Bastia to Calvi via the Col de Vizzavona and Ajaccio
A preview of stages 2 and 3 of the 100th Tour de France’s Grand Départ, in 4 days (preceded by 2 days in the car, from Figari to Bastia). June 2013. About 300km (by bike, that is)
(Map Key: red lollipops = the bit we did by car; blue lollipops = bike ride)
View Corsica June 2013 in a larger map
The Tour de France’s first visit to the so-called Ile de Beauté, for le Grand Départ of the 100th edition of the great race, at the end of June 2013, was a challenge and an opportunity.
Le Grand Départ is not just the first stage, but the first section: 3 stages, for which the Tour’s organisers selected not a complete tour of the island’s perimeter, though at 600km(ish) this might have been possible in three days, but a zig zag from Porto Vecchio to Bastia, through the interior to Ajaccio, and up the famously spectacular west coast to Calvi.
The idea was obviously to promote the island’s tourism and presumably its attraction as a cycling destination. I got a commission to write about it for a newspaper, on condition that I promised to ride part of the route and write in time for the article to appear on the first day of the race. (Click here for the link to the article in The Independent).
“Why would I want to do that?” was my regular cycling buddy Galaxy’s rather crushing reaction to my excited suggestion. “It’ll all be on main roads, and steep.”
He was right of course. As usual, Galaxy had instantly seen the wood for the trees. Apart from the east coast, which is marked by a long fast straight road that no non-racing cyclist of sound mind would wish to ride, Corsica is a formidably mountainous island. Its main roads are indeed steep and the minor alternatives (where there are any) are steeper.
I was not to be deterred and Paul, my long-suffering companion from Route 4, got the call-up.
The logistics took ages to sort out. The tour operator Corsican Places (www.corsica.co.uk) could arrange flights out to Figari (near Porto Vecchio) and back from Calvi, but their planes would not take our bikes and we could not find a bike-rental company willing to bring wheels to Figari and fetch them from Calvi.
In the end we decided not to cycle the flat first stage of the Tour up the east coast, and spent two days in a hired car, visiting Bonifacio and Porto Vecchio, where we rented bikes for a quick warm-up ride to the beach at Pinarello; and taking the mountain route to Solenzara via Levie and the Col de Bavella – a spectacular scenic tour that we were glad not to be attempting on bicycles.
At Bastia airport we swapped our car for bikes rented from Europe Active (www.europe-active.com), which is based near by, and set off to pedal stages 2 and 3 in four days: to Calvi via Corte, the Col de Vizzavona (1163m), Ajaccio and Porto. This worked pretty well though the hybrid bikes were not entirely convincing and Europe Active’s support does not cover all the island. Luckily we managed without it, and found support in other invaluable ways, sending our panniers by train from Corte to Ajaccio – this is a well-established system – and persuading friendly bus drivers to take our bags up the west coast.
I had read that the west coast would be at least as tough as the climb to Vizzavona, and so it was, mainly because of the heat and lack of shade. Ajaccio to Piana was the most gruelling, but the reward in scenery more than made up for it, and the fact that we reached Piana so late in the day made the light even better, for the descent through the celebrated Callanche to Porto. Having no helicopter at our disposal, our pictures of this bit may not be quite as good as those taken when the Tour went through.
At the Fango river near Galeria the route to Calvi divides. The Tour took the shorter but higher inland route. We took the longer but lower coast road via Ferayola, which is recommended for a lunch or overnight stop. The road surface is lousy, however.
At Calvi we had a day to spare for wine tasting and relaxation, and were glad of it.
Corsican Places is not particularly geared up for cycling holidays but they are used to tailoring touring or twin-centre holidays for motorists and their local knowledge is impressive.
Even without Galaxy’s scornful rejection of my plan, I think I would have worked out that our Tour de France zig zag across the island, and our bastardized car + bike strategy, was not the most obvious way to organise a Corsican cycling holiday. With hindsight, how would I do it differently?
A complete coastal tour of the island – 633km, according to Via Michelin – would be tempting but to fit it in a 6-day week would be an uncomfortable squeeze; and unless the flight schedules have changed, the only practical holiday duration is 6 or 13 days. Travelling out or back independently via Nice and a ferry would add flexibility, but also time and expense. And anyway, we enjoyed seeing Corte and the interior, even if the road is a bit mainstream. The worst bit was between Bastia airport and Ponte Leccia (about 30km), where the N193 carries traffic on its way to and from Ile Rousse and Calvi as well as Corte and Ajaccio. It would be good to avoid this by taking the train from Bastia to Ponte Leccia, but bikes are not allowed on board.
