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Sunday, July 15, 2012, in Bonifacio, Corsica, France

Hi all. We’re in Bonifacio, on the southern end of Corsica. Last week, we had just arrived at Corsica, in Calvi.

Corsica is officially and in parts reluctantly part of France, but its roots are deeply Italian, with a Spanish accent. The island is among the many places to claim the birthplace of Christopher Columbus, though few take the contention historically seriously.

Raided by the Vandals, Ostrogoths, and Saracens, Calvi was simply a small fishing port until it was settled by Pisans and then by the Genoese. In 1268, a nobleman arranged for the construction of a large citadel overlooking the port, giving the town its defenses, its postcard, and its Calvi name. In 1553, the French and Turks laid siege to the town in partnership; the resistance of the people earned Calvi its motto Civitas Calvis Semper Fidelis. Calvi remained independent, even from surrounding Corsica, a position that was put to the test in 1794, when a military alliance between Paoli and the British resulted in a Lord Nelson-commanded attack that lasted two months. Nelson was victorious, but upon his departure said that he never wanted to see the place again. He was half-right about that; during the battle, he lost an eye.

There’s a marina at Calvi, expensive in season and out, and we decided to repeat our experience from the previous visit and pick up a mooring. The advantages of a mooring are price, ease of arrival and departure, and privacy. The disadvantages are the same as anchoring, no power or water and a dinghy trip to shore. The last time we were in Calvi, in rough weather, we had to wear a full set of foul-weather gear just to visit a nearby boat for cocktails.

The moorings are marked with boat sizes, which tell you something about the strength of the infrastructure and the distance your boat can swing without hitting another vessel. On our last visit, we’d fussed to get the mooring set up right, only to be deported to a mooring of a different size.

We pulled into the main Calvi harbor in the morning and were greeted by a young man in an inflatable dinghy. This was an improvement over our previous visit to Calvi, as he found us an available mooring in the right size quite close to town and threaded our line through the ball on my behalf. The price wasn’t all that much less than we’d been paying in marinas, but the season had started and nothing in Corsica is cheap.

It was a Sunday, but very little changes in Calvi in the summer day after day. The “traiteur”, which in a normal French town sells made-up meals and pastries for time-saving gourmands, is something of a souvenir shop in Calvi. Sure, there are salads and cut meats and cheeses, so you could make a picnic if you wanted to do so. But much of the shop is devoted to meats and cheeses that are ready to take or ship home, jams and sauces with local chestnuts or figs, and pates in jars from the Corsican wild boar (that is sometimes just a regular pork product). Ordinarily, traiteurs that open on Sundays (and many do) are only open until about one o’clock in the afternoon. I asked this shop how late they were open, and the answer is, essentially, “tomorrow.” Yes, this is the Calvi 24-hour traiteur. I suppose that when your business is asleep for about ten months every year, you have to stay up for six months of business during the few weeks that you’ll see customers.

In the evening, we saw a large yacht we recognized pull into Calvi harbor and anchor well off from the mooring field. This was the Norge, the royal yacht of Norway. We’d been in the Lofoten Islands of Norway in the summer of 2008 when the Queen was visiting. When we attended the street event there that she was the honored guest, it surprised me how little distance there was between the queen and the crowd. In fact, a day or so after that event, we’d been visiting a little town nearby, and we saw the Queen and her tiny entourage visit a crafts store across the square from us. So apparently, the Queen of Norway was following us around again, after all these years.

There are pluses and minuses to being on a mooring near town. It’s a short dinghy trip to get ashore, which is good. But we were within excellent earshot of a rather boisterous gathering in the citadel that evening. It wasn’t so distracting that we couldn’t sleep, but we were surprised that the party was still going on when we woke up the next morning in broad daylight. I wondered if maybe the Queen was getting her groove on.

Art was keeping an eye on the weather, and we had three days to get to a sheltered harbor, most likely Ajaccio. We had no idea how we’d spend that three days. We could spend an extra day in Calvi, or go to Girolata, a lovely cove. We could go to Girolata for an overnight stay, or spend a whole day there doing the nothing that the place offers.

We decided to wait until afternoon and leave for Girolata. This way, we could eat lunch ashore and leave when the winds would be better for sailing than the calm morning. But sometime during the morning, the winds picked up. It would be a decent day to sail, and we never know how many of them we’ll have in the Mediterranean. Furthermore, the winds were getting so blustery that we weren’t sure that it would be a fun ride ashore and back. I made some sandwiches, so that I wouldn’t have to cook underway, and we dropped our mooring and left the harbor.

