There may be no better way to plunge into the wild heart of the island of Corsica than on a classic motorcycle.
Neil Thomas tends to the Ariel during a stop in Calucuccia.
Corsicans, like New Yorkers, Scots and Texans, don’t particularly like being told what to do. Neither does that peculiar motorcyclist who chooses to ride a machine that was made on a long-defunct assembly line. It follows, then, that there is no better way to plunge into the wild heart of Corsica than on a classic motorcycle.
Lying south of France and west of Italy, the island of Corsica was forged in a geological conflict of large rocks that slashed across each other to thrust jagged peaks up through the waves of the Mediterranean. Corsica’s cultural history has also been punctuated by conflict, the island having been claimed by ancient mariners, Romans and Vandals, by city-states like Genoa and Pisa, and by France, which annexed Corsica in 1769, the birth year of its most famous son, Napoleon Bonaparte. Even today, while Corsica has achieved a privileged, nebulous status as a semi-independent French region, it retains a local dialect and an enduring separatist movement whose occasional violent eruptions back up the island’s reputation as the place where vendetta was invented.
Early on a fresh May morning, I rumble down the ramp of a ship moored in the port city of Bastia on Corsica’s northeast side aboard a 1977 Moto Guzzi 850-T3. I’m here with Classic Bike Esprit, which conducts motorcycle tours in the south of France. Neil and Sarah Thomas, the principals of CBE, run a stable of old motorcycles on which I will be traveling with riders from England, Scotland, Wales and Australia, piloting a 1973 Triumph Tiger, a 1976 Norton Commando, a 1973 Honda CB750-K2 and a 1951 Ariel Square Four. I will be spending the next few days riding new roads on old bikes, and learning a few new things in the process.
Heading north from Bastia, the road comes alive with curves, and I find Neil’s 850-T3 California a fine, roomy choice for settling into this rugged foreign land. Its engine is happy at any speed, and the Guzzi is utterly composed ambling across the deeply fractured roads. The transverse V-twin shivers pleasingly, behaving (as our Australian rider put it) like a lovable old retriever after a swim; it celebrates life by jumping around cheerfully. Then the road opens, and the faithful 850 gallops forward.
While I’m quite familiar with Moto Guzzis (a trusty T has lived in my garage for years), the California’s combination of footboards, linked brakes and higher bars are new to me. The linked brake pedal (which operates one front and the rear disc) grows on me, and after a while the hand-actuated front disc feels a bit weedy if I use it on its own. The T3 is hugely flexible, I discover. You can stretch out and enjoy its long-legged cruising stability, you can accelerate aggressively and then haul down, heel over and adjust your line in the curves, or you can creep slowly through town with your feet perched on the boards.
Following the coastline, we stop in Erbalunga to enjoy an open-air breakfast, fresh with the smell of the sea and the jasmine musk of maquis, a local undergrowth. We’ll be creeping counter-clockwise around Corsica’s northern “finger,” passing through many villages and stopping frequently for refreshment. A rhythm begins to emerge in the cadence of the snaking coastline, and jumping off the finger onto the island’s northwestern shoulder, the coast road climbs sharply and the rhythm deepens and quickens.
Corsica’s northwestern cliffs are greenschist, a wafery stone ideal for building roofs from which to watch for seaborne invaders. From a tower at Nonza, we look down upon a beach of hard green stone, pondering how many centuries have passed since Phoenician sailors failed to leave footprints there. We pass our first night in St. Florent after dining on fish and firm, pink mussels. Turning in, Neil surveys the heavens: “We might see rain tomorrow or the mistral,” (a punishing, infamous wind) “but probably not both,” he says.
Wind-whipped blotches of rain splatter on the hotel steps the next morning. With a new understanding of the local weather, our sobered group climbs the damp cliffs, dabbing at brakes and nursing throttles until the wind tears away skeins of rain cloud, revealing strips of empty altitude above. The sun bursts out and changes the water from dusky gray to Homer’s wine-dark sea of layered, inky azure. But that isn’t where I need to look; the action is directly ahead on the pavement.
