From the Tour de France to Roman eel farms

We had a pleasant overnight sail from Monaco to Corsica and even spotted a couple of whales about 25nm out of Monaco. One cruised past about 50m from the boat. I’d heard there were whales in the Med, but it’s always nice when you see one yourself. We were in about 2km of water at the time. For the first time ever, the Tour de France included Corsica. Stage 1 finished at the port we arrived in, Bastia, so we found ourselves a good spot to see the action. There’s lots of hoopla ahead of the riders with the sponsors’ “caravane” distributing loads of giveaways. One of the cafes had a sense of humour, serving EPO cocktails.

It appears not everyone on Corsica feels French. The locals speak an interesting dialect which sounds a bit like French with mangled Genoise Italian. The morning of stage 1 there was a massive sign painted on the wall at the entry to the old port, right near where the ferries from France turn into the main harbour: ” CORSICA IS NOT FRANCE. FRENCH GO HOME”. This was hastily being painted over. As one local told us, “there’s France, there’s Italy, and then there is Corsica!” The contrast between the South of France and Corsica is stark, an entirely different socio demographic. It’s easy to see why some there might not feel the least bit French.

From there we sailed into Italian waters, first to the island of Elba, where Napolean was exiled in 1814 during English occupation. We moored on the town quay at Portoferraio in the shadow of the Medici fortresses which protected the old town in Medieval times. The next port of call was Isola Giglio. Entering the harbour you pass the sad and sorry sight that is the Costa Concordia, an unfourtunate daily reminder for the locals of how slow the process of dealing with the aftermath has been, 18 months on. Having sailed along the same stretch of coast as she did it beggars believe that she could have hit the rocks that are just a hop, skip and a jump from the island, with 32 lives lost. Beside the wreck is a huge structure that houses the 420 men and women now working in shifts around the clock to salvage her. Eventually she will be towed off and cut up for scrap metal. The captain’s trial was meant to start this week, but has been delayed by a nationwide strike by laywers. What a crying shame! Giglio is a sleepy island with a small harbour town and hilltop village in what was once an old fortified town. You get the feeling time passes by fairly slowly here, with men sitting in the street weaving baskets from local flower stalks.

Next stop was the beautiful volcanic island of Ponza. When I think of Ponza I think of it with a capital P. “P” for pandamonium that is. The harbour is lined with 8 floating pontoons all separately operating as mini marinas. As we arrived in our dingy having anchored in the bay just outside, the operators were shooing away people trying to drop anchor inside the no anchoring zones near their berths. Meanwhile the water police were running around in their RIB with the blue light flashing trying to keep the way clear for the ferries maneovuring in and out of the town quay. The harbour was full, wall to wall boats everywhere you looked, and yet a small armada was still on its way in. Being in the dingy was a bit like being in a washing machine, what with all the wash being created by so many boats moving about. Welcome to Ponza on a Saturday evening. We stayed long enough to see the mayhem subside and enjoyed a few days there. The town of Ponza curls around the harbour with it’s quaint, cubed houses painted in pastel pinks, yellows and blues. Just around the point are some man-made grottoes built by the Romans to house fish ponds for their Moray eels, apparently a delicacy of the Roman era.

Both Ponza and Ventotene were popular retreats for emperors and wealthy Romans, but later became islands of exile for undesirables such as Caligula’s brothers, his sister Agrippina, the mother of Nero, and the adulterous Julia, exiled by her father, Caesar Augustus. They are lovely islands, but few beaches to speak of. The Italians will pull up on any old bit of rock to sunbake. Makes you appreciate our beaches downunder. The tiny harbour at Ventone, originally a Roman galley port, was carved out of volcanic rock by the Romans. Their old galley sheds excavated into the rock are still in use today. The local fishos can be seen cleaning their nets here daily.

The Italians love roaring around in motorboats at great speed. Most conduct themselves in a reasonably seaman-like manner, but every now and then there’s just a bit too much macho man. Our pilot book refers to them as “homo moronicus”. It all adds to the chaos that is sailing in Italy.



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