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Along the road of the Artisans

Ed Alcock for The New York Times
The Casa di l’Artigiani in Pigna sells products from the Balagne crafts region.


Published : October 17, 2004

Correction Appended

THE Balagne is a mountainous area in the northwest corner of Corsica, often called "the garden of Corsica" because of its agricultural riches. The heart of this enticing region, an area where many of Corsica’s traditions developed and where life remained virtually unchanged until the 20th century, is a thread of high-perched towns - villages perchés - flanked on either end by the coastal towns of Calvi and L’Île Rousse.

Most of these villages are part of the Strada di l’Artigiani - the Road of the Artisans, created in 1995 to preserve traditional crafts and revive the culture of the Balagne. The pleasure of these villages, many of which are over 1,000 years old, lies in strolling slowly along their narrow cobblestone lanes (most of which are uphill) and meeting the artisans in their studios.

Visiting all of the villages on the route requires at least two days ; three would be better. The mountain roads are winding and narrow, and the artisans and shopkeepers adhere more or less to a typical Mediterranean timetable, opening in the morning, closing from early afternoon till about 4, then reopening until 7 or 8 p.m. (But check the posted hours.)

Competing with the Strada’s insights into village life are the stunning landscapes of olive trees and orchards, and the views of the turquoise sea at many a turn.

Each village is known for particular crafts or culinary specialties, like traditional Corsican knives, ceramics, honey, wine, canistrelli (Corsican biscuits), jams, basketweaving, jewelry, olive oil, leather, music boxes, wooden flutes and essential oils. Few of these crafts or culinary specialties are exported outside of France, so you won’t encounter them at home (though you can find a less artistic product from the town of Zilia : bottled spring water).

Driving is essential, as public transportation is sporadic in the Balagne, which stretches from the Desert des Agriates in the east to the town of Galeria on the west coast, roughly 500 square miles in all. One could stay on the coast and make day trips inland, but it is far better to spend a few nights in a village and use that as your base.

On my recent three-week ramble around Corsica, my 5-year-old daughter and I spent five days in the Balagne, which allowed plenty of time to visit Strada villages. Postcard-pretty Pigna, its buildings of golden stone with light blue shutters, was our base.

This lovely village is the Strada’s spiritual heart ; it was here, in the mid-60’s, that the movement to revive the villages began. In 1964, a few residents founded La Corsicada, a cooperative association that reconstructed buildings and revived village crafts under an apprentice system. And in 1978, the association founded E Voce di U Commune (the voices of the community) to preserve the cultural patrimony of Corsica, especially its rich music tradition. Pigna’s success inspired neighboring villages, and for about the last 12 years, young artisans have been encouraged to live and work in Strada villages in exchange for government grants.

At the back of Pigna, overlooking Algajola Bay, is the Casa Musicale, an arts center that holds concerts and is also an inn. A popular music festival, Estivoce, is held there every summer, and in 2002 a small outdoor auditorium with excellent acoustics was built.

Ed Alcock for The New York Times
Fashioning a lute in village of Pigna.

Pigna also features the greatest number of shops and artisans among the villages, including a few who make wooden flutes and string instruments, notably the rare Corsican cetera, a lute-like instrument of Tuscan origin with 16 strings.

Another artisan, Marie-Claire Darneal, makes hand-painted music boxes at her shop, Scata Musica. Visitors can watch her paint turtles, cows, pigs, horses, donkeys or an entire cast of characters from "A Moresca," an eighth-century ballad about Christian victories in the Mediterranean.

Each music box delivers a traditional Corsican song (the turtle I bought for my daughter plays "O Ciucciarella," a hauntingly beautiful lullaby). Prices range from about $30 to $90, which I found reasonable for the quality and craftsmanship. All along the Strada I found prices to be moderately expensive but still representing good value.

The ceramics studio of Jacky Quilichini, Ceramica di Pigna, is also immensely appealing. Besides deep blue and sunny yellow tableware, he will create personalized name plates and house numbers on order.

