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Corsica - retracing the family roots

Updated on May 9, 2015

A Corsican Affair

The planning of this trip started about six or seven months back during the funeral of my Aunt Gladys, widow of my late Uncle Ralph.

It was one of those events where more than mourning the loss of a loved relative, it was a celebration of an incredible life.

A life hardly known to me until a few years back. However, and thanks to a fortuitous strike of destiny, I met this uncle and subsequently came across a fine bunch of cousins and relatives, some of which I shared this fascinating journey with to this beautiful outpost of France. A journey not only about visiting somewhere new but also an opportunity to retrace what we are, where our ancestors came from, why we are what we are as a family.

On a mild May Wednesday morning, after sharing the bus journey from home, I bid farewell to my son and missus as they alighted near my son’s breakfast club. I watched with a heavy heart as his beautiful full moon eyes locked sight with me while the bus slowly snaked away from the bus stop. Unfortunately, on this occasion I would make this journey as sole representative of our household. I had to admit timing was not the best. This trip took place just after the Easter holidays and the long bank holiday gained thanks to May Day and the Royal wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton. School had started again and he was not at all pleased to see me leave and deprive him of being part of this educating experience.

I continued my journey towards Lewisham, where I would catch the DLR (Docklands light railway) that would take me to LCY (London City airport).

I have always maintained that just as important as the holiday and the destination is the journey getting there. So, being the avid flyer and traveller that I am, I tried to make these two short hops as interesting as possible.

My routeing would take me from London to Bastia, via Paris. This I did by booking the flights online through Air France’s website.

The first leg was a short hop between LCY and Paris-Orly. One of the things I love most about LCY apart from it being a small almost like regional airport is the fact that one has the opportunity of flying unique (even scary for the less avid traveller) type of aircraft due to the dimension and restrictions of this airport.

With the early morning rush hour died out by the time I arrived at LCY, I swiftly checked in my small wheelie sized bag.

My flight was advertised as on time and on time it was.

Even nicer to discover was the fact that the Fokker 50 aircraft, with a capacity of 50 passengers would only be carrying 14 souls including yours truly! Why can’t all flights be like this?

I still find it exciting in this day of ultra modern airports with state of the art boarding gates, that one can still board an aircraft on foot, allowing you to fell, hear and soak up the atmosphere of what an airport really is, including the aviation fumes. An experience long disappeared nowadays.

We took off on schedule close to 09.30. Unfortunately, due to my little experience on these types of aircraft, my seat selection did not turn out to be the wisest. At least for an avid flyer like me.

Yes, I did secure window seat, but due to the over-fuselage wings on this aircraft, my window seat commanded a premium view of the landing gear during take-off and landing, as well as the starboard engine during cruising. Minor detail.

This flight operated by CityJet was one of the former VLM aircraft. A company now absorbed by Air France-KLM. One could still sense the level of service that VLM once offered in its heydays. Two friendly female cabin crew looked after us for the hour ten-minute duration of this flight. A refrigerated Pain au Chocolat, orange juice and a surprisingly decent coffee amounted for the catering service on this flight. Scant, but at least edible and free. The finale was a Belgian Leonidas chocolate; probably a last ditch attempt to remind passengers that this was once VLM.


Corsica, France

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Who are we?

We arrived at Paris Orly at 11.52, well ahead of the 12.05 scheduled arrival. Not much to comment about on my transit here, other than having to remortgage in order to pay for an overpriced chicken baguette and a 250 ml of Shiraz. However, despite my dented nutritional finances, my onward connection was also pretty much on schedule. Operated by Air Corsica, this code-shared flight with Air France was completely full. The 1h10m flight saw us arriving into Bastia-Poretta airport just after 4.40 pm. Again, I very much enjoyed the experience of deplaning onto the tarmac and making the short walk into the terminal while taking in the mixture of sea breeze with aircraft fuel.

I couldn’t help noticing though a catering truck parked next to our aircraft bearing our family name on it. Was it that somewhere down the family tree there were members involved in important business ventures or was it simply the case that our surname was far too common in this island. That question would soon be clarified in the next days.

