I love St Florent
I love its small marina which has all the charm of a mini Calvi but without the designer yacht crew; its narrow shopping streets where tables laden with cheese breads, savoury pastries, fresh slices of pizza and still-warm crusty loaves sit cheek by jowl with colourful racks of canvas sailing shoes. I love its crumbling squares buzzing with the tables and chairs of bijou restaurants whose enticing cooking aromas permeate the air; and I love the Hotel Roya with its Michelin-starred restaurant and its dreamy breakfast terrace alongside the golden expanse of Plage La Roya.
So arriving at the idiosyncratic Guesthouse U Tribbiu in the heart of the mountain village of Olmi Capella, I felt a vague sense of bereavement for St Florent.
Located in the sublime Giussanni valley in the Parc Naturel Régional, surrounded by commanding peaks whose summits still wear their mantels of snow long after the heat of summer envelops the valley, even the beauty of the landscape failed to instil enthusiasm for my new location.
The Guesthouse U Tribbiu is the ancestral home of Antonia Fratacci and has been expanded to accommodate generations since it was built by Antonia's grandparents in 1818. The house today is a great, rambling, country house furnished beyond capacity with period furniture, broderie Anglaise tablecloths, and memorabilia and collectibles accrued over a lifetime. The walls are adorned with Antonia's paintings and everywhere, there are hints of her bohemian character. Fine cotton, tangerine curtains billow in the breeze, intensifying the colour of the sunlight and contrasting sharply with the sombre décor; in the living room a tray of local liqueurs sits ready to entertain guests at a moment's notice; in the kitchen conservatory that looks out over the valley, an easel and oil paints await Antonia's hand.
That evening, we return to U Tribbiu after dinner at the village restaurant and retire to our rooms. It's a sultry night and, throwing open all the windows in the hope of catching even a hint of a breeze, I stare out at the scene. The street below is empty and, beyond the grey stone walls and red tiled roofs of the village, beyond the hills that lie silent, beyond the aerial formations of the swifts that swoop and reel, Monte Padro looms, its contours clearly visible in the moonlight. Apart from an occasional burst of laughter from the bar on the corner and the erratic clang of the metal bell that hangs around the neck of next door's cow, there isn't a sound. It's a compelling view by night and by day, and one I shall come to spend a lot of time gazing upon.
The following morning we go downstairs, unsure where the breakfast room is. The front door is wide open so we decide to take a photograph of the valley while we wait to see if anyone will appear and point us to the dining room. Stepping out onto the terrace, the air is already warm, auguring another hot day. On the large terrace, a table is set for two; a bowl of fresh fruit salad and a bottle half-filled with freshly squeezed orange juice sit alongside a coffee cup and an empty plate.
François appears through the doorway with a bright “Bonjour!” and a tray containing jars of home-made jams and a basket of cherries picked from the tree in the orchard alongside us, still warm from the sun. Moments later he reappears with a ceramic pot of freshly brewed coffee, a basket of toasted baguettes, a dish of butter and several, fat slices of home-made sponge cake.
From the little terrace which juts out over the garden, the splendour of the Giussanni valley unfolds at the foot of the mountains. Encircled by a swoop of swifts, the church spire of Mausoléo stands proud against the green canopy of the Tartagine forest beyond, and in the foreground, the cherries in Antonia's orchard resonate crimson while a couple of bees go about their morning pollen collection, filling the heavy air with their buzz.
That's when I suddenly 'get' where I am. Banished are all thoughts of bustling marinas and fancy restaurants, in their place, the simple pleasure of a leisurely breakfast of home-grown produce while gazing out over the heart-squeezing beauty of a tiny village snuggling in a halcyon valley surrounded by the power and drama of Corsica's noble mountains. Where there is no telephone, no TV, no wifi, and even the mobile signal rarely puts in an appearance. A place where gentle mule trails cross ancient Genoese bridges and accompany crystal clear rivers alongside crumbling mills, and where evenings consist of a meal in the village restaurant followed by gazing through a window onto a moonlit world of peace and serenity to the soundtrack of a cow bell.
I love Olmi Capella.