Near his studio, the small but well-stocked Casa di l’Artigiana offers a well-chosen selection of Corsican products, most from the Balagne. I was happy to find essential oils, candles and aromatic crystals for the vacuum cleaner that all have a scent of maquis, that pungent underbrush of cistus, myrtle, lavender, rosemary, thyme and arbutus that covers much of the island. A Corsican friend told me that each time she returns, the evocative smell of the maquis brings tears to her eyes. An exiled Napoleon is said to have claimed he could recognize his homeland with his eyes shut by the smell of the maquis alone.

While Pigna was my favorite village, Calenzana had almost as much to offer, and I bought some great wine and honey there. In Montegrosso, at Moulin U Fragnu, I found beautiful baskets woven from myrtle and olive branches. In Corbara, I admired jewelry crafted with semiprecious stones. And in Lumio, I visited the essences distillery of L’Astratella, where I bought lavender and fig oils.

But every Strada village is worth visiting, even if its specialty is not for you. Each is picturesque, each has a church (most are Baroque ; the two most impressive are those in Feliceto and Corbara), and each has something of interest to charm the visitor.

I found myself equally enamored of some villages not officially on the Strada, none more than a few miles from the main route.

Aregno has an outstanding Pisan Romanesque church from the 11th century, Église de la Trinité e San Giovanni, made of white, dark gray and pale yellow stone blocks, with uncommon sculptures of beasts and primitive human figures on its facade. San Antonino, often referred to as the Balagne’s most beautiful village and the island’s oldest continuously inhabited village, dating to the ninth century, has an unrivaled 360-degree view of the Balagne, as well as the Maison du Citron, which makes a lemon wine that is a refreshing chilled aperitif.

Accommodations are not plentiful along the Strada, and inns tend to be small, so planning is essential. Travelers with a keen interest in music will want to stay at the Casa Musicale in Pigna. Each of the seven brightly painted rooms is named after a voice range (la bassa, la siconda, la mezzana, etc.), and the staff is knowledgeable about the various styles of Corsican music, most of which are forms of polyphony (a cappella singing) whose origins are disputed but clearly represent pan-Mediterranean traditions. It’s a funky place, where guests often strike up impromptu, but quiet, jam sessions, and guitar playing or soft singing may be heard into the wee hours.

More refined is U Palazzu, a gorgeously restored mansion, built in 1701 by the influential Franceschini family. Opened only two years ago, the inn occupies the highest perch in Pigna, and the view from its main terrace, where dinner is served, is panoramic. The food is as good as the view, and the antiques-filled bedrooms and casual elegance make it the inn of choice among the villages perchés.

FROM the heights, we drove down to the equally beautiful Balagne coast, which is far less developed than other popular coastal areas on Corsica or the Côte d’Azur across the Mediterranean. Calvi and L’Île Rousse, at either end of the Strada, 15 miles apart, are among Corsica’s nicest resort towns, and both offer a range of accommodations. L’Île Rousse is noteworthy as the planned port community ordained by Pasquale Paoli, who in the 18th century gave Corsica a democratic government far ahead of its time and became the island’s first internationally known son. (He’s buried in Westminster Abbey, and towns in Pennsylvania, Indiana, Oklahoma and Colorado are named after him.) Paoli chose an un-Corsican grid plan for his new town, whose raison d’être was the exportation of Balagne olive oil. L’Île Rousse’s columned market is a national monument, and shady Place Paoli is particularly pleasant.

Even so, I prefer Calvi, with its three-mile crescent beach, its 13th-century citadel and its lively town center, with snow-topped mountains on the horizon. (Prince Rainier and Grace Kelly honeymooned there).

Calvi has two Strada workshops, where knives and bronze items are made and sold, but visitors may be more interested in Dolce e Savore, a classy shop I discovered on Boulevard Wilson. Four years ago, Dominique Orsini was a practicing lawyer who realized his passion lay not with the law, but with artisanal culinary items that are 100 percent Corsican. He operates one of the best boutiques of its kind on the island, with many enticing Balagne specialties, including pork products from purveyors who are mindful of the proper season for the slaughter (winter only, preferably when the moon is full).