Inside the terminal, a quieter than expected reception party of cousins bid me welcome. They had made the very same journey a day earlier. It took all of two minutes to retrieve my wheelie bag from the baggage carrousel. Once reunited with my possessions we made our way to our rented vehicles and headed to our holiday abode near Bastia.

The drive saw us join the island’s afternoon rush hour, which is just a fraction of the rush hour one is used to in London and in just over half an hour, we were at the Petracap hotel. A nice little 3 Star property overlooking the sea on a residential hill in Pietranera, just five minutes north of Bastia. Check in was swift and because of the family group I was upgraded to a sea view room which afforded a beautiful view of the western coast.

En route to Centuri
En route to Centuri
Bastia, Port Vieux
Bastia, Port Vieux
Bastia, Port Vieux
Bastia, Port Vieux
View of Bastia from the Citadel
View of Bastia from the Citadel
Bastia, old town
Bastia, old town
Port Bastia
Port Bastia
Port Bastia
Port Bastia

Down to business

After a couple hours to refresh and get my stuff together, we met in the reception area to go for dinner. It was already that time of day!

This would involve a short walk down the hill on this residential street, even passing through a graveyard as a shortcut towards another hotel, L’Alivi, which houses a smart poolside restaurant called the L’Archipel.

It was not difficult to pass unnoticed when one is part of a noisy party of holidaying family members. There we dined and wined in true Corsican style, with fresh fish caught on the day, shellfish, fresh and juicy salads and copious amount of excellent but surprisingly unknown Corsican wine. It didn’t come cheap, but it was money well spent, drunk and eaten. We ended up being the last to leave, walked back to the hotel where once ensconced in my room, I needed close to no persuasion to collapse in my bed.

Sadly, my wall to wall and floor to ceiling balcony door was only covered by translucent drapes thus allowing the early pre-summer light in at around 5 am and with the room looking west, I had the best of the sun hitting directly onto my window. I managed to intermittently fall in and out of sleep until my alarm went off at 8.30.

After breakfast, which consisted on a Continental fare, we prepared for the drive up the Cape Corse to visit the villages we thought our great grandfather hailed from. On their arrival, my cousins had rented two cars to accommodate the group comfortably, so space and comfort were by no means a major issue.

We hit the road at about 10.45 and headed north. Generally, the road was in good condition but very seldom did it enlarge to two lanes. We drove through quaint and quiet coastal villages such as Grigione, Miomo, Erbalunga, Brando, Sta. Servera, always hugging the rugged coastline that offered dramatic views of pleasant hills to our left and to our right the sea with its sharp cliffs, at times too close for comfort, as well as the occasional vineyard on either side of the road. Just as dramatic, was the ever-winding road we followed with sharp and continuous curves, which at times required not only good driving skills but also a strong stomach. Our driver, the husband of one of my cousins, did well on the skills bit. The strong stomach though was down to the rest of us.

Once we reached Macinaggio, a little marina town almost on the tip of the cape, the road started its ascent into the mountains as well as also turning away from the coast. Here though, the surface turned a bit tricky and the road lanes narrowed considerably making it a more adventurous drive to our destination. There were hardly any villages or anything up this way and any exit from the main road was usually a dirt pathway leading to a solitary family mausoleum or precariously built dwelling.

We finally arrived at the pinnacle where the road branches out either towards the western side of the cape or towards Centuri/Camera almost on the tip of the western side, which was where we were heading. Just adding to our extreme driving experience, the road turned into a single lane surface. During the ten-minute drive we didn’t see any traffic coming the opposite direction. We weren’t sure whether to be relieved or worried.

In the end and after a spirally downward drive, we arrived in Centuri. A typical old Mediterranean fishing village, postcard perfect with its small harbour, pastel colour facades, and sleepy feel to it. Here it felt that every minute had 230 seconds instead of the customary 60. The sight itself was a just reward for all that extreme driving experience.

