Corsica River Guide


Geology | Climate | History | Transport | Camping and Food | Medical

Forward to Introduction part 2 - Canoeing in Corsica

1. Geology


Corsica sprang into being about 250 million years ago, when geological upheavals threw up the mass of granite which forms the backbone of the island

Some 200 million years later the upheavals which brought the Alps into existence also had an effect on Corsica. A mass of sedimentary rock was thrust against the eastern side of the island. The pressures involved causing a metamorphosis into a folded bed of hard, resistant schists.

The final changes to the Corsican landscape were caused by the effects of erosion. Glaciation in the ice ages had some effect on the highest peaks, but most of the work was done by the island's abundant precipitation. This has covered the land with rows of parallel steep sided, V shaped valleys.

The main granite spine of the island takes a meandering north west/south east line down the centre of Corsica. This spine achieves a height of 2,710 metres at Monte Cinto. To the west the rivers drop sharply to the coast in valleys such as the Liamone, Porto, Prunelli and Taravo. The high rivers to the east start in a similar manner, in valleys such as the higher Golo, the Asco and the Restonica. But as these rivers cross a line running north and south from Corte, they pass from granite to schist, and the scenery becomes more open and less steep. Other rivers, such as the Travo and Fium Orbo run in schist throughout their length. Only in the last few miles of flow do the rivers on the east meet a band of sedimentary rock running along the island's eastern coast.

2. Climate

Corsica at sea level has the typical mediterranean climate of hot dry summers with mild wet winters. Fortunately in the spring and autumn the island's altitude and proximity to the sea produce two reliable canoeing seasons.

The spring canoeing season runs from early April to mid May, with most Corsican visitors using the Easter vacation as a chance to get a fortnights paddling. At this time of year the temperature at sea level is mild. When the sun is out a T shirt and shorts are normal, with perhaps a pullover in the evening. As altitude is gained the temperature drops. Most of the high mountains in Corsica are snow capped at this time of year. The snow line is often not much higher than the canoeable upper stretches of rivers such as the Liamone and Golo. If the sun is shining it will feel warm, but a cloudy day will need warm clothes and a sleeping bag able to cope with temperatures near freezing.

The river water in Corsica comes from two sources. The weather is very changeable, and a two week visit to Corsica will probably have you experiencing both types. Mistral winds from the west gather water over the sea, and discharge it as rain or snow over the mountains. Snow will settle, but rain will have an immediate effect on the river levels. Alternatively sunshine will bring the snow off the mountains. This effect is more delayed however, and it normally takes a few days of sunshine for there to be a big effect on levels. The daily rise and fall typical of French Alpine canoeing is normally absent in Corsica except for the upper tributaries of the Golo.

After a long dry summer running into September a second short season runs through October and November. The only water here is rainfall however, so the Autumn season is less reliable and much less popular than the Spring.

History and Geography

Like everything in Corsica, the island's history and development is intimately tied up with the shape of the land.

The massive valleys and poor communications produced a Corsican native who was fiercely proud and independant. Unfortunately the same geography produced appallingly bad agriculture and commerce, so this proud but poor people were constantly invaded by outsiders who were richer, stonger and more powerful. At various times Corsica has been controlled by Roman, Byzantine, Genoese, French and English forces, most of whom invaded the island to get control of the surrounding mediterranean sea. They normally stayed in the coastal forts and strongholds, and on the flatter more agricultural lands to the east, venturing into the hinterland only to gather punitive taxes and put down rebellions. The big inland valleys were left to the Corsican families to run for themselves under their own unique style of vendetta and family feuding. Vico for example was the base for the Cinarchese family who ruled the area for 250 years despite the events and changes on the coast.

