A cursory inspection of a relief map of Corsica is enough to understand why the French call the island une montagne dans la mer. One vast granite mountain range runs from the northwest of the island to the southeast, dominating over two thirds of Corsica’s territory. A secondary group of peaks occupies the northeastern extremity. The highest mountain, Monte Cinto, rises to an impressive 2,710m, and there are at least another 20 peaks that break the 2,000m barrier.
Crossing Corsica’s interior has never been easy, and only in the 19th century was an actual road built to connect Bastia in the northeast to Ajaccio in the southwest. Before that, it was only possible to travel on horseback, by mule or on foot. Rarely did the twain of east and west meet and still today there are islanders who live en deçà des monts (literally “on this side of the mountains”, signifying the east) that have never been au delà des monts (“on the other side of the mountains”, or the west), and vice versa. Four roads now traverse the interior of Corsica, offering spectacular scenery and a great driving experience. They are not for people in a hurry, however, and the most direct route (150km) between the two aforementioned cities takes nearly three hours.
Sparsely populated mountain villages speckle the interior but there are also vast uninhabited spaces where chestnut and pine forests proliferate (approximately 20% of Corsica’s territory is forested) and spectacular granite peaks carve out jagged silhouettes in the sky. Rivers, lakes, waterfalls run riot, especially in the winter and spring, providing a life force for numerous species of flora and fauna.
Corsica’s interior is a paradise for nature lovers and sports enthusiasts. For walkers, there is a seemingly unlimited choice of trails, including the famous 180km-long GR20, a tough 15-day hike that wends its way from Calenzana (near Calvi in the northwest) to Conca (just outside Porto Vecchio in the southeast). White water rafting, mountain biking, horseback trekking and wild water swimming are also practiced widely from spring to autumn, while in February and March, skiers take to the slopes of Esa, Ghisoni, Evisa and other centres. A celebration of the sporting bounty offered by Corsica’s mountains – Festimonti - takes place each September in Bocognano. Visitors can take part in guided treks on foot, mountain bike or horseback, or try their hand at mountaineering, canyoning and hang-gliding.
Since time immemorial, the inhabitants of Corsica have headed for the hills to escape danger or to establish new communities. Traces of long-forgotten settlements pepper the interior, and there are numerous archaeological remains to be seen, some of which date back as far as the Neolithic age. Many have no official status or signage, however, so don’t be surprised if you happen on a completely undocumented dolmen during a walk in the middle of nowhere.
Corsica’s hinterland has long been its gastronomic heartland, and many of the island’s most defining food products – including cheese, cured meats, chestnut flour and wine – hail from the interior, as do many of the island's most popular recipes. These traditions are celebrated each year in a series of mountain village festivals, including A Fiera Di U Casgiu (a cheese festival in Venaco at the end of April) and the Foire Du Pratu (a celebration of Corsican recipes, specialities and local produce in Quercitello in August).
Mediterranean islands, even the largest and most diverse ones like Corsica, are often pigeon-holed as beach destinations. Promotional material and websites focus primarily on idyllic white beaches and transparent azure waters, and perhaps this is understandable. But like its neighbours, Sardinia and Sicily, Corsica is so much than just beaches and sea. Its ancient soul, its timeless identity and its beating heart is to be found in the interior. If you wish understand Corsica, you'll have to head inland.