Century-Port, was a former Roman settlement, but with the slow passage of time became a fishing village, a peaceful and remote detachment to the turmoil of the rest of Corsica during its warring years. Although, and according to the latest 2008 figures, it boasts a population of around 229 people, it does receive a large influx of visitors in the summer, mainly artists who are drawn by the many painting opportunities.

The small harbour is surrounded by many restaurants and bars, each of them promoting their fare of freshly captured produce from the sea and enticing the punters, local or foreign with a mouth-watering description of the prepared dish.

Serious decision making as to where we ought to get nourished. Fortunately, our choice of restaurant was spot on. Each chosen dish as delicious as the next one. Accompanied by excellent local rosé and white, what better way to indulge, even in the knowledge that eventually some of us would pay the consequences. But, although I’m a firm advocate of nurturing the body in a wholesome manner, occasionally the soul needs its fair share of TLC.

With my slightly better than basic French, I was commissioned to start enquiries about where to get information on the patriarch of the family, he who left the Corsican shores around 1785 in search of adventure, fortune and most possibly a better life, in the new world; in Trinidad to be more precise.

Our friendly waitress directed us to the bar next door, which was owned by someone with our family surname. Again, yours truly was volunteered by an overwhelming majority to start enquiring. This would be the norm during my stay, but with each sortie, I felt I gained in confidence, improved my basic skills in the French language, and more importantly, diminished my stage fright.

This led to the bar’s current landlady explaining that she was actually employed by the bar’s owner, a 85 year old widow who lived in Ortinola, just off the little village of Camera, where we had learned that the patriarch was born in 1773.

After following her directions and the now ascending winding narrow one-lane road, we reached the lady’s home, who once we knocked on a slightly ajar front door, summoned us in without even asking who it was. This just shows that there are still places where people trust each other, even if they do not know who is approaching. Either that or the old lady probably had a double-barrelled shotgun close at hand in case the visitor(s) proved to be unfriendly.

Once we explained the reason for our visit and our unannounced arrival, she in turn explained that she was actually the wife of our namesake, but was kind enough to explain (or that is what I understood) that our surname had branched out into three different families. It also seemed that she was not part of our branch. She did however, take down our details (yes, to amuse ourselves, we did concoct scary conspiracy theories on our way back to the hotel) and even gave us the phone number of her daughter, who she insisted we contacted to get more information.

Result? Well, we couldn’t be too sure but we were certainly discovering a bit more about our ancestors than we had bargained for.

That night dinner was at the Helios restaurant, near our hotel as well. On this occasion, I abandoned the sea fare and stuck with a mouth-watering veal steak that you were able to carve just with a fork!

Friday, day three.

Today, we decided to try the beaches. I must say that if a beach holiday is what you are after, then this side of Corsica and Bastia in particular is not what you would call idyllic. Waters are fine, coastline is dramatically beautiful, but you will find no sandy beaches, instead you’ll only get stony narrow outpost of closely built residential dwellings. It would probably seem ideal to those who live there and just need those few hours of beach escape during the week.

In the end, I just took it easy, left at my own pace and made the 10-15 minute walk from the hotel, down the hill to the beach entrance I discovered the day before. Other than the few locals, some of them dangerously appealing to the eye, I didn’t find the family but I still stayed nevertheless. Truth is I did enjoy the few moments I spent there. Despite the daytime temperatures rarely creeping beyond 19-20 ̊ C, the water was pleasantly fresh and get inable.

After half an hour or so, I decided to head back to the hotel when I saw two familiar face walking towards me. It was one of my cousins and her husband who were actually heading towards the right beach. I joined them and soon we were reunited with the rest in a different beach, this one probably some 50 or 60 metres away from the first one I had been to earlier on.

We spent another half hour there before we decided to venture into Miomo, another village about some three miles (4.8 km) from where we were. It being a pleasant sunny day we decided to walk there. A winding and sometimes challenging (due to the narrow or sometimes lack of pavements on some stretches of the road) walk that probably took the best of one hour to complete.

