With its enfolding hinterland of snow-streaked mountains and low, maquis-covered hills, Calvi’s bay would be an astounding sight even if the Genoans hadn’t erected a citadel at its entrance. As it is, the old walled town – clustered on a headland behind a belt of bleached ramparts and bastions – transforms a wonderful view into something positively chimeric.
The best vantage point from which to admire the famous panorama is the terrace of a tiny shrine erected on a hilltop overlooking Calvi. The Chapelle de Notre Dame de la Serra dates from the 15th century and is the object of an annual pilgrimage, when most of the town makes the climb on foot to attend an outdoor mass beneath the outstretched arms of a life-sized marble Madonna, standing on a rock nearby.
Below, a band of turquoise shallows and white sand sweeps in a perfect curve to the foot of the citadel, where a forest of yacht masts sways below the Cathedral-de-St-Jean-Baptiste, its spire rising imperiously above a huddle of terracotta rooftops. Periodically a car ferry might swing into the bay, leaving in its wake a giant brush stroke of white water on the deep blue.
The scene can have changed little since the summer of 1794, when a young naval captain named Horatio Nelson formed part of a force charged with bombarding a French battalion garrisoned in Calvi. It was in the ensuing siege, directed from the terrace of the chapel, the future admiral sustained the injury that led to him losing the sight in his right eye. After reducing much of the town to rubble, Nelson and his comrades eventually carried the day, ushering in a brief and largely forgotten period of British rule in Corsica.
These days, ‘love’ rather than ‘war’ is more generally associated with the hilltop. Local folklore asserts that any couple that visits the chapel will stay together forever – hence its popularity as a venue for Corsican wedding photographs.
Keen walkers may wish to continue on the path leading beyond Notre Dame de la Serra to a higher hilltop named ‘Capu di a Veta’, from where the view is even more sensational. It encompasses the orange-granite headland further along the coast from Calvi, Punta di a Revellata, distinguished by its prominent black-and-white lighthouse. The punta is laced with stony tracks by means of which access may be gained to a string of isolated beaches.
Air Corsica is now operating flights from Stansted to Ajaccio, Bastia and Figari, allowing great flexibility for any itinerary. The service operates from early May to early November, with up to nine flights per week from June to September. Fares start from £49 one way and that price includes a generous 23kg hold luggage allowance, 12kg cabin bag and free seat selection. Car rental is available at each airport and Air Corsica has a preferred arrangement with Hertz so you can book your vehicle at the same time as your flights. aircorsica.com