Measuring the Home of the Ruler Napoleon

Times Staff Writer

Emperor Napoleon's sword was crooked. His big bronze shoes were dusty. And because there was no fence or guard, just about anyone could climb up a couple of granite blocks to stand beside his greatcoat, throw an arm around his giant metal waist and mug for a photograph.

Many riders of Le Petite Train Touristique did. I did, too.

Then I got out of town.

That was no way to treat a hometown hero, a speck of a man who rose from a tiny cold-water flat in Ajaccio on this tiny island in the Mediterranean to rule, at the start of the last century, virtually from the Arctic Ocean to the Sahara Desert.

In Paris, his bones spend their eternal slumber in a giant marble tomb surrounded by stained glass and gold. In Corsica, he's barely more than another face to stick on a key chain.

Home of Napoleon

Island elders probably don't make more of Napoleon Bonaparte because paying more homage to the man whose life symbolizes French nationalism and power could put them in hot water with the majority of Corsicans, who pledge allegiance to France with their fingers crossed.

As recently as the middle of this decade, separatists' bombs blew up banks and residential streets around Corsica with some regularity, as many as 20 or 30 a day, in an effort to frighten away rich vacationers and financiers.

It's quieter now; you don't have to pack a flak jacket with your tropical shirts and Panama hat to visit this island, which is a "region," or state of France, much like Hawaii is in the United States.

But you might pack an Italian phrase book to supplement your French. Corsica is much more Italian than French in geography, culture and temperament. Pizzerias outnumber bistros by at least four to one, and the dialect is more easily understood by visitors from Pisa than Paris.

Fleeing Ajaccio, the capital, might have been Napoleon's first good idea, because there is much more to Corsica than greenish statues and government buildings.

Less than half a day's drive on roads that twist like linguine up hot mountain slopes takes a traveler to centuries-old villages clinging to cliffs; long, empty beaches; four-star vacation resorts; some of the best rock-climbing in the Mediterranean, and marinas filled with good diving and fishing boats.

You can take a bus or a train, but rental cars are fairly cheap. I had no choice, as I was traveling with my family: wife, mother and father, two sisters, brother-in-law, two nieces, a friend, a mountain guide and his wife. We rented a van and sedan at the airport. Air France, Air-Inter and TATA fly several jets a day from Paris, a trip that takes about 1 1/2 hours.

Traveling Entourage

Leading our entourage were Eric and Dominique Charamel, who direct a guide service called Nouveaux Horizons out of their home in Bourg St. Maurice, a foothill village in southeastern France.

They run about two dozen small skiing, climbing, bicycling and kayaking tours of the Alps, Dolomites, Pyrenees, Himalayas and Greece throughout the year, but Eric also leads customized vacations for about 12 regular customers.

Over the last decade, he has guided my father on several back-country ski adventures in the Alps, as well as on treks in Nepal and Kenya.

Placing your trust in the Charamels is wise because their daily charge is reasonable and they find bargains on superb accommodations and transportation. But when they say--like Parisian taxi drivers--that a destination is "not far" and "won't take long," pack a lunch.

They are frequent visitors to Corsica for their own vacations, and chose the eastern coastal town of Porto Vecchio as our base.

On the road from Ajaccio, the cars caromed from hill crests crammed with towns that seem to grow out of rock down to valleys lushly carpeted with sweet-smelling grapevines and sagebrush.

With no need to hurry, we stopped in Propriano for pizza, salad and wine at a seaside trattoria. The view was spectacular: Our first chance to drink in the strong blue of the Mediterranean Sea, the rough old rocks circling to make a bay and, of course, topless sunbathers. After eating, we discovered we could change in the restaurant's restroom and take a swim ourselves.

When we rolled up in front of the Hotel Cala Rossa in Porto Vecchio, it looked, from the outside, like an overgrown motel in Ensenada. It's an impression that evaporates after one step into the lobby, which opens onto a flamboyant but elegant Italian garden.

