Taking its name from the thick mists that sweep over the region in winter, the Nebbio has for centuries been one of the most fertile parts of the island, producing honey, chestnuts and some of the island’s finest wine. An amphitheatre of rippled chalk hills, vineyards and cultivated valleys surrounds the area’s main town, St-Florent, half an hour’s drive west over the mountain from Bastia at the base of Cap Corse. Aside from EU subsidies, the major money earner here is viticulture: the village of Patrimonio is the wine-growing hub, with caves offering dégustations lined up along its main street.
St-Florent is the obvious base for day-trips to the beautifully preserved Pisan church of Santa Maria Assunta, just outside the town, and the Désert des Agriates, a wilderness of parched maquis-covered hills across the bay whose rugged coastline harbours one of Corsica’s least accessible, but most picturesque, beaches.Read More
Viewed from across the bay, St-Florent (San Fiurenzu) appears as a bright line against the black tidal wave of the Tenda hills, the pale stone houses seeming to rise straight out of the sea, overlooked by a squat circular citadelle. It’s a relaxing town, with a decent beach and a good number of restaurants, but the key to its success is the marina, which is jammed with expensive boats throughout the summer. Neither the tourists, however, nor indeed St-Florent’s proximity to Bastia, entirely eclipse the air of isolation conferred on the town by its brooding backdrop of mountains and scrubby desert.
In Roman times, a settlement called Cersunam – referred to as Nebbium by chroniclers from the ninth century onwards – existed a kilometre east of the present village. The ancient port was eclipsed by the harbour that developed around the new Genoese citadelle in the fifteenth century, which prospered as one of Genoa’s strongholds, and it was from here that Paoli set off for London in 1796, never to return.
Some 6km from St-Florent lies PATRIMONIO, centre of the first Corsican wine region to gain appellation contrôlée status. Apart from the renowned local muscat, which can be sampled in the village or at one of the caves along the route from St-Florent, Patrimonio’s chief asset is the sixteenth-century church of St-Martin, occupying its own little hillock and visible for kilometres around. The colour of burnt sienna, it stands out vividly against the rich green vineyards and chalk hills. In a garden 200m south of the church stands a limestone statue-menhir known as U Nativu, a late megalithic piece dating from 900–800 BC. A carved T-shape on its front represents a breastbone, and two eyebrows and a chin can also be made out.
The U Nativu menhir takes pride of place next to the stage at Patrimonio’s annual open-air guitar festival (wfestival-guitare-patrimonio.com), held in the last week of July next to the church, when performers and music aficionados from all over Europe converge on the village.
The Désert des Agriates
The Désert des Agriates
Extending westwards from the Golfe de St-Florent to the mouth of the Ostriconi River, the Désert des Agriates is a vast area of uninhabited land, dotted with clumps of cacti and scrub-covered hills. It may appear inhospitable now, but during the time of the Genoese this rocky moonscape was, as its name implies, a veritable breadbasket (agriates means “cultivated fields”). In fact, so much wheat was grown here that the Italian overlords levied a special tax on grain to prevent any build-up of funds that might have financed an insurrection. Fires and soil erosion eventually took their toll, however, and by the 1970s the area had become a total wilderness.
Numerous crackpot schemes to redevelop the Désert have been mooted over the years – from atomic weapon test zones to concrete Club-Med-style resorts – but during the past few decades the government has gradually bought up the land from its various owners (among them the Rothschild family) and designated it as a protected nature reserve.
A couple of rough pistes wind into the desert, but without some kind of 4WD vehicle the only feasible way to explore the area and its rugged coastline, which includes two of the island’s most beautiful beaches, is on foot. From St-Florent, a pathway winds northwest to plage de Perajola, just off the main Calvi highway (N1197), in three easy stages. The first takes around 5hr 30min, and leads past the famous Martello tower and much-photographed plage de Loto to plage de Saleccia, a huge sweep of soft white sand and turquoise sea that was used as a location for the invasion sequences in the film The Longest Day.