Virage dangereux: “Dangerous curve.” The road signs are imperious and indicate a heavy price for mistakes. The beauty of this coast road is a physical hazard. It is a dangerous, captivating, gorgeous road, infused by colored minerals from the local rock; slate green, then mottled and grazed with copper, then flowerpot red. Held against the mountains by soaring masonry, the road is bounded by a rock wall and snakes in and out unpredictably, its pocked surface salted with dashes of sand that sting the unwary.
The new experiences multiply as I switch to the Ariel Square Four, the only marque on the tour I have never ridden. Neil’s Ariel is a wonderful surprise. It starts very easily, and it shifts on the right side with a one-up, three-down pattern. I’m also happy to find it’s equipped with that most intriguing of devices, a Smiths Chronometric speedometer, which ticks upward and downward in discrete steps as speed changes.
The Ariel’s unusual engine is basically two parallel twins in square formation driving two gear-linked, counter-rotating crankshafts. It emanates a husky, 4-cylinder wail with a grumbly hint of Edward Turner’s trademark gears and pushrods. You expect it to sound like broken rocks, but it gives you Helena Bonham-Carter instead (think Fight Club, not Room with a View).
Rear suspension is via frame-mounted vertical plungers and a linkage that was considered advanced in 1951; comfort is enhanced by deep springs under the horsey saddle, which was replaced in later models with a “modern” one-piece seat. The result is a ride that’s cushy on rough patches, with only a gentle touch needed to guide the bike into a corner, dodge craters — or pull up in the face of an oncoming coach looming suddenly between a curving rock wall and a 300-foot drop.
Riding this 60-year-old, 1,000cc motorcycle is curiously effortless. Its ribbed tires hold just fine wet or dry, and once I decide to trust the feeling of wire cables hauling on ancient shoes inside small drums, the brakes work from the top to the bottom of each hill.
With the surface now dry we ride with more élan, leaning deeper and powering harder out of turns. Throughout another glittering day, including a brace of seaside cafés, riders break off in ones and twos, stealing away for brief excursions up into the cliff roads. While Neil typically encourages riders to ride a different motorcycle each day on his mainland tours, on the challenging Corsica tour he recognizes some riders’ inclination to stay with a single machine, and this trip breeds some fierce loyalties.
Our Welsh engineer is happy aboard the Honda Four, whereas our Liverpudlian rider loves his Triumph. One of the last 650cc versions and one of the first oil-in-frame models, the 1973 TR6 has not achieved the same cachet as earlier Triumph models. This does an injustice to Neil’s charming Tiger, a one-kick pony with practical electronic ignition. The sweet-riding, single-carburetor Triumph feels as lithe as an old Raleigh Super Course bicycle, but with a little more top end.
Like the Ariel, the TR6 is an easy starter. Unlike the Ariel, the solid-mounted engine makes its presence known via a crescendo of vibration as you wind on the throttle. Of all the bikes on tour, the little Triumph is the most intimate partner for scratching up a nasty, sinuous road.
The Honda, in contrast, is neither lithe nor intimate, and it certainly doesn’t vibrate much. It is brilliantly smooth, starts on the button, and is screwed together as conscientiously as a Camry. Apart from its relative lack of lightness, there really isn’t much you can complain about on this oil-tight granddad of the Universal Japanese Motorcycle. It is built like a brick house, and on top of its worry-free construction, it makes that great 4-cylinder sound, a siren of swirling chains, whirling cams and a 4-into-1 pipe.
Not quite halfway down the island’s western shore we reach Porto. Indulging in a festive supper of calmar, dorade, charcuterie and fromage, my riding companions are magnificent company, and impressively, each rider, to a man and lady, can recount heroically vulgar jokes.
“Particularly nasty weather,” Neil remarks dryly at breakfast. The drooling clouds have returned, but feeling more familiar with our bikes and surroundings, we set out more assuredly. Our route heads inland, winding through the Forêt d’Aitone across Corsica’s central mountains.
Chaussée glissante: “Slippery surface.” As the road ascends to branching ridges, the rain quickens and a torrent of spume flies from the Norton ahead of me. Deeper into the forest, we come upon immense trees with high-up limbs. At one clearing, Neil pulls over triumphantly, marveling wryly at the breathtaking view that is totally concealed by the mass of fog before us.