Celebrity Hideaway

We learned that the hotel, as well as the entire peninsula of estates on which it rests, are a favorite hiding place of Italian and French actors and sundry other celebrities anxious to escape the hurly-burly of the Riviera.

There would be no escape for us, however, because Eric Charamel is a one-man Club Med. We chose Corsica to complete our two-week vacation in France because my wife, sisters and mother could sun on the beach at the hotel while my father and I drove into the hills to go rock climbing.

But Eric inspires confidence, and my wife, sisters and brother-in-law, none of whom had climbed before, came along to try an ascent.

The island is sometimes called the Yosemite of the Mediterranean because of its abundance of tough granite. That's wishful thinking. In truth, its famous Col de Bavella is no Half Dome. It's pretty and rugged, but not awe-inspiring: a sawtooth ridge springing out of a forest of pine in an empty valley.

We spent a quarter of the day getting there, a quarter of the day practicing basic techniques on a flinty "school rock" called Ecole de Bavella and, after the sky became overcast and it began to rain, another quarter in a cozy hilltop cafe sipping hot, fresh minestrone soup and gnawing on Corsican bread.

And wondering whether, if the rain stopped, half of us could launch an assault on the Col's north face while the other half headed back to the beach in the Peugeot.

Teutonic Curses

I thought of all the Germans and Austrians we had seen up on the rocks in their brilliantly colored Lycra, getting soaked and moaning Teutonic curses as they hung onto the rock with their toes; then lounged deeper in my chair and poured a glass of wine. No need to slip and kill ourselves on vacation.

So we all headed back down the mountain in the mist, sharing the road from time to time with sorties of unescorted cows and pigs, and reached the hotel in time for a sunset jog to a bay that could have been painted by Manet, and a swim.

The next morning Eric booked us on a dive boat that steamed out of Bonifacio on the southern tip of Corsica, to anchor off a tiny island called Ile de Lavezzi near Sardinia.

Underwater Excursion

We expected the dive operation to be run by a bunch of cowboys with a bicycle pump for a compressor, but Club Atoll Bonifacio had up-to-date scuba equipment on its converted tuna boat, and two of the best instructors we ever encountered.

In the United States you must take training in a pool and sit through a couple of scary movies before taking an ocean dive. These guys strapped tanks onto us, taught us a few hand signals, and sort of pushed us over the side of the boat.

I had been licensed to dive as a teen-ager, but stopped following my second attempt after I almost drowned off Catalina Island. My instructor here was a big blond guy named Henri, from Martinique; he saw my apprehension and literally led me by the hand on an exhilarating tour of a sunken reef.

Unknown to us, Club Atoll has an excellent reputation in France. Joining us on the boat were a Belgian fish entrepreneur on a three-week diving tour of the island, a Dutch medical student and a French endocrinologist.

A few of our group went with them on a deeper dive into underwater caves in the afternoon, while the rest of us either sunned in a cove or climbed the big boulders that jut out from Lavezzi over the water like drunken skyscrapers.

It's tough to leave a place like Corsica; certainly Napoleon always returned. After a final morning of windsurfing in the hotel's bay, we jetted out of Figari for the 90-minute flight back to Paris.

The City of Light, which seemed so exciting just a few days before, suddenly looked flat.

A round-trip ticket on TAT or Air Inter to Corsica from Paris costs about $350. Rental cars on the island cost $40 a day. The Hotel Cala Rossa in Porto Vecchio charges $120 per person, including breakfast and a superb six-course dinner.

Club Atoll Bonifacio, the dive boat, charges $90 per person, including scuba gear rental, compressed air and lunch. Eric Charamel charges about $250 a day to plan and run a guided tour for you anywhere in the world.

Charamel's company is called Nouveaux Horizons. Address: Le Moulin-Le Breuil, 73700 Seez, France. Phone: 011-33-7907-1607. Fax: 011-33-7941-0699.

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