Tuesday, 5 June 2018

Bastia, now and then.

Bastia was our port of arrival and departure when we visited Corsica previously, camping 'en famille'. It was also the nearest town to to the St Florent campsite to boast a hypermarket. Consequently the only places we ever visited previously in Bastia were the ferry port, the 'Geant' and the 'Flunch' café therein. 

Our venerable Rough Guide to Corsica, written in 1994 describes the Bastia in somewhat romantic terms, gushing about the half abandoned Vielle Port, 'silent by day but for the tapping rigging of a few fishing boats', overlooked by tall colour washed houses with crumbling facades, and the dusty 'Jardin Romieu' a hangout for 'shady' characters' allegedly.

Was Bastia still some raffish, down-at-heel southern port, like somewhere envisioned by Eric Ambler, or has it been gentrified, was it now 'chic' rather than shady? This was our moment to find out. We are due to catch the morning ferry to Livorno from here, so booked ourselves into Camping Sables Rouges for two nights.

The place is situated on Ariella Beach, about 3km south of the town centre. This flies in the face of all received wisdom as the site provokes consistently bad on-line reviews on everything - Google, Trip-advisor, Campercontact. The consensus - unkempt and unhygienic sanitation, disinterested staff, windswept and exposed, pitches prone to road noise, adjacent to bars with loud weekend discos - all of this is true, and the site is mosquito infested into the bargain. However, it does have redeeming features - it is next to the Montesoro suburban station, only a six minute ride to the town centre.

There's a short cut from the site down the side of the track - we felt very transgressive.
The on-site restaurant - which we did not try - looks good and is popular with locals. The moho pitches are next to the beach which shelves steeply so excellent for swimming. Furthermore, you have a great view of Bastia's old citadel as well as the islands of Capraia and Elba.

Elba from the cab - a tad atmospheric this morning...
A mixture of people use the site, including backpackers and cyclists as well as motorhomers. The place has the over-used, scruffy and dishevelled feel that you find in city campsites. In the end it is far from perfect but handy for catching an early boat.

As for Bastia, how did it compare to its quarter century old description in our guidebook? Clearly some things had changed. The train and the station were modern and well designed, yachts outnumbered fishing boats in the harbour, but the mixture of style with decrepitude, faded beauty, dusty corners with slightly down-at-heel older men hanging about - those things that are stereotypical of a small Mediterranean port - they are still here to be seen, and in two score other places we have visited on Mediterranean shores - from Heraklion to Malaga. Bastia is certainly not 'gentrified', there are areas of the old town which are decaying. So long as it remains the municipality with the highest unemployment rate in France I suppose it will remain that way.

Bastia - a mixture of grandeur,

- the old harbour - now yachts outnumber fishing boats

parts of the old town are somewhat 'faded'.

other bits - falling apart -

Everywhere we have been threatened by polyphonic chants - a cunning method of contolling visitor  numbers maybe?
We did not do anything special; we mooched about the old town, climbed up to the bastion, admired the view towards Elba and the mountains of Cap Corse to the north. Compared to recent days it felt chilly and it drizzled every so often. We wandered around Jardin Romieu', contrary to expectation there were no shady characters to be seen, just us, another tourist looking for a shady character to snap, a woman on a bench reading a book and a couple of adolescents in a shadowy spot attempting to devour each other.

We decided to have lunch out. For no reason in particular reason something we have not done so far on this trip. We found a place in the Vielle Port with decor marginally less alarming than the orange Tex-Mex establishment adjacent to it.

A good choice of restaurants around the old poert

What is it with the French and orange decor - at least it was not matched with lime green - their preferred choice....
We ordered two pizzas. They were very French. We reminded ourselves, 'tomorrow we will be in Italy'. We will probably eat out more there - especially as we are planning to visit Bologna. 

I suppose it's unreasonable to expect Italian quality pizzas in France.
Sarah, the other foodie in the family, has already texted Gill with a short list of 'must do' Bologna lunch spots. A ragu is definitely one must do, if only to eat it on behalf of Laura, our youngest, who as a child became a world expert on sauce Bolognese, being the only thing she would happily eat in a restaurant, which she did often across Europe and beyond.