We have reached the Col de Vergio, the high-altitude point of the Corsican road system, and this merits celebration. As we descend the other side, the sun reemerges, flickering among the tall trunks even as the rain continues.
I want this wending, sylvan ride not to end. I want to breathe more of this haunting mix of undergrowth, old trees and petrol sucked through Industrial Age carburetors.
Neil bought the muscular Norton Commando new with his father in 1976. Unlike earlier Nortons, this example has a left-foot shift and an updated disc brake. The Commando combines the visceral appeal of a barking vertical twin, a proper, sexy pair of pea-shooter mufflers, and a fork and suspension that work pretty well by modern standards.
The Isolastic rubber mounting system dampens the vibration above idle speeds, so like the Guzzi and Honda, the Norton likes to run at speed with traffic on any Motorway, Autoroute or Interstate. With most of the Triumph’s agility but more thrust, the Commando always offers a rowdy, exciting ride.
After lunch beside the very blue lake of Calacuccia, the skies spill again. We’re now used to foul-weather riding, and soon arrive at an inn perched above a gorge near Corte, a lonely medieval fortress town. Here, expertly reckless teens patrol steep cobbled streets on raucous supermotard bikes, and there is ample spray-painted evidence (“CORSICA LIBERA!”) of bullish local pride. After dinner, we walk to the inn along the gorge. The road is unlit, illuminated only by stars until a blood-red beacon appears in the darkness ahead. No emergency box, this, but a devotional shrine in a stone alcove. I’ve never seen two candles look so powerful; their eerie glow lingers long after we pass.
The next day, we climb the Restonica Gorges, which lead upward from Corte to snow fields from which Corsica’s eastern rivers flow. A sign reads Verglas frequent: “Black ice danger.” Again there is fog and, as we climb, snow. The road has blind hairpins and almost no guard rails. This is merely harrowing as you ascend, since you hug the cliffs on the right side of the road. Descent, on the outside half-lane, is a more daunting proposition. The road crosses tributary ravines on stone bridges, sometimes topped with raw polished stone and often bracketed by sharp curves. Approaching each soaking bend, you have to do everything softly. Brake gently, lean as the road funnels in, gingerly feed in throttle, and churn up and away from the curve — always looking ahead to the next apex — and you can’t get it wrong.
Regaining Corte, we bank southwest, splashing across hills and dales toward the port of Ajaccio, from where we will depart. Our sodden crew hits Ajaccio in mid-afternoon, and while some tell tales in a quayside pub, others wander the port and visit Napoleon’s birthplace. After a wavy crossing, we fetch up at dawn on the gritty docks of Marseilles.
Motoring across sunny Provence back to the Thomas’ home, I reflect on the tour and its agreeable participants. While the riders and riding styles were diverse, all were capable, considerate road companions, and each brought a distinct fund of history to the gathering. The café conversation featured many different strains of English, but a unifying characteristic appeared to be a paradoxical combination of British wit and self-effacement, of reserve and ribaldry, without the gamesmanship that can shade a group ride (though swapping between the Square Four and the Moto Guzzi with my Australian colleague along the slithery roads above the northern coast was a brisk detour, and one of the great rides of my life).
Explored on two wheels, Corsica is no lounging resort. Accommodation is simple, the coastal seafood and rustic interior cuisine are satisfying, and the wine and beer are full-bodied, cheap and cheerful to drink by the hogshead. Despite Corsica’s ruffian reputation, service is hospitable, with unfeigned appreciation when visitors attempt to speak French. The terrain is spectacular, and I’m not sure I enjoyed the trip any less for the rain.
And the motorcycles ran reliably. Given care, old bikes can get you there in rugged conditions (Neil’s not aware of an American riding an Ariel Square Four across the Col de Vergio before; this warmed me with rising pride) with a charm and grace you can’t find in modern machines. The island of Corsica won’t invite you, but might permit you to cling to its peaks and savor its scent. The beach is rocky, storms threaten and the road is scarred. Do it. Reach for the wild side. MC