The Corsican native remains proud and independant, but luckily well disposed to the British visitor. Corsicans have a deep seated racial distrust of most continental visitors, probably for well founded historical reasons. The British however are fondly remembered for Theodore de Neuhoff, an English adventurer who persuaded the Corsicans to declare him King in 1736. He wisely vanished 7 months later before the Corsicans lost interest. The British tried again in 1794, and it was a Corsican who shot Nelson's eye out in the blockade of Calvi. After a 2 year occupation the British themselves lost interest and left Corsica to the French and to the native population. Apart from a year's hiatus of Italian rule in the second world war, Corsica has now been run by the French for about 200 years.

That time has seen gradual decline in the economy, with massive emigration. The Corsican population in Marseilles is now twice as large as the population of Bastia or Ajaccio. Tourism is by far the largest industry, with subsistence agriculture and limited industry a long way behind. Tourism has not however been helped by the recently emergent Corsican Nationalist party, which has started to blow up the odd hotel and holiday home. Sticks of gelignite taped to large calor gas cylinders being their favourite weapon. These attacks are normally in the north east lowlands however, and should not affect canoeists up in the mountains.

4. Transport


Most British paddlers drive to Corsica via the Channel ferries. The time taken to travel the 650 miles across France depends on your vehicle and patience. I have known journeys between 10 and 24 hours.

SNCM ferries sail from Marseilles, Toulon and Nice to the ports of Bastia, Propriano, Calvi and Ajaccio. These ferries are not known about by many high street travel agents. If the AA or RAC cannot book them then try Continental Shipping and Travel Ltd (179 Piccadilly, London W1V 9DB. 071 491 4968). The crossings are normally overnight in the spring, with one or two sailings per day. Book early. Unless you have specific plans it normally does not matter which port you go to, as it is possible to string together a good canoeing programme starting and finishing at any combination of ports.

The alternative is fly-drive, picking up a hire car in Corsica. This has occasionally been done, but bear in mind that most charter flights are on the skiing runs in April. They switch to the sunshine airports like Ajaccio in May, so a later departure may be easier to arrange.

In Corsica only the major roads are fast and straight allowing unimpeded travel. These roads are found on the coast and on the major cross country routes such as the N193 from Ajaccio to Bastia. Inland the roads are much smaller and steeper. Most roads are tarmac covered, allowing the use of normal cars. But the narrow and winding nature means that progress is slow. 20 MPH is a fast average speed in the valleys, and the use of fourth gear a rarity.

The one train service in Corsica runs from Bastia through Corte to Ajaccio. This route is exceptionally scenic and well worth a trip on a sunny day off from canoeing. The railway also provides the only way of scouting the upper Vecchio valley.

For road travel around the island the standard Michelin road map is entirely adequate. This is detailed enough to be used for canoeing as well. There is a good selection of more detailed topographical maps available if required. I use the Didier and Richard "Itineraire Pedestres" (walking description) maps on a scale of 2 centimetres to 1 kilometre. Two maps cover the main areas of the island.

5. Camping and Food

In such a popular tourist resort such as Corsica there are many campsites. Although most are on the coastal plains, there are enough in the high valleys that will be open in April. There are also many small areas of grass near the river bridges or in big lay-bys where "wild" camping is possible. Nobody will object as long as you are not close to a house or causing an obstruction.

The choice of campsite can be important. Road travel is slow on the winding Corsican roads. Often the only way to guarantee an early start on the river is to camp very close to the access point. If your camping style normally involves big tents in fixed campsites then consider taking enough gear to let you bivouac occasionally, to ensure an early start on a river distant from your campsite.

Cheap food in big supermarkets is only available in the larger towns, and petrol from garages on the major roads. Food (and occasionaly petrol) can be found in the smaller villages, but the choice will be smaller, and the price more expensive. Shop hours are mediterranean. 8 until 12, then a siesta, followed by opening from 4 'til 8.

6. Medical

Hospitals can be found in most of the big towns such as Ajaccio, Bastia and Corte. They are well used to dealing with injuries from canoeing, but will need either form E111 (obtainable from Post Offices) or medical insurance documentation.

return to top of page | Continue to Introduction part 2 (Canoeing in Corsica)