The main reason we decided to venture there was because we had seen the previous day en route to Centuri, both a patisserie and opposite that a boulangerie bearing our very own surname. Sadly, we discovered, no relation.

After snapping up an assortment of mini pizzas, canistrellis, onion and olive baguettes, we just went down a narrow alley that led to a small stony beach to eat.

We did the same walk back to Pietranera and prepared for dinner at the main port later that night.

The venue was a heaving bistro type of restaurant by the port. Several dishes and wine bottles later, the penultimate night beckoned.

Saturday, day four.

Today saw us visiting the city of Bastia, either a five-minute drive or 25 minute walk from our hotel. We started by walking the wide expanse of Place St. Nicolas once we parked the cars. Walked up Boulevard du General de Gaulle with its offering of bars and cafés. From there we ventured through narrow streets, witnessing the real local feel, including the weekend produce market and just watching Bastians going about their lives.

Bastia has a rich Baroque heritage in its main buildings, churches and public offices.

Once we reached the side of St Jean Baptiste church, we cross the market place and head down towards the Old Port or Port Vieux through narrow side streets, wide enough to allow the passing of the occasional vespas, as well as kids on their scooters and bikes playing freely and getting up to any mischief they can get away with.

At the bottom of the narrow side street, we reach the Quai des Martyrs de la liberation that leads to the Old Port. The spectacular view of the Citadel, at the other side of the port, full with small vessels moored precariously close to each other, rising majestically above Quai du Sud is just postcard perfect. Its pastel façades, reflecting the midday sun creates a myriad of shades and shapes across the Citadel that only makes you want to click on that camera!

We circumnavigated the port and ended up in one of the many outdoor cafés for a pit stop. After a glass of Petra, Bastia’s local brew we headed up towards the Citadel.

We went up following the steep climb of Rue du Pontetto, until we reached the entrance adjacent to Palais des Gouverneurs Genois with its spectacularly beautiful baroque façade. This Palace sheltered the Genoese administration until 1768.

Up at the Citadel, you will also find St. Marie Cathedral, erected between 1604 and 1619 as well as the Jardin Romieu (Romeo Garden).

We finally came down to Port Vieux again picked up the cars and made our way to the village of Miomo where we would meet up with the daughter of the old lady’s from Centuri.

Miomo is another of many villages that dot the northeast coast of Corsica a mere ten minute drive from Bastia’s town centre. As agreed, we waited opposite the piazza where she would come down to collect us at.

La famiglia

I still find it amazing that in this day and age, people who you have just met, can still open their homes and offer so much warmth and hospitality to a bunch of complete strangers who barely or hardly speak their language. And all because we share the same surname.

After identifying us (I imagine not a hard task) she led the way to her home at the top of a hill that overlooked part of the village and commanded great views of the western coast. Idyllic location? You bet!

In our precarious but nevertheless improving French we started explaining the reason of our visit to Corsica, something she had been briefed on by her mother.

Armed with our reference book “Corsicans in Trinidad” which has a chapter dedicated to our surname, family trees and all, we managed to explain what branch we fell under. This only confirmed that we were definitely not related to her and her family. Nevertheless, pleasantries only went from strength to strength and we ended the visit with coffee, biscuits and home grown Limoncello!

When languages present barriers, there is definitely something in the human nature that helps knock them down. We may not have met any relative or, at that moment in time, got any closer to unravelling our ancestry, but man did we learn something on human relations. Result this time? Hell yes!

Dinner that night was at the Old Port. Incidents with service time and cooking level on three of the main courses marred an otherwise last night for me. Heads didn’t roll and blood was not spilled but then again we learned the differences in customer service between neighbouring countries. What can seem appalling to us Brits can be perfectly normal to the French. No point dwelling on the subject – that could provide ample material for an essay on customer service and public relations.

Thus ended my Corse adventure. My cousins would stay another four more days moving on to St. Florent, on the western coast for the remainder of the trip.

What did I hate most? The fact that I couldn’t continue with the rest of the family and discover more gems on this amazing island. That will no doubt give me the perfect excuse to return.


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