As soon as we got out of the harbor, the wind disappeared. We only had about thirty miles to go, so we decided to sail. Whatever wind we had was right in our face, so we could sail slowly, and only in the wrong direction.

Girolata is a lovely port, guarded by one of the 67 Genoese towers that still stand in Corsica today. These towers were originally built in the 16th century, many, but not all, of Genoese origin. Their purpose was to protect against pirates, with limited success. The towers, placed at defined distances along the coast, were manned (usually understaffed) by two to six men, and when an alert was raised, they would send out an alarm with fire, or smoke, or noise, to the next tower in line. But pirates probably couldn’t do very well in Girolata, which still has no road access, with buildings around the port that are not much more than tents, providing only food and souvenirs to the boats that offer a constant summer stream of visitors.

As we motored up the harbor, we went by several large boats that were anchored, and were backed up to the land, with a second anchor ashore. One of them had a sliding board similar to the one I’d seen near St. Tropez. Flags on those boats were from Malta, Luxemburg, and some tax haven that is part of the United Kingdom. I was starting to think that there are more giant boats from these places than people who live there.

Surrounding the port are mountains that look like shaved dark chocolate, the old fortifications, and some homes behind a terrace of open air restaurants a short climb from the port. The Norwegian royal yacht had followed us to Girolata, then passed us, and had gone off by itself in a nearby cove.

The last time we’d anchored in Girolata, we’d anchored, and I was so taken with the turquoise-and-navy-blue water that I actually decided to go swimming. But this secret port would not be hidden for long. It’s eleven years later, and now there are moorings, lots of moorings. Instead of the Calvi sort of dispersion, in which boats attached to moorings swing around as if they’re anchored, these moorings line the visitors up fore and aft, connected at both ends. We were about five or six feet from our next-door parallel neighbors, with no possibility of collision.

All of the boats in a line facing out of the harbor look like navy cadets at attention. It’s a better use of space than the more typical municipal mooring fields, and probably quite safe in all weather. I suppose that it isn’t possible to keep a fabulous place like that to yourself, after all.

The nightly rate for the mooring was more than Calvi had been, and not that much less than a night in a marina. We looked wistfully at the boats anchored just outside of the mooring area for free. Then we walked up the hill to a restaurant overlooking the harbor, and drank up the Corsican culture in the form of Pietra beer, with a plate of zucchini beignets, as we peered through pink and purple oleander over our sailboat-at-attention, awaiting our return.

Art was watching the weather carefully, and he wanted to be in a marina before the weekend. We left Girolata in the morning, in light winds, knowing that we had all day to go the thirty or forty miles to Ajaccio. Again, we tacked in light winds, and we arrived at Ajaccio in late afternoon. We dropped our anchor in the big harbor among a dozen other boats.

We hadn’t called ahead to reserve a berth, for several reasons. There was no way for us to know what day we’d arrive. Also, Ajaccio is a city, the capital of Corsica, and we didn’t expect that vacationers would be flocking to the two large marinas in town; we thought that they’d be leaving those marinas for quieter places like Girolata. So we were surprised when the marina in the old town, Port Tino Rossi, couldn’t confirm a berth for us through the weekend.

The other marina in Ajaccio, Port Charles Ornano, newer but farther from town, turned us down flat. So we had to wait for Port Tino Rossi to decide where to put us, or send us packing. The biggest surprise about these marinas is that neither of them is named for Napoleon, because Ajaccio is Napoleon’s home town, and everything else that’s there now honors him and his family.

Our options weren’t fabulous. We could sit on our anchor in Ajaccio through bad weather, probably not able to leave the boat. A flashback of our last visit to Ajaccio reminded us of boats dragging their anchors around the harbor during a storm, and one boat crashing into everything between its starting point and the marina where we all watched in horror as it lumbered towards us.

We could go immediately to Bonifacio, on the southern tip of Corsica, assuming that they’d have space for us, and making our trip through Corsica a week-long frenzy. We hoped they’d find us a spot at Tino Rossi, and they did.

Our place wasn’t in the normal part of the marina, but it was attached to land, at least. We were on the outside of the tiny fishing harbor that was no doubt the original harbor of Ajaccio, the one with what I imagined to be ancient stone quays, and maybe they were. The one devoted to fishing and work, when people didn’t go out on boats just because it was fun. The one where the little boy Napoleon Bonaparte dreamed of conquering, well, everywhere other than here. Unsure of the depth near the stone quay, Art decided we’d go bow-in; this turned out to be a very prudent choice. It wouldn’t be easy to get on and off the boat, but we’d be safe.

