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Mediterranean Magic

The author's 40-foot Beneteau anchored off the coast of Corsica.
We hadn’t planned to return to the Mediterranean but after a fascinating year cruising around North and Central America, a family wedding in Spanish Menorca beckoned. 

"Wouldn’t it be great if you could come by boat?" my nephew teased. Why not indeed!  

Leaving late April, we crossed the Atlantic from Norfolk, VA, with three days to spare, and after celebrating the grand occasion laid up our 40-foot Beneteau Bagheera in mainland Spain. The short visit had wetted our appetites. We returned the following spring, eager to sample more Mediterranean magic by exploring new regions, besides revisiting favorites places from our family’s circumnavigation, before leaving the boat in Turkey. 

The sapphire Mediterranean Sea has it all for leisurely cruising. Although now more touristy, we were happy to find that it still held its charm, with diverse scenery, cultures and cuisines alive and thriving. Corsica was a particularly highlight. It was a first visit and its claim of being one of the most rugged, unspoiled islands in the Med did not disappoint us. An absorbing history, stunning coastline for cruising and French feasts ashore added to its appeal.  

The town of Bonifacio offers a striking anachronism with its medieval citadel and colorful sidewalk cafes.
We arrived from Sardinia’s Porto Cervo, sleigh-riding across the turbulent Strait of Bonifacio that boasts serious winds 250 days a year. Our first sighting of Bonifacio town was awe-inspiring, with ancient buildings overhanging the towering white cliffs and raging surf below. Etched through gnarled limestone, the steep-to, narrow harbor provided a welcome calm and unfolded a spectacular medieval city and citadel tiered up the headland. The inner harbor was bursting with boats and ringed by colorful sidewalk cafes whose aromas were already luring us ashore.

It was late July, one of the most crowded and expensive times in the Med and we were lucky to find space in a small arm off the ‘fiord’s’ north shore. Several sailboats were already anchored mid-channel, with stern lines tied to rocks and trees ashore. After assessing the ‘cats-cradle’ of anchor lines, we laid ours carefully, with fingers crossed. Tangling anchors is an occupational hazard throughout the Med, where Med-moor, in tight spaces, is common. 

Some areas of the Med, like the anchorage seen above, remain unspoiled by developers. 
Crowning one of the most memorable harbors in the Mediterranean, the town of Bonifacio dates back to 828 AD with the arrival of its namesake Bonifacio, the Marquis of Tuscany. Three centuries later it was seized by the Genoese, who sneaked up during a wedding ceremony and drove all the inhabitants out. They held it for several centuries and even today, after 200 years of French rule, many residents speak a Genoese dialect.  

Inevitably touristy, but oozing Gallic charm, the narrow streets and old stone buildings take one back in time. A climb to the top of the ancient walls gave an excellent workout, a necessary one after considerable cockpit carousing with other cruisers along the way! We gazed down on the impressive southern cliffs that stretched for miles into the distance. To the north lay the harbor, our anchorage and an amazing variety of fishing, tourist and private yachts.  Of course we ate ashore! Moules were on every menu. Small, but succulent, these local mussels are quite delicious steamed in a garlic, cream, or wine sauce. They were my diet for the next week accompanied, naturally, by excellent French wine, bread, patés, and cheeses.

Shaped like the back of a clenched left fist with index finger directed at its former ruler Genoa, Corsica lies 100 miles from the French Riviera, from 50 to 120 miles from the Italian west coast, 220 miles east of the Balearic Islands and Spain, and just seven miles north of Sardinia. Although a 100 miles long and 40 miles wide, its indented coastline stretches over 600 miles giving one of the finest cruising areas in the western Mediterranean.

An awe-inspiring coast line with towering white cliffs and raging surf below greets all visitors to this stretch of the Mediterranean.
In addition, it has not been devastated by developers and, unusual for the Med, the population is sparse, with half of its 300,000 people living in its two main towns, Ajaccio and Bastia.  One of the most mountainous islands in the Mediterranean, with 20 peaks over 7000 feet, geological upheaval and glaciation have created wild, pristine landscapes now preserved in a number of national parks and a hiker’s paradise. Trips inland, always a focus of our cruising, showed us varied flora with the sweet-smelling scrub maquis, cork oaks, olive, and chestnuts, with beech and pine beneath alpine meadows and avocado and kiwi cultivated  in the eastern lowlands. Here, finally, Andy was happy with the abundant birdlife. Too often in the Med. wild birds are hunted and end up in a pot. Several rare birds nest here, such as the Audouin’s gull which has disappeared from mainland Europe, also the bearded vulture, and the rapidly increasing numbers of ospreys was heartening. 