An additional reason why Calvi gets my vote over L’Île Rousse is the Bout du Monde, a seafood restaurant on the beach that Mr. Orsini recommended and where I had one of the best meals of my entire journey : an unfussy, superb lobster salad with an inexpensive but delicious dry white wine from Ajaccio.

The Balagne has changed in the decades since Dorothy Carrington wrote her singular book, "Granite Island." The inhabitants are more prosperous and less isolated, there are now more children than retired people, and the villagers have found an enviable balance between preservation and modernity.

That balance may prove to be a model for the rest of the island, where there are still utterly forgotten villages. While driving on the D71, a main road of the Balagne, I braked one morning for a shepherd who was tending his flock, looking for all the world like he had stepped out of a medieval tapestry. And there is not a single McDonald’s on the island, yet many residents have cellphones and all the other technological toys of our age.

The Strada di l’Artigiani, although it is commercial to a degree, is the link that connects visitors with villagers, traditional crafts, contemporary artisans and farmers, and a recently bleak past with a promising future.

Ed Alcock for The New York Times
Village of Zilia in the region.

Visitor Information

Spring and fall are the best seasons on Corsica, with fewer crowds than in summer and fewer cars on the mountain roads.

Tourist offices in both Calvi, (33-4),, and L’Île Rousse, (33-4),, stock the free 14-page Strada di l’Artigiani booklet, which is essential, as well as useful brochures on the Balagne. The most helpful Web site I found is

Most artists’ studios and shops on the Strada are open year-round, but bad weather and occasional power shortages are known to alter business hours.

Dolce e Savore, on Boulevard Wilson in Calvi, (33-4), stocks an excellent assortment of Balagne olive oils, wine, liqueurs, honey and more. Items may be packaged for gifts, and shipping can be arranged (though the sausages and cheeses are not permitted into the United States). Open daily.

There is not a single bank or A.T.M. along the Strada, so get euros in Calvi or L’Île Rousse before you go.

Where to Stay and Eat

PIGNA : The Casa Musicale, (33-4), fax (33-4),, has seven single, double and family rooms. All of them have telephones and bathrooms, but no televisions. Low-season rates, from Sept. 16 to June 14, are $60 to $98 (at $1.25 to the euro). Summer rates are $82 to $126. Breakfast, lunch and dinner are served on the outdoor terrace. Pastas, eggplant, grilled seafood, risotto and daily specials are served. Dinner for two with wine is about $70 to $95.

Reservations are recommended in high season.

The lovely U Palazzu, (33-4),, has three large rooms and two suites with private terraces. Rates in April and October range from $113 to $181 ; in May, June and September, $144 to $213 ; in July and August, $169 to $294. (It is closed in the winter.) Meals, which are served on a terrace, include elaborately prepared seafood, meat and vegetable dishes. Dinner for two with wine is about $65 to $90 ; reservations required. The restaurant is closed Monday.

CALVI : The Bout du Monde, on the Calvi beach, (the turnoff is just before the Casino supermarket), (33-4), fax (33-4), is a casual, open-air place. Seafood and pasta are among the specialties. Lunch or dinner for two is about $115. The restaurant is open year-round ; it is closed Monday in winter. Reservations are recommended during the high season.

BARRIE KERPER is the author of the "Collected Traveler" series published by Fodor’s.

Correction : Oct. 31, 2004, Sunday

An article on Oct. 17 about the Road of the Artisans on Corsica misstated the burial place of the 18th-century Corsican leader Pasquale Paoli, who planned the port town of L’Île Rousse. Though he died in London and was buried at Westminster Abbey in 1807, his remains were returned to Corsica in 1889 and are in a chapel in the house where he was born, in Stretta, a hamlet in the town of Morosaglia.

dimanche 17 octobre 2004, par Scatt’arina

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