During our sail to Girolata, Art had pulled a zipper clean out of its place on the bimini cover, because boats don’t stay perfect for very long. We found a sailmaker through the help of the marine store in the harbor, and arranged for a visit and possible repair. Neither of those plans materialized.

We did make use of services available ashore, doing some laundry, topping up our pantry, cleaning the boat inside and out, and getting some personal grooming accomplished as well. Our last visit to Ajaccio was filled with museums and sightseeing, but this time around we blended with the locals instead of the cruise ship passengers that constantly filled the open air market and sandy beaches.

The forecast was good for a departure, and we’d accomplished the little we wanted to do in Ajaccio. Might we have stayed longer if the berth had been friendlier to get aboard and off? Maybe. Though we weren’t in a particular hurry, we weren’t trying to dawdle either. We decided that we’d move on.

The winds would be calm in the morning and build, shifting direction, during the day. The choices were to go to a harbor about half the distance to our next marina, Bonifacio, or amble along all day and anchor in the Bay of Figari, only a few miles from Bonifacio. This day would be better for sailing than the next day, so we decided to go for the long route and leave a few miles for the calm next day. The sea was still bumpy from earlier winds, so my morning wasn’t as good as Art’s, but by mid-afternoon, the seas had calmed. So we sailed, barely moving, for an hour or two, in calm winds and rolling seas, and then had a lovely mid-speed sort of day when the seas had subsided.

The place we chose was near the Figari airport that serves Bonifacio, one of the few cities in Corsica. We’d been warned that the anchorage was on the flight path, and it was, but it wasn’t too much of a distraction. The name of the port was Pianotolli-Caldarello, which probably wouldn’t even fit on a sign across the town.

The harbor was another stunning Corsican shimmer of turquoise surrounded by a hug of mountains. It was alive with water sports when we arrived. Kite surfers darted in front of us and behind us, looking as though they didn’t know where they’d go next, but commanding the sea. Once we got through the kite traffic, we were surrounded by windsurfers. Their colorful sails fluttering in the wind looked like so many butterflies swarming about.

Another Genoese tower looked over us like an ancient spirit. There were towers at most of the places we had stopped, and it occurred to me that this isn’t as coincidental as it seemed. We stop at a harbor because its shape and depth offers protection from the weather for our boat. That’s why villages happened, too, because boats offer fishing and trade, and when there’s a community, they need protection from intruders. I realized that the attributes that drew us to those harbors also connected us to the past.

There’s almost nothing there but a hotel and a few homes. Still, there’s a small marina, well-populated with what appear to be local boats, and moorings sprinkled about for the use of other local vessels. We anchored in the main part of the harbor, well away from the mooring field, and settled in for the evening.

It would have been easy to just leave in the morning, but we decided to go ashore, if just for a coffee at the hotel. It was Bastille Day, July 14, and I really didn’t know whether that would be a big deal in this somewhat separatist island. There was a small road going up, literally, from the harbor, and on the way was a restaurant, advertising a Bastille Day dinner special, although the restaurant was locked up tight in the morning.

We continued on to the hotel, the U Libecciu, one of those mystifying Corsican names. The hotel didn’t have an option for us for a simple coffee and a pain chocolat, but we could buy breakfast for a reasonable price. So our second breakfast was an actual breakfast, in mid-morning. The hotel was clearly an all-inclusive resort, with boats for the taking, a private beach polka-dotted with umbrellas, bikes lined up ready to be borrowed, and piles of games (French Trivial Pursuit?) for the use of the guests. I should have realized that a hotel in the middle of nowhere has to provide something to do for its weekly guests. And there was something kind of quaint about the absence of video games or big-screen TVs. I wasn’t even getting a signal on my BlackBerry. Yeah, I’d jump out of my skin. But I understood that other people do like to get away, and that would be a fine way to do it.

The anchorage also served as a seaplane landing, and two of them buzzed just above us, then landed, and took off immediately. Something painted on the sides led us to wonder whether they were picking up water to drop on a fire somewhere.

In the late morning, we pulled up the anchor. The night had been calm, so the holding on the bottom hadn’t been tested. But we could have sat through quite a storm in the mud we pulled up. It took about five or ten minutes to dislodge all the goo from the anchor, with the help of a boat hook.