A clockwise northern circuit from Ajaccio, Bastia or Calvi, including the island’s northern finger (Cap Corse), the west coast, Corte and Vizzavona would be about 470km and fill a week nicely. But then we would not have seen the south at all. Perhaps after all we were not unhappy with the way we did it, although missing Cap Corse was a pity. Clockwise, because Piana to Porto is the way to go, not Porto to Piana.
The constraints of my commission meant that we had to do the ride just ahead of the Tour de France. It was fun talking to people about the race to come – not that excitement was exactly feverish – but in other respects riding the route after the race would have been more sensible. Two weeks in advance, roadworks were still in full swing, and we often found ourselves pedalling through wet tar, or around it. At the finish area of Stage 1, on a beach to the south of Bastia, work had hardly started. With surprise we noticed that new stretches of surface on the Tour’s route through villages were going in with speed bumps incorporated.
I may expand and shift these descriptions to my hotel archive when I have time. Auberge Ferayola is already there.
Porto Vecchio, Shegara.
Not the most prepossessing location on the waterfront boulevard, but the staff were extremely helpful, and the place comfortable and well kept, with a pool in the garden. A fortnight later we could have looked down on the opening moments of the Tour de France from our balcony …. had that room and the rest of the hotel not been bagged by cycling teams. “If they had given us the Tour de France in April instead of high season, it might have been more helpful,” said the manager. The restaurant next door is managed separately and is also recommended. (Took us in for a late lunch after closing time).
San Martino di Lota. La Corniche
San Martino’s perch is a steep hillside 1000 feet above Bastia, reached by a tortuous narrow road, up which we were glad not to be cycling. The hotel’s charm is a touch retro – some would say faded – but the setting is sensational and breakfast on the terrace was a great treat. The best thing about the hotel is the food …. allegedly: we foolishly arranged to visit on the evening of fermeture hebdomadaire in the restaurant, and ate instead in the village. The owners recommended La Place, which belongs to a family member, but we preferred the more picturesque original village inn, U San Martinu. The whiff, should you notice one, comes from the nearby shed where they pin boar trotters and tails to the door.
Corte, Dominique Colonna. (2km from town up the Gorges de la Restonica.)
A stylish modern hotel beside the rushing torrent, which we found in deafening full spate (after an unusually late thaw and a wet May). It would be tempting to stay a couple of nights here and spend the day carrying on up the long gorge. Be warned: it climbs. There is a good restaurant on the other side of the car park.
Ajaccio, Les Mouettes (B&B).
A peachy – in colour, as well as the other sense – little boutique hotel beside the water on Ajaccio’s Route des Sanguinaires, where a hole opened up in the middle of the road a few days before the Tour cyclists were going to sprint down it towards the finish of Stage 2. I don’t think this was our fault. The owner M Pieri is extremely switched on and proved to be a fascinating source of information about Ajaccio – history and cycling tips. He is a keen cyclist himself, and has invested in impressive anti-theft devices for his bike rack, in anticipation for the hoped-for boom in Corsican cycling holidays. Steps from the pool terrace lead down to a pretty little beach of rock and gritty sand; watch out for urchins.
Porto, Eden Park.
This isn’t in Porto but near Serriera on the road out to Calvi, in a setting of almost tropical or indeed Eden-like seclusion, with a track down to an empty beach. The focal point of the place is the pool – not a bad arrangement so long as you don’t mind being watched by eaters and drinkers as you do your lengths (and vice versa). The food is really good, with an unusual and tempting raw food option among the other menus. Morgane the manageress was super-helpful and gave good route-planning advice.
Calvi, Les Arbousiers (B&B).
Set back from the busy road that leads in to Calvi from the airport and Ile Rousse, this was a markedly more basic hotel than the others we stayed in, with no wifi, next to no furniture or décor in the small bedroom (apart from beds), and noisy early morning rubbish collection on the street below. So it was a shame to have chosen it as the base for our only two-night stay. However, it is not expensive, and the staff had a languid charm to which we warmed. And the soft sand of Calvi’s lovely beach is only a short walk away. Who needs the internet, anyway? The blonde queen of the breakfast room is what George Dubya might have called A Piece Of Work.
Calvi La Villa (Relais & Châteaux).
Our self-congratulatory last supper was at a waterside fish restaurant in Calvi, U Calellu on Quai Landry, where we ate perfect turbot, gazed at expensive yachts parked alongside and were perhaps gazed at back, admiringly, for the excellence of our choice. U Calellu is an outpost of Corsica’s most exclusive hotel, La Villa, a collection of villas that look down on the citadel from a lofty perch among prickly gardens with clay court and spa. I pushed my bike up there in the morning to have a look around. La Villa has decided that having the swimming pool as the focus of the hotel is not the best arrangement – I suppose it depends on how beautiful are the bathers – and has made a new one out of sight, turning its predecessor into a water feature, with bath toys.
Link to fuller description of Auberge Ferayola (25km south of Calvi)