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A French picnic

The sea is a shimmering patchwork of violet, jade and turquoise in the midday light, but I’m too distracted to admire the view for long. I’d rather follow the scent of freshly baked bread as we stroll past a row of shops at the port.
/ Source: Islands Magazine

The sea is a shimmering patchwork of violet, jade and turquoise in the midday light, but I’m too distracted to admire the view for long. I’d rather follow the scent of freshly baked bread as we stroll past a row of shops at the port. “I’ll be a minute,” I tell my friends, dashing into the boulangerie just as the baker pulls a round pan of bubbling fiadone from the wood-burning oven. It’s the Corsican version of cheesecake, filled with fresh brocciu, soft, creamy cheese made from ewe’s milk.

“What’s a hike without dessert?” I ask, carefully tucking the warm pie into my knapsack. Having grown up in New York, I have certain priorities, and cheesecake worship is one of them. With my three friends — Hans, who is Dutch; John, an Irishman; and Marie-Jeanne, a Corsican — I have taken the four-hour ferry ride from Nice, France, to Bastia on the east coast of Corsica for our Easter holiday. The idea is to combine the pleasures of walking, sea gazing and swimming with wine tasting and feasting on local specialties. We’ve chosen to hike the relatively flat Sentier des Douaniers, the customs officer’s footpath, a trail that winds around the tip of the rugged, rocky coast of Cap Corse, a finger-shaped peninsula that points north toward France.

We assembled our picnic lunch and picked up a hiking map at Macinaggio, a small port and the last village on Cap Corse’s eastern shore, a 45-minute drive from Bastia. Our plan is to walk to Barcaggio, an outpost marina just beyond the Tour d’Agnello, which is one of many crumbling Genoese crenelated towers that were built in the second half of the 16th century to help watch for raiding Moorish pirates. We expect it to take four to six hours round-trip. If we were seasoned hikers, we might have followed the entire challenging path to the far side of the peninsula (an eight-hour trek) that leads to the cobblestone streets of Centuri, a charming fishing port I’ve visited before, renowned for its lobster. That’s where we’ll be heading later on for dinner, by car. Time spent on Corsica, I’ve discovered, is best paced by meals.

Barely 10 minutes along the seaside trail, we find ourselves faced with an obstacle. To one side are powdery white sand dunes backed by a lush pasture with grazing horses and cows, then a hillside vineyard set against the blue-gray mountains. But to the other side is the Tyrrhenian Sea, which has eroded part of the footpath.

There’s nowhere to go but straight up the cliff through scrub called maquis. I grip mauve flowering rosemary plants, trying to hoist my way up the steep, slippery slope. “When was the last time you smelled anything so incredible?” I ask, taking deep, enthusiastic whiffs, hoping no one notices that I’m out of breath. This is not the leisurely walk that we had in mind. The warm sun releases a heady mix of intense fragrances. I’d read somewhere that this intoxicating perfume was what the exiled Napoleon Bonaparte missed most about his native island.

“Is it lunchtime yet?” Hans grumbles. He’s lugging the heaviest pack with our picnic, which includes two bottles of award-winning local white wine produced from a small parcel of land nearby.

Marie-Jeanne has already scrambled up the hill and is pointing to the tangle of plants and dazzling gold wildflowers. “Look, that’s heather, catnip, juniper and thyme. And that,” she adds with a smile, “is myrtle.” Being Corsican, Marie-Jeanne is the only one among us who doesn’t think that myrte — the island’s pungent liqueur — might be far more effective as paint remover.

When we arrive at the cliff overlooking the powdery white curve of Tamarone Beach, the usually taciturn John advocates a swift descent so we can forge onward to Barcaggio, the outpost marina where we’ll be picnicking. We pass a decrepit Roman stone chapel, Santa Maria della Chiapella, believed to have been built in the fifth century. By all accounts, this tiny church, strategically perched on the bluff, was so highly venerated that it was a constant source of jealousy and conflict for the nearby, rival villages of Rogliano and Tomino. During the Easter processions of 1826, about a hundred people from each town filed to the holy place to worship. Instead, they ended up bashing their neighbors with crucifixes, sticks and swords, and nearly murdering a priest.

But today it’s blissfully peaceful here, and the aquamarine water is looking more inviting as we trudge on. At last, we arrive at the sandy inlet we’d marked on the map. Marie-Jeanne peels down to her swimsuit and is the first one in. The rest of us gradually wade in, then take the final plunge and join her. The water is bracing, which gives us another idea.

Hans plucks the wine bottles from the pack and tucks them into the sea to chill. Then we drink the local specialty made from the aromatic, sun-drenched, white pure vermintino grapes that grow side by side with Cap Corse’s renowned muscatel variety (used for the island’s fruity, amber aperitif, muscat). We’d bought our wine in the town of Rogliano, where winemaker Jean-Noel Luigi had shown us his cellar in an 1877 colonial-style manor with columns and a huge porch. It was one of Cap Corse’s many ”American houses,” architectural curiosities that were built over a century ago by Corsicans who’d returned home after seeking fortunes in the American South, Mexico and South America.

At last, we tuck into our ever-so-slightly perspiring charcuterie. There’s tender prisuttu (aged prosciutto ham made from wild boars that have gorged on acorns and chestnuts) and figatellu (liver sausage). We’ve also brought tangy goat cheeses, a small jar of fig jam and walnut bread.

By the time we return to our car three hours later and drive 30 minutes across the mountains to the western side of the coast, the sun is setting in Centuri. The sea is bathed in mauve and pink light, like a Fauvist painting. A few sun-wizened fishermen putter around on blue boats with their colorful nets. I stop to examine lobster cages made of hand-braided myrtle branches, but my friends are impatient for the day’s reward. We’re tired, hungry, still tingling and salty from the swim, and ready to crack some claws.

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