Not wanting to make the same mistake twice, we’d made a reservation at Bonifacio’s marina. They’d called us the day before our arrival to confirm, and we called them again on the day we were coming to give them an estimate of when we’d get there. It was less than ten miles from our anchorage, so we sailed there at our leisure.

There’s almost nothing like the approach to Bonifacio by sea. Homer was so impressed with the limestone cliffs that he remarked upon them in the Odyssey. Of course, the Laestrygonian inhabitants got his attention when they embarked on eating his crew. But even he thought that the cliffs were something.

Indeed, it’s a very protected harbor, and we needed shelter from some windy weather. We motored up to the striated cliffs, where some brave souls built houses, most of which haven’t yet fallen into the sea. The eroded, sculpted cliffs are otherworldly. You motor through a small labyrinth of this mast-towering stone, and there you are, in a narrow channel, ringed by restaurants at water level and a citadel holding up the haute ville (upper city) at the next level towards the sky.

The harbor was frenzied on this Saturday, probably not because it was Bastille Day, but because it was July. We took the opportunity to top up the fuel tanks, even though they weren’t too low, and called the marina for assistance in docking.

An inflatable carrying two young men in bright red tee shirts arrived and led us to a place. Art had been enthralled by the online brochure for the marina. He hadn’t really noticed how they had focused on their pontoons for boats up to 15 meters and their places for megayachts. They’d described twenty places for boats 15 to 20 meters (we are seventeen meters in length.) Boats like ours go on the ends of pontoons. Normally these are called T-heads (or hammerheads), but that presumes that the “t” is crossed or that the hammer has a head. In this case, the docks are headless.

Left alone, this isn’t that safe for a side-to docking. Along a dock, you want to pull the bow forward and the stern aft. But Bonifacio marina makes up for that by having mooring lines (sometimes called lazy lines, although if you’ve ever tied one up, you’d know what a misnomer that is.) There would be a line for us to use at the bow, and another one at the stern. So we were assigned to the headless T-head of a pontoon that stored inflatables and sailing dinghies on one side and small fishing boats on the other. The young man showed me a line on the pontoon that had once been attached to the mooring line. “Cut”, he told me. There was no line on the stern at all.

Art was visibly unhappy. He felt that this place would be unsafe in the winds. We asked the dock crew to look for another place. I went to the commercial dock to beg for a spot and was sent home empty-handed. By the time I got back to the boat, Art had heard from the marina. The sailboat at the next pontoon was leaving in an hour, and we could have their spot. We could see that they had mooring lines keeping them safe. It was 2:00. We began our vigil.

There was no activity at all on this boat that was apparently preparing to leave. We sat in the cockpit and continued to stare. At 3:00, the family showed up in a dinghy and climbed aboard. We watched them shower off in the cockpit whatever it was that was on them from wherever they’d been. Then most of the family disappeared below and a middle-aged man stood on the dock staring at the hull. Art thought that maybe he was filling the water tank in preparation for departure. We sat in the cockpit and watched him watch the hull.

We heard the capitainerie turn down the boats our size that arrived without reservations. The inflatables filled with red tee shirts darted around the harbor like bugs, pointing to berths, pulling on lines, and sometimes nosing in an errant bow like an external bow thruster.

At 4:00, the family filed out of the companionway. Now, we thought, they’re surely leaving. But they all looked newly showered and dressed, and they left the boat, no doubt headed to a restaurant along the harbor. I realized that we had spent the last two hours waiting for a family to finish up their vacation.

At 5:00, the inflatable motioned to us to follow them to a different pontoon and helped us tie up. There were mooring lines fore and aft, and Art finally felt secure enough to face the oncoming weather. A new megayacht arrived in the harbor, Lady Britt. I looked it up on the Internet; it’s 203 feet long. It motored directly to the head of the harbor, alongside another yacht that we’d be watching head-on during our long stare up-harbor. Art wondered how it would be to have a gigantic yacht and own the harbor head, only to be upstaged by a new 200-foot neighbor. I looked up the name of the yacht which had been there all day. That one was 223 feet. Harumph.

Finally feeling ready, we showered, dressed, and got our papers to check in and pay for our berth. Then we walked around the harbor and stopped off for a beer and tapas; we’d skipped lunch after our big second breakfast. From the café, we could see that the boat we’d been waiting for was still docked at the end of the pontoon.

Hope that you’re all having some summer fun. Between yesterday’s cloudiness and today’s winds, it was so cool I needed to carry a jacket, and actually had to use it once in a while. It won’t last.

Love, Karen (and Art)