hanging from the branches.

Draped with eerie cobwebs, these things are the size of lemons, and they really do look weird.

"They are a real problem," explains my guide. "They're caterpillars, and eventually they kill the entire tree."

And that's not all. The caterpillars of the Pine Processionary Moth are quite likely to drop on unsuspecting hikers passing beneath, and give them a nasty skin rash which lasts for around 10 days.

Fortunately I escape unscathed.

The Bavella Pass in southern Corsica is one of those meccas for anyone who's into serious hiking.

A famous long-distance backpacking route, the GR20, passes through here, and there are no end of heavily-laden hikers.

Though more often than not you see them with their feet up at a cafe, while soaking up the stunning mountain views.

But even for a day-tripper like me, the Bavella Pass holds some spectacular sights, including the Aiguilles de Bavella - magnificent rock needles - and Le Trou de la Bombe, a natural archway visible as a circular hole in the rock.

Corsica is one of those places you have to think twice before you can even place where it is. A French island in the Mediterranean, it's just north of the Italian island of Sardinia. You might think it relatively compact at 114 by 52 miles, but its rugged mountain terrain means that most of the roads through the interior and even around much of the coast are tortuous winding affairs which test your driving and double any estimated journey time.

For some, that's the attraction. I've never seen so many motorbikes as I have here.

Not the tinny lawnmower variety, but all big touring jobs. Corsica's windy roads are clearly a delight for bikers.

If you take a car instead, it's easy and relatively inexpensive to travel on a ferry from Marseille to several ports around Corsica, including Bastia, Calvi and Ajaccio.

The rugged terrain makes the island a walker's paradise, and even if you don't go for the tough mountain hiking involved with doing the GR20, there are plenty other things to occupy you.

The countryside is covered in shrubs, known collectively as the maquis - sweetscented plants such as gorse, juniper and myrtle, lavender, thyme and sage.

During World War Two, all the Resistance guerilla fighters throughout France became known as the Maquis. They took the name from this countryside where the fierce Corsicans were the first members of the Resistance to throw off the yoke of German occupation in 1943.

The maquis consists of more than 2,000 different species of plants and flowers, 78 of which are unique to Corsica.

I take a stroll with mountain guide and botanist Stephane Rogliano, whose speciality is walks with an emphasis on discovering the scents of the maquis.

He has a real passion for his subject, and before I know it, he's taken the flower from a myrtle bush, rubbing it between his fingers to release the scent.

"This is the queen of the maquis," he tells me. And it's these which provide the ingredients for many of the world's most expensive cosmetics.

Immortelle, for example, is a small yellow flower whose blooms are distilled into an essence which goes into the very best anti-wrinkle creams. But while a lot of it goes off to the big cosmetics producers, it's also possible to find local establishments with all kinds of lotions, creams and oils for sale direct to the public, and at decent prices too.

You don't have to go that far from civilisation to find spectacular scenery. I spent one night on the western coast at the Hotel Capo Rosso in Piana.

It overlooks an incredible jumble of orangey-pink granite rocks called the Calanques, and just watching the sun set over the sea, its light turning the rocks redder by the minute, is one of those experiences you never forget. You can get up close and personal with the Calanques, either taking a hike along the footpaths which lead you to some breathtaking views, or follow the road by car between towering rock walls which make the Cheddar Gorge pale by comparison.

My favourite hotel is somewhere really quiet and out of the way in the rolling forested hills in the middle of south Corsica. In fact, even the website admits: "We are difficult to find, but it is worth looking". The guesthouse A Pignata, near Levie, is a couple of renovated farmhouses with sympathetic additions offering 17 rooms in a wild and beautiful setting.

And it's here, I was told, that Kylie Minogue chose to stay for a while after her cancer treatment. The ideal place, without a doubt, to avoid the paparazzi, and fabulous for anyone who wants some real peace and quiet.

The food is mouth-watering, too - all home-made Corsican specialities, much of it organically produced by the farm.

Corsica is renowned for its fresh brocciu, a creamy cheese made from ewe's milk, and is found in pretty much everything, from cannelloni to stuffed sardines. There are some pretty spectacular hard cheeses, too, and the cold meats are famed far and wide, particularly the prisuttu smoked ham.

Chestnuts are widely used, ground into flour and made into polenta, cakes or Pietra - a very tasty local beer made from chestnuts which rapidly became my favourite tipple.

Founded over 500 years ago, the main claim to fame of the island's capital city of Ajaccio is that it was the birthplace of Napoleon Bonaparte.

There are several statues around the city, and Casa Bonaparte itself, where Napoleon lived until he was nine, is quite big and grand.

Like any museum or historic attraction, there's a small souvenir shop at the end of the tour, and I was amused to learn that visiting Russians who've done Napoleon's Russian campaign in school feel inspired enough to make a beeline for facsimile busts of the man himself.

An interesting addition for any mantelpiece, without a doubt, although if you prefer something a little less ostentatious, you might find the fridge magnet a safer bet.

What's the deal?

INFO about Corsica at www.visit-corsica.com and about Corsica and French holidays in general at www.franceguide.com

EASYJET fly once a week from Gatwick to Ajaccio (www.easyjet.com).

FOR drivers, SNCM ferries serve several Corsican ports from Marseille (www.sncm.fr).

TO cut out that long drive to and from the Channel ports you can crack most of it by taking the French Motorail all the way from Calais to Nice (www.raileurope.co.uk)

CAPTION(S):

Kylie stayed in Corsica after cancer treatment; She chose A Pignata, this guest house in a remote spot; Corsica's capital Ajaccio is famous as the birthplace of Napoleon - his statue's on the right; The magnificent Bavella Pass in the south of the island Pictures: ALAMY/REUTERS/CLIVE TULLY
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:Sunday Mirror (London, England)
Date:Jun 29, 2008
Words:1156
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