We headed back to the station, across the big square that faced the new harbour. One side is dominated by a ridiculous oversized statue of Napoleon in the guise of Jupiter. The thing had been commissioned in 1814 from a famous Gevonese sculptor by Boneparte's sister-in-law, whom he had installed as ruler in the Duchy of Tuscany.
Napoleon being mighty
By the time it was completed, Boneparte had met his Wateroo and the enormous statue languished unwanted in the studio of its maker. It was not until the studio was cleared in 1850 that a buyer was found. The municipality of Bastia bought it at a knock down price. Now Louis Philippe was in the Elysée Palace 'les Bonepartes' had become acceptable again.

It's fair to say that Corsicans generally are somewhat ambivalent towards their most famous son. They tend to commemorate Paoli Pascale, hero of the ill-fated attempt to establish an independent Corsican republic in the late 1750s. Rightly so, his constitution, which influenced both the later French and American documents, was more radical and democratic. He was a man of the people, not an imperialist.

Dorothy Carrington ascribes Corsica's egalitarian ethos to the strength of its pastoral culture - what Wordsworth noted in the Cumberland of his childhood as a 'Republic of Shepherds and Agriculturalists'. Is it too fanciful to think that a latter-day example of such ingrained egalitarianism is the fact that Bastia's disused public telephone kiosks have been converted into book exchanges - 'Bastia Biblio Boxes' - a delightful thing.

Biblio boxes - what a great idesa

Some were disused phome boxes, others - like this one at the harbour and one on the beach were, well - just boxes
We headed into the main shopping area searching for a souvenir shop open at lunchtime. Our fridge at home is covered in magnets from our travels. We have been seeking a 'Moor's Head' - the symbol of Corsica - to add to the collection. Finally we found one.

We want one like this - but fridge magnet sized...
It's also the symbol of Bastia FC. The station is next to the stadium; a 'Mora' decorates the ticket hall.

So, au revoir Corsica - I am now writing this the day afterwards aboard the ferry to Livorno. This crossing is something of a sentimental journey. Earlier we queued on the dock, opposite a low stone wall with a hedge planted on top of it. I have some holiday video of Sarah, aged 10, perched on the same wall looking very grown-up in a polka dot sun dress. Time slips by; back then becomes now, sometimes the most mundane objects provoke visceral responses - for God's sake Pete - it's a wall! You can't get soppy about sundry traffic management features surely?

This morning was another tricky departure - again reversing on board. The deckhands were Italian, their arm waving was more animated than in Toulon, but also more gnomic. It was only a sharp toot on the horn by the Dutch guy behind me that prevented our bike rack crashing into his bonnet. The Italian crew in my wing mirrors were still signaling 'plenty of room'. I heeded the Dutchman. In the end - no problemo.

Now Capraia passes. Today it is grey, half shrouded in clouds, the sea wrinkled, a blueish slate colour. I have video of us sailing past the island in glorious summer sunshine twenty years ago on our first journey to Corsica, indeed it our first experience of any Mediterranean island.

Although we were latecomers as aficionados of the Med, we have more than made up for it since. We had a go yesterday at listing our foray's through Europe since we bought Maisy in 2013, but we struggled, which is one reason I suppose to keep the blog.

The Livorno/Bastia crossing has a special meaning for us as a family but also in one sense for me personally. It provided the mise-en-scene, the colours and ambiance for 'Notes from an Italian Journey', the only time anything I have written has been broadcast nationally. It's not really 'the one minute of fame' aspect of this that touched me, but the fact that a stranger had written to Radio 4 specifically to request the piece. 

 As we approached the Tuscan coast the grey clouds dissipated, we went on deck and took a few photos of the big funnel against the blue sky. Time for an early lunch we decided. It was the same ferry - the unimaginatively named MEGA EXPRESS 3 - that had transported us from Toulon to Ajaccio - but on this leg the crew was mainly Italian, including the catering staff. The pasta was excellent, if a little tepid.

By the time we had finished our macchiata we were sailing into Livorno harbour. Every time we have been here it has been glorious weather, so the place is forever fixed in my mind as warm and sunny. It boasts a proper set of docks complete with cranes, crumbling warehouses concrete grain stores, half abandoned industrial buildings of mysterious purpose, pilot boats, coastguard cutters and rusting tubs from all kinds of distant places - including St. John's, Nova Scotia. Well, I suppose Italians must get their maple syrup from somewhere.

After the relative seclusion of Corsica arriving in Italy feels very 'full on'. It will take us a couple of days to adjust. We will. It is impossible to arrive in Italy without a pang of anticipation, a quickening of the spirit. Wystan says it better, he always does:
... bless this region, its vendages, and those / Who call it home: though one cannot always / Remember exactly why one has been happy, / There is no forgetting that one was.

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