With few anchorages on the east coast we headed west then north along a shoreline that is riddled with rocky bays and sandy beaches of every shape and size.  Most had a yacht or three at anchor, typically small and French, with crews living life to the full in the translucent, turquoise seas.  Sailing past ancient ‘salt-shaker’ shaped Genoese towers that guarded the headlands, we gunkholed the coast, motoring in the morning through a glassy calm then barreling along under sail as the typical afternoon sea-breeze filled in. Dolphins frequently joined us, joyously leaping in our bow-wave as we passed unforgettable vistas ashore: old citadels, spectacular rock formations, and yet more white-sand bays. Baie d’Elbo was particularly notable with soaring cliffs and islets of iron-red rock carved by the elements into extraordinary shapes that dramatically contrasted in color with the deep blue of the ocean and lush vegetation behind.

The sweeping bay of Calvi with its large citadel high on the rocky promontory is another popular anchorage.
The sweeping bay of Calvi with its large citadel high on the rocky promontory was a popular anchorage. There were several foreign-flagged cruisers around us and the marinas were crammed with boats. The sugar-sand beach was laden with sun worshippers and uncharacteristically Andy suggested swimming ashore. His primary motive of course was to ‘see the sights’ and with clothing not much in evidence he was not disappointed! 

We stayed a few days in Calvi, climbing the citadel in the cool of dawn and taking the narrow gauge train that swerved and rattled up into the interior. Corsica’s history enveloped us everywhere from the prehistoric big stones, menhirs, torri, and nuaghi and the famous skeletal remains of the ‘Bonifacio woman’ that date back to 6,500 BC, to the Romans who were its first real conquerors, with the Vandals, Goths, the Byzantine Empire, and the papacy all leaving their mark.

The town of St Florent near the delta of the river Aliso in the southwest corner of Corsica’s northerly penisula is another spectacular landfall.
The French arrived in the 16th century but didn’t take full power from the Genoese until 1769. Conflict continued, however, and British Admiral Nelson lost his eye in the battle for Calvi in 1794. Later Corsica came under the jurisdiction of another famous personality, Napoleon Bonaparte, who was born in Ajaccio, the island’s capital, in 1769. The Germans and Italians held Corsica during the WW II until the Corsicans liberated themselves in 1943. A mix of Corsican, French, Moroccan, Italian, Portuguese, and Tunisian, the Corsicans are an extremely proud people who honor their old traditions.  As they strive for legislative autonomy from France there has been a revival of indigenous customs in food, music, and culture that gave us a further dimension to enjoy.

Our last stop was at the attractive town of St Florent near the delta of the river Aliso in the southwest corner of Corsica’s northerly ‘index’ finger penisula. Burnished from the glow of the fading sun, the old town and high mountains behind made a spectacular landfall. We savored a last dinner at one of the many lively restaurants, enjoying some wild boar flavored with chestnut, washed down with local red wine.  We were leaving for Livorno on the Italian coast the following morning to tour Tuscany but car. Hardly a hardship! But we regretted that we didn’t have longer to enjoy this wild, beautiful island with its bountiful bays for cruising and diversity of activities ashore.

Chartering in the Med

If you decide to leave your pride and joy on this side of the pond, there is a chartering option well worth exploring.

Evasion Location has sail and powerboats with bases in Ajaccio, Calvi, Bastia and Bonifacio.

Time of year to charter and climate

May to October are certainly the ideal months, although July and August are the busiest and hottest months. Winds are typically northwesterly Force 3-4  (seven to16 knots) with an afternoon sea breeze typical. The stronger mistral can last for two to three days. Weather forecasting is excellent.

How to get there

Four airports, mostly serviced from France  (expensive airport taxes, no internal air travel). Car and high-speed ferries from France, Italy, and Sardinia 

Circumnavigator Liza is the author of four books on cruising (three are Canadian best sellers) that include: 

Just Cruising (Europe to Australia) and Still Cruising (Australia to Asia, Africa and America), about their family travels around the world.

Cruising for Cowards, a readable yet fact-filled A-Z of sailboat cruising  (co-authored with husband Andy).

Comfortable Cruising, Around North and Central America,  the latest narrative and technical planner.

 And a video  Just Cruising  that was a finalist in the CANPRO awards.

Liza Copeland is offline  

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