The inspiration for my latest book, “Cape Corse”, came during our 2022 visit to Corsica in our sailing boat Kim. Arrival in Calvi after an overnight trip from France was unforgettable, the island, enormously high and mountainous, visible from a great distance as the dawn broke, and as we drew nearer, the sight of Calvi’s citadel was like something from a dream. From the sea, it seemed impregnable, and so it was, until Nelson dragged ships’ guns up steep paths until they commanded the town, which surrendered, though he famously lost his eye in the operation.
For the yachtsman, Corsica is attractive, but also rather forbidding. The water is blue, warm and clear, but even on the more hospitable east coast there are few naturally sheltered anchorages, and the wind can be very strong, subject to the Mistral, with squalls screaming down the mountains.
For an outsider, at least for a short term visitor, it is impossible to understand the politics of Corsica. It is part of France, but graffiti supporting Corsican independence is very common, and place names are generally rendered in Corsican and French. For several centuries, Corsica was owned by the Genoese, or at least the Genoese Bank of St George, and there are Genoese round stone towers on almost every headland to guard against corsairs and other enemies.
The British were so impressed by the tower at Myrtle Point’s (English spelling) ability to withstand naval bombardment that they used it as the prototype for the many Martello towers which were built around the Empire.
We spent some time in Macinaghju (Corsican spelling), a port near Cap Corse (French spelling) in the north of the island, which features prominently in the book. We walked along the coast path and inspected the ruined Genoese tower of Santa Maria, which stands on a rock just off the beach.
After convoluted manoeuvrings, the French became the owners of Corsica, but the Corsicans successfully rebelled, setting up the short lived Corsican Republic under Pasquale Paoli, supported by the British, whose fleet was led by Nelson. James Boswell travelled to Corsica and wrote a book about the Island, and Paoli. Eventually the French regained control, and Corsica is a still a more or less unwilling part of France.
We left the boat in Bastia, and took the metre gauge railway which climbs to Paoli’s capital, Corti, an astonishing city with steep stepped streets, and a citadel which seems to hang over the town. We walked from Corti along a former mule track on the side of a steep river valley, enjoying the vast scale of the mountains and the hot clear air.
Corsica is, or at least was, famous for the vendetta, feuds between clans and families which involved generation after generation. Their existence was probably not helped by the indifference of the Genoese to the island, and the consequent absence of the rule of law.
In general, I like to set my books in locations I have visited. The ship in “Cape Corse”, the imaginary HMS Oleander, is built in Bermuda, where I used to live and sail, from the now vanished Bermuda Cedar. We have taken Kim, and our previous boat, Mitch, into the Rade de Marseille, and close to the grim Chateau d’If, where Victor Hugo’s imagined Count of Monte Cristo was imprisoned. We even saw the island of Monte Cristo itself, from our anchorage in Elba, and have been into Toulon and Hyeres. And lastly, any seaman who has looked down from the cliffs of Portland onto West Bay will appreciate Oleander’s master’s apprehension when Snowden orders him to keep the ship hove to there while he nips ashore.